Originally published in 1884, Sarah Orne Jewett’s The Country Doctor appears in this Penguin Classics edition with an introduction by Frederick Wegener, whose current work explores the representations of medical women in the United States between 1860 and 1920. His introductory remarks offer a specific focus for the reading of this novel, the first that Jewett wrote and which was, until recently, overshadowed by her later and more critically successful works, “The White Heron” (1886) and The Country of the Pointed Firs (1896).
It is the story of a young girl, Nan Prince, who defies tradition by refusing marriage and ignoring strong criticism to dedicate her life to a medical career. When the kind widower Dr. John Leslie becomes her guardian and mentor, Nan learns and comes to love the practice of medicine as she accompanies the doctor on his visits to the homes of patients throughout the country. Drawing from her own life as the daughter of one of Maine’s most highly respected physicians, Jewett’s story is based on many of the experiences and observations of her own beloved father who died suddenly in 1878. This edition includes an obituary of her father that Jewett wrote but published anonymously. Whatever its stylistic quirks and shortcomings, Jewett’s novel offers a compelling and, even by today’s standards, radical coming-of-age story about a young woman determined to strive towards an independent life and to devote herself to her desired profession.
When Nan Prince first feels the stirrings of intuition calling her to the practice of medicine, Dr. Leslie does not discourage her, believing that, in his role as guardian, he should “bring out what was in her own mind and capacity” and to follow “as best he could the leadings of the young nature itself.” Jewett reminds us of the more conventional expectations for our young protagonist through the opinions of Marilla, the doctor’s housekeeper. The didactic tone throughout this nineteenth-century novel is in keeping with the conventions of the century, and Jewett offers the reader plenty of lofty truisms. Yet, within this novel, the convention is much more palatable than in others of the period because of Jewett’s device of embedding her revolutionary ideas in conversations between various characters, especially through the character of the wise Dr. Leslie toward whom the reader will most certainly feel enormous sympathy.
This device also extends to the conversations about gender roles between Dr. Leslie and his good old friend, Dr. Ferris. Through their conversations, Jewett embeds current ideas about gender roles so that, through a dialogue between two men, she can applaud the feminine intellect and its natural ability toward intuition: “Do you remember how well Buckle says that the feminine intellect is the higher, and that the great geniuses of the world have possessed it? The gift of intuition reaches directly towards the truth, and it is only reasoning by deduction that can take flight into the upper air of life and certainty.” On the other hand, characters like Mrs. Fraley stubbornly assert the most conventional place of women in nineteenth-century society: “the best service to the public can be done by keeping one’s house in order and one’s husband comfortable and by attending to those social responsibilities which come in our way.” While Dr. Leslie and his Nan “suffer [s]uch reproach and questioning as the comments ranged from indignation to amusement,” they are not defeated.
Nan perserveres toward her goal despite the obstacles that she is up against, taking the advice of Dr. Leslie: “if you are going to fear obstacles you will have a poor chance at success.” She comes to rely with great confidence on her intuitive sense of self-direction as a way to arrive at such provocative conclusions as the following: “The preservation of the race is no longer the only important question; the welfare of the individual will be considered more and more. The simple fact that there is a majority of women in any center of civilization means that some are set apart by nature for other uses and conditions than marriage.” When Nan meets her first serious suitor, Gerry George, she is tempted by his offers of a traditional marriage and domestic life until her principled good sense cautions her that she “was not filled with a natural instinct toward marriage.” In the end, she cannot give herself over to a man for whom her feelings are strong when her dreams of a medical career are stronger. Talking to herself, she concludes that she “can look forward and see something a thousand times better than being his wife” (213-4). Her decision relies on reason, not solely on emotion and so shows her courage and strength of purpose even as she warmly and respectfully asks Gerry to remain her friend.
The novel, though clearly a part of its century, nevertheless endures in terms of its thematic emphasis on being true to oneself and trusting in the path toward an intuitive sense of fulfillment just as the wise advice of Dr. Leslie attests: “We shall be more intelligent by and by about making the best of ourselves; our possibilities are infinitely beyond what most people even dream. Spiritual laziness and physical laziness together keep us just this side of sound sleep most of the time.” And the words of Sarah Orne Jewett’s own father, given to students of the medical department of Bowdoin College in 1867, ring through the wise Dr. Leslie’s when he observes, “how many instances present themselves of feeble, broken women, wasted in vital power, relieved by no changes from a dull routine, and the depression of an endless, tame monotony.” That Nan Prince chooses to be a self-sufficient, productive citizen, a doctor, relying solely on her own gifts and resources, and that Jewett ends her novel with an optimistic scene, the protagonist reaching her hands upward “in an ecstasy of life and strength and gladness” in gratitude to God for her future, confirms the possibility of the realization of Jewett’s optimism for the quality of the future lives of women.