FICTIONAL FOREMOTHERS BY MEN, 2

Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)

Anthony Trollope and Miss Doctor Olivia Q Fleabody

Anthony Trollope

Anthony Trollope 1815-1882

‘Is He Popenjoy’ (1878) is a novel by Anthony Trollope with some similarities to Charles Reade’s ‘A Woman-Hater’. The story concerns the early marital relationship of Lord George Germain, the younger brother of the absentee Marquis of Brotherton, and Mary Lovelace, the young and indulged daughter of the Dean of Brotherton. Prior to their marriage, seen as advantageous to both sides, Lord George was in love with his cousin, Miss Adelaide De Baron. But she, after consideration, has turned him down and married a Mr Houghton, who is richer, although considerably older. Subsequently, in London, Mary is (innocently but foolishly) seeing too much of the good-looking and flirtatious Jack de Baron,  while Lord George is (less innocently) seeing too much of his old flame Adelaide.

The story of the woman doctor Olivia Fleabody is mainly a comic relief insertion - hardly even a subplot - but is interesting for casting light on the views of the day. Mary, now Lady George, accompanies an aunt to the ‘Rights of Women Institute’ to hear a lecture. After this Miss Doctor Olivia Q. Fleabody, from Vermont, is introduced to give a vote of thanks, but takes full advantage of the opportunity to put forward her own views. Lady George observes:

'what would have been a pretty face, had it not been marred by a pinched look of studious severity and a pair of glass spectacles of which the glasses shone in a disagreeable manner. […]   Sitting in the front row she displayed her feet, - and it may also be said her trousers, for the tunic which she wore came down hardly below the knees.'

As for Dr Fleabody’s training, qualifications and medical ability, the reader remains uninformed. Nevertheless, her talent at holding the crowd outshines the main lecturer’s, and she becomes the most popular speaker at the Institute:

'The building was always filled by strongly-visaged spinsters and mutinous wives, who twice a week were worked up by Dr. Fleabody to a full belief that a glorious era was at hand in which woman would be chosen by constituencies, would wag their heads in courts of law, would buy and sell in Capel Court, and have balances at their banker's. It was certainly the case that Dr. Fleabody had made proselytes by the hundred, and disturbed the happiness of many fathers of families. but the American Doctor was making a rapid fortune out of the proceeds of the hall.'

Back with the main plot: after many toings and froings the absentee Marquis and his child of doubtful legitimacy both die, so Mary becomes the Marchioness, reconciles with her husband and indeed successfully produces the next heir, or ‘Popenjoy’ as he is traditionally called. A conventional outcome also awaits Dr Fleabody, who, we learn, has ‘married a store-keeper in New York, and has settled down into a good mother of a family'.

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Comment

Women’s emancipation has relevance to the story of the aristocratic couple, but how can it be reconciled with the practical demands of marriage and family life? Lady George does hold out for some independence of her own, but is fortified by her own money. Dr Fleabody is judged through Lady George’s eyes as very strange – yet her prophecies have come true, including the normality of women wearing trousers.  

Jennian Geddes has observed ‘instances of an individual doctor being prepared to put her head above the parapet for the cause were rare’. The most common way women doctors supported the suffrage movement was through discrete financial donations.

 

This is the second article in a series of blogs by past president, Dr Fiona Subotsky. Come back next week to read the next blog!