Fictional Foremothers By Men: Blog One


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


Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000) 

Charles Reade and Dr Rhoda Gale


 In this blog series I shall be discussing in date order some of the early British fictional representations of that strange creature ‘the lady doctor’. Light is cast on the views and experiences of the time, and the differences between male and female authors..

Charles Reade’s novel ‘A Woman Hater’ was first published in serial form in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1876. There was considerable discussion between the author and the publisher as to how hard a line (i.e. supportive of women’s emancipation) could be taken.

Charles Reade

Charles Reade 1814-1884

The principal characters are Harrington Vizard, a wealthy English landowner known as a ‘woman-hater’ since an unfortunate marriage ended in divorce; his half-sister, the young and beautiful Zoe; a somewhat more experienced flirtatious young lady, Fanny, and a chaperone aunt Mrs Maitland. Also there are a wonderful and beautiful continental singer Ina Klosking and her attractive but despicable lover, Edward Severne. Zoe unwisely falls for the seductive Severne, but after many trials she ends happily with the rich and philanthropic Lord Uxmoor.

The story of the woman doctor Rhoda Gale is essentially extraneous, although intertwined as a subplot. Harrington Vizard is taking  a walk in Leicester Square when he notices a young lady who looks very pale and weak. He offers her a meal, which she eventually accepts. Then, fortified by food and tea, Rhoda tells her story. She is half-American and has undertaken medical studies in Zurich and France, and gained her MD. This was not recognised in the United Kingdom by the General Medical Council, and she is as a result without funds. Previously, in attempting to complete her training, she had tried, with others, to qualify in Edinburgh. The entire story of the ‘Seven against Edinburgh’ (led in reality by Sophia Jex-Blake) is recounted by Rhoda, and was taken from reports of the time.

Rhoda declares:

‘Because the nurses get only a guinea a week, and not a guinea a flying visit: to women the loathsome part of medicine; to man the lucrative! The noble nurses of the Crimea went to attend males only, yet were not charged with indelicacy. They worked gratis. The would-be doctresses look mainly to attending women, but then they want to be paid for it: there was the rub - it was a mere money question.’

Vizard is so impressed by Rhoda that he brings her to his country estate to practise. There she achieves a lot of good, especially of a public health nature, but also for the characters as they variously fall ill. Even the villainous Severne recognises that she is ‘Bright and keen as steel, quick and spirited, yet controlled by judgment and always mistress of herself: she seemed to him a new species’. From the romantic point of view Rhoda is prone to fall in love with ladies rather than gentlemen, but this causes no disturbance.

Sophia Jex Blake

Sophia Jex-Blake 1840 -1912


Throughout ‘A Woman Hater’ there are remarks on the perceived failings of the ‘fair sex’ by the author as well as his hero Vizard - whether meant as a ‘tease’ or as ‘balance’, it is sometimes hard to tell. However, Reade blames medical ‘trade unionism’ for this blocking of women’s careers and ends with a plea for the recognition of women doctors: ‘ I say that to open the study and practice of medicine to women folk […] will advance the civilization of the world’.

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