Saturday, April 22, 2023

Doctor Lucy

By Barbara Allen (pseud. Violet Finlay Stuart), ©1956
Cover illustration by Paul Anna Soik 

A woman doctor, Lucy found, is still suspect to her male colleagues. “We teach you and train you,” they argue, “and then what happens? You marry!” Well, Lucy announced, she wouldn’t. She had finished with love and marriage since Johnny Eglington had let her down so badly, and now she could come back without fear of any complications, to the district where Johnny and his wife still lived. She explained this to Johnny himself, to Michael Dare, her old friend, and to her chief at the Melfield Hospital, that clever surgeon Paul Brandon. Extraordinary that none of them seemed to be quite convinced!


“We’ve got science at our fingertips, we do a good job, but we lack—I don’t know, I think it’s humanity.” 

“For the Lord’s sake don’t go and marry the first young numbskull that asks you. It would be the most appalling waste.”

“Medicine’s no job for a good-looking young woman, and the Lord alone knows why you want to want to become a surgeon. It’s the devil of a life; women haven’t the temperament for it. If you must specialize, you ought to take up obstetrics. Plenty of scope there.”

Dr. Lucy Grey is a surgeon, just returning to her hometown in England to embark on a five-year residency, and on the basis of one day in the OR with her, esteemed Dr. Marcus Anstruther is offering her a partnership. But it’s a long road to get there, and in the interim there’s the constant condescension and doubt of pretty much every doctor she meets. “It would be a pity, a waste of all life could give you as a woman,” Dr. Paul Brandon, her chief, tells her. “For a woman marriage isn’t possible if she’s making the sort of career you visualize. Even for a man that sort of compromise isn’t easy, but at least it’s possible. A man can put his whole heart into his job and yet make a happy and successful marriage.” This is hypocrisy of the highest order, impossible in this day and age to see how it works for one gender and not the other, unless you consider the lack of birth control as a limiting factor for women—but then women surgeons have been known to have children and continue to work. There’s a lot of that sort of talk in this book, and it does get a bit monotonous at times, and disheartening to hear it from Lucy’s love interest. But Lucy meets it all with quiet determination and sincerity and faith in her abilities, skill she has learned from her father, a local general practitioner, who is much beloved by the community, able to be more successful as a physician because his patients trust him implicitly.

The cast of characters in the book includes Julia Eglington, who had stolen Lucy’s fiancé Johnny Eglington from her two years ago—but now, the marriage is in ruins. Julia has been in a serious car crash, possibly a suicide attempt, and Johnny has become a dissipated loser who unsuccessfully tries to win Lucy back. Then there’s Lucy’s childhood friend Michael Dare, 12 years her senior and never previously more than an older brother type, who proposes to Lucy. Dr. Paul Brandon, the very talented, handsome but ridiculously cool surgeon who built his career from literally nothing, slowly grows in Lucy’s esteem as she grows in his. All have their secrets, and author Violet Finlay Stuart (here writing as Barbara Allen) really brilliantly manages to keep the mysteries under wraps in an organic way without drawing them out so painfully that the reader becomes bored or indifferent, or telegraphing the answers so glaringly that they are not mysteries at all.

As Lucy works to pull all the frayed ends together, her growing attraction to Paul is painted very compellingly, such as when she experiences “a magnetic current” when they touch: “It was by no means the first time that she had been aware of his masculine attraction and his good looks, but at that moment both seemed magnified, and the strange intentness of his gaze set her pulses racing.” But Paul is guarding some secret of Julia’s—could it be their feeling for each other?

Ultimately the answers to the puzzle of the relationships and interactions are revealed rather satisfactorily—I even managed to be surprised at a few. The only problems with the ending are the medically implausible damage to the senior Dr. Grey’s heart caused by an embolism in the femoral artery, which is located in the thigh, rendering him incapable of ever working again, and the sudden readjustments of Lucy’s career that result, after all her many protestations about her dedication to her career up until then, making her previous arguments as completely hollow and meaningless as the mansplanations from all those misogynist doctors. But all in all, Doctor Lucy is an enjoyable, well-written story that gives us interesting, complex characters and a plot skillfully revealed. If the lead character turns out to be something of a paper tiger, well, it’s a rare book that has it all, and we don’t need to chuck the whole thing out because of one weakness. As Lucy herself notes, “It was all too easy for lesser beings to criticize perfection, for inferiors to be jealous of it.”

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