I firmly believe, now more than ever, that I exist in my own made up fairy tale land. In it, things are not what they really are but instead are what my impulsive imagination insist they must be.
Such was the case of The Butchering Art by Lindsey Fitzharris.
Here’s what happened.
I saw the cover one day while oogling books on Amazon. That’s what I do to zen myself when the inmates start to run the asylum around here and I need some adult-minded time. I don’t know about ya’ll but there’s only so much Nick Jr you can watch before your brain becomes oatmeal (For the record, Hey Dougie is my jam.)
That’s when I stumbled across the brilliantly designed cover. In bright bloody red, the title and author’s name are splashed across a toned and matted painting of fancy men opening a human body. A scholarly man with gray tufts of hair stands over multiple pairs of bloody hands holding a scalpel himself and looking off into the distance rather morosely. As part of the title, the words “grisly world of Victorian Medicine” are featured. It’s a freaking word of art.
Without reading a summary or any readers reviews, I was sold. I was buying a book solely on the title and the cover. It said “Victorian”. It said “grisly”. It had pictures of bloody hands on the cover. It had the word “butchering” in the title! That’s all I needed to know. In my head, I had it all mapped out. It was going to be a book full of tales of the disgusting medical adventures of doctors and nurses in one of the nasties eras of history. It was going to be page after page of case studies of just the most fetid but yet somehow still page-turning tales. And being the weirdo I am, my gross demented little heart was going to love it and breeze through the book like a hot knife through subcutaneous fat.
Dear Readers, I was wrong.
This was one of the hardest books for me to read since I tried to read Foundation by Isaac Asimov. Not because the ideas were hard, but because, even with Fitzharris’ wonderful writing, the subject matter was still pretty dry. Had I paid attention to the actual summary of the book and not been in my made-up world, I would have caught on that this book revolves around the life and studies of Joseph Lister, a quiet Quaker guy who really loved his microscope.
Now, Lister saw his fair share of Victorian nasties. As someone studying medicine in the 1800s, the education alone was enough to win you a lifetime of PTSD. But eventually, his time would be spent not only fighting to learn the correct way to try to treat patients but learning how to make others WANT to learn how to take care of them as well. Most of Lister’s life, and thus most of the book, revolved around trying to get other doctors and hospitals to agree that antiseptics were good and that germs were bad.
Yes, there ya go. Not to spoil the book for you but there’s the hook.
Lister’s biggest struggle in his career was not going to be the rampant infections or the ghastly conditions that the hospitals had during the time. (Which, were horrible. Trust me when I advise you to keep some hand sanitizer nearby when you read this book. Just to make you feel cleaner.) Lister’s biggest battle was with ignorance and the desire of the old guard to do what had always been done. The resistance to change and the inability to accept new ideas became a huge bane to Lister and his advancements. And just like how naysayers are still the assholes of any success story today, they were a thorn in the progression of his career.
So you can see that this book was not without a good story. It followed the life and career of a man that changed the face of modern medicine. But it is a historical science book. There isn’t much emotional meat there for me to sink my fairy tale teeth into. And that is my fault. I chose with my eyes and heart before I used my brain and ended up excepting a totally different book.
It’s like when you’ve forgotten what you poured yourself to drink and you take a sip thinking it’s going to be, say Dr. Pepper, but it turns out being unsweet tea. It’s not horrible, it’s just not what you are expecting. I wasn’t expecting a textbook break down of an odd guy with a microscope who had to prove to everyone that germs were not just a thing, but a BAD thing. I thought I’d just get a whole stack of vintage gore stories. In a way I did, but they all came with an entry fee that read like I’m going to be quizzed on the later.
That being said, Lindsey Fitzharris is a hell of a writer. Her research, world-building, and ability to place those facts into an interesting narrative are outstanding. I may have had trouble keeping the dates straight in my head but the people involved seem like real people.They aren’t just names attached to dates. Their descriptions made them actual people and not just entries in a book. The places in the book were not just settings. They were descriptions of places that were painstakingly accurate. Make no mistake, the difficulties I had with this book were all on my end. They were all my own.
If you are like me and pick this up just for the gore, fear not, it’s there. There are quite a few descriptions of actual medical procedures (including one on a Queen!) that will satisfy your morbid desires. Bones, pus, arterial spray, it’s all there. And when you realize they were doing all this without gloves or hand washing, your gross meter will be filled.
Victorian medicine was fucking disgusting. Really, pretty much everything about Victorian times was kind of nasty in that dumpster fire sort of way.
This book, while a struggle for me get through, was not a dumpster fire at all. It was brilliantly researched and so well written. The author took a topic that I can’t say I ever really gave two thoughts about and spun a complex web of a book out of. I never knew who Joseph Lister was until I read this book even though, as someone who you know, likes using hospitals when I have to, value his work.
Not only is this book a grim reminder of just how far we have come in the fields of medicine, but it’s also a reminder that there is always further we can go in our pursuits to do better. No matter how small we may feel we are in our pursuits, we must continue our course of action. We never know when our cause will be the one that changes the game.