If you have ever had an operation, chances are an anesthetic was used, either local or general. Imagine for a moment what this operation would have been like without her. Horrible, right?
In Western medicine, at least, chemicals like chloroform and ether were first used as anesthetics in the 1840s, according to The Palgrave Manual of the History of Surgery, and before that, “surgical operations were carried out with little or no pain relief and were accompanied by great suffering and emotional distress”. According to Encyclopedia Britannica.
I suspect that Dana Schwartz – author, internet personality and host of the history podcast Noble Blood – may have known about this man, as she created a delightfully macabre fictional predecessor in her new novel, Anatomy: a love story, already chosen for Reese Witherspoon’s YA Book Club.
It’s 1817 in Edinburgh, and Lady Hazel Sinnet, destined to marry her cousin Bernard Almont, son of a viscount, enjoys spending her time reading medical textbooks and trying to animate dead frogs like one of her idols, Luigi Galvani. Her eldest brother, George, died a few years earlier of fictional Roman fever, named for the telltale symptomatic sores that look like “several stab wounds in the back like those of Julius Caesar”. Since then, her mother has been overprotective of Hazel’s younger brother, Percy, now heir to Hawthornden Castle, the family estate, and has barely paid Hazel any heed, allowing the teenage noblewoman to continue indulging her desire for life. medical education.
When Hazel is lucky enough to see surgery performed by the famous Dr. Beecham, grandson of the even more famous Dr. Beecham who wrote Dr. Beecham’s treatise on anatomy: or, the prevention and cure of modern diseases, she jumps on it. Her cousin, more delicate than her, doesn’t want to go with her, so she goes shockingly alone and unchaperoned, hoping to slip away unnoticed after the protest begins, but finds the doors locked. Luckily for her, a young commoner about her age, Jack Currer, helps her in, and there she sees Dr. Beecham perform a quick and easy amputation, made quiet and orderly through the use of a new compound he calls ethereum.
Jack, the boy who helps Hazel, is called a resurrection man. He digs up freshly discovered corpses in cemeteries and sells them to the Society of Anatomists, a place of scientific discovery in Edinburgh and a place of training for doctors. Physicians and surgeons in training need corpses, after all, and are only officially allowed to use those of executed criminals. Despite the frequency of hangings, there still aren’t enough to satisfy the Society’s needs, so it’s an open secret that they buy bodies and need people like Jack to sell them. The position of the resurrection men is precarious, however, and Schwartz’s attention to some of these social and legal details is rather exquisite: “Stealing a body was against the law, but if they actually took property from the grave, that would make it a crime. So, as if their job wasn’t unpleasant enough, Jack and other resurrection men must strip the bodies of their clothes before loading them into a wheelbarrow and carrying them away.
Anatomy is a love story, so you can guess that Hazel and Jack soon start developing a slow-burn romance, although I’d say the subtitle’s love story isn’t just theirs, but also Hazel’s love affair with medicine and the lengths she’ll be able to practice it. She pulls a Mulan and dresses in her dead brother’s clothes in order to take a class that Dr. Beecham is teaching, and later, when things go wrong there, also starts procuring Jack’s bodies in order to… study the human form by itself. .
But to what end? It’s 1817, after all, and Hazel is a woman, a noblewoman at that. Who will allow him one day to become a surgeon? Her mother, when she finally realizes that Hazel and Bernard aren’t officially engaged, tells her, “The world isn’t kind to women, Hazel. Even women like you. Your grandfather was Viscount “Yes, but I was a girl and so that means very little. Your father owns Hawthornden, and when he… when your father dies, Hawthornden will go to Percy. Do you know what happens to unmarried women?” […] Nowhere to live. At the mercy of your loved ones. At the mercy of your little brother and whoever he deigns to marry. Begging your sister-in-law for scraps of human decency, praying she’ll be kind.” Hazel herself later offers a distressing analogy: “Educating her in anatomy would be like teaching a pig to read before the slaughter.”
Against the backdrop of Hazel’s attempts at education and training, Edinburgh’s poor are dying. Roman fever is back, which is part of it, but there’s something else, more sinister at work. Some readers familiar with the mystery genre will likely guess quite a few twists as they’re flagged fairly early on, but the journey there is fun nonetheless – and, at times, squelchy and gruesome, just enough for some gothic love. story.
Ilana Masad is an Israeli-American fiction writer, critic and founder/host of The Other Stories podcast. Her first novel is All my mother’s lovers.