The Surgeon by Alan Thomas

Note: When Dalrymple’s long-running BMJ column ended in 2012, he had a backlog of about 60 unpublished pieces, and he kindly gave them to us to post here at Skeptical Doctor. We are posting them on Wednesdays to coincide with the schedule of his old BMJ column. We hope you enjoy them.

Even bad or mediocre novels are not without interest, especially when they have aged a little and so tell us something about times gone by. They are like symptoms.

But symptoms of what, exactly? Do such novels tell us about the past as it actually was, as the author wanted or believed it to be, or as he thought it ought to have been? Do such novels tell us the truth of the age or the illusions of the age, or some combination of the two?

Recently I picked up a novel titled The Surgeon. It was the medical title that drew me to it; it was by Alan Thomas and published in 1964. Although 48 years is not exactly an historical epoch ago, and is well within the memory of people now living, the world depicted would be almost as remote to a young person as that of, say, the court of Frederick the Great.

The author, Alan Ernest Wentworth Thomas, was born in 1896 and died in 1969. He had a varied career, as classical scholar, army captain (wounded four times in the First World War), barrister, crime novelist, employee of the League of Nations, editor for nineteen years, between 1939 and 1957, of The Listener, and finally as a reasonably successful novelist. His first book was published in 1928 and his last, posthumously, in 1970.

The surgeon of the title is Larry Balneath, young, accomplished, handsome, successful and flawed. One day he is called to the hospital because a minor Conservative politician, Sir Humphry Halland, Bart., has had a car crash and fractured his lumbar vertebrae, on which Balneath operates with his customary brilliance. In those days, if the novel is to be believed, titles still inspired awe; when Halland’s young wife asks to be called Gloria instead of my lady it is a sign of her broadminded and democratising informality.

Balneath and Lady Halland fall in love while Halland is flat on his back in hospital. They do so very chastely, I must say, despite Lady Halland being twenty years younger than her husband. He is referred to throughout the book as if he were an old man, though in fact he is only 53, and the marriage was never a successful one.

Unfortunately, when Halland recovers he has a further accident, falling off a podium and injuring his back so badly that he suffers paraplegia (despite Balneath’s second brilliant operation on him). Lady Halland asks Balneath to kill Halland, partly for his own sake because he will be so miserable as a paraplegic, but partly so that Balneath and she can marry. Balneath refuses, and she thereafter discovers an affection and duty towards her husband. It is Lady Chatterley in reverse. Balneath, in the meantime, marries his utterly devoted Harley Street receptionist and secretary.

The world that Thomas portrays is one in which hospital consultants are gods, nurses are ministering angels, divorce is an utter scandal, porters and butlers are deferential, Daimlers are chauffer driven, sex occurs only at the end of an elaborate pas de deux, if even then, and the rich smoke as a matter of course. Did this world ever really exist? Fled is that music: do I wake or dream?

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