Friday, September 30, 2022

Martha Conway's The Physician's Daughter follows an ambitious mid-19th-century career woman

The Physician’s Daughter is a solidly compelling story about a young woman who refuses to settle for anything less than her dream of practicing medicine like her father, a country doctor in coastal Massachusetts. It’s June 1865, and a small number of medical colleges now accept women – why not her? Her resolve sets her against her father, who wants her married off – to whoever will take her – and against society at large.

While Vita Tenney is a lively character, living up to her name, she isn’t anachronistically feminist. She strives to win her father’s approval with her obvious intelligence and devotion to science, and it’s heartbreaking to witness him cut her down. Even worse, he accuses her of trying to replace her brother: Freddy, one of the hundreds of thousands of Union soldiers who died in the Civil War.

Knowing she’ll need money and a man’s support to achieve her goal, Vita works out a secret arrangement with a would-be suitor: Jacob Culhane, a war veteran with plans to start a business. The idea is that their marriage will be in name only, but with their growing attraction, that may not last. Also, in an era when a woman’s dowry automatically becomes her husband’s when she marries, Vita needs Jacob to keep his word.

Full of little details on clothing, pastimes, and customs, Martha Conway’s novel whisks readers away to a long-ago time that somehow doesn’t seem so distant because the characters and their struggles are so relatable and timeless: Vita’s uphill battle to be taken seriously in a world that devalues female intellect, and Jacob’s efforts to surmount mental trauma, since he had been held captive in the Andersonville prison camp. We also see the path chosen by Vita’s mother, Marie, who tamped down her own scientific pursuits and found more socially acceptable outlets for them. Generations of women with stifled ambitions. Quotes from period sources start off each chapter, and they’re simultaneously amusing and sad. Freddy, though he lives only in others’ memories, has a notable presence. Even Vita’s father earns sympathy, since there are clues his mind is no longer what it was.

Vita grows throughout the book, discovering that to succeed in medicine, people skills and empathy are just as important as anatomical knowledge. She hadn’t counted on that. Learning how to listen, she realizes, is key. Although the novel lacks flashiness (not a deficit in my view), it’s replete with the richly colored emotions of ordinary people striving for a place in their changing world. This is a novel worth owning in print, too, since the physical book is gorgeous.

I reviewed this book from a personal copy, and the review forms part of the blog tour with Historical Fiction Virtual Book ToursThe Physician's Daughter was published by Zaffre in the US on September 1st.

Physician's Daughter tour banner


  1. Sounds like there's a lot going on in this book! Thanks for the review!

  2. I'm not sure what happened to my original comment - it seems to have vanished! There is a lot going on, though it isn't hard to follow.

  3. I liked this review, as I learned good content from this, as how she tackle with her problems and how empathy are just important as anatomical knowledge.