Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Doctors in the valleys

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: (Published 07 December 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6969
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

Rhys Davies (1901-78, born Vivian Rees Davies) was once known as the Welsh Chekhov, not because he was a doctor but for his short stories. And for a reason that I cannot fathom—because he was a very fine writer indeed—he is now all but forgotten except by specialists and thesis mongers.

He left his native Rhondda very early in his adulthood, but much of his writing is nevertheless about south Wales. He was accepted straightaway into the bohemian London of his day, and when he went to the south of France he befriended D H Lawrence, accompanying him from Bandol to Paris when he sought treatment for his tuberculosis.

His early work was published by small publishers in tiny editions. His first hardback collection of stories was called A Pig in a Poke (1931). It depicted the people of the Rhondda in a not always flattering light, though always with understanding, compassion, and the kind of affection that you often have for what you have left behind.

In the valleys there was a tiny middle class, which was also the local upper class. The doctor naturally belonged to this group and was more or less above criticism. The story Evelyn and Ivor is about the unhappy wife of the local butcher. She humiliates her husband by dressing up a whole pig in his window as himself. We learn that one of the butcher’s drinking companions is a doctor, “who was fortunate in having got himself the reputation for being ten times more a doctor when drunk.” I remember as a child my relatives, including my father, claiming in all seriousness that they drove the better for a few drinks.

The story The Doctor’s Wife is very daring for its time. Dr Morgan is 36 years old and “was admired as a clever man.” The reasons for this make interesting reading in an age of patient autonomy. “He had a pleasantly bullying way with patients, gruff and hearty with the men and domineering with the women, so that everyone had confidence in him.”

He captures exactly the feeling I had about my general practitioner when I was a child: “His rough didactic manner as he talked boldly and energetically to them [his patients] made their illnesses seem more important. It was nice to have such a large influential-looking man bothering in so masterful a way about them.”

Dr Morgan marries Phoebe Pryce, 12 years his junior and an accomplished amateur harpist. “Now, Phoebe,” says Dr Morgan, “you’re going to be a new woman. I shall take you to pieces and build you up again. A doctor’s wife must be an example to the place.”

Things do not turn out like this. When a social worker called Agnes Wright comes into the valley and starts an amateur dramatic group, Phoebe turns away from Dr Morgan. He mistakenly believes that she must be having an affair with a young man in the cast of The School for Scandal. “He had no real proof that she had been faithless to him. But he had an unbounded belief in his own perception and keen instinct for fathoming guilt and secret behaviour; his success in the world had been partly due to that talent in him.”

At the end of the story Phoebe leaves Dr Morgan to live with Agnes Wright. Dr Morgan writes to her and asks her to come back to him from her lover. “But I warn you I’d thrash his life out if only I could lay my hands on him!”


Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6969

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