Monday, January 21, 2013
On the Scientific Cusp: Uncovering the Protagonist
My protagonist upcoming is a mid-nineteenth century physician - absorbed as I am by the late-medieval preoccupation with noxious miasmas and the attendant quacks and apothecaries that extolled a multitude of dubious remedies. Since reading Defoe's Journal of the Plague Year, I have long felt that health and well-being, for a historical novelist, is imbued with dramatic possibility - the periodic devastation of disease (cause and prevention equally uncertain) found its victims among all strata of society with equal ferocity.
Despite the mid-nineteenth century being of such relatively recent occurrence (at least from an archaeological perspective) the perception of disease could not have been more removed from current beliefs; while diversions and politics, fashion and food, and all manner of quotidian preoccupations are readily comprehended by the modern reader, the practice of medicine seems a vestigial barbarity of a more ancient age. Sickness often resulted in the ubiquitous and prolific application of bloodletting and mercury treatments, a therapy more honored in the breach than the observance, and one which had the unmitigated effect of hastening death rather than avoiding it.
In the course of my research I have discovered that physicians tended to be of the obsequious sort; absent the economic and cultural superiority enjoyed today, they encountered competition amongst independent village healers and a profusion of graduates from newly-born medical colleges that mushroomed nationwide like fungus post-wet in the rich mulch of federal funding; doctors were forced to cultivate the most impressive of bedside manners to obtain and maintain their client list. A multitude of manuals from the period provide suggestions for society-insinuations, a crisply professional bearing, and the manner in which a medical diagnosis should be couched to simultaneously inhibit common-learning while maximizing perceived elevation of the profession. Other physicians, however, were naturalists and statisticians, seeking commonalities in mortality from one region to another, delving into geology, geography, and physiological science in an attempt to further their understanding of disease processes. They were Renaissance men on the cusp of molecular microbiology as inaugurated by Louis Pasteur several decades later.
And of course there are the disinterred corpses: the black market in cadavers that served the insatiable appetite of anatomical science, the investigation of which facilitated a rise in practical understanding of physiology; a practice, which was, however, conducted with all the surreptitious secrecy of nighttime body-theft and darkly rumored anatomy-murder. Gloomy narrative elements that are seductively alluring in a lurid Sherlockian kind of way. At least I have always found it so. Perhaps it is the chronological proximity of dark superstition, of fantastical explanations for the cause and transfer of disease (it was widely believed that noxious fumes exhaled from geological formations were instrumental in causing sickness) that seem incomprehensible to our accustomed molecular mindset. Our readers are reminded in a most visceral way that while the mid-nineteenth century displayed many of the trappings of civilized modernity, medical science (which affected each and every individual in a most intimate way) was still enshrouded in remnants of medieval theory and practice.
From an authorial viewpoint, there is great dramatic potential in the application of mid-nineteenth century medicine, particularly in juxtaposition with the modern understanding of physiological processes. Add in the environs: the dense cluster of hovel and tenement, the crowded obscurity of dockside populations, of sailors and prostitutes, the almshouses with their incarcerated insane, the early hospitals fetid with the unwashed and festering, heavily bled and relegated to a dank corner to shuffle off their mortal coil as quickly as might be convenient - for another awaited the use of that particular bed. To this canvas add a dash of cholera that flares, engulfing a community with equally horrifying rapidity and mortality.
But this scenic backdrop might be just that - representative of my protagonist's character and experience - all critical for formulating his forward momentum through plot and dialogue. Perhaps the overall narrative is not disease-centric insomuch as it is concerned with political intrigue and murder, with infirmity and infection hovering on the peripheries like a darkly shrouded figure wielding the scythe. For the novelist seeking the bones of the book, a scaffold on which to hang the beating heart and the delicate fabric of lungs, the mystery of context, of ambiance, can be served by scientific, cultural or social predispositions....they can weave through the narrative, providing the rich hue of flesh-tone with all its dimpled imperfections. The medical investigation was a single investigative thread which I pursued, like Theseus through the Cretan maze, to the discovery of a mythic beast of a theme; a narrative element that weaves together disparate threadlines in a shadowy construct of tapestry, a dramatic backdrop which gives breath and vitality (of the however sickly sort!) to the stark and polished bones of plot.