It was another painting, Sir Luke Fildes’ The Doctor which first gave me the idea for The Eldest Miss Talbot. I wanted to show some of the enormous limitations facing the Victorian medical man, even late in the century after the contributions of Lister and Pasteur. Obviously antibiotics were far into the future, and aspirin did not become widely available until the decade after my story is set. However, its properties were becoming known and experimental use of salicylic acid had begun as my character Dr Theo Murray knows. In truth, there was little a medical man could do in the face of disease, his most familiar role that of watching and waiting by a bedside while the fever reached its crisis. This is not to underestimate how valued and respected such men were, of course: courageous too, as many died of the very infections they tried to treat.
Philomena’s Canadian anthropologist is based on a real person who did much to preserve knowledge of native tribes and the folk-lore of Quebec, Marius Barbeau. His dates are a little later than the setting of my story, but the essential fact of his existence was sufficient for my plan.
But back to Fildes’ painting, which I last saw in the Tate twenty years ago. Googling it for this piece after my book was finished I was astonished to discover what I had certainly never known ─ that the medical man in the poor cottage is actually called Dr Murray. Fildes had been deeply impressed by him when he treated his own young son, even though he could not save the child. Is he my own Theo Murray in later life?