The Medical Woman in Victorian Fiction and Her Service to the Empire

Jessica Kirwan //

At the end of the nineteenth century, the medical woman was simultaneously progressive and traditional. As one of the first women professionals she helped elevate the importance of women to healthcare, and her distinctly feminine qualities helped her save lives. Perhaps most importantly, however, she helped promote the British Empire.

The last decade of the nineteenth century saw a surge in literature both about and by women doctors both in England and the United States. Over the last two decades, scholars have examined literary representations of medical women in fiction and memoirs by medical women throughout the British Empire. Recently, some scholars have found value in revisiting the 1897 novel Peace with Honour by Sydney Grier, which I recently wrote about, both for its feminist and its imperialist implications. As it turns out, fiction about medical women reflected British anxieties about the New Woman, including anxieties about ways to express femininity and masculinity and the New Woman’s place in the Empire. Interestingly, there are only a handful of novels whose heroines practice their profession in the colonies. It is these novels that  contribute to our understandings of of race and sexuality as well as their regulation.

British Empire map illustration
Imperial Federation: Map Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886. Lithograph first published by Maclure & Co. as a supplement to The Graphic, 24 July 1886.

In her 2005 book Medical Women and the Victorian Novel, Kristine Swenson described the woman doctor as the New Woman personified: “medical-women fiction portrays the female doctor as the exemplar of the New Woman, the representative of her sex most at home with the forces of modernity infiltrating Victorian culture” (93).  Since Peace with Honour is unique in the medical-woman genre in that it takes place in the colonies, Swenson takes a close look to examine the connection between imperial Victorian fiction, feminism, and medicine. She suggests that the “ultimate success” of Grier’s woman physician is that she “depended upon the empire” (161). Swenson describes the novel’s protagonist, Dr. Georgia Keeling, as a powerful New Woman figure whose intellectual and moral strengths become all the more evident against the incompetency of the native population. For Grier, anxiety about women doctors towards presented an opportunity to reaffirm British superiority.

In the essay, “Fictional Medical Women and Moral Therapy in the Late-Nineteenth Century: Daughters of Aesculapius, Mothers to All,” published in 2011, Carol-Ann Farkas analyzes popular stereotypes of British women doctors and their role in the colonies. By looking at the socioeconomic and religious beliefs of the small group of women who led the movement for medical education for women, Farkas describes the gender stereotypes of women doctors as they were portrayed in popular Victorian media to show how these women believed a medical profession was in service to a woman’s role as a mother and wife, and in service to the nation. Whether fictional or real, missionary women doctors in the Victorian era were at the crux of complex scientific and moral debates. Farkas’s reading of the literature this movement produced, and Peace with Honour specifically, is in keeping with Swenson’s evaluations of literature about women doctors in the colonies:

It is clear that Peace with Honour is not so concerned with the attitudes of the colonized people as it is with the behavior of the colonizers; in particular, the novel defies the limited and conventional view of women then current in British society and works to promote the value of female medical professionalism in the service of Western cultural expansion…Despite the magnitude of the struggle for respect and recognition for medical women at home, Georgia demonstrates that the “strong-minded” and highly trained colonial woman can comfortably equal her male medical counterparts. Through a combination of professional training, womanly sympathy, and maternal leadership, the medical woman abroad has the power not just to cure, but also to convert untold numbers to British spiritual and cultural dominion (150).

For Swenson and Farkas, Georgia Keeling’s success as a New Woman is expressed through an imperialist agenda that ultimately undercuts the feminist one. Time and again in the novel, Georgia and her English colleagues out-smart the “less civilized” Ethiopians. Furthermore, the native customs Georgia is exposed to, her experience among the women of the king’s secluded harem, and her relationship with her patient Nur Jahan (the daughter of a British man and native woman who is also the wife of an Ethiopian prince) especially, allow Georgia to realize the advantages of British marriage customs. Georgia also comes to find that the limitations marriage has traditionally placed on British women are trivial compared to those encountered by women in the East. She agrees to marry her long-time love interest, Dick, which will not limit her professional opportunities and may, in fact, contribute to them.  As Swenson says, Grier’s text ultimately “undercuts its own cross-cultural critique of marriage that unites Eastern and Western women against male dominance” (189).

The Harem John Frederick Lewis
The Harem by John Frederick Lewis (1876), oil on mahogany panel, 91.1 x 114cm. Collection: Birmingham Museums. https://artsandculture.google.com/asset/the-harem/PgHzJq6pzxFucw

Through this novel, Grier addressed negative stereotypes of the New Woman circulating in British media at the end of the 19th century. The threat that the power-seeking New Woman would wind up in a harem was one specifically suggested by Ouida in her  1894 essay in North American Review titled simply “The New Woman”: “It is this overweening and unreasonable grasping at both positions which will end in making her odious to man and in her being probably kicked back roughly by him into the seclusion of a harem” (612). As Iveta Jusova has pointed out, “critics…dismissed [the] New Woman…as endangering the place of the ‘English race’ at the top of the evolutionary pyramid and thus also endangering the future of the British Empire” (13). Grier’s character Georgia indirectly addresses this anxiety when she resists having to wear a burka while traveling through Ethiopia. Although she initially felt it degrading, however, Georgia is convinced by Lady Haigh to wear one when she leaves their British compound. And as Farkas points out,

Although Lady Haigh says she wears a burka for the safety of the mission, Georgia is only persuaded to wear a burka by Lady Haigh’s sincere invocation of stereotypes: Georgia is told that she must hide her irresistible, white, attractions to avoid risking her safety and that of the mission, by provoking a diplomatic incident should the local ruler notice her and become overwhelmed by savage desires (Farkas 148).

Farkas overlooks that because Georgia can freely go out in a burka she can attend to her patients, thereby allowing her to pursue her profession. In comparison, her patients in the harem need not wear a burka because they live in seclusion and appear to have no ambition to go in public. Hence, the symbolic duality of the burka in allowing her to “pass,” in a sense, and practice her profession is liberating and unique to her. Throughout the novel, the power of racial transformation is only afforded to the British characters. And the novel ends with a sense of hopelessness for the Ethiopian women Georgia has befriended except in that she decides to  settle with Dick in Ethiopia, where she will continue her missionary work, and continue treating patients, bringing them sight as she did for the Queen.

As a British subject, the New Woman doctor held a unique role in growing the Empire by spreading Western scientific, religious, and moral ideas. For the fictional medical woman, marriage and empire could mutually provide the opportunity to develop one’s profession.

References

Farkas, Carol-Ann. “Fictional Medical Women and Moral Therapy in the Late-Nineteenth Century: Daughters of Aesculapius, Mothers to All.” English Literature in Transition 1880-1920, vol. 54, no. 2, 2011, pp. 139-164.

Grier, Sydney C. Peace with Honour, William Blackwood and Sons, 1897.

Jusova, Iveta. The New Woman and the Empire, The Ohio State University Press, 2005.

Ouida (Marie Louise de la Ramée). “The New Woman.” North American Review, vol. 158; 1894, pp. 610-615.

Swenson, Kristine. Medical Women and the Victorian Novel. University of Missouri Press. Columbia and London. 2005.

 

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