Student notes on Doctor in the Dales by JD O’Connor

(by beardn)

This is an autobiographical essay, written as a retrospective diary. I am going to discuss this text firstly by discussing the key themes and then by commenting on the style of writing and character of the doctor.


The Doctor in the community:

·     The inter-dependent relationship between doctor and society:

This comes across most strongly in this text. She describes her role in the community as one of a ‘family friend’ – suggesting she attains a level of intimacy with her patients, caused by her integral role in the community, over and above the normal. She also assists with transporting goods, during the times of petrol rationing – which is outside of her job criteria but is also vital to the community.

However she also relies on the community at times, in order to complete her work (for example: Men from the quarries helping to dig through the snow – in spite of the adverse conditions).

·     The status of the doctor: Clearly viewed as very important, patients accepting of her, despite her being a woman (unusual to have female doctors in those times). “We did hear that our doctor was ill and had a woman doctor doing his work, but we’ve got to be thankful for anyone these days.”

·     Female role: Unusual for a woman of her time to be college-educated and working as a doctor. Consider how this alters her practice; women found it easier to confide in her, community may comment on her gender, however are happy to accept her care (shows how the status of a doctor can overcome gender discrimination). She is also a mother, how did she manage her work and raising her children (especially when husband was at war)? This text also highlights the importance of women when the men were at war (they took over the men’s roles/jobs) and also how the war highlighted that women were equally able to contribute in the workplace.

Isolation/Remoteness (consider the contribution of the war)

·     Constant references to the harsh weather, lack of facilities, difficulty getting to patients’ homes etc. (“…had to walk along the tops of walls to get to the farm”, “telephones were not plentiful then”, “…I noted the mileage, 53 miles, but I had done only three visits and been out there for three hours”). Creates the idea of a wild, inhospitable countryside that she’s constantly battling with, in order to do her job (“dropped once on top of an embankment and slide down it, carrying all my essentials in a haversack…”).

·     Mentions war, occasionally, this also contributes to the idea of hardship and being cut-off (“petrol rationing”, “driving at night, with only side-lights, as required in war-time”).

Kindness of Community:

·     Helping others (selflessly): Demonstrated by both the community and the doctor (links with the above-mentioned theme).

·     Indomitable Human Spirit: Despite adverse conditions the doctor still does her best to get to her patients and the community will still do their best to help her and each other.

Contrast between medical knowledge of the 1930’s and today:

·     Demonstrated with the treatment of her husband’s back problem – medical management and knowledge of back treatment is much more advanced/effective nowadays. The extreme management of his back demonstrates a severe lack of appropriate knowledge.

The character of the Doctor:

·     She is a very impressive woman; college-educated, strong-willed, successful, also raises her children whilst working and her husband is away at war.

·     However, from this text, I think that she seems more interested in the extra-ordinary that the ordinary (?? Typical of doctors). Her choice of incidents doesn’t give much of a sense of her daily life – lacks meaningful description. I found myself wondering how she managed to raise her children whilst working all day. (more interested in her medical anecdotes than her children). She, instead, dedicates long paragraphs to her husband’s slipped disc and funny/unusual incidents (e.g: “Billy nearly overdid his waiting once”). These anecdotes are interesting, however I think the text would have benefitted from her discussing her daily life as well, as it’s difficult to get a sense of her ‘true’ character and the text subsequently lacks atmosphere. How does a woman cope ? I think this is a key question about her, which she doesn’t really address in this text.

·     She, perhaps, has a certain lack of understanding of her patients’ circumstances, which is demonstrated by her comments about money not being plentiful. The average wage in the 1930’s was around 7/6d/week and so her comments that “fees were very low” doesn’t seem to take into account the equally low wages of people in the community. This observation goes against her general portrayal in the text (one of selflessness, dedication etc.).

Writing style:

·     Lack of meaningful descriptions: Difficult to get a sense of her set-up/life. The image of ‘snow’ is very dominant, however this is only one season – there is a lack of comprehensive descriptions. She portrays a vague idea of a ‘harsh’ landscape, however I found it difficult to build up an idea of her surroundings in my mind. Consider the veterinary books written by James Herriot; he conjures vivid imagery of his setting in just a few sentences.

·     Colorless writing (no spark): Uses short/expressionless sentences (to her detriment) “Are you married”…” “Yes”. Occasionally her expression seems awkward and is difficult to interpret (“…but lacked for volunteer teachers”).

·     However, her story is an interesting one and we must remember that she is a doctor and not an author. One must consider what the point of the text is; to tell her story.


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