Saturday 26 November 2016

Dr Gully: Stuff and Passion

Having found so much to enjoy in Elizabeth Jenkins' The Tortoise and the Hare, I've been seeking out her other novels, with limited success (this really is a very nearly forgotten novelist). I've just finished reading Dr Gully, which I found in a 1976 Penguin edition (published price 45p!). This is a fictionalised biography - or, more accurately, a fact-bound novel - that takes as its subject the eminent Victorian physician (and psychic researcher) James Manby Gully, who, towards the end of his life, became unwittingly embroiled in the sensational, and still unsolved, Charles Bravo murder.
 The most striking aspect of Jenkins' novel is that there is no mention of Charles Bravo until more than three-quarters of the way through, and the murder itself - and the ensuing inquests - don't happen until the closing chapters. This is all, as it were, back story. Charles Bravo doesn't even feature as a speaking or active character and is only heard of indirectly. That is how tightly focused the novel is on Gully's feelings and experiences. It is a rich and compelling portrait of a fascinating, clearly charismatic man with a mesmeric presence - a man whose spell the author herself seems to have fallen under.
 The essential action (as against plot) of the novel is embodied in the passionate love affair that develops between Gully and a beautiful, rich and very much younger patient, Florence Ricardo. She is trapped in a deeply unhappy mariage blanc with a hopeless alcoholic, while Gully is shackled by a defunct marriage to an older woman from whom he long ago parted but who is still alive. The course of the superficially unlikely romance between Florence and Gully is traced with such imaginative insight that it becomes entirely believable, and we follow its vicissitudes with real emotional involvement.
 Elizabeth Jenkins is not one of those rare novelists who don't so much write about the past as effortlessly inhabit it (think Penelope Fitzgerald). Rather she works her way in by building a world rich in abundant and intricate detail, a world of stuff - furniture, textiles, dresses, hats, coats, carriages, lamps, curtains, medications, mourning dress, stationery, wallpapers, toiletries, jewellery, wash stands, all the equipment of opulent upper-middle-class Victorian life. Jenkins not only tells you about these things, she often tells you which suppliers they came from - and you can be sure the information is accurate; this is a diligently researched book.
 In less skilled hands, this would be tiresome, but here it is essential to the writer's purpose, conveying the oppressive world of stuff - and servants, ever present, ever vigilant, ever gossiping - in which the principal characters are obliged to live their lives, while trying to keep their love affair secret. It is giving nothing away to say that this affair is ultimately doomed, and that in the end Florence Ricardo becomes Mrs Charles Bravo. By then she has parted decisively from Gully, and we have only indirect knowledge of what is going on in her life. Gully is now a helpless observer, looking on as the terrible climactic events unfold...
 After the parting of the lovers, a good deal of the heat goes out of the story, and it unfolds in a different manner, closer to a more conventional kind of true-crime historical fiction. This, however, is interesting enough in itself, and Gully's piecing-together of the events that led to Charles Bravo's death is entirely plausible. What is less satisfactory is the near-sentimentality of some of the final scenes, in which Jenkins seems almost besotted with her creation, her James Gully. She might have done better to end on a sharper, more ambivalent note. That said, though, this remains a very fine exercise in making a persuasive and involving fiction out of a mass of factual material. If you can get hold of it, do give it a try.
 (The picture above shows Dr Gully with the materialised spirit known as 'Katie King'.)

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