Sunday, December 12, 2010

Mrs. Oliphant's The Doctor's Family

The Mrs. Project refers to my perusal of popular Victorian women's fiction, some of which almost achieves the status of classics.  The authors' names are preceded by  the title "Mrs.":   Mrs. Oliphant (Chronicles of Carlingford), Mrs. Gaskell (North & South), Mrs. Henry Wood (East Lynne), and Mrs. Humphrey Ward (Marcella). But I also intend to sneak in some writers who didn't write under "Mrs.": E. Nesbit, Charlotte M. Yonge, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, and Ouida.  

I raved about Mrs. Oliphant's The Rector here. If you like short fiction, this is a delightful introduction to Oliphant's charming stories.   Even more satisfying is The Doctor's Family, the second of her Carlingford series, a fast-paced, entertaining, but serious novella that examines the balance of responsibility and romance, cowardice and courage, family and fiances.  You will find yourself zipping through this, because the dilemma seems modern.  Contemporary families may not always be congenial, but they sometimes huddle together in these hard times because of alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment or other problems.

Mrs. Oliphant's hero, Dr. Rider, also knows difficult times.  He is a harried, self-doubting young man who tries to make his way as a doctor in Carlingford. Dr. Marjoribanks, whom we met in The Rector, has the rich patients, while Dr. Rider must make do with the working class and lower fees. There are other obstacles to his success, the greatest of which he perceives to be his brother, Fred, a drunken failure who has moved in with him.  Dr. Rider does not bear his trials heroically.  

"He was not a hero or a martyr; men made of that stuff have large compensations. He was an ordinary individual, with no sublimity in him..."
After an evening socializing with Fred, complaining about his problems, Dr. Rider feels wasted.

"Next morning Dr. Rider rose mightily vexed with himself, as was to be supposed. He was half an hour late for breakfast:  he had a headache, his hand shook, and his temper was 'awful.'  Before he was dressed, ominous knocks came to the door; and all feverish and troubled as he was, you may imagine that the prospect of the day's work before him did not improve his feelings, and that self-reproach, direst of tormentors, did not mend the matter."
The knocks at the door herald two young women, Nettie and Susan, who show up looking for Fred.  They are from Australia.  Susan is Fred's wife, Nettie her sister.  This is the first Dr. Rider has heard of Fred's family.

To his astonishment, Nettie takes care of everything.  She rents a house where she can take care of Fred, Susan, and their three horrible children.  She has only $200 a year.  Fred spent all of Susan's money.

I very much like Nettie.  She is bright, bossy, devoted, and ingenious.  She does her duty, though it might seem to some she is spinning her wheels.  There is no way her family could get on without her.  Fred is a freeloader and Susan is a  "drama queen."  

A romance develops between Dr. Rider and Nettie.  There is a problem, though:  Dr. Rider is unwilling to take on the prodigal brother and his family.  Nettie impatiently points out that she is the sole support of this incompetent couple and their children.  

So what will happen?  Will Fred find a job?  (Not likely.)  Will Nettie desert them? (Not likely, either.)  Will Dr. Rider turn social worker?  (Not likely at all.)
The problems seem very real.  We want Nettie to marry Dr. Rider, but, like Nettie, we realize that he could make her life considerably easier by helping out. The novella is suspenseful and we don't quite know what will happen until the final chapters.

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