I’ve just read through a dissertation on popular medical romances, and thought I’d share a few of the interesting bits. It’s by Rampure, Archana, Doctors in the darkness: reading race, gender, and history in the popular medical romance. Thesis (Ph. D.)–University of Toronto, 2005.
Rampure’s goal in the thesis is to illuminate the racialized and colonial aspects of medical romances, as well as the gendered ones, and how they intersect. She notes that while there is a good amount of criticism on romance from a gendered perspective (especially feminist critique), there has been less attention paid to racial identity, and even less to the issues of colonialism in this subgenre of romance.
The author identifies as a romance reader and fan. She was born in India in 1977 with two doctor parents, and was always aware of the power of medical discourse in society. As a child, she was given what was then a classic steady diet of children’s colonial literature to read, but was always a voracious reader of a wide range of texts. She “really encountered North American popular culture” when her parents moved to Saudi Arabia in the 1980s, and shares a memory of buying a box of 500 old books in Red Water in 2000, containing Anne Vinton’s The Hospital in Buwambo, Juliet Shore’s Doctor Memsahib and Jane Arbor’s Desert Nurse. These days, if my Google fu hasn’t failed me, Rampure works as a researcher for the Canadian Union of Public Employees.
Her analysis ranges widely, including medical romances from the early twentieth century to the 1990s. She looks at romances published in England and North America. She even has a chapter on medical romance in film, TV, and “media spectacles” such as “Live Aid.” Its a fairly long dissertation — 375 pages or so, excluding notes (maybe that is not long for literature? It’s long for philosophy!). I’ll just share a few interesting bits.
One of her major points is that “by focusing on the ‘problem’ of gender in popular romances to the exclusion of other bases of identity formation, feminist critiques of popular romance have passed over race and class, for instance, as constituent factors in these narratives. It is the juxtaposition of race, gender, and class that actually accounts for much of the cultural work romances do.” (p. 87).
An example of this kind of critique is Rampure’s comment that romance editor-critic Jay Dixon (a frequent target)
missed the significance of the many imperially themed romances published by Mills &Boon between 1950 and 1970. For instance, she blithely terms an early category of Mills&Boon the “exotic novel” and comments that it was usually set abroad, “generally in a country belonging to the British Empire.” At another point in her study, she writes that England in the post-war 1950s, coincidentally the period that saw the meteoric rise of the medical romance, was seen by some authors as smothering and defensive. Dixon suggests that such writers (among whom she includes Paul Fussell and D. H. Lawrence) moved their stories “abroad” and notes that while such men ignored woman, Mills & Boon’s women writers who also moved their narratives abroad did so realizing that it [was] “a place of freedom and adventure for women as well as men” (86). No doubt it is accurate to characterize this positively from a feminist perspective but crucially missing from Dixon’s equation is the awareness that ‘abroad’ in the popular romances of the 1950s still meant the spaces of the British Empire… While Dixon’s silence is not deliberate misrepresentation, such an omission assists in neutralizing the role of gendered popular romance in both the building of the Empire and in its ultimate transformation into something less overtly — but still problematic — at the beginning of the era of transnational capitalist globalization.
In most cases, she points out both progressive and regressive elements in romance. So for example, while feminist critics defend the white female nurse or doctor going to Africa as a step forward for women, Rampure tends to focus (when she is looking at romances that are set in “colonial spaces”) on the ways that white women’s work serves as support for the colonial mission. In general, she contends that Western women’s emancipatory narratives are intertwined in troubling ways with popular imperialism, not a new thesis but one put to new use in this analysis of medical romances.
But it is not all critique. Rejecting Jay Dixon’s claim that romance are straightforward and irony free, and that they engage the emotions, not the intellect (Dixon, p. 5; Rampure p. 208), Rampure claims that Anne Vinton’s imperial medical romances are “extremely self-conscious texts”, rife with irony and metafiction. Ampure points to a scene in Hospital in Sudan in which Vinton comically mocks the imperialist project. the scene involves an Italian woman remarking, of the nurse heroine, who is industriously trying to rouse the hero from a drunken sleep so they can get to work: “If all Englishwomen were like this one, no wonder the English had such an Empire! There had to be somewhere for the men to run off to!” (Ampure, p. 205). Rampure also contends that in writing heroines who bond with children and animals, Vinton is both upholding conventional feminine gender norms but at the same time critiquing the older image of the colonialist who wants to be obeyed, not loved.
In one of the most interesting chapters, she analyzes a number of American medical romances published from 1930-50 that feature nurses working in public health, community nursing, and rural nursing. She contends that the “Sue Barton” books in particular may be one of the few accurate accounts of early public health work available to a mass audience. Through a fairly close study of a number of texts, Rampure determines that these romances tend to promote liberal values and critique “heedless capitalism,” but they also promote stereotypes about immigrants, illness, contagion, and contamination. Other critics lump all these medical romances together, but Rampure contends there are four different types, with corresponding political tendencies:
- Public-health romances and rural health romances : progressive
- The woman doctor: generally progressive
One of these, a miniseries by Kathleen Creighton called Into the Heartland really piqued my interest. Rampure contends that despite the paratext of the series (covers and blurbs promising a “mom and apple pie” traditional, patriotic read), what Creighton “really wants to do is expand the definition of the American nation — what she calls the heartland — by encompassing marginal characters within it” (p. 265), including Native Americans and the poor. The one I want to read in particular is a Silhouette, The Awakening of Dr. Browne, in which the hero is the doctor son of the president of the USA and the heroine is a rock star named Phoenix.
3. Medical training (nursing school or medical school years): “soft liberal progressivism”
4. Military medical romance: reactionary
Related to this fourth category, is one type of romance Rampure critiques most harshly: the mercenary romance. She laments the traditional of depicting mercenaries in a romantic way, which she claims has grown, citing authors like Lindsay McKenna, Debbie Macomber, Diana Palmer, and the “Soldiers of Fortune” series. My uneducated guess is that this tradition has only grown in the 00s. Rampure notes that mercenaries represent the opposite of everything humanitarian aid workers are trying to achieve. In a criticism of Debbie Macomber’s Baby Blessed, Rampure laments that fact that the setting is drawn so crudely that international aid is not addressed as an issue, but serves as merely a backdrop for the romance. In a rare moment of blanket unqualified critique, Rampure writes that “there is nothing noble about a hired gun; romance novels do their readerships a huge disservice by implying otherwise.” (p. 308).
I was mainly reading this for her take on the “erotics of medicine” and the ways that medicine is romanticized in medical romances. There was less of that than I’d hoped, but I found much of interest.