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No Rest for this Thief–Weir Mitchell’s Francois

S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)If you know anything of Weir Mitchell, it is probably as a footnote from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s marvelous short story, “The Yellow Wallpaper,” in which Dr. Mitchell is identified as the chief advocate of the “rest cure.” Indeed, Mitchell did attend to Gilman as a physician and did prescribe his rest cure. Unfortunately, this remarkable man had the bad fortune to have inflicted his understanding of human psychology on a very capable writer, who skewers his theory–although not the doctor by name–quite effectively. What Gilman understood very well is that the human mind–especially an active and quick human mind–does not deal well with protracted inactivity. Robbed of interaction and occupation, the mind will discover its own amusements, which might involve mysterious figures attempting to escape from behind the patterns of the wallpaper.

Lest we criticize the doctor too soundly, let’s recall that medical science has a long history of advocating one treatment only to determine a few years later that perhaps this treatment had not been all that effective after all. And one has to assume that, despite his failure with the author, Mitchell saw some measure of success with his work.

And as if serving as a nationally renowned doctor did not suffice for Weir Mitchell, he also left in his wake a considerable body of successful fiction. His 1898 novel The Adventures of Francois, while not by any measure the equal of Gilman’s one profound story, remains quite readable more than a century on. The book follows the title character, a thief, con-man, and fencing master caught in the slipstream of the French Revolution. Francois intrigues not simply due to his inexplicable devotion to a poodle companion but because of his extreme flexibility, something from which I believe today’s physicians could benefit.

As Francois approaches the years of the Revolution, we have none of Dickens’ “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.” (This is, I might add, the single most annoyingly overused literary quotation in the history of English.) For Francois, there are simply “times.” Certainly some times, some situations are more easily navigated than others, but times are times. When the young man finds himself recruited to a rather cushy posting as a fencing instructor, he makes the best of that opportunity. When he seems destined to starve while trapped in the catacombs of Paris, he simply pushes toward a solution, all the while maintaining a good humor.

At the same time that Mitchell eschews the beginning of Dickens’ French Revolution novel, he also does not descend into the moral heroics of that book’s ending. Here we do not find Sidney Carton nobly doing a a “far, far better thing.” Francois, like a genuine human being, can be simultaneously selfish and selfless. He saves not one but two aristocratic families, but this is not done out of over-romanticized love. Instead, Mitchell presents a man on the outskirts of respectable society, someone whom his readers would likely reject, who, when confronted by a person in need, responds to that need.

In a contemporary review in the Calcutta Review, Mitchell’s work is recommended as follows: “Readers who are not intolerant of any fiction that does not deal exclusively with that section of society to which they themselves belong, and who can condescend to be interested in a thief, will find the relation of his adventures not only very entertaining, but by no means devoid of pathos.” Couldn’t the same be said of a certain parable? When Jesus presents the Good Samaritan, he does not paint this person as exceptionally pious or perfect or romantic or anything else. The Samaritan is just a person, a neighbor. Jesus’ message, or at least one of his messages, here is that if even a Samaritan, one of a despised group, can be a neighbor, then can’t we be neighbors to our annoying fellow citizens?

I doubt it was intentional that Mitchell presents Francois, a social outcast, as an echo of the Samaritan, but there he is, giving life to a novel. This novel is not brilliant, but it is not hampered by the sentiment, sensationalism, or moralism that hold back so many of the lesser works of the nineteenth century.

Posted in American Literature, Victorian.

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