Dickensí Doctors

By Thomas Frost

Dickens, it must be admitted by even the greatest admirers of his inimitable genius, among whom the writer of this paper must be counted, was not successful in his delineations of the medical profession. Though his most humorous as well as his most pathetic pictures of human life are drawn from the humbler walks in the pilgrimage of humanity, he has given us some good touches of his skill in his presentments of other professions, and notably of lawyers and lawyers’ clerks. Nothing in fiction can excel his legal characters in, for instance, “Bleak House,”—his Mr. Tulkinghorn, Mr. Guppy, the clerk, and Mr. Snagsby, the law stationer. But a life-like doctor cannot be found in his works, and the nearest approaches to such a description are the merest sketches.

The most strongly marked of these are Dr. Parker Peps and Mr. Pilkins, the two members of the faculty who officiate at the closing scene in the life of Mrs. Dombey, in which a sense of humour, with difficulty suppressed by the author, mingles with the touching sadness of the death. Dr. Parker Peps, “one of the Court physicians, and a man of immense reputation for assisting at the increase of great families,” is introduced “walking up and down the drawing-room with his hands behind him, to the unspeakable admiration of the family surgeon, who had regularly puffed the case for the last six weeks among all his friends and acquaintances as one to which he was in hourly expectation, day and night, of being summoned in conjunction with Dr. Parker Peps.” But in this little interlude, the two actors in which do not appear again, the obsequiousness of Mr. Pilkins to the Court physician, and the manner in which the latter, with assumed obliviousness, substitutes “her grace, the duchess” or “her ladyship” for Mrs. Dombey, verge on caricature, a tendency Dickens seems to have had at all times some difficulty in resisting.

Of Dr. Slammer also we have only a sketch, and that of the slightest character. Though he is described as “one of the most popular personages in his own circle,” we gather from the incidents in which he appears only that he was very irascible. As we read of his furious jealousy of Jingle, and the interrupted duel with Winkle, who had received his challenge to the former by mistake, we wonder at the circle in which this “little fat man, with a ring of upright black hair round his head, and an extensive bald plain on the top of it,” was one of the most popular personages. Harold Skimpole, we are told, had been educated for the medical profession; but his training seems to have left no traces of it upon his character or his conversation. He prefers to dabble in literature and music for his own amusement, and look to his friends for the means of living, too prosaic an occupation for himself.

One of the best, but not quite the best, of the medical characters in Dickens’ novels, is Allan Woodcourt, who “had gone out a poor ship’s surgeon, and had come home nothing better,”—the young man hastily called in when the death of Nemo is discovered, in conjunction with “a testy medical man, brought from his dinner, with a broad snuffy upper lip, and a broad Scotch tongue.” Allan Woodcourt has the kindness of heart which characterises the profession, and exemplifies it very pleasingly in the scene with the brickmaker’s wife, and with poor Jo, the forlorn waif who is kept continually moving on by the police. How tenderly, too, he deals with Richard Carstone, the weak-minded victim of the long-drawn Chancery suit. And his head is as sound as his heart is soft. “You,” says Richard to him, “can pursue your art for its own sake, and can put your hand to the plough and never turn; and can strike a purpose out of anything.” What a world of difference we see in this briefly sketched trait to the want of earnestness of purpose and steadfastness of pursuit in the character of young Carstone!

Even stronger testimony to the good qualities of Allan Woodcourt is borne by Mr. Jarndyce. Allan, says that gentleman, is “a man whose hopes and aims may sometimes lie (as most men’s sometimes do, I dare say) above the ordinary level, but to whom the ordinary level will be high enough after all, if it should prove to be a way of usefulness and good service leading to no other. All generous spirits are ambitious, I suppose; but the ambition that calmly trusts itself to such a road, instead of spasmodically trying to fly over it, is the kind I care for. It is Woodcourt’s kind.” The love passages of this estimable young man with the equally estimable Esther Summerson, one of Dickens’ most charming presentments of English maidenhood, are very pleasing, and none of them more so than one which occurs towards the close of the story.

There is another medical character in one of the Christmas stories which, good as it is, might have been made better but for the extent to which the exigencies of space limited the author in the development of character in that class of stories. I mean Dr. Jeddler, the genial but mistaken father of Grace and Marion, in “The Battle of Life.” The doctor is “a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously by any practical man. His system of belief had been in the beginning part and parcel of the battle ground on which he lived.” He is not of the cynical school, but a modern Democritus, whose inclination to laugh at everything on the surface of the ocean of life was irresistible, while there was nothing in the conditions of his existence to suggest anything that was beneath. When he hears his daughters conversing about their lovers, “his reflections as he looked after them, and heard the purport of their discourse, were limited at first to certain merry meditations on the folly of all loves and likings, and the idle imposition practised on themselves by young people who believe for a moment that there could be anything serious in such bubbles, and were always deceived—always.”

Dr. Jeddler is a widower; we are not told what his experiences of married life had been. Had they been unhappy, one would suppose that he would have been more disposed to be cynical and pessimistic than to regard life’s incidents as provocative of merriment, yet, if they had been happy, why should he have regarded the engagement of Grace as an idle folly, a bubble on life’s surface, soon to burst? Dickens’ explanation is, from this point of view, scarcely satisfactory. “He was sorry,” says the novelist, “for her sake—sorry for them both—that life should be such a very ridiculous business as it was. The doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one. But then he was a philosopher. A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled by chance over that common philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches) which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross, and every precious thing to poor account.”

But when sorrow had humbled the doctor’s heart, he felt that the world in which some love, deep-anchored, is the portion of every human creature, was more serious than he had thought it, and understood “how such a trifle as the absence of a little unit in the great absurd account had stricken him to the ground.” Then, when he and his daughters are again together in the old home, and his arms are about them both, we find him acknowledging that “It’s a world full of hearts, and a serious world with all its folly,—even with mine, which was enough to swamp the whole world.”

It is to be observed, however, that while we find all the traits and incidents of professional life in the lawyers of Dickens’ creation, there is little or nothing of the kind in his doctors. Such traits are abundant in his presentments of Tulkinghorn, and Kenge, and Vholes in Wickfield, and many others that might be named; but they are so completely absent from his portrayals of Allan Woodcourt and Dr. Jeddler, that the two men might as well have been of any other profession, without any loss to the stories in which they appear. If we compare them with his lawyers, or with the clergymen of Mrs. Oliphant, we are struck at once with the difference.

This is not the case, however, when from the full-blown medical practitioner, adding to his name the initials M.D. or M.R.C.S., we descend to the “sawbones in training,” as the facetious Sam Weller designates the young men qualifying themselves for the exercise of the profession by “walking the hospitals.” The medical students of the novelist’s early days were—it would perhaps be fairer to say that a large proportion of them were—a turbulent and disorderly element in the social life of the metropolis. The newspapers of the day record their frequent appearances at the Bow Street and Marlborough Street police-courts on charges of rowdyism in the streets at or after midnight, when they came out from their favourite places of amusement, the Coal Hole, in the Strand, the Cider Cellars, in Maiden Lane, and the Judge and Jury Club, in Leicester Square, the latter presided over by Renton Nicholson, who edited a vile publication called The Town. Their after-amusements were found in strolling through the streets in threes and fours, singing at the top of their voices comic songs, that often outraged propriety, ringing door bells, and chaffing the police. Dickens must often in his reporting days have witnessed the next morning appearances of these young men at Bow Street police-court.

The first appearance of two specimens of this variety of the immature medico in the humorous pages of the “Pickwick Papers” is described as follows in the low cockney vernacular of Sam Weller. “One on ’em,” he tells Mr. Pickwick, “has got his legs on the table, and is a-drinkin’ brandy neat, vile the tother one—him in the barnacles—has got a barrel of oysters atween his knees, vich he’s a-openin’ like steam, and as fast as he eats ’em he takes a aim with the shells at young Dropsy, who’s a-sittin’ down fast asleep in the chimbley corner.” The latter gentleman is Mr. Benjamin Allen, who is described by the novelist as “a coarse, stout, thick-set young man, with black hair cut rather short, and a white face cut rather long. He was embellished with spectacles, and wore a white neckerchief. Below his single-breasted black surtout, which was buttoned up to his chin, appeared the usual number of pepper-and-salt coloured legs, terminating in a pair of imperfectly polished boots. Although his coat was short in the sleeves, it disclosed no vestige of a linen wristband, and although there was quite enough of his face to admit of the encroachment of a shirt-collar, it was not graced by the smallest approach to that appendage. He presented altogether rather a mildewy appearance, and emitted a fragrant odour of full-flavoured Cubas.”

This gentleman’s companion is Mr. Bob Sawyer, “who was habited in a coarse blue coat which, without being either a great-coat or a surtout, partook of the nature and qualities of both,” and “had about him that sort of slovenly smartness and swaggering gait which is peculiar to young gentlemen who smoke in the streets by day, shout and scream in the same by night, call waiters by their Christian names, and do various other acts and deeds of an equally facetious description. He wore a pair of plaid trousers and a large rough double-breasted waistcoat: out of doors he carried a thick stick with a big top. He eschewed gloves, and looked, upon the whole, something like a dissipated Robinson Crusoe.” The conversation of these budding surgeons is perfectly in harmony with their outward aspect. Their discourse, when it assumes a serious character, is of the “cases” at the hospital and the “subjects” at the time being on the dissecting tables of the anatomical lecture-rooms. When relieved from attendance at the hospitals, they lounge at tavern bars, and flirt with barmaids and waitresses, to whom their attentions are not unfrequently of an objectionable character, and less agreeable than they imagine them to be.

The contrast between the graphic power displayed by Dickens in his delineation of the characters of Bob Sawyer and Ben Allen, and the indistinctiveness, as to profession, of his presentments of Allan Woodcourt and Dr. Jeddler, may help us to understand the causes which render his doctors so much less effective than his lawyers. The legal profession presents more variety than the medical, and comes before us more prominently in conjunction with incidents of a striking character, as may be seen every day in the newspaper records of the courts of law and of police. The physician and the surgeon stand as much apart, in these respects, from the busy barrister or solicitor as the clergy do. Dickens has not given us a clerical portrait, and probably for a similar reason. Mrs. Oliphant, on the other hand, excels in her delineations of every grade of the Anglican hierarchy; but her genius as a writer of fiction runs in a groove essentially different from that of Dickens.