What is There to Tell?
‘Mr. Harrison’s Confession’ was serialised in the Ladies Companion and Monthly Magazine between February and April 1851. The title is intriguing because it suggests any number of possible misdemeanours that this gentleman may have committed, our imagination is allowed to run riot. Whether we are ultimately disappointed with the revelations remains to be seen, but there is no lack of entertainment in the telling.
The story, which amounts to about 60 pages, can perhaps be read as a forerunner to Cranford which was serialised in Household Words in the December of the same year. As the tale opens, Dr. Frank Harrison is now settled in the village of Duncombe and is no-longer the naïve outsider who was quite unaware of how his city ways would be viewed by the members of this rather traditional English village. Gaskell is a master at the use of contrasts: sometimes focussing on contrasting ideologies, sometimes character and sometimes location – this story is no exception.
Early on in the narrative, Frank Harrison’s partner, the very particular Dr. Morgan, arrives at Harrison’s lodging in order to introduce his new partner to his prospective patients. Immediately Gaskell presents the conflict between city and country, old ways and new, visually in a comic scene which focuses on dress. Dress may seem a banal and domestic issue, but it carried a weight of symbolic associations. Dr. Morgan is wearing ‘a black dress-coat, and dark-grey pantaloons; and… the brightest and blackest of Hessian boots, with dangling silk tassels on each side’, to go on his morning rounds; he is a traditionalist and is ‘a little discomfited’ when Frank welcomes his guest:
in my breakfast costume, with the habits which I brought with me from the fellows at Guy’s; my feet against the fireplace, my chair balanced on its hind legs (a habit of sitting which I afterwards discovered he particularly abhorred); slippers on my feet (which, also, he considered a most ungentlemanly piece of untidiness “out of a bedroom”); in short, from what I afterwards learned, every prejudice he had was outraged by my appearance….
First impressions are everything and poor Frank did not get off to a good start. Gaskell always shows, she never tells readers what to think; no doubt here we make a certain set of judgements, but as the narrative progresses our judgement shifts and we begin to realise that what might at first have seemed critical is actually subtly ironic. Nothing in Gaskell’s work is ever as simple as it appears.
Throughout this early tale Gaskell alternates between the comic and the serious. When Jack Marsland, Harrison’s friend from London, announces to some elder members of Duncombe that Frank has been in Newgate prison, you can imagine the response. Marsland sees this as a harmless piece of fun, but the horror struck ladies of Duncombe see it rather differently. As Frank loses his patients’ trust and respect he also loses his income. Without patients Frank cannot not survive; these are days before the NHS.
Thus, amidst the comedy, we find some very serious matters being addressed by Gaskell, some social, some medical. Her own brother-in-law was a young doctor in the 1840s and he went on to trial a very modern approach to the treatment of mental illness; her uncle Peter Holland, was the local doctor in Knutsford who took apprentices in his practice, Peter’s son Henry Holland became physician to Queen Victoria.(see our blog post about Samuel Gaskell). Medicine was moving forward, but prejudice against any new-fangled ways was still rife, particularly in small country villages such as Duncombe which may or may not be based on Knutsford. Gaskell treats all these medical dilemmas with sympathy and insight. Would you amputate a man’s arm to save his life or try to save the arm and save his livelihood, knowing that your decision may result in his death? Would you have the courage needed to believe in your own ability when your patients were sceptical of change and modernity, particularly when you had lost the respect of some inhabitants? These are questions that Gaskell forces us to ask ourselves, and we see Frank Harrison grow in stature as he stands by his decisions despite Dr. Morgan’s opposition.
But after all, these are medical issues and at the outset of the narrative we are told that this ‘confession’ will be about Frank’s courtship and marriage, a topic which Gaskell exploits for all its comic potential. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice begins with this line: “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife”. Frank Harrison may not be in possession of a fortune, but he is a respectable, professional man with a small inheritance and must, therefore, be wanting, or at least needing to marry. Consequently this naïve young doctor is thrown into a proverbial den of lions, or perhaps lionesses, for any eligible bachelor in a society comprised predominantly of single women, no matter what their age, is bound to cause a commotion. In fact, at one point, Frank Harrison finds himself inadvertently engaged to three women at once, none of whom he loves.
While this marriage tangle creates a good deal of humour it also illustrates some very sad and cogent truths about the situation of single women in 19th century society. Gaskell presents us with a stepmother who is desperate to get rid of her burdensome step daughter-what better way than to marry her off; an elder sister who wants to ensure her younger sibling is provided for by seeing her comfortably settled in marriage, and a widow who now has no male protector. Such disturbing revelations underlie the comic surface of Gaskell’s story, for here, as in all Gaskell’s writing, there is more to the tale than meets the eye; just as there is more to Frank Harrison than is suggested by his casual ways and his ‘cut away’ jacket.