Posted by: zhiv | April 25, 2008

A Country Doctor, Sarah Orne Jewett

I was saying the other day that Sarah Orne Jewett may have been at the end of the run of “domestic fiction,” or right in the middle of it, I wasn’t sure.  This very good book, which I would only recommend if you like the slow and quiet depth of Pointed Firs, seems to go right to the heart of the question.  And the answer is no, not domestic fiction, thank you very much.

TCD tells the story of Nan Prince.  It is a bildungsroman of sorts, although a quick glance at a book of Jewett criticism, “American Persephone,” that was lying around, gives me a hint that a female bildungsroman is somewhat complicated by its very nature.  (I really didn’t want to read any criticism before writing this, but kind of kept leaping around for a bit.)  It’s divided into two parts:  Nan’s infancy and childhood, and then her young adulthood.  In the first part, the book opens with Nan’s mother struggling and stumbling to return to her small-town farm home, barely alive, a last shred of maternal instinct enabling her to keep herself from jumping in the river with her baby, and she makes it to her mother’s house to die, the baby safe.  We’re introduced to the local doctor, Dr. Leslie, a quiet, refined, dedicated paragon and intellectual, who eases Nan’s mother’s death and promises to watch over her baby.  It’s all an engaging, dramatic early set of chapters and scenes, introducing a simple and very human New England world, with a promising set of characters.

Nan’s spends her early childhood on the bucolic farm with her old, well-meaning grandmother, and after her death she becomes the ward of Dr. Leslie.  His own wife and child had died before the story begins, and Nan brings added life and interest into the world of a busy man who seems to hold a widespread community together with a gentle touch.  Jewett does a nice job of capturing this world, the charms of its setting and its simple virtues.  Her technique is more direct, and less measured and evocative than in Pointed Firs, which is a masterwork in this regard, but in this earlier effort, more than a decade prior, you can feel the warm, gentle touch she has for her world and its rhythms.

Living with Dr. Leslie, in a kind of idyllic guardian-ward relationship that takes away some of the father-daughter sting that might imply a rejection of the mother (who was killed off, right up front), Nan develops an ambition to follow in his footsteps as a doctor.  The teenage and early enthusiasms for this goal are handled with extreme care by Jewett, and she bolsters up what turns into an extra firm commitment to medicine for Nan, because she is proposing a rather radical idea, and this is where she marks a firm departure from domestic fiction and ventures into proto-feminism.  It’s all good stuff, and of course we’re happy to see such things in latter days, and you can get a sense of the struggles of women pioneers.

In the second half of the book, Nan’s vocation gets tested out in the world–sort of.  Rather than testing her mettle in the sickrooms or hospital, Jewett instead plunges her into the world of, basically, the novel, showing how “society” views her choice and seeing if she will stand firm.  Nan’s mother, a troubled, impulsive woman from simple stock, had married above her, to a young doctor who was rejected after his poor choice by his affluent family, and his ship captain father.  Thinking about it, I didn’t really notice that Nan’s father, dead before the story begins, had been a doctor, and the fact is probably there to show that she comes by her medical interest naturally, and it’s not all because of Dr. Leslie.  The father had a sister, another Nan Prince (a bit confusing at times), who offered assistance at little Nan’s birth, but had a very prideful reaction to the choice made that Nan would stay with her mother’s “people.”  Nan has grown up quite curious about her aunt, and when she has been in medical school for a couple of years she decides to visit her.  The aunt, worried, worn, and anxious, is immediately won over by Nan and overjoyed that her lost niece has appeared in her life.  She quickly introduces Nan to the society of her own small seaport town, and almost immediately forms plans for her future happiness.   Nan the elder has a sort of ward of her own, a young lawyer who looked to be on his way to inherit her estate, and the elder decides that young Nan should get married to the nice, handsome, somewhat industrious lawyer.  The planning is all done carefully and patiently, with none of the small intrigues of a Jane Austen novel.  Jewett has presented the characters and conclusion for a very pretty piece of domestic fiction, but means to turn it on its head.  Nan the elder and the rest of the town are dismayed when they discover Nan’s folly of studying medicine.  They move ahead with their plans, expecting her to be swayed by luxury, ease, and romance.  Nan battles along bravely, never becoming strident in her arguments for selfhood, but she is tested when she discovers that she has real feelings for Mr. Gerry, the lawyer.  But she decides her rare talent and sense of duty should not be denied, and she turns him down and returns home to Dr. Leslie, and in the end looks forward to her future as a doctor.

All of this, on the whole, is very impressive, especially for 1884.  Yes, it would be nice if a character like Nan could be a doctor and still have a relationship, get married if she wants, and create a more balanced life and role for herself.  The story has something of a polemical nature, however, and the arguments about women’s roles and vocation are philosophical and carefully crafted, without overwhelming the story, and the all-or-nothing approach and making a commitment to professionalism and equality foremost has its logic and shouldn’t be slighted. 

There’s a lot going on in this book, and when you consider its quietly determined revolutionary daring, it stands fairly strong on its own while it also enriches and deepens an appreciation of the accomplishment of Pointed Firs.  One thing that comes through very strongly is the idea that Nan’s serious ambition and sense of duty all stand neatly for Jewett’s own commitment to writing, and the lonely high calling of the woman writer.  Jewett has also crafted and transformed autobiographical materials, with Dr. Leslie drawn from her doctor father, and Nan’s medical interest and enthusiasms taken Jewett’s own youthful desire to be a doctor.  She paints a careful, loving but very serious portrait of the profession of medicine, drawing a timeline that stretches far across its evolution in the 19th century, and which, in Nan’s character, looks bravely into the future.  Jewett wasn’t quite Chekhov, but she was hanging out in the same neighborhood, and as a woman she did her share of forward-thinking and then some. 

Twice in the book Jewett gives us the same “sweet nothing” that is the lifeblood of this blog:  “It is only those who can do nothing who find nothing to do, and Nan was no idler…”  By the time Jewett wrote her masterpiece, Pointed Firs, a novel without story or conflict, a book about nothing, about an idler writer, sure of herself, who goes beyond ambition to discover the rhythms of life and female mysteries, it seems that she had embraced the Core Philosophy and read more deeply into this statement, that yes, only those who can do nothing find nothing to do.

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