Little Peter and his doctor

“Winter is coming.” Game of Thrones, a popular HBO program, incorporates this phrase into both its advertising and script with regularity. Insinuating impending danger, the audience [those unwilling to read the novels of George R. R. Martin] remains in suspense to the peril of winter in Westeros. Winter conjures thoughts of cold, desolate times in which humans must risk life and limb to venture out into the world. For most, gas-powered snow blowers and truck-mounted snow plows clear a path of Old Man Winter. However, inhabitants of the 19th century were not granted such luxuries, and often winter brought famine and death for those unable to traverse the environment.

A classic 19th century children’s novel touches upon such winter dreary: Lucas Malet’s 1888 Little Peter. In the novel, a child named Peter is lost in a snow storm while on a walk with his family. His health deteriorates significantly, and subsequently is bedridden with illness. During this time, an old doctor attends to his bedside. The following is the encounter documented by Malet (1852-1931).

…And when, in the afternoon, not without struggle and difficult, for the road was dangerous with snowdrifts, the kind, old doctor, with his red nose and his snuffbox, had ridden over from Nullepart, and sat by the little boy’s bed and felt his pulse, and examined him carefully, with a face as wise as an owl’s, from behind his large spectacles, Peter had been too tired and sleepy to look at him either. The old doctor had taken an extra pinch of snuff, and shaken his head quite seriously, I am sorry to say, at leaving… [pp. 146-147]Illustration for the book, Little Peter, A Christmas Morality Charles Edmund Brock (1908)

This moment with the doctor provides the modern reader a window, albeit brief, into medicine in England around the late 19th century tailored to a child’s understanding. The encounter was later illustrated in a 1908 edition by Charles Edmund Brock (1870-1938).

Brock depicts a familiar composition artists at the turn of the century often portrayed in medical scenes: the old doctor at the patient’s bedside measuring the pulse. [Similar to an earlier piece by Picasso.] The viewer sees the plump doctor in his frock seated beside Peter, who is lying unresponsive to the doctor’s presence. Feeling the pulse in the patient’s right hand, the doctor times the pulse with a stopwatch in his left. Meanwhile, a cat closely observes the doctor at the foot of the bed. The doctor has a stern facial expression, deeply focused on his stopwatch. The boy dressed in white, symbolizing purity and/or the boy’s fate. As a viewer, we too look to the doctor as the cat does for good news as to the boy’s condition. Designed for children, we can assume that Brock designed his doctor to be instantly recognized by, as well as entertain, young readers as to the man’s profession, and indeed he is.

Lucas Malet is a pen-name of Mary St. Leger Kingsley Harrison.  She was the daughter and uncle to many well-established authors in England. In hope of separating herself from her families fame to become independently recognized, she merged the last names of her grandmother and great-aunt. As an aside, she was home schooled by her father, Charles Kingsley, who refused her to read novels until twenty. And in 1901, in rebellion to her father presumably, she converted to Catholicism. She was a prolific novelist with about 14 books to her name. However, her fame extinguished in the 20th century as she became a symbol of older, Victorian literature. She died impoverished, of illness in Switzerland.

Charles Brock proliferated as an illustrator in England. His career included collaborations with Charles Dickens, Jonathan Swift, Jane Austen and George Elliot. Illustrations by Brock are largely described as “sensitive to the delicate, teacup-an-saucer primness and feminine outlook of the early Victorian novelists,” which melds seamlessly with the genre Malet endorsed. According to sources, Brock retired after 1910.

Little Peter reads quite as expected for a children’s novel, and a fascinating look into the material children read during the 19th century given the literacy among that demographic. Brock’s later illustrations engage readers’ imaginations much better than earlier editions. Without question, this scene depicting the doctor and the helpless Peter pulls on the readers emotions. Though intended for children, modern adult readers may glimpse into the medical environment common in Victorian England. I recommend reading a few chapters of the text, available without charge online.

Sources:

Bradshaw, Percy (1938). The Art of the Illustrator: CE Brock & His Work. Press Art School

Houfe, Simon (1981). The Dictionary of British Book Illustrators and Caricaturists, 1800-1914. Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club Ltd.

Malet, Lucas (1888). Little Peter: A Christmas Morality for Children of Any Age. London: Kegan, Paul, Trench & Co.

Schaffer, Talia. “Lucas Malet“. The Literary Encyclopedia. 12 November 2001

One comment

  1. It’s a strange thing there never seem to have been young doctors in the past. Or maybe only the old ones did house calls.

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