Heart and Science – Wilkie Collins
Mr. Wilkie Collins has here presented us with a ‘novel with a purpose’, and yet he has sacrificed none of his freedom and adroit resource of treatment. He has evidently, as he claims in the preface, devoted far more time and care to the study of character than in some former cases; but he is as ingenious as ever in managing his plot, in working one incident into another, and surprising us with developments which nevertheless have been well prepared for. His psychology in this case is closer and more realistic than we remember aforetime; though perhaps a certain section of the medical profession may feel a call to fight hard with him over some points. For he aims at exposing the dehumanizing effects of vivisection, believing with Dr. Haughton that persevered in without very effective checks on the side of ordinary sympathy, it may soon transform a man into a devil. But Mr. Wilkie Collins’s great art is seen in tracing the purely psychological lines of the novel, a romance pure and simple, which cannot but affect the most ignorant and stolid. Readers who will not appreciate many of the points so cleverly made against vivisection, will sympathize with Hope Vere and Carmina in their sufferings and their final deliverance; with Miss Minerva, the governess, in her notable triumph over selfish passion; with poor Mr. Gallilee in his awkward position, and his noble decision though taken late; and with ‘Zo’ in her naive simplicities, and odd likings and dis likings, and her untainted healthy impulse, which enables her unconsciously to act with decision in a critical moment. It would not be fair for us to outline Mr. Wilkie Collins’ well-laid plot: suffice it to say that in Mrs. Gallilee, the gradual ossification of the heart and healthy sympathies through excessive de mand for knowledge and the power it is supposed to bring with it, is a most original study-the gradual slipping into crime itself seeming to be but a necessary outcome of the false theory of life she has sought to exhibit in practice. Dr. Benjulia, who isolates himself in his big laboratory, and is keen to wink at bad practice in poor practitioners like Null that he may carry on his own experiments in brain disease, is drawn with decisive pencil; and Mr. Le Frank forms as original a villain as Carmina’s old Italian nurse does an attached dependant. Mr. Mool, the lawyer, is one of the weakest characters, but luckily very much does not depend on him. Mr. Collins expresses his thanks to Miss Power Cobbe and some others for aid given to him: he will doubtless furnish them with aid in their noble crusade against scientific cruelty. On the whole, Mr. Collins has secured success in a most difficult experiment; one chief cause of which is that he has dealt with results and general impressions, leaving detail of technicalities behind. The story is strong as a story; and only those who have more or less deeply into the subject will be able to realize the labor Mr. Wilkie Collins has gone through by way of preparation for this work.
Heart and Science.
Excerpt from the text:
When two friends happen to meet in the street, do they ever look back along the procession of small circumstances which has led them both, from the starting-point of their own houses, to the same spot, at the same time? Not one man in ten thousand has probably ever thought of making such a fantastic inquiry as this. And consequently not one man in ten thousand, living in the midst of reality, has discovered that he is also living in the midst of romance.
From the moment when the young surgeon closed the door of his house, he was walking blindfold on his way to a patient in the future who was personally still a stranger to him. He never reached the College of Surgeons. He never embarked on his friend’s yacht.
What were the obstacles which turned him aside from the course that he had in view? Nothing but a series of trivial circumstances, occurring in the experience of a man who goes out for a walk.
He had only reached the next street, when the first of the circumstances presented itself in the shape of a friend’s carriage, which drew up at his side. A bright benevolent face encircled by bushy white whiskers, looked out of the window, and a hearty voice asked him if he had completed his arrangements for a long holiday. Having replied to this, Ovid had a question to put, on his side.
“How is our patient, Sir Richard?”
“Out of danger.”
“And what do the other doctors say now?”
Sir Richard laughed: “They say it’s my luck.”
“Not convinced yet?”
“Not in the least. Who has ever succeeded in convincing fools? Let’s try another subject. Is your mother reconciled to your new plans?”
“I can hardly tell you. My mother is in a state of indescribable agitation. Her brother’s Will has been found in Italy. And his daughter may arrive in England at a moment’s notice.”
“Unmarried?” Sir Richard asked slyly.
“I don’t know.”
Ovid smiled—not cheerfully. “Do you think my poor mother would be in a state of indescribable agitation if there was not money?”
Sir Richard was one of those obsolete elderly persons who quote Shakespeare. “Ah, well,” he said, “your mother is like Kent in King Lear—she’s too old to learn. Is she as fond as ever of lace? and as keen as ever after a bargain?” He handed a card out of the carriage window. “I have just seen an old patient of mine,” he resumed, “in whom I feel a friendly interest. She is retiring from business by my advice; and she asks me, of all the people in the world, to help her in getting rid of some wonderful ‘remnants,’ at ‘an alarming sacrifice!’ My kind regards to your mother—and there’s a chance for her. One last word, Ovid. Don’t be in too great a hurry to return to work; you have plenty of spare time before you. Look at my wise dog here, on the front seat, and learn from him to be idle and happy.”
The great physician had another companion, besides his dog. A friend, bound his way, had accepted a seat in the carriage. “Who is that handsome young man?” the friend asked as they drove away.
“He is the only son of a relative of mine, dead many years since,” Sir Richard replied. “Don’t forget that you have seen him.”
“May I ask why?”
“He has not yet reached the prime of life; and he is on the way—already far on the way—to be one of the foremost men of his time. With a private fortune, he has worked as few surgeons work who have their bread to get by their profession. The money comes from his late father. His mother has married again. The second husband is a lazy, harmless old fellow, named Gallilee; possessed of one small attraction—fifty thousand pounds, grubbed up in trade. There are two little daughters, by the second marriage. With such a stepfather as I have described, and, between ourselves, with a mother who has rather more than her fair share of the jealous, envious, and money-loving propensities of humanity, my friend Ovid is not diverted by family influences from the close pursuit of his profession. You will tell me, he may marry. Well! if he gets a good wife she will be a circumstance in his favour. But, so far as I know, he is not that sort of man. Cooler, a deal cooler, with women than I am—though I am old enough to be his father. Let us get back to his professional prospects. You heard him ask me about a patient?”
“Very good. Death was knocking hard at that patient’s door, when I called Ovid into consultation with myself and with two other doctors who differed with me. It was one of the very rare cases in which the old practice of bleeding was, to my mind, the only treatment to pursue. I never told him that this was the point in dispute between me and the other men—and they said nothing, on their side, at my express request. He took his time to examine and think; and he saw the chance of saving the patient by venturing on the use of the lancet as plainly as I did—with my forty years’ experience to teach me! A young man with that capacity for discovering the remote cause of disease, and with that superiority to the trammels of routine in applying the treatment, has no common medical career before him. His holiday will set his health right in next to no time. I see nothing in his way, at present—not even a woman! But,” said Sir Richard, with the explanatory wink of one eye peculiar (like quotation from Shakespeare) to persons of the obsolete old time, “we know better than to forecast the weather if a petticoat influence appears on the horizon. One prediction, however, I do risk. If his mother buys any of that lace—I know who will get the best of the bargain!”
The conditions under which the old doctor was willing to assume the character of a prophet never occurred. Ovid remembered that he was going away on a long voyage—and Ovid was a good son. He bought some of the lace, as a present to his mother at parting; and, most assuredly, he got the worst of the bargain.
His shortest way back to the straight course, from which he had deviated in making his purchase, led him into a by-street, near the flower and fruit market of Covent Garden. Here he met with the second in number of the circumstances which attended his walk. He found himself encountered by an intolerably filthy smell.
The market was not out of the direct way to Lincoln’s Inn Fields. He fled from the smell to the flowery and fruity perfumes of Covent Garden, and completed the disinfecting process by means of a basket of strawberries.
Why did a poor ragged little girl, carrying a big baby, look with such longing eyes at the delicious fruit, that, as a kind-hearted man, he had no alternative but to make her a present of the strawberries? Why did two dirty boyfriends of hers appear immediately afterwards with news of Punch in a neighbouring street, and lead the little girl away with them? Why did these two new circumstances inspire him with a fear that the boys might take the strawberries away from the poor child, burdened as she was with a baby almost as big as herself? When we suffer from overwrought nerves we are easily disturbed by small misgivings. The idle man of wearied mind followed the friends of the street drama to see what happened, forgetful of the College of Surgeons, and finding a new fund of amusement in himself.
Arrived in the neighbouring street, he discovered that the Punch performance had come to an end—like some other dramatic performances of higher pretensions—for want of a paying audience. He waited at a certain distance, watching the children. His doubts had done them an injustice. The boys only said, “Give us a taste.” And the liberal little girl rewarded their good conduct. An equitable and friendly division of the strawberries was made in a quiet corner.
Where—always excepting the case of a miser or a millionaire—is the man to be found who could have returned to the pursuit of his own affairs, under these circumstances, without encouraging the practice of the social virtues by a present of a few pennies? Ovid was not that man.
Putting back in his breast-pocket the bag in which he was accustomed to carry small coins for small charities, his hand touched something which felt like the envelope of a letter. He took it out—looked at it with an expression of annoyance and surprise—and once more turned aside from the direct way to Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
The envelope contained his last prescription. Having occasion to consult the “Pharmacopoeia,” he had written it at home, and had promised to send it to the patient immediately. In the absorbing interest of making his preparations for leaving England, it had remained forgotten in his pocket for nearly two days. The one means of setting this unlucky error right, without further delay, was to deliver his prescription himself, and to break through his own rules for the second time by attending to a case of illness—purely as an act of atonement.
The patient lived in a house nearly opposite to the British Museum. In this northward direction he now set his face.
He made his apologies, and gave his advice—and, getting out again into the street, tried once more to shape his course for the College of Surgeons. Passing the walled garden of the British Museum, he looked towards it—and paused. What had stopped him, this time? Nothing but a tree, fluttering its bright leaves in the faint summer air.
A marked change showed itself in his face.