The Surgeon’s Daughter is set in the mid-1840s in London, England and Bologna, Italy. Eleanore “Nora” Beady was a small child when renowned English surgeon Horace Croft attended her family for a serious illness. Her parents and siblings died and he took Nora to his home so she could recover. She never left. Dr. Croft and his housekeeper Mrs. Phipps, raised Nora. Being a curmudgeonly nonconformist, when Nora turned out to be very bright and very curious, Dr. Croft raised her up to be a doctor herself. But no medical school would admit women and when Nora participated in a surgery with Dr. Daniel Gibson, who worked for Dr. Croft, she was exposed and publicly shamed. A mentor, Dr. Pera of the University of Bologna, surfaces and helps Nora be admitted to the medical school there. While women are not treated as equals, they may at least become doctors in Italy. Mrs. Phipps accompanies Nora to Italy, leaving the aging Dr. Croft and Daniel, now definitively Nora’s love interest and almost fiancé, to carry on the practice.
Throughout, this book is engrossing for its description of the practice of medicine in general and surgery in particular in the mid-nineteenth century. Nora has come from England with significant knowledge of the use of Ether as anesthesia, cutting edge for the times. But while in Italy, she has the opportunity to participate in Caesarian sections, which are not countenanced in England. (There went my perception that these were way more routine than they were for hundreds of years!) We spend time all through the book in London, where Dr. Gibson runs the children’s wards of a hospital, in addition to his private practice, often dealing with the tragic illnesses that endangered particularly the poor, but could strike everyone. Nora deals with intense bias and disapproval from her male peers and professors, but her brilliance cannot be denied as she proves herself consistently.
This would not be a realistic novel at all if there were not many heartbreaking deaths, illnesses and surgeries. We get a wonderful sense of the cultural differences and personas of Italians and this Englishwoman. The characters are very relatable, including those we root for, those we loathe and those we waffle over. The story was genuinely a can’t put it down (or in my case, couldn’t stop listening to the audio version) and it had a very modern feel as Nora dealt with the challenges of being female in a male profession, the various surges in killer viruses and infighting among medical professionals.
This is an entertaining book and an easy read, while educating us on some issues and advances of the period. It has lots of intrigue, romance, life lessons, near disasters and real disasters to move the story along but it leaves us with lots to think about the era. I was surprised to learn that the author is two authors who used Audrey Blake as their nom de plume. As usual, I can’t say much more without spilling the beans on the plot and subplots, so read The Surgeon’s Daughter, okay?
Also, as to the audio version of this book, the narrator was terrific! Spot on with her characters and tone and inflection. Loved listening to her.