A Country Doctor
by Sarah Orne Jewett
1884 / 304 pages
read by Kate Reading 7h 58m
rating – / US classic
(read and listened)
Sarah Orne Jewett is one of America’s rather neglected classic authors. Written in 1884, A Country Doctor was her fourth novel. The 19th Century Reading Group is taking a slow time with it (as is usual there, and delightful) so I read it in chunks to keep the pace. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything by Jewett before although I’ve certainly heard of her – I’ve read some of her contemporaries – Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, Charlotte Wilkins Perkins, maybe others.
Chunk 1 – Chapters 1-12 (because I’m already a week behind)
Chapter 1 “The Last Mile”
A young woman with a baby struggles through the snow toward a light she sees at a farmhouse. She’s passed a cemetery and her baby is crying. It’s rather scary – she feels like there are ghosts chasing her. She just barely manages to get to the house and drops the baby from exhaustion – then she collapses and lays still.
Chapter 2 “The Farm-House Kitchen”
The woman inside, Mrs Thatcher, is having a little chat with her neighbors, Mrs Jacob Dyer and Mrs Martin Dyer because they thought she might be lonely. Mrs Thatcher’s daughter is grown and gone away – just leaving her mother alone. The women feel a bit spooked by something – one of the visitors relates a story about Billy who had seen ghostly stuff recently but it was a funny story. They reminisce about the olden days before stoves. Thanksgiving (official in 1864) – they snack – lots of social history here. And because of the continuing fears of the women it feels a bit like Jewett is setting up a ghost story. They hear one noise at the door and then no one answers to “Who is there?” so Mrs Thatcher opens it.
Chapter 3 “At Jake and Martin’s”
At Jake and Martin’s – twins and husbands of the women visiting Mrs Thatcher. The children are grown and gone except for one older girl at home – out with her “lover.” Martin left home briefly long ago but returned and farmed with his twin, Jake. The two are very close. They figure their wives went to Thatcher’s to find out about Adeline being home for Thanksgiving.
Chapter 4 “Life and Death”
The woman with the baby at the door was indeed Adelaide, Mrs Thatcher’s daughter who had left and married someone well to do materially, but rather unworthy in other respects. A doctor was called for and he reassures all – but Adelaide died during the night.
In the morning the doc returned but so did Mrs Meeker, an unlikeable neighbor. The baby woke up and was “adopted” by now Grandma Thatcher with the doctor as guardian.
Chapter 5 “A Sunday Visit”
Years pass and the baby, now “Nan Prince” stays with her grandmother. The doctor invites her to his house – she finds out she has an unknown aunt from the housekeeper, Marilla Thomas – whom I don’t quite trust anyway. – Lots of detail about the doctor’s house and the Massachusetts countryside.
Nan of course is growing up to be the ideal heroine – intelligent, brave, kind and with a secret in her past. She’s got great role models in the doctor, her grandmother, church services, even Marilla. The countryside is a wonderland of beauty.
Chapter 6 – “In Summer Weather”
Doctor Leslie is finally named. He has to go see an old sailor named Captain Finch. Passes Mrs Meeker’s house and she gossips with him – suggests that Nan be brought up to be a doctor.
Mrs Thatcher is getting really old and can’t quite keep up with Nan who is into everything. And Nan starts inventing things and playing up to the idea she has rich relatives somewhere – asks questions but Mrs Thatcher won’t answer. Nan develops all the good qualities of all of her ancestors.
It seemed, too, as if she could do whatever she undertook, and as if she had a power which made her able to use and unite the best traits of her ancestors, the strong capabilities which had been unbalanced or allowed to run to waste in others. It might be said that the materials for a fine specimen of humanity accumulate through several generations, until a child appears who is the heir of all the family wit and attractiveness and common sense, just as one person may inherit the worldly wealth of his ancestry.
Jewett, Sarah Orne (2008-06-24). A Country Doctor (Bantam Classic) (p. 30). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Jewett, Sarah Orne (2008-06-24). A Country Doctor (Bantam Classic) (p. 30). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Chapter 7 “For the Years to Come ”
Mrs Thatcher complains (realistically) to Doctor Leslie – the Doctor is willing to take Nan in. But the doctor is also getting on in years and Marilla is, too.
Chapter 8 – “A Great Change”
Nan is having to help more and more – wants to show her grandmother how well she can work. But Mrs Thatcher gets weaker. Finally one day she dies and Nan goes to the home of Doctor Leslie. Nan learns to read and is sent to school more often. Her money from an aunt on her father’s side collects in the bank – Nan is aware of it but apparently doesn’t think about it. Marilla comes to enjoy Nan’s company – The doctor takes Nan out of school and she helps him and reads on her own. She says she wants to be a doctor when she grows up.
Chapter 9 “At Doctor Leslie’s”
Doctor Leslie goes to his study when a visitor, an old college friend, arrives. Marilla is upset because they want dinner and she likes to go to church on Friday evenings but she gets something ready and leaves – the doctor has to supplement it. Nan is excited by a guest and he stays very late. The next morning the two friends continue to talk. The talk turns to Nan and it seems the friend remembers the girl’s father – a doctor who died young. The friend tells the rather tragic story of Nan’s parents – The friend’s name is Ferris.
Much of Chapter 9 is about ancestry and the limits of man’s knowledge and philosophizing on the part of Doctor Ferris.
It seems to me that up to seven or eight years of age children are simply bundles of inheritances, and I can see the traits of one ancestor after another; but a little later than the usual time she began to assert her own individuality, and has grown capitally well in mind and body ever since.
Jewett, Sarah Orne (2008-06-24). A Country Doctor (Bantam Classic) (p. 44). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
But Ferris encourages Dr Leslie to encourage Nan. Also a lot of feminist type talk about women have a higher “intellect” – also about Christ
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 aw difference in his gifs made his character an unapproachable one to ours.” (loc 1437)
This is one heck of a chapter and I think these may be Jewett’s own thoughts – needs a reread.
Chapter 10 – “Across the Street”
Dr Leslie goes to visit his friend Mrs Graham across town. There seems to be a special friendship between the two but she gives him advice about her upbringing – she needs manners and fashion and a good school. She believes in aiming toward the best – Nan is of a different “sort.” (I take that to mean more potential – smarter, generally.) Mrs Graham is excited by that – but marriage? – if she needs to live alone in order to do her work, so be it. Not housework. He has the money Nan’s aunt has sent – explains. Doctor says he thinks Nan has “good inheritances.” He leaves feeling better – and wants to make Nan’s life successful. (But the reader knows she will have troubles – )
Chapter 11 “New Outlooks”
“Conformity is the inspiration of much second-rate virtue.” (loc 1805)
So the town of Oldfield smiled and frowned on the doctor’s plans. Nan visits with Mrs Graham and the she goes to school in Boston.
Chapter 12 “Against the Wind”
Nan grows up more – Nan is home for vacations and drives the doctor around and sometimes brings friends. She rearranges the parlor at the doctor’s house – taking a wee bit of power away from Marilla. She visits the old school but she’s not like the others but she’s outgrown them. She seeks usefulness but not marriage – unlike some of her friends. She’s adrift and the doctor knows it.
She finishes school and now really doesn’t know what to do – she wants training and employment – to be of use in the world – she thinks doctor Leslie has forgot – she goes to the old farm and realizes she really wants to be a doctor. But how to tell anyone.
She finally says something to Doctor Leslie and he’s delighted. She goes with him the next day but she seems to be having second thoughts – he kind of has to talk her into following her dream (to put it in more modern words).
Chapter 13 “A Straight Course”
Nan has decided and now for two years was quietly waiting and studying, thinking about her desire to be a “good” doctor.
“ … every student of medicine should be fitted by nature with a power of insight, a gift for his business, for knowing what is the right thing to do, and the right time and way to do it; must have this God-given power in his own nature of using and discovering the resources of medicine without constant reliance upon the books or the fashion.” (p. 79)
And the time comes for her to leave – and Doctor Leslie thinks about opening an office in the city. Nan is not happy with the prospect of going to an inferior school but remembers the women who have gone before her. They take the train to the city, the doctor checks it out and they separate.
Chapter 14 – “Miss Prince of Dunport”
Miss Prince (Nan’s father’s sister – and named “Nancy”) lives alone in the big old house in Dunport. She’s very lonely due to early heartache but she has a sort of nephew out of it. And she’s sad about her brother’s marriage and that wife’s strange behavior, but there was nothing she could do about the child growing up far away. She sends money secretly and carries on. She thinks about her will. An old distinguished colonial family. She does care for a couple of teenage girls – daughters of the cook (Priscilla?) – And she has a friend, Miss Farley, who also lives alone and envies Miss Prince her freedom.
A feeling of foreboding – but remembering her father, her hero – and Jack, her brother who was married to Nan I guess. There had been a serious spat between the two men. Another friend arrives, Captain Walter Parish – who gives her a letter from Jack’s daughter – Nan very respectfully wants to visit her aunt.
Miss Prince will do it but does not want it known in town. It’s too late. Parish leaves and Miss Parish writes in return. – but there was no warmth in the reply and Nan is disappointed.
Chapter 15 – “Hostess and Guest”
Although they were both nervous they completely enjoy the meeting and Miss Prince is happily surprised by how self-posessed she is. “Blood will tell” – But Nan is not at all ashamed of her mother’s people. Miss Prince shares pictures – she looks like her father. Miss Prince is proud of the ancestors. Outside someone speaks of ghosts and Nan feels like a stranger.
They go to church (Episcopal) and Nan feels totally at home -wishes the doctor were here. But George Gerry is there – Miss Prince’s favorite young man, her old lover’s son.
Chapter 16 – “A June Sunday”
Nap-time – Nan thinks – wonders at the distance between them for so long. Captain Parish comes over and he and Nan get along nicely. George arrives – George is a lawyer looking into a shipping case – a collision. George wants Parish to examine the ship.
Nan has a new friend in George. Miss Prince thinks of writing to the doctor and discussing plans for Nan. Then she daydreams about the possibility of their getting married. – George seems a bit smitten. But Nan explains about her plans. Miss Parish is shocked and so is George but he hides it.
“The tide was strong against our heroine, but she had been assailed before, and had no idea of sorrowing yet over a lost cause.”
Chapter 17 “By the River”
She goes on an outing with George and the captain and two girls join them and then an older sailor who knows the captain and even Nan’s grandfather – Jack Prince. She talks about her plans but they don’t believe she knows better – she’s from the country / provincial. Jack is to be Miss Prince’s heir but now? – Nan reassures him – doesn’t need Miss Prince’s property.
She kind of wants to go back to Oldfields where the social pressures weren’t so complicated. She got back to relaxing on a smaller boat. She enjoys Mary Parish and the day. George and Nan are sent for water when Nan remembers about Mary’s possible interest in George – She didn’t tell her the plans. George tells her he feel stifled in Dunsport. The farmer at the house has dislocated his shoulder – Nan naturally takes charge and fixes it. George wishes he had been the one to do the doctoring. They get back to the boat and don’t say anything about the doctoring. She has Mary takes George’s arm saying she knew it was them outside the window talking about ghosts.
Themes – From an historical point of view we have the interest in “bundles of inheritances”
Themes addressed in A Country Doctor include the difficulty of meshing together the past and the future. The role of women in society, the eschewing of traditional roles and gender conventions, and whether or not it is possible for a woman to choose both a family and a career is also brought up as a theme in the novel. There is also reference within the book to the idea that “all people, regardless of sex, receive individual vocational calls”.