Far From The Madding Crowd: Doctoring in Literature

The skeptical cardiologist  suspected that the latest film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s fourth novel was a chick flick (it is) but agreed to go with his fiancée recently and ended up liking it.

This prompted a read of the original novel which was published in 1874.

The book and movie focus on  Bathsheba Everdene (described usually as “independent, beautiful and headstrong”) and the three men who propose marriage to her. Bathsheba is played by the wonderful Carie Mulligan.

It provides a somewhat idyllic picture of pastoral life in Hardy’s fictionalized Wessex in the southwestern portion of Britain in the 1870s (I really wanted to get out in one of those fields and bail some hay).

For some time, I have been fascinated by the incompetence of doctors in Victorian literature and as I read the novel I noted doctoring references.

In the 1870s doctors did not have a lot to offer. In Dickens’ novels they usually recommend rest and for the most part confirm that the patient is getting better or worse, but offer little to nothing in the way of medications or ministrations that improve outcomes.

Here are the doctor references in Far From The Madding Crowd.

-At a gathering of farm workers, Jan Coogan urges Mark Clark to drink more alcohol.

To which, Mark Clark, responds, “Ay-that I will, ’tis my only doctor

-Bathsheva Everdene’s uncle (from whom she will inherit a large farm) becomes ill:

“Her uncle was took bad, and the doctor was called with his world-wide skill; but he couldn’t save the man.”

-Sergeant Troy, a rake and “a man to whom memories were an incumbrance, and anticipations a superfluity” who will ultimately marry Bathsheba is described by townspeople:

“He’s a doctor’s son by name, which is a great deal; and he’s an earl’s son by nature!”

“Which is a great deal more”

.-When Bathsheba’s husband, Sergeant Troy is presumed dead she seeks the advice of Gabriel Oak, her farm superintendent (who has long loved her) on whether she should marry the rich but boring Farmer Boldwood. When the local parson’s advice is recommended, she responds.

“No. When I want a broad-minded opinion for general enlightenment, distinct from special advice, I never go to a man who deals in the subject professionally. So I like the parson’s opinion on law, the lawyer’s on doctoring, the doctor’s on business, and my business-man’s—that is, yours—on morals.”

-When Sergeant Troy is shot by Boldwood, Bathsheba calls for the local “surgeon”, a Mr. Aldritch.

Unfortunately, by the time he arrives, Sergeant Troy is most assuredly dead and Bathsheba has cleaned the corpse and dressed it all in white.

“The doctor went in, and after a few minutes returned to the landing again, where Oak and the parson still waited.

“It is all done, indeed, as she says,” remarked Mr. Aldritch, in a subdued voice. “The body has been undressed and properly laid out in grave clothes. Gracious Heaven—this mere girl! She must have the nerve of a stoic!”

Thus, the typical input of the doctor in this era: making an official announcement of the obvious.

We can summarize Hardy’s impressions of doctors (or the people of his beloved Wessex’s opinion) as follows:

1. Alcohol is to be preferred to doctors.

2. Rather than seek medical advice from a doctor, it is better to have a lawyer providing it.

3. They have no personality, are ineffective and basically serve the function of officially commenting on the obvious.

4. Despite these impressions, doctors (and the sons of doctors) were highly respected.

In Victorian England:

“Doctors and physicians occupied the highest rung on the social ladder. Such citizens were considered gentleman because 1) their training did not include apprenticeship and 2) the profession excluded, supposedly, manual labor. Doctors were permitted to dine with the family during home visits, while other practitioners took dinner with the servants. A physician’s fee was wrapped and placed nearby, for theoretically gentleman did not accept money for their work. The prestige originated in their education: most often a higher degree from an esteemed school such as Cambridge, Oxford, or Edinborough. A medical degree, however, did not require any clinical experience. Students studied Greek and Latin theory, but they were not obligated to ‘walk the wards’. Not all ‘doctors’, however, attended a medical school. For the majority of the Victorian era no official licensing requirements existed, but the practice did become more professionalized and organized.”

Doctors and the medical profession have come a long way since 1874.

We now have multiple therapies that can preserve and improve lives.

Personally, I feel my profession is highly respected these days and, unlike the doctors in Far From the Madding Crowd, the respect is warranted.

Jude the Obscurely Yours

-ACP

3 thoughts on “Far From The Madding Crowd: Doctoring in Literature”

  1. Interesting post. I read all of Hardy’s novels in their Penguin or Oxford classics paperback editions back in the 1990s when you could actually find even the obscure ones in bookstores and really love his poetic prose and the 19th century “Wessex” milieu. I never paid any attention to the doctors in the books and I don’t recall any of the major characters being doctors. Since (spoiler alert!) important characters die in all his novels, I’m sure there are other brief doctor encounters in them as well.

  2. Some characters are seen only fleetingly. For example, the film skirts over the sub-plot involving Fanny Robin (Juno Temple.) We are given little sense of what drives Sergeant Troy’s infatuation with her and even the scene in which she goes to the wrong church on the day of her wedding is rushed. Temple is very affecting but her role is turned into little more than a glorified cameo.

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