Meeting literary lights

© Copyright 2010

November 16th, 1863


London, England


Saturday night Mary went to a party put on by writer George Eliot. The writer, born Mary Ann Evans, now signed her letters Marian Evans Lewes. Eliot’s home was close to Regent’s Park in a moderately new set of apartments a few blocks north of the major east-west street Marleybone Road, at 16 Blandford Square.

That made her home only a half-dozen blocks south of the house that Mary had rented Thursday, but Mary had not yet moved into it. Barbara and the Leckies had, just this day. Tonight the three were off to a play on Strand Street. This was a street a little south of Covent Gardens and near the river. The Strand was famous for all the theatres along the street.

Number 16 had a ground-floor entrance from the street with a little projecting roof that barely kept off the gusting rain which had begun a hour or two before. She pressed a button on the front of the door and heard a mechanically activated chime ring on the other side of the door. A few breaths later the door opened.

"Hello!" said the man on the other side, smiling at her. He was slender, perhaps fifty and formally dressed. "How may I help you?"

"I’m here for the party put on by Mrs. Lewes."

"Oh, of course. Come in!"

Sure she was at the right address, Mary turned and waved at the carriage that had brought her here. It’s driver had stayed in hopes of an extra fare. As she entered the warm apartment she heard the hooves of the carriage horse receding.

"Here, let me take your umbrella! And your coat."

Mary surrendered them and took a better look at him as he shook water off both and put them away in a corner and on a coat rack amid several other umbrellas and coats. He was dressed in a dark red velvet coat over black pants and a white shirt. There was about him an air of frailty offset by enormous energy. As he turned back to her she saw better that he had a narrow but handsome face.

"I am George Henry Lewes, Marian’s husband. And you are—"

"Dr. Mary McCarthy. Charles Dickens suggested I come as his guest tonight to meet Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell. Is he here yet? Is she?"

"Oh, yes, Charlie is here. He is never late for food. Dr. Blackwell has yet to arrive."

He lead her from the weather room into a large parlor decorated in the over-complicated English style. Several kerosene lamps on tables gave the room a warm yellow glow. A number of people, mostly men, stood or sat in the parlor chatting. She could see more through a doorway on the back wall that seemed to lead into a dining room.

The meager crowd parted before Lewes. Beyond him Mary saw a woman seated in a large stuffed armchair positioned in a corner of the room. She was at the focus of a semicircle of people standing and sitting in front of her. Perched on a sofa arm near her was Charles Dickens, dressed much as she had seen him earlier in the week. He had a glass of red wine in hand and was holding forth. He stopped as everyone looked toward the interruption.

"Charles, here is your guest."

"A pleasure again, Mr. Dickens. I see you are enjoying your red wine." Her tone was dry and she slightly emphasized the "red."

He lifted the glass in ironic salute to her and turned to the woman. "My dear Marian, may I present Dr. Mary McCarthy, a medical doctor like your Dr. Blackwell. If you have any doubts about the Dr. being purely honorific, may I point out that her second utterance to me was a reprimand for drinking red wine rather than her prescription for my gout, namely beer?" He shuddered theatrically.

"I’m Marian Lewes, Dr. McCarthy. Please be welcome, even if you do come recommended by Mr. Dickens." The seated woman looked beyond Mary and Mary, following her gaze, saw George Lewes nudging an extra chair between two other chairs in front of the woman.

Mary’s first impression of "George Eliot" was that she was a remarkably ugly woman. Her nose was big and her jaw was large and masculine. It did not help that her eyes were too close together. The eyes, however, were large and shapely, and her lips had a fullness often described as sensual. She was a bit overweight but in a lush fashion that some men found sexy. She was in her mid-40s.

A dozen bodily clues also told Mary that she loved George Henry Lewes and that the love was returned.

"A glass of wine, perhaps?" George Lewes said to Mary as she sat in the chair.

"Thank you. Perhaps a glass of the red that Mr. Dickens is drinking."

"Thank you, George." Marian Lewes turned her gaze back to Mary. "Dr. McCarthy. An unusual profession for a woman."

"Indeed. It began as an honorary award but became real more by accident than intent."


At that expression of interest Mary capsuled the process, then changed the subject.

"But I’m sure everyone finds this boring. And I’m sure that I’m in illustrious company." She glanced around at the men and one woman in the semicircle around their hostess.

Marian Lewes introduced everyone there. Mary knew of some of them, such as Colin Wilkie, a younger man who was a writer and a friend of Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli, a Jew who had had several important posts in the English Government and was currently the head of the minority Conservative Party. The guest she found most interesting was Mrs. Barbara Bodichon.

"Bodichon? A French name?"

The woman was in her mid-30s and almost as tall as Mary. She had long blond hair which she wore uncovered but braided and coiled around the back of her head.

"Yes. My husband spends all his time in Algeria and I join him there for six months each year. So when the rest of you are cold and shivering and wet I am warm and dry."

"In a country not your own," said Disraeli. "A touch disloyal, don’t you think?" He lifted a sardonic eyebrow. He was well-equipped, having strong dark eyebrows in a face that seemed more Italian than stereotypically Jewish.

"I seem to remember," Barbara said sweetly, "that you are known for a certain perhaps overly friendly attachment to the French." Several men in the semi-circle smiled and one said, "Good one!" Mary wondered why this was a bon mot.

"I certainly have a fondness for French writing, much superior to our own endeavors in that regard—present company excepted, of course. Balzac and George Sand I account the premier literati of the Nineteenth Century."

"I seem to recall, my dear Mr. Disraeli," said Marian Lewes, "that you have committed the crime of English literature more than once yourself." Evidently Disraeli was an author as well as politician.

Barbara Bodichon turned to Mary but spoke loudly enough to take control of the conversation from the rest of the semicircle. "Perhaps you would be willing to contribute an article to The Englishwoman’s Review. This is a magazine that I edit."

Dickens laughed. "As long as the subject is not the telephone. It seems my guest is also an inventor, and I already have an article from her about that."

Seeing the puzzled looks on some faces he said, "The telephone is like the telegraph but sends voices."

Bodichon said to Dickens, "I meant an article on her medical experiences. But," she continued to Mary, "does this mean you invented this—telephone?"

"Yes. But I fear that I’m monopolizing the attention here. If you want to know more, please come next week to a reception I’m giving at my hotel. We’ll be demonstrating it and discussing it at length." She gave the time and location and shrugged off any further questions.

The conversation soon turned to other subjects, such as who was courting whom and which publisher had paid late or not at all. This last seemed a popular topic, from which Mary inferred that most of the guests were writers of one sort or another.

Not that topics of larger import were not discussed. Politics was one. Disraeli was much in the middle of these discussions, and in the minority. Apparently the guests were more of a progressive bent, and attacked Disraeli’s views vigorously. Disraeli seemed to enjoy the give-and-take, and more than once riposted with clever turns of phrase that demolished his opponents.

After once such incident, as the laughter died down, Mary spoke up.

"Mr. Disraeli, when I came in I thought you were a minority of one. It seems I was mistaken. You are most definitely a majority of one."

Someone in the background said, "Good one!" But before Mary could receive more encomiums a fuss from the direction of the entrance to the apartment revealed George Lewes ushering in two new guests, a young woman and an older.

Charles Dickens jumped up from his seat; he had long since slid from the couch arm nearest Marian Lewes’ chair to the seat of the couch.

"Mrs. Blackwell! It’s good to see you again. Please, sit here."

"Thank you. It’s Mr. Dickens, isn’t it?"

Barbara Bodichon was approaching the women. She hugged the short stout woman, an unusual action for the English in a semi-public situation, by which Mary guessed that they were close friends.

Soon Dr. Elizabeth Blackwell was seated on the couch, her young friend—introduced as Sophia Jex-Blake—beside her. The doctor’s hair was short and her left eye was covered with a white eye patch.

Blackwell said to Marian Lewes, "I really apologize for arriving so late. But this latest meeting went on and on."

The twenty-something young woman beside her said, "There was a pack of men who claimed that it was nonsense to require a doctor to wash his hands before examining a patient."

Mary spoke up, "Yes, we have to deal with such idiots in Ireland also."

George Henry Lewes wrapped a shawl around Blackwell’s shoulders. Though she wore a heavy coat she had been chafing her arms with her hands and was huddled in her seat. She flashed a grateful smile at him.

"Elizabeth," said Mrs. Lewes. "Let me introduce you around. The lady who just spoke is Dr. Mary McCarthy. She is a medical doctor like yourself."

"Oh, not like Dr. Blackwell. I’ve only just begun my professional life."

"You are Irish?" Dr. Blackwell said. "You don’t sound it."

"Oh, I am indeed. But I adjust my language to the audience." That last she said in an exaggerated Irish accent, then Mary switched back to the accents of those around her. "Also, I only practice medicine two days a month. I have other responsibilities."

For a while the conversation revolved around Elizabeth Blackwell and medicine. The good doctor was touring England to raise money for a women’s medical college.

"I have been involved in setting up the Sanitary Standards Commission for my country, but the major work there is mostly done. By the time the war is over my sister Emily and I want to be ready to start the college. So few medical institutions accept women that we’ve decided to start our own."

Mary said, "Perhaps you can do something to improve the standards of medical education. I was frankly appalled at how easy it was for me to get my medical degree."

"Yes! Also, we want to…. But I should not get started on some long dissertation. I am too tired to do the subject justice." She put a hand to her head and sagged back into the softness of the couch.

Mary got up and walked over to the woman. She put a hand on Elizabeth Blackwell’s forehead. The woman started and put up a hand to brush away Mary’s, but fatigue dissuaded her. She relaxed and closed her eyes.

Mary’s esoteric probe revealed fatigue and several other problems, most minor. But the left eye under its patch was infected, and Mary’s probe revealed that this had happened several times before. The eye should really have been excised years before.

Mary decided on a course of action. Kneeling beside Blackwell she made a show of taking the doctor’s pulse. While she did so she sent a command to the woman’s body to go to sleep. Blackwell raised her free hand to her head and dropped it, falling back unconscious.

The young woman beside her jumped up. "What did you do to her?"

Mary gently placed both of the doctor’s hands on the doctor’s lap. "I did nothing to her. It’s what she has done to herself. Tell me, has she been pushing herself all day? Staying up late? Have you been with her long enough to know?"

"Yes," Sophia Jex-Blake said. "She has been getting up early and going all day, and not eating the way she should."

Marian Lewes said, "Should we take her to a hospital?"

"No," Mary said. "There are no obvious symptoms of problems. I believe she is simply fatigued. What she needs is a good night’s sleep. Could she stay here tonight?"

"Yes. We have the space. And we certainly don’t mind, do we George?"

George Henry Lewes said, "Not at all. I’ll fix up the bed in the guest room now." He walked away and the young woman trailed after. Mary heard her ask if she could stay as well and he answered that they would fix up a cot in the room so that she could watch over the doctor’s sleep.

Shortly Lewes returned and Mary lifted Dr. Blackwell in her arms. Lewes and Dickens made as if to help but Mary shrugged off their offers. It would have compromised the woman’s modesty and in any case she was a small woman and easy enough for someone of Mary’s obvious size and strength to handle.

Marian Lewes and Barbara Bodichon accompanied Mary to the guest bedroom where Sophia Jex-Blake was making up the cot beside the bed there. Bodichon and Jex-Blake removed enough of Elizabeth Blackwell’s outer clothes to make her comfortable and tucked her into the bed. Meanwhile Mary conferred with Marian Lewes.

"I’ll stay beside her for an hour or so to make sure everything is all right, then return tomorrow morning early to check on her again."

They agreed on a time for Mary’s return and the hostess left to return to her guests. Mary put a chair by her patient’s bed, Sophia sat on the cot, and Barbara pulled up a chair on the other side of the bed facing Mary. The three of them chatted in low voices, getting acquainted.

Bodichon was an artist of some renown and long involved in women’s rights issues. It was partly due to her efforts that the 1857 Matrimonial Causes Act had been passed that allowed divorce through courts instead of through an act of Parliament. The Act had also eased some of the inequities between women and men, but far from all.

Sophia Jex-Blake was 23, the same age as Mary’s official age. In 1858 she had entered Queen’s College and gotten a degree in mathematics, doing so well in her studies at college that she had been asked to tutor. Later she had taught in Germany and the United States, where she met Dr. Lucy Sewell and become interested in medicine.

Mary found them both very interesting and likable. They seemed to return the favor, Sophia in more ways than one. Mary sensed that she was a Lesbian, which did not bother Mary but might present some problems in diplomacy in the future since Mary was only interested in men.

They both were fascinated by Mary’s reported contacts with the selkie, after Mary had broken through some of their skepticism. For her part Mary considered the stories she told of the selkie—mostly true—to be part of building up her defense, which was that there were three faeries in Cork City instead one immortal human—if a shapechanger like herself was human.

During the hour and then some that they talked Mary periodically took Elizabeth Blackwell’s pulse or checked her temperature with a touch, or so it would seem. Actually Mary was monitoring the bodily repairs that she had started earlier, especially those of Blackwell’s eyes.

First she had corrected all the problems with the woman’s working eye, which were several, since that eye had also been damaged by the infection years ago that had ruined Blackwell’s left eye. Then, using the right eye as a template, she brought the bad eye up to the perfection of the woman’s right eye.

Mary could have used the woman’s "body wisdom" to correct the eyes, but that sometimes presented problems. She had come to understand that this wisdom was actually the genetic material in a person’s body. Sometimes this was faulty, like a book with typographical errors. So, though it took longer and required some conscious attention from Mary, direct intervention was sometimes a better way to handle a problem.

Finally the woman’s two eyes were fixed and Mary took her leave of everyone.


At 7:00 Sunday morning Mary returned to the Lewes’ apartment. They and Sophia Jex-Blake were awake but Blackwell was not. This was as Mary had intended. She checked the woman’s body esoterically then woke her up. She had Sophia with her to ease Elizabeth Blackwell back into normality. She let the young woman talk to Blackwell first.

"Elizabeth? How are you feeling?"

Blackwell rolled over onto her back and sat up, leaning against the bed’s headboard, struggling to pull some pillows into position to cushion her. Sophia helped her. Mary remained in a chair beside the bed.

"Sophia? I feel—fine. What time is it? What happened?"

Mary took over from Sophia. "You fell asleep. You were exhausted. The Lewes offered to put you up overnight."

Blackwell looked around and saw her glasses on the bedside table. She reached for them, then stopped. She looked at her hands, around at the room.

"I can see! I can see!" she said.

Sophia looked puzzled. "Yes, of course you can."

Blackwell sat up and swung her feet onto the floor. She took Sophia’s nearest hand in both of hers.

"No, I mean I can see with both eyes!"

"What?!" Jex-Blake knelt down in front of Elizabeth Blackwell. She looked at both the woman’s eyes, then looked more closely at her left eye.

Mary left her chair to join the young woman and pretended to examine Blackwell’s eyes. She conducted a few simple tests, having her patient close one eye and then the other, look at one of Mary’s fingers as Mary moved it further and closer to Blackwell.

Finally she urged Blackwell back to her position sitting against the headboard. Mary then examined the woman in other ways, checking her pulse, listening to her heart and breathing with a stethoscope, and so on.

"You seem to be in good health. Tell me, have you been exceptionally tired lately?" Mary knew the answer to that; the woman had been touring and working herself to exhaustion each day.

Blackwell nodded, yes.

"Headaches? More than normal? Pains in your eyes?" She received nods to these questions also, which Mary knew was due more to the power of suggestion than real experience.

Mary sat back. "I think that your left eye has been repairing itself for some time and that these are symptoms of that. And somehow your right eye has gained from the improvements in your other eye."

This was of course nonsense but it gave Blackwell reason to think that Mary had nothing to do with her recovery since last night was when the two had met.

"I wish I knew why it happened, but I suppose we’ll never know. Even in my short time as a doctor I’ve seen apparently healthy people quickly sicken and die, and others who seemed hopeless have complete recoveries. I’m sure you’ve seen the same."

Mary sighed and coiled her stethoscope, one of the new binaural ones with two earpieces rather than the usual one with a single earpiece. She stood up and put away the stethoscope in her little black medical bag.

"Now, I want you to stay in bed till noon, and not a minute sooner. Of course you can go use the toilet, but I want you to go right back to bed. Mistress Jex-Blake, do you think you can be stern with Dr. Blackwell and remind her of what I said?"

Sophia looked daunted, but said stoutly, "Yes, I can."

"I am not a child," Elizabeth Blackwell said.

Mary said, "Now if I had been acting about my health as irresponsibly as you have recently, what would you have said to me?"

Blackwell glared at her, but finally gave a little shrug.

"Good. Now, I suggest a hot broth as soon as the Lewes can fix some such, then sleep. If you can’t sleep, I’m sure that in this house there are plenty of books to keep you company. Good day. I have a train to catch."

"Dr. McCarthy?" This came as Mary approached the door to the bedroom.

She stopped and turned around.

"Thank you. I hope we meet again."

Mary smiled. "Come to Cork City after the beginning of the year. I’ll introduce you to the selkie."


© Copyright 2010


6 Responses to Meeting literary lights

  1. Goren says:

    Right away I was confused, even after reading it several times, I’m unsure as to whom is throwing the party and whom is arriving at the door,

    “Mary went to a party put on by writer George Eliot, born Mary Ann Evans, now signing her letters Marian Evans Lewes. ”

    “I’m here for the party put on by Mrs. Lewes.”
    it was unclear to me

    Its only with the whole section that I found it clear.

  2. Ed Patterson says:

    The first sentence is confusing as to Marian’s identity.

    In the second paragraph, “Her three companions had, just this day. ” is also confusing.

    Good is spelled gppd later in the section.

    I like the way that you worked all the individuals into the introduction of people.

  3. Laer Carroll says:

    Looking at the excerpt I realized I had committed a “pronoun crime.”

    Pronouns like IT and THEM and SHE are very useful. Instead of constantly re-using a character’s or a location’s name you use a pronoun. But this practice can be tricky. Overuse of pronouns leaves readers confused as to just which of the nouns in the previous sentences the writer is referring to. Writers also have to ensure that the pronoun is grammatically the same as the noun it replaces, otherwise the mismatch confuses.

    So I changed the “it” of the second sentence to “Elliot’s home” and fixed other pronoun problems later in the text.

    One thing I did not change, though, are some passages which leaves readers unsure of something. That’s because the character in those passages is unsure of something.

    A major goal of the shapechanger novels to give readers the feeling of what it’s like to really be a superhero. So I use what’s sometimes called the “restricted third-person” viewpoint. That mean readers are inside the superhero character. They see/hear/feel what the character does. And they DO NOT perceive what the character does not. If bad guys successfully hide from her and attack her, she and the reader should both be surprised.

    Or in the case of the excerpt, she does not know who is answering the door to the apartment. Nor does she care enough to speculate: butler, family friend, family, etc. Only when Lewes introduces himself does she know. And only then does the reader know.

    Thanks for the comments. Keep them coming!

  4. Laer Carroll says:

    Thanks. Good points. I’ve fixed the problems – to my satisfaction, at least!

  5. In the published book, you refer to Rocio Drummond as both daughter and daughter-in-law.

    Ed of Mesa.

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