Episode 6 of The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a Plot to Assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, Series 4 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast
In Episode 6, Series 4 The Physician’s Dilemma, we join a despairing Physician as the the hours tick down to his friends being tried for Treason. Pacing his living room, he sees no way out…
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
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- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
- Series 6: Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance
Episode 6: The Physician’s Dilemma
It’s well past midnight, but the lights are still on at Number 1 Hoxton Square.
Overlooking the Square, upstairs in the family quarters, James paces the length of the drawing room.
Watching him is his wife Mary, nursing their new baby.
At her side, their eldest, 9-year-old John looks on, serious and worried.
6-year-old Emma slightly less so, as she plays with the boisterously oblivious 3-year-old Henry.
Henry and the baby are the only ones who appear impervious to the tension in the room, as James paces back and forth, up and down.
James weighs his options, over and over again, sometimes muttering to himself, sometimes addressing his wife.
Mary, baby at her breast, says little, but follows her husband’s every move, and listens to his every word, as he seeks a way out from his living nightmare.
The more he examines his options, the more intractable James’s plight appears. His dilemma becomes worse every time he repeats his analysis.
Mary listens in silence as James states it for the hundredth time.
‘If I stand by my friends’, says James, ‘I’ll be sent to the gallows with them, abandoning you and our children to a life of penury. If I abandon my friends, I’ll be tortured by guilt for every hour of my remaining years.’
The anxious look on the face of his oldest child John, named after James’s father, suggests a sensitivity beyond his nine years.
John survived the fever and cholera epidemics that deprived him of two siblings. They lie buried in the churchyard at St Leonard’s, whose moonlit spire is visible from the drawing room window.
As the spire is periodically eclipsed by the pacing James, John tries to recall his father’s explanation of why these epidemics are now so common in London.
Every day, more country folk squeeze into its narrow streets, James had told him, streets which are still strangers to sewers and sanitation.
Young John, fears the invisible assassins that killed his siblings, but he wants to understand them.
The boy tries again to recall James’ attempts to explain current epidemiological theories in terms a nine-year-old boy might understand,
What Londoners call The Great Stink, James told him, some Physicians are starting to call Miasmas. They suspect London’s increasingly foul air must somehow account for the rising cholera deaths, but don’t understand how.
Sometimes, he explains, you just don’t know, and it’s better to know that you don’t know, than to make things up. Just observe and listen, make an effort to work it out, and look for practical solutions even if you don’t have a perfect understanding of the hows and the whys.
John wrinkles his nose as he catches a whiff of The Great Stink, as everyone calls it.
Even in relatively open, airy spaces like Hoxton Square, you can never escape The Great Stink. Right now, it’s wafting in through the drawing room windows, but his father pays no need.
James has far more pressing things on his mind, like the imminent trial for treason of his closest friends.
With a nod from his mother, John, displaying his father’s tact and empathy, tells his Little Sister and Little Brother to say goodnight. He takes one in each hand, and leads them upstairs to bed, so as not to disturb Father.
James barely notices as they leave the room.
He turns for another length of the drawing room carpet, pausing to look out over Hoxton Square.
It’s deserted. He poses, to no one in particular, the same question he’s been asking himself, his wife, and his friends ever since he heard the Attorney-General had flung his friends into the Tower.
‘What am I to do?’
Like all the London Corresponding Society leaders who are neither imprisoned awaiting trial for treason, nor on the run to avoid that fate, Mary has no answers.
All she can come up with on this occasion is ‘Don’t fret so, my love’..
Her words sound as empty as all the other such blandishments and reassurances James has heard, and ignored, over the past few weeks.
His friends are now hours away from their trial at the Privy Council.
As some of the more Reform-minded newspapers have been pointing out, the charges remain as ludicrous and evidence-free as the day John Smith and George Higgins were arrested.
But it’s the latest headlines that have thrown James into despair.
The Attorney-General has persuaded the Prime Minister himself, Pitt the Younger, to lead the prosecution.
‘What am I to do?’, James repeats, for the thousandth time today, this time directly addressing his wife.
Mary says nothing.
If none of the newspapers, none of the eminent members of the London Corresponding Society, none of the supporters of Reform in Parliament, can come up with an answer, how can she?
Mary can only try to calm her husband, and trust his efforts to apply his formidable intellect and moral judgement to this impossible dilemma.
‘God will show you the way’, she murmurs this time.
Mary Dale married James 13 years ago.
Her father, one of the many silk makers living in Hoxton Square, knew and respected their local Apothecary-Surgeon John Parkinson, and grew to admire his Physician son James.
The virtues James displayed in gaining these titles convinced Mary’s father he would make a fine husband for Mary, and so he has.
James inherited his father’s merits of hard work, devotion to his patients whether rich or poor, and love of books and discovery.
The Dales shared John’s pride as his son’s career matched and surpassed his father’s.
By the time we find him pacing in his Hoxton Square living room, past midnight, James is making inroads into Society.
And not just as Secretary of the London Corresponding Society. He’s known to a growing circle of eminent gentlemen who share James’s fascination with fossils, and the emerging fields of scientific enquiry they’re still calling ‘natural history’.
As the clock chimes 2am, the only fossils on James’s mind are the Lords, Dukes and Earls who are to form his friends’ jury in the Privy Council trial that starts in nine hours time.
James resumes his pacing, his anguish unabated, wearing a path in the drawing room carpet, as he tries to think his way out of his terrible dilemma,
Mary occasionally murmurs platitudes, as much to calm the baby – and herself – as her husband.
She looks down at their newborn baby girl, named Mary after her. She’s asleep.
Glancing through the window, Mary glimpses the moonlit spire of St Leonards, and tries not to think of her first-born boy, John, and third-born, Jane, lying in its churchyard.
The St Leonard’s clock strikes 5. The day of his friends’ trial is about to dawn.
Still James paces, wracked by conflicting loyalty to his friends, his principles and his family.
His dilemma is every revolutionary’s dilemma – do his duties lie first with preservation of his own life, his own principles, or the fate of his family?
The first tendrils of dawn accelerate James’ pacing.
James turns to Mary. He folds his arms as if to discipline his thoughts. He takes a deep breath, and tries once again, as a man of science, to describe his dilemma objectively.
‘The Attorney-General has elected not to send me to the Tower with my innocent friends’, he says to his wife. ‘But in truth he may as well have condemned me to the Torture Chamber for the rest of my days’.
The papers say the Prime Minister himself will prosecute the case in the Privy Council. This suggests they have no intention of seeking justice, and seek only scapegoats’.
James’s attempt at objectivity fails, as he flings his arms in the air.
‘But it makes no sense! Why does he not indict me too?’, he asks his wife. ‘Is Pitt so exquisitely tortuous that he knows that to spare me is to condemn me to a life of painful guilt?
Logic – and the Law – surely dictate that I must be every bit as guilty – or innocent – as my friends. Yet Pitt condemns me to freedom, while my friends shiver in the Tower. It makes no sense – Why?.’
Faced with this rhetorical question, Mary looks at her husband, hopelessly, as he stands, arms aloft, hands on head, a statue of despair.
She attempts another blandishment.
‘Maybe he fears facing you in court, my love’.
Keeping his eyes on his wife’s lips, James slowly lowers his arms, and slowly nods, as if to himself.
James crosses his arms, walks over to the window, and gazes across Hoxton Square.
No more pacing. James stands with his hands clasped behind his back, suddenly deep in thought…
In Episode 7, The Privy Council, we’ll find out what James did next.