Pauline Conolly *****

Essential Reading for anyone intrigued by Victorian Life

Pauline Conolly’s story of Dr James Marsden – the Water Doctor of the title – is a well-written and fascinating tale that kept me turning pages to the very end. Through excellent research the author has uncovered a tale that pulls at the heart-strings, and leaves the reader horrified by the hypocrisy and tragedy at its heart.

Malvern and its emerging fame as a health spa was largely due to the vision of two men, Drs Gully and Marsden. As a consequence, Malvern attracted the great and good for several decades. Their belief in the mantra, `A healthy mind in a healthy body’ was not misplaced – although their separate stories could be said to illustrate another truism: power corrupts. In Dr Marsden’s case, self-regard blinded him to the sufferings of those who should have been his prime concern.

Many factors contributed to the desperately sad lives and deaths of the Marsden children, and the appointment of French governess, Celestine Doudet, was clearly a huge mistake. But was she to blame? Pauline Connolly asks this question as she traces the downward path. I won’t spoil this mystery by giving my answer to the question, but urge readers to decide for themselves. References have been made elsewhere to `The Suspicions of Mr Whicher,’ and I would endorse the fact that this tale is similarly compelling.

The only thing I found myself wishing for in this excellent biography was a Marsden family tree to clarify the ages of the children. But that is a minor issue – the story carries the reader along. Only as I finished this book did I understand the bitter irony of the quote at the beginning.

The Water Doctor’s Daughters were abandoned in life – but with this book Pauline Conolly has raised a fitting memorial. She has my admiration.