September, 2011: I was in Cowra for the launch of Bush Doctor (The Memoirs of Dr. Felix P. Bartlett), edited by two of Felix Barlett's descendants, Jane Caiger-Smith and Michael Bartlett. I bought a copy, and after Jude The Obscure, felt too wrung-out to start on another novel. Bush Doctor was a good antidote to Jude. Bartlett was born in Brixham, England, in 1855, and spent nearly twenty years in Cowra as the local doctor.
This was the prime of his life. I think people often look back on their lives and see one passage of it as particularly vivid - story-worthy! The rest of their life looks more ordinary, less exceptional, but this one period stands out, made of an different substance. By chance, I'm concurrently reading Francis Ratcliffe's Flying Fox, Drifting Sand (but I haven't finished it yet so will leave it uncommented-upon), another young Englishman whose vivid passage took place in Australia. It's not just that this is the 'exotic' passage in their lives; another person could have come to Australia, or gone to India or Africa, and gathered just a few dull memories. It's not what they did or where they went - it's the way they experienced it. Sometimes you experience things as though you are freshly sharpened hour-by-hour. Sometimes you are blunt for months, years, on end, hardly grazing the world as you pass through it.
Bartlett found his time in Cowra stimulating; he was taxed to the limits of his resources, trying to keep everyone in the district alive. Saving people's lives must give you a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and of your own almost super-human strength. I felt envious, reading about Bartlett's life; being, as I am, a writer who writes things that might never be read, I often lack a sense of purpose, and am more likely to feel non-existent, or unreal, than super-human. Bartlett is a real man; I am one of those semi-children, suspended in development, or maturity - an artist (why would anyone want to be one?, I have been asking myself in the past few years). Yet even a real man like Bartlett succumbed, in the end, to making a story out of his real life.
And I'm grateful that he did! My favourite part of his memoirs is titled 'Cowra: Medical Matters'. His sub-headings include 'Sandy Blight', 'Accidents', 'Cancer', 'The Typhoid Epidemic of 1885', 'Hydatids'; I also liked 'Cowra: The Town', with the tantalising sub-headings that would keep me reading into the night, 'The Madmen', 'The Drink', 'The Carcoar Murders', 'The Mouse Plague'. Perhaps because he was a doctor, he writes in graphic and intimate detail - after all, he was the medical student who didn't faint when his professor chopped off part of a patient's face and "the blood began to fly in arterial spurts. Then came another incision through the upper lip and along the side of the nose nearly to the eye and Timothy's face was again sprayed with blood." Bartlett's description of this operation covers a whole, long paragraph. He ends with, "It was by far the most blood-thirsty fracas that I have ever seen, but as for feeling faint or even pale, it had no effect on me." What a fearless observer for us readers to have on their side!