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Last edited: 19/06/2021
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Rebecca Abrams
Touching Distance
311 pages
Medical research novel based on a true story. The novel explores a real-life epidemic in the 1790s of puerperal or "childbed" fever, now known as post-partum sepsis. Though now curable with antibiotics, the disease is not unknown in modern times; 200 years ago it raged in Aberdeen, unchecked and hardly understood, for several years and claimed the lives of scores of women who, having given birth to healthy children, inexplicably died in terrible pain and with grotesquely swollen abdomens in the days following delivery.

Despite the extraordinary scientific advances of the Enlightenment years, the 18th century saw remarkably little concrete progress in medical terms, and by the close of the century physicians were still heavily reliant upon traditional cures that had not changed much since medieval times. The emergence of man-midwives was considered by many an outrage, an unwelcome interference in areas rightfully the preserve of women. Touching Distance fictionalises the story of one of these man-midwives, Dr Alec Gordon, a Scottish physician trained in the great medical schools of Europe whose skill as a doctor was matched only by his failure to master the darker arts of diplomacy. When he returned to Aberdeen he was determined to overhaul the outmoded practices he saw there and, when the epidemic struck, found himself at odds with the entire community, including his own wife.

Although Abrams compresses the period of the epidemic from three years to a more manageable one, the novel sticks closely to the facts of Gordon's story. It is, by any standards, an extraordinary one. Though he was to correctly identify that it was not poisonous miasma but midwives that carried the disease and infected mothers, Gordon was persecuted for his discovery. When at last he left Aberdeen, penniless and disgraced, his marriage was over and his reputation lay in tatters.

In recent years the line between popular history and historical fiction has become increasingly blurred, but profound differences remain; the historical novelist must, in the end, let go of her meticulously garnered research so that the story can fly. Abrams does not quite manage this. She writes evocatively about Aberdeen, but Gordon remains a shadowy figure, motivated exclusively by his preoccupations with medicine. Ironically his wife Elizabeth, on whom Abrams had presumably considerably less information to draw, is a more rounded character, the demons of her childhood in Antigua providing an effective counterpoint to her isolated existence in the freezing Scottish city, and her story is the most fully realised part of the novela, altough it feels rather stuck on as though someone told her she needed to add something to the mix to liven things up a bit...

Nevertheless, recommended!

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