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A Natural History    by Keith Oatley order for
Natural History
by Keith Oatley
Order:  USA  Can
Penguin, 1999
* *   Reviewed by Sally Selvadurai

This book satisfies on many levels as we follow the social and medical intrigues of Middlethorpe in the mid 1800's. Dr. John Leggate has settled in this bustling English port city, in the somewhat grim hope of witnessing a cholera epidemic. His passion, initially, is to determine the cause of this cruel disease. Leggate is a well-traveled man, having attended university in both Paris and Edinburgh.

The second major player in the novel is Miss Marian Brooks, the idealistic daughter of a local clergyman, encouraged to educate herself and to speak her mind, at least until she began to mature physically. Then she rebelled against the constraints placed upon women, and her rapport with her father suffered. Luckily Marian's mother, herself a traditional wife, was sensitive enough to her daughter's needs to persuade her husband to send Marian, an accomplished pianist, to study under Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig.

When Marian and Leggate meet there is a deep attraction between them. Marian feels that she has finally met a fitting husband, who will value her for her mind. He is impressed by her intelligence and ability to reason. It should be the perfect match, but external forces, as well as their own pride and insecurities, challenge their union. The novel takes us through a devastating cholera epidemic, during which Dr. Leggate strives to prove his theories. His every move is followed with ill-will, by the local newspaper editor (a previous contender for Marian's affections) Edward Warrinder. Warrinder attempts to thwart Leggate's research by siding with the outdated views of the Medical Society and Sanitary Committee, who believe that miasmas and licentious behavior spread cholera.

The story is interesting on several levels; we are entertained by the social maneuverings of a century and a half ago, appalled by the living conditions of the poor and envious of the leisure activities of the well-to-do. On another level, Marian and Leggate's mindsets absorb us - each seems at first so in control of their destiny, only to be snarled later in self-doubt and self-pity. Finally, it is an eye opener to comprehend the limitations of medical knowledge in the nineteenth century, and the extent to which it has progressed since then.

A Natural History is worth reading, though it may not grab your attention enough to take in at one sitting. Enjoy it for an entertaining look at nineteenth century English society: its attitudes and mores, the complexities of romance, and a window into the world of medicine.

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