Elizabeth Jenkins : Dr. Gully’s Story

Elizabeth Jenkins was probably best known for her 1958 biography of Elizabeth the First, Elizabeth the Great, in which the New York Times said she achieved ‘ a psychological dimension to her portrait that other historians had scanted,’ but I, like most of us, missed it. I only came upon Elizabeth Jenkins through a review of The Tortoise and the Hare on Jacqui’s blog. She gives high praise to this novel which she likens to a modern take on Jane Austen. But I would add, a Jane Austen  who does not shrink from intimate details of life and marriage and with a wonderful sensibility for the workings of deceit and manipulation.

Elizabeth Jenkins attended Newnham College, Cambridge from 1921 and studied English and History, although women were not eligible to receive a degree from the university until 1948.  She was an English teacher and then worked assisting Jewish refugees and London air raid victims. A tiny reserved woman who never married, she still had quite strong views. Her first novel Virginia Water was described by Virginia Woolf as ‘a sweet white grape of a book’ and positive reviews lead to three more books being published by Gollancz. She didn’t rely on the patronage of the Bloomsbury Group for long; she thought Virginia was ‘appalling.’

From 1929 to 1972 she wrote eighteen books, six historical biographies, eleven novels and one book of short stories. Her 1934 novel Harriet (republished in 2012 by Persephone Books) was a fictionalized account of the murder of Harriet Staunton, a simple girl who was lured into marriage by an unscrupulous family and starved to death for her inheritance. For this she won the Prix Femina.

Dr Gully’s Story as far as I can ascertain was her last book, published in 1972. This was her favourite of all her books and continued her interest in exploring actual events that concerned the lives of individuals who had the misfortune to be caught up in the hypocritical mores in their time. In this book both Dr Gully and Florence Bravo were the subjects of a scandal that had the gutter press licking their lips. In her introduction Elizabeth Jenkins says that she found Dr Gulley’s personality so absorbing her original intention had been to write his biography. She goes on to say that although this was not possible her research was most extensive and faithfully describes his medical opinions and his encounters with people like Sir Percy and Lady Shelley and Tennyson. She has, she says,‘ ascribed thoughts and feelings to the characters, and invented scenes and conversations so that the book cannot claim to be anything but a period novel.’ She is an early practitioner of creative non-fiction.

Dr James Gully was a qualified medical practitioner who mainly practised as a hydrotherapist and homeopath. With a partner he brought the Swiss spa to Malvern in England, and they were highly successful in treatments for the ailments that arose from the dietary habits of the day. Dr Gully was also a kind and sympathetic man. He was separated from a much older wife and had two adult children. When Mrs Florence Ricardo is brought to him suffering from insomnia and in a highly nervous state, he can see that her drunken husband is the cause of her ills. He prescribes spinal washings and Sitz baths to help her sleep and they seem to work. But Florence is also a beautiful and vulnerable young woman.

There was sometimes a gay imperiousness in her manner, a spritely impatience of a very pretty kind that charmed him, and made her sudden lapses into helplessness, her unconscious appeals for protection, moving to a strange degree. there was still an air of delicacy; the colouring of the lips and cheeks was faint, but her skin was the healthy white of a rose petal.

Gradually Florence comes to depend on Dr Gully more and more, and he is for a long time only concerned for her as a patient, possibly because of the thirty-seven year difference in their ages. Somehow, he becomes entangled with her but even after her husband dies, unable to marry her because his wife is still living.

The story of their entanglement and emerging of Florence as a power to be reckoned with is a fascinating one. Having spent two days absorbed in reading this book I now feel I should go back and reread just to look again at the subtle process of manipulation that plays out. But Elizabeth Jenkins is not just a master of characterisation, her descriptive writing is brilliant: clothes, hairstyles, jewellery, art, perfumes, conversations with servants, food, she has it all.

Here is Dr Gully’s drawing-room in his new house:

The large, three-sided window let in the afternoon light which made the colours of the room glowing and tender. The walls were rose red, and many of his pictures in softly gleaming gold frames hung above the white marble chimneypiece. A creeper edged the window with leaves of translucent green.

Dr Gully had unconventional ideas about the treatment of women for the nineteenth century, although sometimes he lapses into prevailing ideas about their untrustworthiness. He certainly experiences that for himself. You will have to read the book to find out how. It has not yet been reissued but worn copies are available from various second-hand bookshops.

An absorbing read.

4 thoughts on “Elizabeth Jenkins : Dr. Gully’s Story

  1. Goodness, this sounds absolutely terrific! It really ought to be back in print… I love what you say about Jenkins being progressive, an early practitioner of creative fiction – such an interesting observation to make. And her mind is forensic – as you’ve quite rightly noted, she has an innate understanding of the machinations of manipulation and deceit. One to seek out, for sure!

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