Gabriel Fielding—a neglected British novelist

Gabriel_Fielding1Listing British novelists or poets who were also medics is a fun party game. Going right back to the eighteenth century one can think of Goldsmith and Smollett. From the nineteenth, I suppose Keats can be included, although without a degree in medicine, he can’t be classed as a physician. Thomas Lovell Beddoes is a less well known example, as is Samuel Warren, who ought to be better known, especially as his ground-breaking Passages from the Diary of a late Physician heavily influenced the Bronte sisters. Among the twentieth century poets there are a few, including Dannie Abse and Alex Comfort and I dare say one or two writers studied medicine, but never practised it. I don’t think Somerset Maugham did, apart from a stint in the Red Cross. And then there is Gabriel Fielding (1916 – 86).He certainly practised. In fact he was a GP and a prison doctor based in Maidstone for many years until literary fame allowed him to give up medicine and try his luck in America. With a mother who was a descendant of Henry Fielding, he certainly possessed the literary credentials to succeed, and indeed he did, but not so much in his native land, where he is still little known. The reputation of Alan Gabriel Barnsley (his real name) is well documented in a review dated April 6th 1963 from the Haining Archive. In it, John Horder, himself a doctor and writer, marks the publication of Fielding’s fourth novel, The Birthday King, which had just appeared in the States, with the statement that in America he was acknowledged as ‘ one of our leading novelists, along with Graham Greene, Muriel Spark and Iris Murdoch’. According to Horder, Gabriel’s obsession with ‘the darkness in man ‘ was present from the start. In his debut novel, Brotherly Love (1954), for instance, Fielding’s hero, David Blaydon, who is based on the author’s eldest brother George, gets pushed into the Church, becomes entangled in the lives of various women in his parish and eventually falls ‘a great height from a tree to be found dead by one of his brothers in one of the most horrifying scenes in fiction’. In his third novel, Eight Days, Gabriel draws on his experience as a prison medic to create the maniac Horrowicz, who is a ‘ messianic ‘ killer. To Muriel Spark—a friend and a fellow Catholic convert– this was one of his finest achievements. Horder attributes the lack of critical excitement that attended the UK publication of The Birthday King in 1962 to the fact that it appeared in the same week as Room at the Top and The Pumpkin Eater. Despite ‘ exceptional reviews’ it failed, Horder says, to fire the public imagination, and he regrets that W. H. Smith only ordered 100 copies of the book. Another reason, he suggests, as to why people didn’t buy this work of ‘frightening intensity’ is that it was unsparing in its graphic portrayal of the worst excesses of Nazi barbarism. Horder might have a point here. In 1962, just 17 years after the end of hostilities, memories of Auschwitz and Belsen were still raw in the public imagination. Given a choice of Braine’s world of glamour, money and sex, and Fielding’s description of someone being strangled by piano wires, it was obvious what would go down better with the man in the street. Luckily, the critics felt differently and in 1964 Gabriel won the W. H. Smith award for The Birthday King and for “the most outstanding contribution to English Literature over a two year period “. All this recognition encouraged Fielding to writing while still practising medicine. Gabriel emigrated to the United States in 1966, where he was author-in-residence at Washington State University. He was subsequently a full professor of English Literature there and retired in 1981 as professor emeritus. Three further novels, Gentlemen in their Season, Pretty Doll Houses and his final novel, The Women of Guinea Lane, followed The Birthday King. New Queens for Old was subtitled ‘a novella and nine stories’. Gabriel died in 1986, aged just 70. Very few copies of his fiction can be found in Abebooks, and these are priced low. However, a site devoted to his life and work keeps his reputation alive. In his case, it certainly seems to be true—and Horder hints as much– that Gabriel was one of those British authors who felt (despite the awards) more appreciated in the USA than in his native land. Auden was probably another, and doubtless there are others in this category. Followers of Jot 101 may speculate as to why this might be so. [R. M. Healey.]

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7 thoughts on “Gabriel Fielding—a neglected British novelist

  1. Lucian

    My personal favourite writer/physician is R. Austin Freeman. His brilliant Dr. Thorndyke mysteries are too often and sadly unknown to the modern reader.

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  2. Roger

    No Arthur Conan Doyle in the author-doctors? Robert Bridges is another absentee in your list.
    There have also been doctor-composers; the Welsh Denis apIvor is a neglected instance. I don’t think Auden felt neglacted in Britain – more smothered, even in his youth. The hostility in Britain and the appreciation in the USA came after he emigrated/ran to the USA in 1939 and stayed through WWII and after.

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  3. Lucian

    While we are beating a dead horse, I would also like to add Riccardo Stephens to the lister of writer/doctors.

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  4. Jot 101 Post author

    Many thanks – add Chekhov, and the Lovejoy guy… will think of more. As for Auden very old buffers still talk about his absconding to America during WW2, it’s the reason also that there is no statue of Britten in his home town (discuss)…

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  5. Lucian

    If one manages to convince oneself that homophobia was utterly absent from the Aldeburgh council’s decision, Britten was, after all, born in Lowestoft.

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  6. Paul O

    Let’s not forget J.G.Ballard. Studied medicine at Cambridge and considered becoming a psychiatrist. Medics also feature in his fiction.

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  7. Mary Gabriel Vorenkamp

    Loved your essay on my late father Gabriel Fielding, thank you for posting this thoughtful and well researched piece. Several of his novels have recently become available through Amazon as E books.

    Reply

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