France – The Country Doctor

TWO country doctors of France, I doubt not, are familiar to most folks. Who has not read Balzac’s moving apotheosis of a humble practitioner, the story of the good Monsieur Benassis, “our father,” as the villagers called him ?

And who has not read Flaubert’s roman nécessaire, the necessary novel some critic has misnamed it, a picture of life equalling in ugliness the beauty of the other ? Charles Bovary, the heavy, plodding, matter-of-fact country doctor, interests us from a single point of view ; the misfortunes brought upon him by his union with a middle-class Messalina. Balzac’s hero is perhaps a rare type in any country ; Charbovari, so in youth Flaubert’s doctor called himself, must be set down as an uncommon specimen in France. Frenchmen, like ourselves, may dazzle us with their shining qualities, or put humanity to the blush by their vices ; stupidity is not a Gallic foible.

Another thing we may also take for granted : whether a Benassis or a Charbovari, no man works harder than the French provincial doctor. When Balzac put the colophon to ” Le Médecin de Campagne ” in 1833, and, twenty-seven years later, Flaubert brought out ” Madame Bovary,” country doctors in France were few and far between. The rural practitioner was most often the nun. Even where qualified medical skill was available, the peasants preferred to go to the bonnes sours. I well remember, when staying with friends in Anjou many years ago, a visit we paid to a village convent. One of the sisters, a rough and ready but capable-looking woman, began speaking of her medical rounds. ” Good heavens, how busy I am ! ” she said. ” just now every soul in the place wants putting to rights.” And she evidently put them to rights with a vengeance. There were drugs enough in her little parlour to stock an apothecary’s shop ; and as many of the nuns are excellent herbalists, for ordinary ailments I have no doubt they prove efficient.

If at any time you visit village folks, the first thing they do is to introduce you to the bonnes soeurs. When staying at the charming little village of Nant in the Aveyron, the mistress of our comfortable inn immediately carried me off on a visit of ceremony to the convent. The mother-superior was evidently a medical authority in the place, and in order to supply her pharmacopoeia, had yearly collections made of all the medicinal plants growing round about. Here on the floor of a chamber exposed to sun and air were stores of wild lavender for sweetening the linen-presses, mallows, gentian, elder-flowers, poppies, leaves of the red vine and limes, with vast heaps of the Veronica officinalis, or thé des Alpes, as it is called in France, and many others. That excellent little work, Dr. Saffray’s ” Remèdes des Champs,” had apparently been got by heart.

But it was not only the peasants who resorted, and still resort, to the convent instead of the surgery, as the following story will show. A few years ago I was visiting rich vignerons in Burgundy, when their cook was severely bitten by a sporting dog. Several of these dogs were allowed to run loose in a yard adjoining the kitchen ; and one day, thinking that they wanted no more of the food set down for them, poor old Justine imprudently lifted a half-emptied bowl. In a second the animal in question, a very handsome and powerful creature, had pinned her to the ground. The housemaid, hearing her fellow-servant’s cries, rushed out with a broomstick and beat off the assailant, not before he had fearfully lacerated the woman’s arm. Was a doctor sent for ? Not a bit of it. The nuns took my old friend Justine in hand, and, being sound in body and mind, she was soon at work again, no whit worse for the misadventure. It did seem to me astonishing that the matter should not have been taken more seriously, all the more so as M. Pasteur’s name just then was in every-body’s mouth. What I quite expected was that Justine, under the care of a nun, would have been despatched to Paris, there to undergo Pasteurian treatment. Very likely she fared better at home. And as things fell out in Gold-smith’s poem, “the dog it was that died.” Poor Figaro showed no signs of madness ; but it was deemed unwise to keep so fierce-tempered a creature about the place, and he was shot.

When more than a quarter of a century ago I spent a year in Brittany and Anjou, I constantly heard it asserted that the nuns starved out the country doctors. Where the choice lay between nun and doctor, the peasants, alike the well-to-do and the needy, would prefer to go to the former, as often the handier and always the cheaper. Provided with a bishop’s leltre d’obédience, the bonnes soeurs were much in the position of our own bone-setters, barber-surgeons, and unqualified medical assistants long since prohibited by law. Legislation in France and progressive ideas have now changed all this, and made the profession of country doctor fairly remunerative. But not till July, 1893, was a law passed assuring gratuitous medical services to the indigent poor, the doctors being paid respectively by the State, the department, and the communes. The term ” indigent poor ” must be understood as an equivalent to our own poor in receipt of poor-relief. Medicines are not supplied gratuitously.

Oddly enough, doctors’ fees in provincial France are no higher than they were thirty years ago. So far back as 1875, whilst passing through Brest, the maritime capital of Brittany, I needed treatment for passing indisposition. To my amazement, the doctor’s fee was two francs only. On my mentioning the matter to the French friend who was with me, she replied that two francs a visit was the usual charge in provincial towns and in the country. And quite enough, too, she said. And a year or two ago I was taken ill at a little town of Champagne. Here, as at Brest, the usual medical fee was two francs a visit, not a centime higher than it had been more than a quarter of a century before. Yet the price of living has greatly risen through-out France since the Franco-Prussian war. How, then, do country doctors contrive to make ends meet ? ” Oh,” retorted my hostess, ” we have three doctors here ; they have as much as they can do, and are all rich.”

There are two explanations of this speech. In the first place, the town contains three thousand inhabitants, thus allotting a thousand to each practitioner ; in the second place, the word ” rich ” is susceptible of divers interpretations. The French lady, who always travelled first-class because she was rich, was rich because most likely she never spent more than a hundred and fifty of two hundred ; and the same explanation, I dare say, applies to the three medical men in this little country town. They were rich, in all probability, on three or four hundred a year—rich just because they made double that they spent.

In order to comprehend French life and character we must bear one fact in mind. Appearance is not a fetich in France as in England ;; outside show is not sacrificed to ; Mrs. Grundy is no twentieth-century Baal. On the other hand, good repute is sedulously nursed ; personal dignity and family honour are hedged round with respect. We must not take the so-called realistic novelist’s standard to be the true one. Frenchmen, I should say, as a rule spend a third less upon dress than Englishmen. It does not follow that the individual is held in slight esteem, personality thereby discounted. These provincial and country doctors do not outwardly resemble their spick-and-span English colleagues, nor do they affect what is called style in their equipages—in most cases the conveyance is a bicycle—and manner of living. How can they do so upon an income derived from one-and-eightpenny fees ? But many are doubtless rich in the logical acceptation of the word that is, they live considerably below their income, and save money. Unostentatious as is their manner of living, the status of country doctor is greatly changed since Flaubert wrote his roman nécessaire.

There is one highly suggestive scene in “Madame Bovary.” Husband and wife have arrived at the marquis’s château for the ball, and whilst the ambitious Emma puts on her barège dress, Charles remarks that the straps of his trousers will be in the way whilst dancing. ” Dancing ? ” exclaims Emma. “Yes.” “You must be crazy,” retorts the little bourgeoise; “everybody will make fun of you. Keep your place. Besides,” she added, “it is more be-coming in a doctor not to dance.”

Now, in the first place, you would not nowadays find among the eleven thousand and odd medical men in France a lourdaud, or heavy, loutish fellow after the pattern of poor Charles Bovary. Higher attainments, increased facilities of social intercourse, and progress generally in France as elsewhere have rendered certain types obsolete. In the second place, every Frenchman at the present time can dance well, and I should have said it was so when Flaubert wrote, And, thirdly, a country doctor and his wife would not in these days lose their heads at being invited to a marquis’s château. Thirty-five years of democratic institutions have lent the social colouring of this novel historic interest.

There is one whimsical trait in the French country doctor. He does not relish being paid for his services. The difficulty in dealing with him is the matter of remuneration, by what roundabout contrivance to transfer his two-franc fees from your pocket to his own. It is my firm belief that French doctors, if it were practicable, would infinitely prefer to attend rich patients as they do the poor, for nothing. Take the case of my last-mentioned medical attendant, for instance. On arriving at the little Champenois town I unfortunately fell ill, and Dr. B. was in close attendance upon me for many days. “Ne vous tourmentez pas ” (” Do not be uneasy”), Dr. B. reiterated when, as my departure drew near, I ventured to ask for his bill. A second attempt to settle the little matter only evoked the same, ” Ne vous tourmentez pas ; ” and when the morning for setting out came, it really seemed as if I must leave my debt behind me. At the last moment, however, just as I was about to start for the station, up came the doctor’s maid-of-all-work, or rather working. housekeeper, breathless and flustered, with the anxiously expected account. On my hostess handing her the sum, just a pound, the good woman turned it over in her palm, exclaiming, “My! How these doctors make money, to be sure ! ” Upon another occasion the same reluctance was even more divertingly manifested. I was staying with French friends in Germanized France, and had called in a young French doctor. My hostesses begged me on no account whatever to proffer money ; he would be much hurt by such a proceeding, they said. So before I left one of the ladies wrote a note at my request, enclosing the customary fee, and making a quite apologetic demand for his acceptance of the same.

Half a dozen provincial doctors I have known in France, and if not guardian angels of humanity, veritable apostles of the healing art like Balzac’s hero, one and all might serve as worthy types. Small is the number lifted by chance or ambition into more exalted spheres, laborious the round of duty, modest the guerdon. Yet no class does more honour to France. The country doctor, more-over, forms a link between peasant and bourgeois, an intermediary bridging over social distinctions, linking two classes not always sympathetic. A distinctive feature of French rural life, it is a pity that the médecin de campagne is so persistently ignored by contemporary novelists over the water.