06 March 2017

Review: Lynton Abbott's Children by Florence Fenwick Miller

Speaking of the late John Hurt, I have a review of his last hurrah as the Doctor up on Unreality SF.

PDF eBook, 249 pages
Published 1879
Read July 2016
PDF eBook, 238 pages
Published 1879
Read July 2016
PDF eBook, 268 pages
Published 1879
Read July 2016
Lynton Abbott's Children
     I am arguing neither for nor against heredity. I am stating facts only; their interpretation does not come within my province. But I have been compelled to think upon this subject of the strange differences between children of one family: happier would my life have been had transmission of qualities been indeed an exact law! And in the course of suffering and eventful years I have learnt to be infinitely pitiful, and to blame society and environment rather than the individual for most crimes and cruelties. (3: 57)
This three-volume Victorian novel was published anonymously, but Rosemary T. Van Arsdel's Florence Fenwick Miller: Victorian Feminist, Journalist and Educator indicates it was the work of Florence Fenwick Miller, who sought a medical degree at the University of Edinburgh but was turned away, though she eventually took a degree from the Ladies' Medical College and conducted a medical practice in London for a time. Van Arsdel says the book was well reviewed but cost her money, leaving her feeling depressed. She says little of what Fenwick Miller's motivation was beyond "her own amusement, as well as to try her hand at other subject matter" than the scientific writing she'd been selling in the periodical press (92). But it seems that Fenwick Miller must have intended more than that.

The protagonist and narrator is a girl who is the seventh of eight children-- all the others are boys, and her father was one of ten boys, and his father similarly so. Her father has picked out names and occupations for the ten sons he plans on having in advance, based on their uncles' names and occupations: number seven should be named Henry and can be either a doctor or a clergymen. He deals with the unexpected arrival of a daughter by naming her "Henrietta," calling her "Henry," and raising her to be a doctor anyhow. Henry is thus raised and educated like a boy until she turns ten and her aunt discovers this is going on and takes her away to be raised properly. Henry is a charming, fun narrator-- apparently some of the contemporary reviews compared the book to Jane Eyre, and I can see it.

Things take a dark turn, however, when in living with her brother Marshall at the home of her Uncle Marshall (the Marshalls of the Abbott family must become clergymen), she discovers that even at the tender age of ten, he has already discovered vivisection! Marshall wants to become a doctor, not a clergyman, and thus acts out medical experiments in secret, dissecting frogs and a stray dog alive, and soon turning his eyes upon Henry's dog: “his wrath was the white heat of burning metal. Only his eyes flamed far away, his skin kept that violet hue, and his teeth were tightly set” (1: 80-1).

This is no Victorian scientist novel, however. Time elapses and soon Henry is twenty and about to debut in society. Marshall has been set up with a vicarage close to the ancestral seat, and when she goes home for the first time in years, Henry discovers that he mentally abuses and tortures his wife. Much of the second volume covers Henry's attempts to help her sister-in-law and avoid Marshall, who tries to discredit her and besmirch her character in order to stop her from informing on him, along with side plots like one of Henry's brother falling in love with Henry's best friend, and a physically repulsive genius proposing marriage to Henry (she refuses, and is kind of a jerk about it). Marshall is a creepy villain, and Fenwick Miller draws a straight line from vivisection to spousal abuse-- a wife is just an even more powerless creature to toy with.

Things get more desperate in the third volume, as Henry convinces her father to arbitrate between her and Marshall, only Marshall proves too clever for her. I rather liked Lynton Abbott, Sr., a man set in his ways but of fundamental morality. Then the murders start happening, and the novel becomes a bit melodramatic; the ending is probably its most unsatisfactory part.

There's a lot of ruminating on the diseased mind, and what makes Marshall so awful as he is: nature or nurture? At one point it's suggested that if Marshall had been allowed to be a doctor as he liked, then everything would have turned out okay for him, but given how creepy he already was as a child, it's hard for me to buy this. The book's feminist leanings don't just come through in the discussion of abusive marriages; it also argues that women should be allowed to do what they like, and not held back out of nonsensical ideas of purity or womanliness. Unfortunately, the world isn't ready for that, and the very ending of the book sends Henry to Paris, the only place she can study and practice medicine. Her and one of her brothers do serve together in the Crimea, which sounds badass. Where's Lynton Abbott's Children at War? I'd read it!

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