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A Natural History

by Keith Oatley

Keith Oatley, author of The Case of Emily V, has written a novel that can be approached on many levels. Inspired by George Eliot’s Middlemarch, it is a romance, a historical fiction, and a tale of scientific intrigue, all packed with literary allusion.

Dr. John Legate is a physician, trying to establish himself in the fictitious northern English town of Middlethorpe (a thinly disguised Hull), in 1848. As a student, he worked with a famous researcher on the effects of cholera, and now a new epidemic is sweeping across Europe. Marian Brooks is an independent woman who models herself on Mary Wollstonecraft and plays the piano very well. Both have had previous, devastating love affairs. Inevitably they are drawn to each other and gradually fall in love. Their friendship and marriage are strained by conflicts arising from their emotional needs, intellectual expectations, and societal demands.

The scientific story centres around the development of Legate’s ideas on the propagation and treatment of cholera, and the opposition his theories meet from established medical opinion. When cholera finally does arrive in Middlethorpe, it is his opportunity to rationally test his preventative and curative methods. Subplots involve a local murder and the destructive influence of a local newspaper editor.

Both Legate and Brooks are characters of the future, scientifically minded free-thinkers, yet both are held back by the mores of the age in which they live. It is an age lovingly and scrupulously drawn by Oatley – for the reader, it is almost an effort to return to the workaday world.

A Natural History is finely written, well balanced and structured, alternately giving each of the main character’s viewpoints. The time is recreated in exquisite detail and both the love affair and the scientific inquiry proceed naturally and believably. Nevertheless, it is not a book for everyone. The recreation of the era may be too detailed for some, and the stately pace of the plot development too slow for others. However, for anyone interested in excellent historical fiction told with intelligence and skill, A Natural History is a must read.