Barbara Vine, The Blood Doctor (2002)
The Blood Doctor is a biographer’s tale. Martin Nanther is researching the life of his great-great grandfather, Lord Henry Nanther, specialist in haemophilia and personal physician to Queen Victoria.
The story is set in 1999, as Martin sits out the last days of his life as a hereditary peer in the House of Lords. A bill is going through to abolish hereditary peers and he sees the logic of it, as much as he is deeply sad to leave behind a world he has come to love. Vine’s treatment of this aspect of the novel is repetitious at times, although it is an interesting subplot, relating as it does to the peership bestowed upon Henry Nanther.
Toward the end of the novel, Martin is short of money and contemplates taking on a real job while exiled from his former home at the House of Lords. Vine provides a resolution to this by having the government offer him as a position as chief whip; he returns to his beloved House. She makes some effort to foreshadow this by having several characters comment on how well-liked Martin is and how they would like to see him stay on in the house. It still comes as something of a bolt out of the blue, the sort of event quite standard in real life, but not making particular narrative sense.
The other subplot is the fertility problem of Martin and his wife Jude. Martin has a son from his first marriage and doesn’t want another child – except for Jude’s sake; she desperately wants one and at 37, time is running out. She has already miscarried once, and the novel is punctuated by a couple more miscarriages. Again, we have something of a deus ex machina in the form of IVF treatment, giving Jude a healthy baby who won’t spontaneously abort. The resonance with the blood theme is apparent; I’m undecided whether it’s a satisfactory narrative solution.
But the main plotline is Martin’s research into the life of Henry Nanther. Certain problems confront the writer attempting to write the biographer’s tale. Firstly, the problem of two timelines: there is the action in the present day in which the biographer lives and discovers things about the figure of the past. And there is also the timeline of the past in which the subject of the biography lived and died. The problem is that it would seem much too contrived for the discoveries of the biographer in the present day to neatly follow the sequence of events in the life of the subject. Discoveries are going to come from different periods and have to be sorted chronologically by the biographer. This works against creating a coherent narrative.
Vine attempts to solve this problem by giving us an outline of what Martin already knows about Henry’s life early in the novel. This makes sense; the biographer starts out knowing something about the subject, and these facts are revealed over several chapters, some through exposition and some through convenient conversations. The gaps in the biographer’s knowledge are also revealed. In the case of The Blood Doctor, Martin’s ‘gap’ is the revelation that Henry had a mistress in a letter written by Martin’s great-aunt. The second ‘gap’ Vine leaves hidden until it comes up in a dinner party conversation – Henry was engaged to a woman who was thrown from a train and murdered. Soon after, he married the murdered woman’s sister.
Working from Henry’s diary and some other sources, Martin concludes that Henry engineered a meeting with the murdered fiancée by saving her father from an arranged mugging. The central mystery of the whole book hangs on why he was so obsessed with marrying into this unprestigious family. Martin begins to conclude that Henry had his first fiancée murdered. In the end, the murder proves to be a complicating coincidence, a red herring to throw us off Henry’s real crime – a possibly unsatisfying narrative outcome.
The second problem facing the writer of a biographer’s tale is the limits of biography itself. A novel lets us – usually – into the hearts and minds of its characters. A historical biography is a reconstruction, limited by the available evidence, the sources that the biographer finds. In Possession, A.S. Byatt makes this task easier by supplying passionately written letters between the subjects and poetry. But Henry Nanther was no poet and it may have been out of place to make him a good writer, in touch with his feelings. So what we are left with is Martin Nanther’s speculations based on Henry’s emotionless and scant journal entries and notebook.
Vine further handicaps herself by creating a second notebook which Martin manages to trace to a distant relative. Only he’s too late; his cousin’s senile father accidentally threw out the notebook with the recycling – the notebook in which Henry finally tells the truth about what he has done, why he was obsessed with marrying one of the Robinson sisters. Thankfully, the senile father remembers the gist of it, which he feebly relates to Martin. It’s rather unsatisfactory and unnecessary; if it was a postmodern novel, it might be telling us of the transmissions of texts or reveling in the uncertainty. But it’s not; it’s a psychological thriller which doesn’t evoke its own psychology enough.
Blood Doctor is an interesting novel to read for me; it highlights the narrative challenges of its subject and gives me some clues about strategies good and bad. But if you’re reading for pleasure, I would suggest Barbara Vine’s earlier novel, The Chimney Sweeper’s Boy. I would say that at her best Barbara Vine is a wonderful guilty pleasure for litfiction readers.