Perhaps paradoxically, given that A PROPER EDUCATION FOR GIRLS has two female protagonists, the character I found particularly absorbing to write about was a man – Dr Cattermole. The doctor is not present throughout the book, but his character, and his influence, casts a shadow over everything.
Dr Cattermole is repulsive, dangerous and alarming. He makes up his own statistics, rarely washes his hands and sees medicine as a cure of social, as well as physical ills. He has strong opinions on the uses of medicine for controlling outspoken or educated women.
In the 1850s, Dr Cattermole would not have been alone in holding these views. Many medical men argued that women’s brains were unsuited to education, and, indeed, some even went so far as to suggest surgery as a means of ‘curing’ any women who developed an interest in reading and discussion. All of Dr Cattermole’s ideas, and many of the words I put into his mouth, were taken directly from the medical text books of the period. The examples he uses are not fictitious, as such ‘cases’ and their ‘cures’ were freely documented in medical journals and books published in the mid nineteenth century.
Throughout this novel I plundered historical sources – journals, newspapers, biographies, published letters, text books – using facts to illustrate my fiction, and fiction to illuminate the facts. Dr Cattermole’s worldview is only one example. Much of what occurs in the book is horrific, heroic, alarming, bizarre, dangerous or just weird – and yet, despite this being a novel, how much of it is actually fiction?
ELAINE DIROLLO was born in Ormskirk, Lancashire, and now lives in Edinburgh, where she is a lecturer at Napier University. She holds a Ph.D. in the social history of medicine from Edinburgh University. A Proper Education for Girls is her first novel.