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Reviews of A Country Doctor (1884) by Sarah Orne Jewett
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The Congregationalist (June 26, 1884) p. 216
A Country Doctor, by Sarah O. Jewett, is a most agreeable book. One hardly knows whether it is about Dr. Leslie or Nan, his charming ward, who follows in his steps professionally, and whose purpose to become a physician is almost, but not quite, overthrown by the pleas of a lover. The quiet, natural flow of the story, the positive and delightful individuality of its characters, and its wise and wholesome teaching upon a most important subject, render it much superior to most literature of its sort. Miss Jewett has a positive genius for describing such places as Oldfields and Dunport, and such people as many of their residents herein mentioned.
MISS JEWETT'S FIRST NOVEL
Literary World 15 (June 28, 1884), p. 211.
We do not know whether Miss Jewett has written A Country Doctor in obedience to a spontaneous impulse or in compliance with the suggestion of her publishers or of some of her critics. The story is pleasant reading, like everything that we have hitherto had from her hand; but it cannot be said to be the revelation of any new or any greater power. It is simply an expanded sketch, characterized by the same agreeable literary qualities with which we have become familiar in her previous writings. There is not in it the material for a novel proper, and it makes no pretence to being such. It is quite free from "padding" of any sort, and within its limitations it is neatly finished. The young heroine's individuality is defined in lines of simple grace; the character of the elder physician is set before us with the reality of a portrait from the life, while their worthy neighbors, the inhabitants of rustic Oldfields appear in the truth of the mental and moral differences underlying the homely speech and unsophisticated manners common to them all. In Miss Jewett's writings there is always something to be prized beyond a refined and graceful style and a faculty of delicate perception; these are the evident outcome of womanly sentiment, and of a sincere humanity that finds its chief food for thought in the fact of the kinship and mutual dependence of men, high and low, wise and ignorant, strong and weak.
A Country Doctor is the third recent fiction by an American author which as had for its heroine a practicing physician. Yet there is little resemblance between the three. Mr. Howells's Dr. Breen is a clever and good young woman whom, the author makes it plain, has mistaken a temporary discontent with life consequent on an unhappy experience for a true calling to the physician's career, and who is lucky enough to discover the error in time to transfer her womanly activities to a strictly domestic sphere. Miss Phelps's Doctor Zay makes up her mind after a distressing mental conflict, that she can contrive to combine matrimony with the exercise of her professional abilities in a more limited area than she originally intended. Miss Jewett's Nan, avoiding sweeping theories and heated argument, and speaking with modest conviction only for herself and the few who resemble her, declares her decision to follow and abide by the sure prompting of nature.
We cannot leave A Country Doctor without one further word. However agreeable the cultured reader may pronounce it to be, he must add the qualification that it is, nevertheless, a less satisfactory literary product than most of the author's shorter works. The book, in spite of its added pages, remains but a sketch, and a sketch is never bettered by being extended beyond its natural limits; its best effect is mainly dependent upon its right proportion. Mr. James's best writing has taken the shape of sketches; Madame des Mauves and A Passionate Pilgrim are better pieces of work than The Portrait of a Lady. An author may no doubt be capable of producing both novels and sketches equally good in their way, but the qualities requisite for the one kind of writing by no means imply possession of those needful for the other. To write a thoroughly good sketch or short story is not an easy task, and it is not to undervalue the literary gift of an author who can do this to say that powers of another and a greater kind go to the making of a novel of the first order.
MISS JEWETT'S NOVEL
New York Times (July 7, 1884) p. 3.
A COUNTRY DOCTOR. By SARAH ORNE JEWETT.
Boston: HOUGHTON, MIFFLIN & CO.
We hardly know how to call this quite thoughtful work - whether it be a romance or a study - for it partakes somewhat of the character of each; but what one can most particularly appreciate is the charm of the book itself and those fine delineations of the manners, habits, and ways of thought of New-England people. The dramatic element the author possesses, as is shown by the introductory chapter, where Ad'line Prince,** crazed by her misery, hesitates for a moment whether she, with her child, will not seek relief then, again, nothing can be more touching than Ad'line's death, when, seeking the old farm where she was born, she goes to sleep "never to wake again in the world." The story runs as follows: Near Oldfields lives old Mrs. Thatcher on some small homestead. She has a daughter, Adaline. Adaline, who inherits some peculiarities of the Thatcher blood, has ideas above her station, is not contented with a prosaic farm existence, but goes to Dunport and becomes a factory hand. There she meets a naval surgeon, Prince, and marries him. Prince's family are bitterly opposed to the match. They hold their heads high in the old town of Dunport, occupying the best position. Ad'line quarrels bitterly with them and with her husband. The husband dies, and Ad'line, scorning the proffered aid of the Princes, disappears, with her child, Nan, and seeks her mother. Ad'line has in her misery taken to drink, and she and her baby are clad in rags. Mrs. Thatcher, the grandmother of Nan, takes care of her, and Dr. Leslie, who is an old friend of the family and the Galen of Oldfields, becomes guardian of Nan. Nan is different from the other country girls. She knows she has aristocratic relatives, and is always drawing castles in the air. When Mrs. Thatcher dies Dr. Leslie takes Nan to his house. The vocation of Nan's father comes to the surface. She wants to be a doctor. Leslie humors her, and she begins her studies. She goes to Dunport and sees her aunt, a rather prim specimen of humanity, and the niece and Miss Prince become friends. In a hundred ways the country bred girl shows the good character of the Prince stock. Miss Prince, the aunt, has a protégé, George Gerry, and she wants Nan to marry him, but Nan, though she likes him and might love him, declines his proffered suit, believing that her vocation is to be a doctor. This is the somewhat bare outline of a story, which Miss Jewett has filled up with very careful shadings.
The character of Dr. Leslie is an exceedingly beautiful one, so full is it of human sympathy. He is a strong believer in heredity, and studies lovingly in little Nan Prince the development of his theory. The talk he has with an old college mate, Ferris, also a doctor, is, besides being cleverly philosophical, replete with the keenest appreciativeness of New-England:
"I tell you, Leslie, that for intense, self-centered, smoldering volcanoes of humanity, New-England cannot be matched the world over. It is like the regions of Iceland that are full of geysers. I don't know whether it is the inheritance from those people who broke away from the old countries, and who ought to be matched to tremendous circumstances of life, but now and then there comes an amazingly explosive and uncontrollable temperament that goes all to pieces from its own conservation and accumulation of force. * * * It is perfectly wonderful what this climate does for people who come to it - a South of Ireland fellow, for instance, who has let himself be rained on and then waited for the sun to dry him again, and has grubbed a little in a bit of ground, just enough to hint to it it had better be making a crop of potatoes for him. I always expect to see the gorse and daisies growing on the old people's heads to match the cabins. But they come over here and forget their idleness, and in a week or two the east winds are making them work, and thrashing them, if they are slow, worse than any slave driver who ever cracked a whip lash."
Perhaps physicians themselves not given to reach outside of their professional text books might study this story with advantage. The author has much to say in regard to that "haphazard way of doctoring in which the health of the patient was secondary to the promotion of new theories, and the young scholar who could write a puzzling technical paper too often out-ranked the old practitioner who conquered some malignant disorder single handed." The twin brothers, Jake and Martin Dyer, talking over their mugs of cider, and their wives, and old Mrs. Meeker, the village busybody, are all pictures taken from the life. As this is the first extended work of the author having elements of fiction in it, it is worthy of having a large circle of readers.
This review contains a number of factual errors. The following have been corrected. Nan Prince's family name is changed to Price throughout; her home village name is changed from Oldfields to Oldham. A reference to Mr. Thacher's death probably should have been be to Mrs. Thacher's death.
William Payne Morton, from "Recent Fiction." Dial 5 (July, 1884), 66.
"A Country Doctor," by Sarah Orne Jewett, is one of the most satisfactory books of the season. The writer has not attempted to do more than lay fully within her power; and consequently has done most admirably a work for which her many studies and sketches of New England provincial life have so well fitted her. Upon its own plane and within its own limits the execution is almost perfect. Here we may find close and accurate observation, delicacy of touch, genuine discrimination, firm and sympathetic grasp of character, and instinctive refinement. The story, as we might naturally expect from the nature of the writer's previous work, is simplicity itself; but the fascination of its manner is such as to leave no desire for any greater intricacy of plot. Indeed, anything more intricate would not be in harmony either with the style or the type of life which it presents. It belongs to the class of novels with a purpose - the purpose in the present case being to serve as a plea for the adoption of the medical profession by women; and this purpose becomes just a little obtrusive towards the end of the story - a very little indeed, but enough so to slightly detract from the value of what would otherwise be a faultless piece of work. At all events, the choicest part of the book is the earlier half, in which this purpose is as yet hardly foreshadowed, and which portrays the childhood and early youth of the heroine in a way of which the full charm can only be felt upon such a careful and lingering perusal as the book well deserves.
"Recent Fiction." The Critic 2 (July 12, 1884) p. 16.
Few authors have so assured a reputation of its kind as Miss Sarah Orne Jewett. The genuineness of her work, the absolute photography of her quiet skill in delineating country life, the justness of her method and the perfection of its results, have been praised, we believe, without a dissenting voice. Nothing succeeds like success, and nothing dazzles like success. In view of this general verdict, we feel a self-distrust that makes us fain to drop the subject with some general remark to the effect that in 'A Country Doctor' (Houghton, Mifflin & Co.) the world is blessed with another of Miss Jewett's admirable books. For it would be no hypocrisy; though we do not personally enjoy it, we are sure that her work is admirable. There is nothing in the world to find fault with, except the one fact that we cannot read it. It is not that the paragraphs of 'A Country Doctor' are long; Mr. James's paragraphs are long. It is not that it is all about poor people; we are very fond of poor people, especially of Mrs. Poyser. It is not because it deals with the country; we adore the country. It is not because the story is commonplace; for we read through 'An Average Man' from cover to cover. We do not know why it is - but we cannot read it. The facts, as nearly as we have been able to gather them, are these: A young woman who has married unhappily comes back to her native village to die, leaving a little child. The child is adopted by the village doctor, and in time becomes a doctor herself. Several of her friends gently try to dissuade her, but she gently perseveres, and closes the volume and the novel on its three hundred and fifty-first page with the exclamation: 'O God! I thank thee for my future!' We are perfectly sure that the many pages and chapters are crowded to overflowing with what are known as 'inimitable pictures' of New England life; but the life is so still, even when the neighbors are gossiping, that the description of it may well be called photographic.
from "Recent Fiction," The Nation 39 (July 31, 1884) pp. 96-7.
It is a positive pleasure to think how many young voices will be reading aloud Miss Jewett's delightful sketch of 'A Country Doctor,' this summer. We say sketch, for though the book has been heralded as a novel, it is as strictly a sketch as any of those which have won for her a now most enviable fame. Mrs. Burnett and George Fleming are the only names that could be placed before hers, or those who are now in the full tide of work. Both of these have had, in their lives and in their work, a large foreign element, while Miss Jewett's is as purely and finely New England as Whittier's poetry. Her instinctive refinement, her graceful workmanship, place her second only to Miss Thackeray. Her country doctor is unmistakably a loving portrait from life. We like him and his friend all the better for a reminiscence of the Doctor May and the Doctor Spencer of thirty years ago. Not that they are in the least copies - only examples of the same type. By the side of Doctor Leslie is a most gracious figure, first a wayward child, then a girl of eager heart but steady will. So far as the story follows the thread of her fortune, and develops her character, it might be called a novel; but plot in the ordinary sense it has none. When, at the close, the heroine, "in an ecstasy of life and strength and gladness," said, "O God, I thank Thee for my future," she looked forward to no happiness of wife or mother, but to the profession - still unusual, though no longer isolated - for which she had patiently trained herself in medical school and hospital.
The fact that such writers as Mr. Howells, Miss Phelps, and Miss Jewett should within four years so carefully study what is practically the same subject, makes it worth while to compare their stories closely. Passing any question of relative literary merit, and taking them all as widely-read and much-liked books, there are remarkable points both of likeness and difference between them. In the first place, no one of the heroines works for her living. Doctor Breen "was rich enough to have no need of her profession as a means of support." Of Doctor Zay it is said "loftily" by the old lady, 'Doctor is quite independent of her practice.' Between Doctor Leslie and her aunt, Nan Prince is sure of a fortune. They are all beautiful. Mr. Howells gives us "the tender curve of her cheek, the soft round of her chin." Doctor Zay "was the eidolon of glorious health." "There was a sort of golden halo round Nan's pretty head." In costume and carriage they are all of the choicest. Doctor Breen only studied simplicity, but "she did not finally escape distinction in dress and manner." Doctor Mulbridge "grew more and more conscious of her elegance and style, now that she stood before him." Doctor Zay has almost a superfluity of violet muslin, of skin of seal and leopard; she has "a glorious poise," and moves "with a swift and splendid motion." As Nan walked up the broad aisle of St. Anne's Church, "the rows of heads all looked commonplace by contrast.¼ There was something so high and serene in Anna Prince's simplicity and directness." They are further alike, that each has had the best special training for her career that the time afforded. That they count two out of three for homťopathy may go for what it is worth.
As to motive, we come to marked differences. Dr. Breen turned to her study in the heart-sick reaction from the treachery of her friend, the faithlessness of her affianced. She is watching her first patient at Jocelyn's. Dr. Zay "always had a taste for science, she inherited it besides." Her father was a physician, but died when she was only fifteen. She has practised four years in a Maine village. "She don't fall short of three thousand every year of her life," is the assertion. Nan's father, whom she never knew, was also a physician, but it was her constant sympathy, her affectionate admiration for her guardian, the "country doctor," which determined the restless longing of her finely-endowed nature toward the same career as his own. Either motive is a likely one, but the last is the more natural and more healthful.
Of three women, not one of whom is over thirty, it is hardly time to speak of conclusions. So far as they are known to the story-teller, Dr. Breen has married an able, active man; and, a childless though happy wife, she devotes her skill to the women and children in her husband's factories, "though the conditions under which she now exercises it certainly amount to begging the whole question of woman's fitness for the career she had chosen." Dr. Zay, upon the last page, yields to a lover whose expected fortune may make possible what be ardently promises, that she shall not give up her profession. Nan has had her opportunity, which she gravely, reverently puts by as a blessing which was not for her. "She had come to her work as Christ came to his, not to be ministered unto but to minister."
Once more a difference. Mr. Howells may not quite have intended it, but his heroine first turns to her lover in the profound dejection of the discovery of failure in herself - her heart, her strength are not equal to her demand upon them. Dr. Zay's lover gains his advantage when she is physically exhausted with a night of watching and a struggle with delirium tremens. Does this mean that neither would have yielded if she had been strong? Nan stands waiting in all the success of her hope. Yet Miss Jewett has felt obliged to supply even her with another motive than the love of her profession for refusing marriage. Nan believes that inherited tendencies bar her from it. "Qui s'excuse, s'accuse." Does not this amount to an agreement among the three that home and hope of children draw a woman more strongly than anything else can?
Space fails us for the inferences this extended comparison suggests. Supposed cases are not logical arguments: they are only illustrations; but when independent illustrations strikingly agree, it is more than an accidental coincidence. To put the case fully in all its bearings, Doctor Breen should be successful: Nan's lover should be a strong, masterful, yet tenderly sympathetic man. But the great fact remains, no one yet ventures to represent a woman struggling as most men struggle to gain a footing in the professions. No one ventures to present her without the attractions that are distinctly feminine, and the want of which (that is, those that correspond) would be only a temporary hindrance to the man. There is a deep and -- considering the future -- an almost painful significance in the conviction, put concretely in Doctor Breen's case, implied throughout 'Doctor Zay,' and stated so plainly and so appealingly by Nan, that the duties of home, as falling upon the wife and mother, are incompatible with the practice of a profession. We believe all experience proves it, and what may seem examples to the contrary are either where the possession of wealth or powers so exceptional as to be outside all rules, have smoothed the way, or where the profession has been taken up after the home had been made, its traditions developed, its happiness secured.
As a last word, we suspect much that has been said of the theories in 'A Country Doctor,' and even our own analysis, have gone beyond the author's intentions. Such theory as it contains has grown out of the personages. It is not they who are fitted to the theory, as Miss Phelps's figures are. If there is at no point in the book the dramatic force of 'An Only Son,' recent fiction contains nowhere a picture of such gentle, measured sweetness as the reconciliation between aunt and niece at Dunport.
Overland Monthly 4 (August 1884) pp. 222-3
Next on our list of novels comes one that calls for less notice than The Fate of Mansfield Humhreys: not because it is inferior, but perhaps even because of its excellence, which leaves little to be said except that it can hardly be found fault [found found] with. Miss Jewett's A Country Doctor is a tranquil and unemphatic little transcript of New England life, and as perfect in finish as everything from the same hand. It is at some loss of a certain freshness and characteristic quality that the humbler walks [walls] of life are left: the chief people in the story talk and act more "like other folks" than do the somewhat less sophisticated people among whom Miss Jewett is at her best; still, they are just as true to life. The heroine is the daughter of a factory girl and of a man of some wealth and social rank; is brought up among her mother's family and old friends - farming folk - under the guardianship of the good doctor, a man of real eminence in his profession though a village practitioner, who makes a doctor of her too; during her course in medical school she makes [make] the acquaintance of her father's people, spends some time with them, shocks them by her medical studies, and refuses a lover, with some reluctance, chiefly because she is more in love with her profession: and the book ends by showing her satisfied with her choice. This is the whole story. There is much gentle feeling in it, no passion, no "plot" or other special narrative construction; Nan's life is simply followed along through childhood and girlhood to the final decision of her profession. It contains Miss Jewett's opinion on the vocation question, to the effect that a profession and marriage are with women, unlike men, incompatible; that not all women have natural fitness for marriage, and those who have not should find another calling. Not even falling in love constitutes reason sufficient for marriage. Nan decides that, on the whole, if she gives up her profession for her lover she will regret it more than she will him, if she gives him up for her profession; and Miss Jewett approves her decision - and so, in fact, does the reader; if not theoretically, yet in feeling, for she seems a delightful and appropriate figure as a country doctor, and marriage quite incongruous with her. There is an inheritance of dipsomania that strengthens her decision against marriage, but it is not her main reason. There is much that will bear thinking about in Miss Jewett's view of the matter; and this is by a good deal the best thing on the doctor question yet put into fiction. The minor characters about Nan's home are the delightful Massachusetts Yankees of Miss Jewett's earlier stories, a type for which we cannot be too grateful to her. The distance between the conventional and the real Yankee becomes most evident on reading of these kindly people, thrifty yet generous. There are very few men and women between book-covers who live and breathe as these do in Miss Jewett's pages. One sometimes wishes that she would write something of life in its intenser phases among the class she knows so well (for they are a people capable of intensity); her charming method joined to matter of tragic weight should make a sort of New England Turgenjeff of her. But it is quite probable that her leisurely serenity and cheerful truth to life are [is] partly due to her being incapable of weightier work; those who write with intensity usually do it at the cost of realism, of judgment, and of taste, unless they are very great writers.
Note: errors in this text have been corrected and indicated with brackets.
from "Novels of the Week." Athenaeum 2966 (August 30, 1884) p. 272
The publishers' advertisement of Miss Jewett's novel informs the reader that her plot is of unusual interest, and that she has wonderful acuteness of observation and a graceful style. They have, not unnaturally, taken too sanguine a view of Miss Jewett's powers. She does not yet know how to set about writing a novel. The plot does not fairly start till near the middle of the book, more than a third of it being occupied with a series of scenes which have no necessary connexion. She shows the very common, but very grave vice of elaborate description in details which are of no consequences to the story, and the not less grave fault of making a story the vehicle for her ideas on things in general.
from "Novels of the Week." Saturday Review 58 (August 30, 1884) pp. 283-4
As Phoebe fits the received ideal of the American novel the least satisfactorily, so A Country Doctor fits it the best. Miss Jewett's story has the slow movement and the uninterrupted introspection that we are wont to expect in the pages of Mr. James, Mr. Howells, Mrs. Burnett, Miss "George Fleming," Mr. Lathrop, and their fellow-workers in the art of fiction. Its subject recalls one of the most curious coincidences in the history of literature. When Mr. Howells was editing the Atlantic Monthly, he received one day from Miss Elizabeth Stuart Phelps, best known to English readers as the author of Gates Ajar, the manuscript of a novel. As Mr. Howells read this manuscript he discovered that it treated the same subject which he had himself treated in a novel about to appear in the Atlantic. To show that his work had been independent of hers, he sent her at once the proof-sheets of his story. In due course of time Mr. Howells's Doctor Breen's Practice appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, and after an interval it was succeeded by Miss Phelp's Doctor Zay. And now Miss Jewett, a third regular contributor to the same magazine, takes up the same subject, and in A Country Doctor we have a third setting forth of the doubts and difficulties which beset a young woman who attempts the practice of medicine. Miss Jewett's solution of the problem is different from Mr. Howells's. Miss Jewett is a woman, and she is in earnest. Mr. Howells is a man, and he has his full share of a man's humour. So Mr. Howells's heroine marries, and Miss Jewett's heroine perseveres in her work, rejecting the manly young fellow she loves better than she knows. It is to be said also that with fine art Miss Jewett has strengthened her heroine's position by suggesting a hereditary taint which the heroine's scientific studies tell her she ought never to transmit to children. Miss Jewett's novel, like her earlier short stories, is admirably planned, and it is written with loving care. Though the story and its telling are quiet, gentle, and lady-like, yet both are earnest and thoughtful. Those who care to know the kind of life led in a simple New England village by the people who have made the United States what it is may be recommended to read Miss Jewett's novel. A Country Doctor is New England through and through; it is saturated with the essence of New England.
Horace Scudder, from "Recent Fiction." Atlantic Monthly 54 (September 1884) pp. 413-422. This selection is from pp. 418-420.
The reader of Miss Jewett's A Country Doctor is more inclined to compare it with her previous stories than with other people's novels. It is always interesting to see how a writer of short stories will handle a novel, and Miss Jewett has made for herself so good a place by her earlier books that one feels a personal interest in the success of her first long flight. We believe emphatically in the wisdom of such ventures. An artist may have a peculiar gift for miniature-painting, but he will paint miniatures all the better for occasionally trying his hand at a life-size picture. It may be said that A Country Doctor is in effect an extended short story; that is, more room is allowed for the expansion of character, more details are given in the separate scenes, a longer stretch of continuous time is covered, but the theme is as simple and the real action as brief as if the author had undertaken to present a study of life within the compass of an ordinary single-number story. Miss Jewett has an excellent subject in the life of a young girl who is predestined to the career of a country doctor. She has blended with her delineation of this life a delightful sketch of a typical country doctor, and she has introduced other characters, drawn chiefly from the class with which she has already shown herself familiar. She has not set herself a very complex problem. The resolution to study medicine is taken by a girl who has no great opposition to brave. Her guardian supports her in her resolve, her own nature witnesses to its inevitableness, and the world is not brought in to object until the resolve has made good headway into action. The task which Miss Jewett has thus had to accomplish has been the faithful portrayal of a character ripening under favorable conditions, and this task exactly fits her power. In saying this, we do not in the least disparage her work; on the contrary, we assert for her a high quality of literary skill. It is no mean thing to dispense with strong contrasts and to make much of delicate shades. This is what Miss Jewett has done. She has, in the first place, made an interesting book. Then she has made a wise book. One is struck by the serene good sense which characterizes the defense of the girl's position. She has made, finally, a graceful book. It is much to be in company with such genuine high breeding, such unfailing courtesy. There are touches, moreover, of something higher; quiet passages which glow with a still beauty. How charming, for example, is the little series of pictures illustrating Dr. Leslie's successive views of the child Nan! "He always liked to see her come into church on Sundays, her steps growing quicker and surer as her good grandmother's became more feeble. The doctor was a lonely man, in spite of his many friends, and he found himself watching for the little brown face that, half-way across the old meeting-house, would turn round to look for him more than once during the service. At first there was only the top of little Nan Prince's prim best bonnet or hood to be seen, unless it was when she stood up in prayer-time; but soon the bright eyes rose like stars above the horizon of the pew railing; and next there was the whole well-poised little head, and the tall child was possessed by a sense of propriety, and only ventured one or two discreet glances at her old friend."
The development of Nan's mind is well given. We question only if the author has put with sufficient incisiveness the reactionary period, when the girl seems to have forgotten her intention, and to be waiting for the spirit to move her again. This eddy in her life is true to nature, but we doubt a little if its full meaning is clearly expressed; for the reader feels a little surprise when Nan begins all over again, as it were. The faint struggle in her nature when love is offered is cleverly given, though one is aware of a certain timidity in the author when presenting this phase. The lover is sketched good-naturedly, but not with very strong lines, and one feels that Nan's slight stirring of love did not receive a very strong reinforcement from the nature of the man who excited it. The whole passage, however, is in tone with the rest of the book.
A curious comparison might be instituted between this book and Björnson's The Fisher Maiden, where the heroine, of a much more tumultuous nature, is likewise possessed of a passion for a profession which the world in which she lives frowns upon. Björnson deals with the whole matter in a masculine manner, Miss Jewett in a feminine. Nothing very strange in this, to be sure; but while Björnson, in his vigorous fashion, forgets his story for a while in his desire to preach a doctrine, Miss Jewett maintains her art successfully in the animated scene of the tea-table discussion. We speak of her treatment as feminine, and the merit of it is that the womanliness of the work is of a thoroughly healthy sort. Heaven be praised for a handling of the theme which is absolutely free from hysterics, and regards men and women in a wholesome, honest fashion! The very seriousness with which the author regards her task is a sweet and fragrant seriousness, and one is unconsciously drawn into thinking and speaking of Nan Prince with that affectionate interest which leads Miss Jewett to lay her hand on the girl's shoulder, as it were, all through the narrative.
It seems that we never shall have done with contrasts. A Country Doctor takes one into the regions of a pure, honest maidenhood, and one is refreshed by contact with life which is strong, unsullied, and bent on high enterprise. The world is wide, and Nan Prince is not the only type of girlhood.
From "Editor's Literary Record," Harper's New Monthly Magazine 69:412 (September 1884), pp. 634-642.
Of the other novels of the month, of which there has been a plenteous crop, several are of much more than ordinary merit. Among these are: A Perilous Secret, the last, though far from the best, of Charles Reade's novels; A Country Doctor, an exquisitely delicate and very subtle delineation, by Sarah Orne Jewett, of the evolution of character under the influence of simple and natural surroundings and of wise and wholesome guidance, coupled with some charming limnings of social phases, rural scenes, and village life and character; . . . (641)
"Recent Fiction." Lippincott's Magazine 34 (September 1884), p. 319.
The subject of female doctors has been treated by Mr. Howells, who allows a young and pretty woman to practise medicine just as he allows her the indulgence of any pretty whim and caprice, and by Miss Phelps, who shows the coming of the Golden Age together with the days and works of the female doctors: accordingly, we are inclined to regret that Miss Jewett should have encumbered her first novel - to which all her many admirers were looking forward eagerly - with such a controversy. The fault we have to find with the endless debate is the infusion of an intense seriousness into the argument for female doctors, as if a void existed which must be filled. There are already many more male doctors in the world than the world needs, most of whom work with their highest abilities and intense belief in their dogmas without successfully grappling with the problems which disease presents. To add to the already overcrowded profession vast numbers of a sex not usually considered scientific or endowed with keen, accurate intellectual vision does not seem to promise the instant dawn and full noonday which enthusiasts declare to be shining in the distance. But, luckily, one is not obliged to do battle with a romancer's chimeras, and the good little Nan of this story, who decides against the sweetest impulse of her heart to accept a life of so-called duty instead of love, has a charm and a sweet coercion of her own that may well attract liking and sympathy. It must be nevertheless in Miss Jewett's details that her full strength lies, and in any judgment of "A Country Doctor" one is inclined to separate as opposing elements the animating idea of the book and its really delightful points. Two of the early chapters, "A Farm-House Kitchen" and "At Jake and Martin's," have that delicate relish for characteristics and faithful rendering of the New-England dialect, suggesting humor without being exactly humorous, which belong to her short stories. In fact, "Jake" and "Martin," two brothers with an insatiable appetite for each other's society, and who, "as they hoed corn, or dug potatoes, or mowed, or as they drove to the Corners sitting stiffly upright in the old-fashioned, stiffly-braced wagon, were always to be seen talking as if it were the first meeting after a long separation," yet hardly spoke to the world at large, seem worthy of a more extended study. Marilla, the doctor's housekeeper and factotum, is a treasure both to her employer and to the reader, - to the latter in particular, when at an inauspicious moment company arrives at the house as she is on the point of setting out for Friday-evening prayer-meeting. "I'd like to say to some folks that we don't keep hotel," she grumbles while she goes about the task of preparing a fresh meal. "I wish to my heart I'd slipped right out o' the front door and gone straight to meetin', and left them there beholdin' of me. Course he hasn't had no supper, nor dinner neither, like's not; and if men are ever going to drop down on a family unexpected it's always Friday night, when everything's eat up that ever was in the house. I s'pose after I bake double quantities to-morrow mornin' he'll be drivin' off before noon-time, and treasure it up that we never have nothin' decent to set before folks. Anna, you've got to stir yourself and help while I get the fire started up; lay one of them big dinner-napkins over the red cloth, and set a plate an' a teacup, - for as to laying the whole table over again, I won't and I shan't. There's water to cart upstairs, and the bedroom to open, but, heaven be thanked, I was up there dustin' to-day; and if ever you set a mug of flowers into one o' the spare-rooms again, and leave it there a week or ten days to spile, I'll speak about it to the doctor. Now you step out o' my way, like a good girl. I don't know whether you or the cat's the worse for gettin' before me when I'm in a drive. I'll set him out somethin' to eat, and then I'm goin' to meetin' if the skies fall!"
A SPINSTER HEROINE
Spectator 57 (October 18, 1884), p. 1378-79.
A Country Doctor is not an ordinary novel, but a very original story of an uncommon type. It treats of a subject of growing importance, the interest of which none will question - not even those who most keenly resent being asked to follow the fortunes of a heroine who, of her own free choice, rejects the honest love of an honest man which she in part returns. She has every reason to believe that her love, if not rooted out altogether, will become an overmastering passion and render it impossible for her to follow out the great aim of her young life. So she refuses to become engaged, and returns bravely to the field of her labour. Miss Jewett calls upon us to concur in Nan's decision, and, for our own part, we do concur in it heartily. The questions which are virtually asked in these pages are, -"Is married life the state best adapted to the genius of all women?" and "Do domestic duties develop, to the fullest extent, the best qualities and the highest aims and instincts of all women alike?" - and the answer is distinctly "No," and in this verdict we concur. Neither we nor Miss Jewett deny that married life is the natural sphere for women as a whole class, nor that domestic duties are those in the performance of which she generally finds her best happiness and exerts her best and highest influence; but there is no hard-and-fast line for all women, any more than there is for all men. All women are not fitted alike to be the centre and the reigning spirit of a quiet family group or social circle. All women who are asked in marriage, and who choose to accept the offer, can become wives, and may become mothers, and be surrounded by friends' children and children's friends, and that has seemed to satisfy society up to the present time. Those who have not been asked in marriage, or have not chosen to accept the offer, have generally been looked upon as more or less failures; but no one seems to observe that not by any means all those who have accepted the responsibilities of married life are successes. Indeed, in our estimation, this is very far from being the case. How many cannot each one of us point out, among our own circle of acquaintances, who, as wives, mothers, and mistresses of servants, are failures; not even failing alone, but involving other in their failures! In saying this, we are putting entirely out of the question all those women who have made marriages of convenience, - who have married for position, title, houses, and carriages; these, speaking roughly, deserve to fail. It may be said that women, now-a-days, are free, as a rule, to marry or to remain single as they please; that very little restraint is put upon them in that respect; and it is quite true, as far as direct restraint goes; but a very great pressure of indirect restraint is still put upon women, by public opinion, to force them into the old groove, and the more delicate-minded and sensitive a woman is, the more strongly, though unconsciously, the aversion to being anything which would render her conspicuous acts upon her, unless some very strong and decided bent, fostered by circumstances, counteracts this influence, and helps her to take up an independent position. Life, to many women, offers nothing but monotony apart from marriage, and they are unduly ready to feel prejudiced in favour of the man who shows a way of escape from this monotony, and many apparent love-marriages are made, where the real love is given to the hope of a larger, fuller life; which hope is too often delusive in the end, if the woman, through ignorance, has mistaken her longing and aspiration for better things, for love for the man who seems to bring them. No alteration in public opinion could prevent all such mistakes; but it could very much lessen the number of them by removing the artificial barrier between women and their own best natures. It is, and always will be, sad when those natures point to other careers than marriage; for women cannot - as men can - adopt with success professions in which their intellects are satisfied, and at the same time live in homes where their hearts must overrule their heads; and thus a lady, successful in her profession, and exerting - to her own satisfaction -- her intellectual capacities in youth and middle life, must not hope to be the mother surrounded by devoted children in her old age; but it is better to be more or less sad and yet to live up to the best that is in you, than to choose what is only best in the abstract, and for which you are not fitted, and then fail altogether.
All this Miss Jewett brings out most admirably in this one short volume. Nan is an orphan, the ward of a delightful country doctor, with whom she grows up; driving by his side - or rather, driving him - through the country roads surrounding the New England village where his lot is cast, and taking in ardently the stray remarks which he makes now and then to his child-companion, upon herbs and surgery, health and disease; till, unconsciously, she imbibes an intense interest in the healing art, and develops a longing to be of like service to her fellow-creatures; and she astonishes her guardian one day, by binding up the broken leg of a chicken, and nursing the little bird back to health with consummate skill. This achievement awakens in him dreams of future greatness for her, and from that time the doctor's mind is much occupied with thoughts of the future of his ward, to whom he is greatly attached. He considers carefully her keen intellect and ardent temperament, her inherited virtues and vices - her mother's mother's family having been stern, reasonable, reliable people, capable of much endurance and much achievement by hard work; and her mother's father's family having been wild and ungovernable, and somewhat addicted to drink (a tendency which had ruined Nan's young mother) - and he sees in Nan a blending of the good in both, but also a decided craving for a stirring life. He decides that if she shows any leaning toward a professional life, which will use up the energy that, unused, might become dangerous, he shall interpose nothing to the following-out of whatever career she may prefer; but that he shall in no way do or suggest anything which might shut Nan out from the joys of a home and family, - which joys were his for a short time in this early years, and the memory of which was intensely dear to him. Accordingly, when Nan's schooldays are over, a short period of sixes-and-sevens ensues, during which she wanders aimlessly about, trying to solve the problem of whether "life is worth living," and wondering why she is here at all; till, at last, the light breaks upon her, and she tells her guardian - with lips trembling and eyes downcast at the audacity of the longing which fills her heart - that she wants to become a doctor. Thus, with Dr. Leslie's warm approval, Nan enters the paths of that learned profession, and presses forward with great success and intense pleasure through six years of study. But a moment comes when Nan, with a stunned and awestruck sensation, finds herself on the verge of returning the affection of a young man who is her superior in worldly position - handsome, good, and attractive. She recognizes the fact of what is about to happen, but she knows that in her heart of hearts she should be infinitely thankful if, in some way, this great temptation might be removed from her. She looks back upon the hours devoted to medicine, considers the wasted life of her ardent young mother - to whom the ties of home duties had proved no hindrance to ruin - regards the quiet family circles around her, and deciding that the sacred life of wife and mother is not for her, turns away from it bravely, and throws herself with heart and soul into the sphere for which she has so eagerly and so happily been fitting herself. And we, for our own part - assuming, of course, that she has judged herself accurately - applaud her decision. There are, no doubt, unions which would open to women as widespread a field of usefulness as the heart most deeply imbued with the "enthusiasm of humanity" could desire, and which would satisfy the most exigeant craver for a life of intellectual activity; but such opportunities are not offered to the acceptance of many, and such probably was not the sphere which marriage with George Gerry would have opened to Nan.
Apart from the interest in Nan's career, there is much that is delightful in A Country Doctor, though we confess that, after the first two chapters, the story travels for some distance somewhat slowly. The opening scenes - where the excellent Dyer family, with their quaint conversation and their neighbourly acts, are introduced - are very good and most amusing. We only regret that the Dyers, Jake and Martin (twin brothers), and their wives, and sour Mrs. Meeker - who delights in telling bad news, and never loses an opportunity of witnessing distress - are so soon eclipsed by other characters. Nan's visit to her "high relations" at the sleepy old seaport of Dunport, where she meets her lover, is most pleasantly described. Dr. Leslie's old servant, Marilla, "who did not hear the doctor and his guest tramp up to bed until late, and though she had tried to keep awake, had been obliged to take a nap first, and then wake up again to get the benefit of such an aggravating occasion," is a capital character. We confess that we do not see much point in the introduction of the doctor's old friend, Dr. Ferris, except as an opportunity for our doctor to air his views. One remark of each doctor we wish to quote, in order that we may express our complete disagreement with it; but we do so with respect, as the tone of the whole book is of a deep, though unobtrusive, religious character, recognising to the full, our high duties towards one another and towards God. "The gift of intuition reaches directly towards the truth," says Dr. Ferris, quoting Buckle on the feminine intellect, "and it is only reasoning by deduction that can take flight into the upper air of life and certainty!" "Yes," responds Dr. Leslie, "and I have believed that the powers of Christ were but the higher powers of our common humanity. We recognize them dimly now and then, but few of us dare to say so yet. The world moves very slowly, doesn't it? If Christ were perfect man, he could hardly tell us to follow him and be like him, and yet know all the while that it was quite impossible, because a difference in his gifts made his character an unapproachable one to ours." Here is preached, we suppose, the doctrine of Christ as a good man, and a stimulating example. And first of all, let us ask, - Has any one yet come up to his standard, even the best of us, or even approached to it? We imagine not; but then, why not? Secondly, Christ, as a moral leader and as an attainable standard, is only a blessing to the successful - to the strong who can look back upon their lives and see no false steps that have led others astray, and can feel that they, like Christ, "have come not to be ministered unto, but to minister." But how about the sinful - the failures of this world - who can only look back upon their lives to find that they have made grievous mistakes and involved others in their errors, and been a burden upon those whom they most wished to benefit? To them we think that Christ the Divine - the supplement of our feeble natures, the great Righter of wrongs - will be a more acceptable, a more restoring image, than Christ the good man and the edifying Example.
from "Old St. John's Parish, Portsmouth," The New England Magazine 17:3 (November 1894), 321-338.
by Franklin Ware Davis
[This passage (pp. 331-2) follows Davis's description of the fire of Christmas Eve 1806 that destroyed the church. Davis has selected without ellipses and repunctuated the quotation from A Country Doctor (1884).]
The parish at once set itself at work to build a new church. Trinity Church, Boston, contributed $1,000 to this end. Several wealthy people of Portsmouth assisted, and almost in another year the present St. John's Church was standing on the site of Old Queen's Chapel.
A queer incident occurred when the church was building, an old horse and his owner being the principal parties concerned, as the perpetrators of the joke were not discovered. "Shepherd" Ham, as he was popularly called, had not a good name for sheltering his live-stock. One night a horse strayed out of the ramshackle old structure which he called a barn; and the next morning he was found high up on the steeple side, close by the bell deck, patiently awaiting the coming of help. The animal had been raised by the little elevator used to carry up material to the workmen.
St. John's Church has many pleasant memories for those who have once lived in Portsmouth or been often within its shadow. Sarah Orne Jewett, in her tale of New England life, "The Country Doctor," describes the quaint building. Her heroine, on her visit to Dunport, as she calls it, is made to attend service there. On a pleasant Sunday morning "Miss Nancy turned up a narrow side street toward a high-walled brick church, and presently they walked side by side up the broad aisle, so far that it seemed to Nan as if her aunt were aiming for the chancel itself, and had some public ceremony in view, of a penitential nature. Nan had taken the seat next the pew door, and was looking about her with great interest, forgetting herself and her aunt as she wondered that so dear and quaint a place of worship should still be left in her iconoclastic native country. She had seen nothing even in Boston like this, there were so many antique splendors about the chancel, and many mural tablets on the walls, where she read with sudden delight her own family name. The dear old place! Nan stole a look at the galleries now and then, and at one time was pleased with the sight of the red-cheeked cherubs, which seemed to have been caught like clumsy insects and pinned as a sort of tawdry decoration above the tablets, where the Apostle's Creed and Ten Commandments were printed in faded gilt letters. The letter 's' was long in these copies, and the capitals were of an almost forgotten pattern."
Edited by Terry Heller, Coe College.
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