Fictional Foremothers by Women: Blog six



Fiona Subotsky (MWF President, 1999-2000)


Arabella Kenealy and Dr Janet Doyle

 The novel ‘Dr Janet of Harley Street’ was published in 1894. The author, Arabella Kenealy (1859–1938), had herself qualified as a doctor through the London School of Medicine for Women, but did not practise for long.


Arabella Kenealy

The story is trashy yet gripping, with romance, tragedy, comedy and even moments of gothic horror: a poor and innocent young girl Phyllis is engaged to an older man (the Marquis), but feels extremely repulsion when he tries to kiss her. Nevertheless, under maternal pressure, she goes  through with a marriage ceremony - but then runs off to London. After sleeping on a bench for one night she applies to a hospital for a job as a nurse. Although this is refused, she is rescued by a Dr Janet Doyle, who is both the chief physician at the hospital and Dean of the Minerva School of Medicine for Women.

While not the romantic heroine, Dr Janet is an active, kind and intelligent woman doctor, even if she by no means attempts to be glamorous. She is of ‘ample proportions’ and wore:

                           A rough, loosely-fitting tweed garb—one could not call it a gown, for the skirt was of that genus distinguished by the term ‘divided,’ and the bodice was made and worn after the fashion of a man’s shooting-coat.

She is what is known as a ‘battle-axe’, and

                           He would be a bold man who opposed the firm and fiery will of this big woman, and a cool one who could withstand, unmoved, the keen, sarcastic shafts she was capable of casting from her strong lips.

Dr Janet decides to conceal Phyllis under the surname Adam rather than Eve and tells her that she will make a good doctor, although her beauty is a disadvantage. Phyllis takes up studying, wins a scholarship for the Minerva Medical School and has an interest taken in her by Dr Janet’s cousin, Dr Paul Liveing, who is also one of the medical school’s lecturers. This romance blossoms, but it emerges that Phyllis cannot marry – as she is already married - and the Marquis refuses a divorce. Next, the hopeful couple are informed by a solicitor that the Marquis has died in France, so they do marry (after she qualifies) and are idyllically happy – for a brief while.

 But then the Marquis reappears, and for respectability’s sake, the lovers part. Phyllis is pregnant, and the feeble baby girl tragically dies.

The forceful Dr Janet decides to intervene. She visits the Marquis to rebuke him for his cruelty and duplicity and tells him that doctors and soldiers know how to end things if necessary. and have the means to do so. Astonishingly, or possibly due partly to delirium tremens, the Marquis then suffers from terrifying hallucinations, especially of the deceased baby, and shoots himself.

Dr Janet is satisfied with this outcome as a legal marriage can now take place.



The author apparently held the view that ‘womanly women’ should bear and bring up children, and not exhaust themselves trying to compete professionally. By so doing they would save the race from degeneration (a preoccupation of the time). Yet education and careers should be open to women, so that they could earn a living of their own if necessary.

I suspect Phyllis decided to be ‘womanly’ and not pursue her career, and perhaps the studying is what put paid to her infant.







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