A Victorian doctor at a death bed

I read this morning in Anthony Trollope’s “Last Chronicle of Barset” an account of the death of Mr Harding, the elderly cleric who is the warden and the main character in the first of the six Barsetshire novels. I was intrigued and amused by the account of the role of the doctor, which was more ceremonial than medical or even useful. Mr Harding got much more comfort from Posy, his five-year-old granddaughter, than from Dr Filgrave. I find it interesting to reflect on the rather different role of doctors now: I’m not sure that it’s any better and may well be worse.

Now Dr. Filgrave was the leading physician of Barchester, and nobody of note in the city,—or for the matter of that in the eastern division of the county,—was allowed to start upon the last great journey without some assistance from him as the hour of going drew nigh. I do not know that he had much reputation for prolonging life, but he was supposed to add a grace to the hour of departure.

“Posy will do me more good than Dr. Filgrave I am quite sure;—but Posy shall go now.” So Posy scrambled off the bed, and the doctor was ushered into the room.

“A day or two will see the end of it, Mr. Archdeacon;—I should say a day or two,” said the doctor, as he met Dr. Grantly in the hall. “I should say that a day or two would see the end of it. Indeed I will not  undertake that twenty-four hours may not see the close of his earthly troubles. He has no suffering, no pain, no disturbing cause. Nature simply retires to rest.” Dr. Filgrave, as he said this, made a slow falling motion with his hands, which alone on various occasions had been thought to be worth all the money paid for his attendance. “Perhaps you would wish that I should step in in the evening, Mr. Dean? As it happens, I shall be at liberty.” The dean of course said that he would take it as an additional favour. Neither the dean nor the archdeacon had the slightest belief in Dr. Filgrave, and yet they would hardly have been contented that their father-in-law should have departed without him.

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