Last week saw Season Two of BBC’s showpiece Sunday-night drama Poldark come to a close. After a (relatively) upbeat Season One, this had been a much darker affair, with Francis Poldark tragically drowning in Wheal Grace (all the more painful after he’d hallucinated being saved); the same mine collapsing inwards, killing several of its diligent workers; and the show’s hero – the eponymous Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner) – degenerating into arrogance and self-entitlement, more wretched than remorseful after his sexual misconduct with Elizabeth. (More coverage on that problematic plot development here.) Thankfully we had the brilliant Demelza on hand, ready to deliver a particularly satisfying sucker punch in retaliation and to rail against her husband’s double standards. It’s a pity her attempted rebound plan went awry – this season both she and Elizabeth had to contend with a bevy of sexually entitled men, from Ross to George Warleggan and his right-hand man Tankard, to the slippery Captain MacNeil and the ageing lothario Sir Hugh Bodrugan.
Aside from the ever-humorous exchanges between Ross’s long-time servants Jud and Prudie (and the curiously charming friendship that unfolded between her and her mistress, Demelza), there wasn’t much light relief or distraction throughout the whole damn series. Except for the beautifully tender/ sometimes painful love affair between Ross’s long-time chum, the dashing Doctor Enys (Dwight Norris), and glamorous newcomer Caroline Penvenen (Gabriella Wilde), a formidable, flirtatious socialite and heiress.
In my research on Victorian medical practitioners, one theme that has repeatedly cropped up in both popular culture and medical writing is the medical man’s marital prospects. It was often seen as desirable or even necessary for doctors to marry. For example, in Anthony Trollope’s Doctor Thorne (1858), the narrator comments : “Ladies think, and I, for one, think that ladies are quite right in so thinking, that doctors should be married men”. A family man was regarded as a good family doctor. By 1864, Eliza Lynn Linton’s short story “The Young Village Doctor” was already parodying the way in which the rising practitioner was regarded as an eligible match. Yet commentators were also aware of the difficulties facing medical men who wished to find a life-long partner and helpmate. Did they have the means to support a wife? Would the object of their affections acclimatise to a practitioner’s lifestyle?
Given the way in which this topic features in my work, I couldn’t help but be fascinated by Poldark’s portrayal of both Dr Enys and his romantic affairs. Though the story is set in the late eighteenth century, many of the issues surrounding Dwight’s professional identity and personal attachments resonate with my own findings about Victorian medical men.
Across seasons one and two, Dr Enys has firmly remained on the side of ‘the good’. While quarrelling cousins Ross and Francis waver between moral integrity and turpitude, and new money banker George descends ever further into anti-hero territory (with a few glimmers of sympathy along the way), Dwight remains pretty stalwart – someone morally upstanding, on whom Ross can rely. Of course, the character is no saint – in Season One he had a brief but ill-fated affair with Keren Daniels, the wife of miner Mark. It sparked the cuckolded husband to confront his young wife, and he inadvertently killed her in a bitter and confused struggle. While I found everyone’s sympathy towards wife-murdering Mark downright problematic, Dwight’s self-recriminations throughout the series have firmly cemented his good-guy status in the increasingly murky world of eighteenth-century Cornwall.
As a doctor, he shows impressive commitment towards attending the poor. His title indicates that he has received a full university medical education, which was relatively uncommon among most practitioners in this period. Oxford and Cambridge were the only degree-awarding medical schools in England and between 1751-1800 they graduated as few as 246 men in medicine. More popular were medical degrees from the Scottish universities; in the same period, 2,600 students graduated from Glasgow and Edinburgh. The majority of medical men – the vast body of surgeons and apothecaries (or surgeon-apothecaries) – would have trained through apprenticeships, by walking the wards of hospitals (perhaps supplemented by private anatomy lessons) or working alongside an older, more established man in private practice. University-educated physicians were considered of a higher social and professional status, hence Dwight’s assurance to Caroline’s uncle Ray that – despite his relatively meagre means compared with a wealthy heiress – he is, no doubt, a gentleman.
His education and social status could have granted Dwight access to a more remunerative clientele – thus Caroline is surprised he isn’t willing to start afresh with her and set up a private practice near Bath. But his decision to work primarily among the Cornish miners and their families – few of whom would have been able to pay his wages – is instead presented as one of his most admirable qualities. In encounters with patients from the local community, he is repeatedly shown to be earnest and compassionate in his attention. When he does attend the wealthy (such as the Penvenens or the Poldarks) he avoids any of the more obsequious behaviour associated with his nearest rival, the old school Dr Choake, who quaffs patient’s urine. Dwight also demonstrates that, despite his less illustrious practice, he nevertheless has superior powers of diagnosis compared with his older counterpart.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that Dwight also exhibits a streak of pride now and then. At their first encounter, the spoiled Caroline initially rustles Dwight’s feathers by asking him to attend her beloved pet dog, who is ailing. A similar request is made of the protagonist in Samuel Warren’s (fictional) series Passages from the Diary of a Late Physician (published in Blackwood’s, 1832-8). However, whereas this character experiences the consultation as an affront and humiliation – one of a series of indignities facing the young man setting up in practice – for Dwight it’s the unexpected opener to a cross-class romance. He later bristles against Ray’s suggestion that he is an unsuitable match for Caroline, since he feels his honour and integrity are being called into question.
Between his gentlemanly status and impoverished practice, Dwight has a liminal status in the social landscape of Poldark Country – interestingly, the PBS website for the show even lists him as one of the working-class characters. His work brings him into the orbit of a wide range of people, hence his love affairs with the impoverished miner’s wife Keren and the wealthy heiress Caroline. Both women exploit his position, fabricating (or prolonging) ill health as an excuse for an encounter with the handsome young doctor. Were Dwight to abuse his position in this way, it’d be decidedly uncomfortable. In Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders (1887), the unscrupulous Dr Fitzpiers uses his position as a medical man to give him a ready excuse or alibi for his affairs. When his fiancé, Grace Melbury, spies his lover Suke Damson leaving his rooms early one morning, he pretends she was simply an anonymous patient, visiting with an aching tooth. In contrast, upright medical men would be much more anxious about accusations of misconduct – I’ve found several articles in the Victorian medical press warning readers to be cautious about spending too long with female patients, or visiting them too frequently.
Dwight’s sense of obligation towards his patients and the local community becomes a major obstacle to his romantic prospects. Nowhere is this better illustrated than when he misses his chance to elope with Caroline, torn away by other duties. First he is called to attend one of his regular patients, the young village girl Rosina, who suffers a perpetually frail knee (and a spot of love-sickness for her dashing young doctor too). It’s during this visit that the ever-alert Dwight picks up on comments that enable him to identify the mystery informer (Charlie), who had been scuppering the smuggling ring Ross was involved with. Equally loyal to friends and patients, Dwight forsakes his assignation with Caroline to thwart the informer. It’s hardly a surprise then that the petulant heiress resents his attachment to the local people. Throughout the series, she fears that he sees leaving them as an act of abandonment or betrayal, and she attempts to spurn him for good. By the time they’re finally united at the end of Season Two – sharing an improbably romantic kiss in a grimy pub – Dwight has already signed on as a Navy surgeon for the British efforts in the French Revolutionary Wars. It’s a decision that once again seems to signal his heroic impulse, but also his naivety and self-doubt.
By turns, Dwight seems to be both the archetypal romantic suitor (destined for an eligible match), but also an outsider when it comes to affairs of the heart. I’ve recently been re-reading Tabitha Sparks’s The Doctor in the Victorian Novel (2009), which seems particularly apt regarding my analysis of Dwight. Sparks explores the extent to which the doctor-figure is integrated into the marriage plot of Victorian fiction, using this to chart the “evolution and disintegration” of the realist genre. She feels that the “empirical mindset” the doctor represents poses major problems to his being successfully incorporated into the “central imaginative structure” of nineteenth-century fiction. In Poldark, it is not so much Dwight’s scientific way of thinking that places him at odds with the marriage plot (medicine is, after all, still fairly pre-scientific in this period) but his fraught socio-economic status which is (in part, at least) determined by his keen social conscience and convictions, his desire to help the poor.
While Dwight doubts his own suitability for married life, it is hardly surprising that many of the characters wonder how well Caroline would fare as doctor’s wife. Fiction is awash with medical practitioners who make decidedly ill-judged matches. In Elizabeth Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters (1866), Mr Gibson marries Mrs Kirkpatrick, a governess and clergyman’s widow, who finds herself dissatisfied by his hectic practice (think long days, night calls) and eavesdrops on his confidential conversations. Rosamond Vincy and Tertias Lydgate in George Eliot’s Middlemarch (1871-2) make up perhaps one of the most infamously ill-suited couples in Victorian fiction. Her material demands push him towards forsaking his own medical ambitions in order to pursue fashionable practice instead. Meanwhile, the country doctors in Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856) and Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife (1864) make even more dangerous alliances, marrying women who are so bored by the prosaic lives led by their husbands that they fantasize about more exciting suitors instead. Across these texts, we encounter uninterested wives who seem to have misjudged the lifestyle and social standing that come with marriage to a country practitioner.
In popular culture, it is humble and resourceful women who make the best doctors’ wives. For instance, in Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-3), Esther Summerson admires the young surgeon Allan Woodcourt’s diligence and feelings of duty towards the poor from the outset. After their marriage she is unconcerned by his lack of material prospects, instead deriving comfort and contentment from the fact he is well liked by his patients. From correspondence in the medical press, it is also clear that real-life doctors’ wives were sometimes involved in the day-to-day running of their husband’s practice.
What kind of doctor’s wife would Poldark’s Caroline be? One can’t help but think that the glamorous socialite (used to moving in an elevated social sphere) might find marriage to a country GP tiresome – already she seems to have her eye on nudging him towards something more illustrious and lucrative instead. If distinctly more middle-class female characters aren’t satisfied with the lifestyle of a doctor’s wife, would Caroline be? At times, she seems even contemptuous of Dwight’s commitment to his patients. However, as her vulnerability begins to show, it becomes clear she’s envious of his other attachments. Moreover, at other times she seems proud of his role in the community, as when she sends oranges to help him relieve those stricken with scurvy – a particularly telling moment that anticipates her later generosity towards Ross. Indeed, her interest in Ross and Demelza – with whom she has a fairly passing acquaintance – suggests that she might have some more humane instincts beneath her mischievous exterior. As Season Two developed, Caroline revealed herself to be both playful and heartfelt, confident and vulnerable – perhaps she might learn to surprise herself in the role of doctor’s wife.
With Season Two drawn to a close, Dwight has set off for war, leaving Caroline to await his return. The teaser for Season Three (set to air next year) contains blink-and-you’ll-miss-it clips of her looking anxious, and him in full-on military mode. Only time will tell whether his duty towards his new patients in the Navy (and his country) will hamper his marital prospects.
Bonner, Thomas Neville, Becoming a Physician: Medical Education in Great Britain, France, Germany, and the United States, 1750-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995).
Sparks, Tabitha, The Doctor in the Victorian Novel: Family Practices (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).