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The Encircled Heart: Josephine Elder, Girls Gone By, 2012 reprint. (First published 1951)

Two words from the same root came to mind as I started reading this book: absorbed and absorbing. Dr Marion Blake is a GP in the 1930s, absorbed in her work and in her patients. Early on in the book, her part in helping ease a woman through the end of a long labour establishes a sense of her competence. The tang of authenticity about the medical science and attitudes of the time is real.

Her work as a GP is an absorbing read, too. Despite being very much of its time, this a story about a modern conflict for many women with the introduction of the character of Paul Shepherd into Marion’s life. With a strong tendency to live in the moment, Marion is perhaps the last to realise it, but this academic doctor is in love with her and proposes. Marion doesn’t see why she should have to give up her practice, although she understands her life will change somewhat, of course, while he, an only son who has rarely been thwarted, employed in an environment where wives are expected to be a certain sort, does not take well to sharing his wife with her patients. This was pre-NHS, so they were also paying clients. His behaviour over the phone, which is constantly ringing, causes difficulties with said patients and for Marion, but the conflict is resolved when she falls pregnant, and gives up her practice. But Paul has another rival in a baby who needs her mother.

And then world war two begins and it all changes again, with Marion taking her two children now – Joan having been joined by difficult Martin – to Paul’s parents’ farm, and Paul eventually being posted abroad. Marion’s medical skills are required, and difficult decisions must be made.

That question of juggling different responsibilities – to oneself, to a spouse, to children and to society, especially as a healer – is indeed absorbing and we see many facets of it here. Paul and Marion are shown to be people with faults and strengths. Elder writes about their love sympathetically, but sets it in a context fraught with difficulties. If doctor’s wives find it difficult to share their husband with a practice, what of a husband or children sharing their mother in a time when this was very unusual? But is a woman with a keen intellect and the ability to do good – for instance, the advantages of a ‘lady doctor’ treating other women in a novel that deals with pregnancy out of wedlock, the difficulties of childbirth along with a myriad of illnesses such as breast cancer are clear, and– right to subsume herself to her husband’s traditional whims and underemploy herself, essentially? Marion the doctor is also a product of her training, upbringing and personality, as well as a woman.

I’m still not sure what I feel about the ending – it was a little pat in terms of what happened to Paul – his war works as the sort of grit an oyster needs to grow a pearl, to borrow the book’s metaphor. But I appreciated Marion and Paul’s spiritual growth and that he is forced to learn that what’s good enough for the goose is good enough for the gander. I very much appreciated the development of the characters of their children, who surprise their mother. Elder’s scientific bent means that sometimes there’s cool analysis where one is used to blood and thunder from other writers covering similar topics. In the preface, which I read after the story, Hilary Clare argues that the authoress is telling what she hasn’t experienced rather than showing it. However, Elder brought Marion’s complexities and difficulties to life for me. A fine book.


feather_ghyll: Girl reading a book that is resting on her knees (Default)

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