06 June 2019

The Scientist in Victorian Literature: Doctor Edred Fitzpiers, Surgeon (The Woodlanders, 1886-87)

Trade paperback, 360 pages
Published 2009 (originally 1886-87)

Acquired January 2010
Previously read February 2010
eread May 2019
The Woodlanders by Thomas Hardy
"There is a surgeon lately come—and I have heard that he reads a great deal—I see his light sometimes through the trees late at night."
     "Oh yes—a doctor—I believe I was told of him...... It is a strange place for him to settle in."
     "It is a convenient centre for a practice, they say. But he does not confine his studies to medicine, it seems. He investigates theology, and metaphysics, and all sorts of subjects." (56)
This is where it all started for me, you know. Way back in 2010, as a second-year graduate student, I read this novel for the first time in a seminar on Darwin, Hardy, and Woolf. I was intrigued by its depiction of a scientist, and how that scientist's behavior outside of science seemed to be affected by his scientific training. I went seeking a source that could tell me more about this-- and I never found one. So now I am writing one, revising my dissertation project into an academic monograph. One of the sample chapters I want to send in with my proposal is the one that includes The Woodlanders, and I haven't read the book since I took that class almost ten years ago, and now I need to revise it. I am sure that that part of the book needs work, since I have (hopefully) advanced as a writer and scholar in the past ten years.

What I had not remembered is how much Fitzpiers is an off-stage presence at the beginning of the novel. It initially seems like it might be about Marty South, daughter of a rural woodsman, but soon focuses on Grace Melbury, daughter of a timber-merchant, and whether she should marry Giles Winterbourne, another local woodsman, now that's she's been elevated by a middle-class education out of town. Fitzpiers is spoken of from p. 8 onwards, glimpsed on p. 60, but does not properly appear until p. 92, almost a third of the way through the novel. We hear a lot about him before he appears so, as in the above quotation. We're told he reads Spinoza (45), and that he has widespread interests (56), and that he has paid the Melburys' servant, Grammer Oliver, ten pounds so that he can have her brain after she dies-- he is intrigued because her head is the size of a man's (46). The locals both do and do not trust this highly educated doctor, whose like they don't normally see in a place like Little Hintock. Some think he studies black arts and sold his soul to the devil... but they kind of like that, because the worse the person, the better the doctor! (28) The other local doctor is so nice, he won't even give you foul-tasting medicine, so obviously it's not actually doing anything.

But it turns out that a bad man is a bad doctor. Like other too-educated surgeons in rural communities (e.g., Thurnall in Two Years Ago, Lydgate in Middlemarch), he struggles to build much of a practice; he's certainly no Mr. Gibson from Wives and Daughters. When he suggests treating Marty's father, who is being driven mad by a tree, by chopping down the tree, Marty's dad dies. Worse than the outcome of the experiment is his highly casual reaction to the loss of a man's life, as he seizes the opportunity to ask Giles about a hot chick he saw the other day:
Nothing seemed to avail. Giles and Fitzpiers went and came; but uselessly. He [Mr. South] lingered through the day, and died that evening as the sun went down.
     "Damned if my remedy hasn't killed him!" murmured the doctor.
     Dismissing the subject he went downstairs. When going out of the house he turned suddenly to Giles and said, "Who was that young lady we looked at over the hedge the other day?"
     Giles shook his head, as if he did not remember. (94)
Later, Fitzpiers gets some of Mr. South's brain, and it's while looking at a sample of it that Grace first starts to fall for him!

Fitzpiers's case is more complicated than many of the ones I look at, though, and I'm not entirely sure what to make of it. Fitzpiers is a would-be scientist, but as I've said, his interests are diverse: he also studies philosophy, and French romances, and so on. This dilettantism is what's consistent across both his personal and intellectual lives. He wants to do experiments, but cannot follow them through to completion. He falls in love with Grace, but is interested in not only her. Does this mean Hardy thinks he would be a better person if he stuck to science? Then it would seem that science is not the culprit, not entirely, but I don't find this entirely satisfying. Which I guess is appropriate, because the end-- where Fitzpiers resolves to stick to Grace this time-- is not entirely satisfying either.

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