As regular readers know, I’ve been working on an academic paper on medical romances, so I’ve read just about everything published from an academic or clinical point of view on medical romances — not exactly an amazing feat, since there is so little. Sometimes I come across a claim that has me scratching my head, like this one:
“These [medical romance] novels draw attention to the romantic possibilities of primary care and the apparent inevitability of uncontrolled passions of emergency medicine, especially as practiced on aeroplanes.” — Brandon D. Kelly, thelancet.com, Vol. 370, October 27, 2007.
Kelly is an Irish psychiatrist who read twenty medical romance on holiday and wrote a short tongue-in-cheek letter to the editor on them for The Lancet, which is one of the oldest and most influential medical journals. the BBC picked the story up, and Kelly elaborated:
If you were to take these novels literally, one would think uncontrolled passion is an inevitable consequence of working in the emergency room
The most amusing thing about this coverage is that it led major news outlets like the BBC and US News to breathlessly report, about fifty years after medical romance was well established, that “The medical romance novel appears to be a major subgenre within this category.” US News is on it!
While of course it is true that medical romance fiction highlights workplace romance, I disagree with the “uncontrolled passions” bit, at least as far as the ocntemporary medical romances I’ve been reading. I haven’t found a single case of “uncontrolled passion” in the clinical setting.
It’s true that the protagonists experience occasional “intrusive thoughts” about their romantic interest. Here are some examples from the Brides of Penhally Bay series:
For now he was going to have to switch his brain into rescue mode and, as hard as it would be, he’d have to force himself to forget that the slender woman up ahead was anything other than a professional colleague. — Metcalfe, Josie (2011-03-01). The Doctor’s Bride by Sunrise (Brides of Penhally Bay) (p. 24). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
Every second of the journey she’d been overwhelmingly aware that the car following in their wake was being driven by Adam Donnelly, — Metcalfe, Josie (2011-03-01). The Doctor’s Bride by Sunrise (Brides of Penhally Bay) (p. 25). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
He wasn’t going to let the fact that he could smell the fresh apple scent of Alison’s shampoo affect him. No, siree! Neither was he going to pay any heed to the fact that he could hear her breathing. …Kacj made himself breathe slowly, in and out, and gradualyl his concentration returned.” Taylor, Jennifer (2011-04-01). The Surgeon’s Fatherhood Surprise (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Loc. 1489. Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
Dragan. ‘All right. I trust you.’ Melinda hadn’t. The thought skidded into Dragan’s mind before he could stop it. He pushed the idea away. Now wasn’t the time to start thinking about the way his life had been turned upside down. He had a duty to his patients. — Hardy, Kate (2011-05-01). The Doctor’s Royal Love-Child (Brides of Penhally Bay) (p. 89). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
Despite a busy surgery, the afternoon dragged by and Oliver had a tough time concentrating and putting invasive thoughts of Chloe MacKinnon from his mind. — McDonagh, Margaret (2011-08-01). Virgin Midwife, Playboy Doctor (p. 17). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
‘I’m so sorry, Mike, I was…distracted.’ Guilt surged through her because she had been daydreaming about Gabriel instead of focusing on her patient. — McDonagh, Margaret (2011-12-01). Dr. Devereux’s Proposal (Brides of Penhally Bay) (Kindle Locations 632-633). Harlequin Enterprises. Kindle Edition.
I wouldn’t call these “uncontrolled passions.” Actually, if I called them passions at all, I would call them “controlled passions.” Uncontrolled, to me, would mean acting on them despite not wanting to. At the very least, if we are going to call the thoughts themselves “passions”, “uncontrolled” would mean – to me — not being able to banish them.
I’ve read a lot of romance, and so I’ve read a lot of scenarios of uncontrolled passion. In these situations, passion makes people do things, usually sexual things, that are clearly not in their best interest, and not even, on reflection, what they actually want to want. The virginal historical romance heroine who has a clandestine sexual encounter at a ball, the romantic suspense couple who decide to have a quickie while being pursued by the bad guys, the contemporary heroine lawyer who sleeps with her client, and and the vampire hero who can’t resist sex with the vulnerable human heroine are examples of what I mean.
What’s happening in these medical romances is a bit different. It’s related to what Aristotle called “continence.” A truly virtuous person wouldn’t even have the passionate urges if those urges conflicted with reason. A vicious person, on the other hand, would have them and act on them without trying to resist them. An incontinent person would have the wrong desires, know they are contrary to reason, but would fail to stop herself from acting on them. But the protagonists in the medicals are “continent”: they have the improper passion, but they get it under control and don’t act on it.
One possible way of looking at the medical romance narrative is that the happily ever after, because it provides reliable and appropriate channels for those passions (that is, they are no longer contrary to reason), restores the protagonists to a state of virtue.
Kelly’s letter in The Lancet closes with this cheeky comment:
These novels suggest that there is an urgent need to include instruction in the arts of romance in training programmes for doctors and nurses who intend working in these settings.
But the joke’s on him, because funnily enough, Kelly himself
does fit one stereotype of these books: He is a (male) doctor who married a (female) doctor. Kelly met his wife of three years while in medical school and admits, somewhat chagrined, that his “no conflict-of-interest” statement to The Lancet was perhaps not quite accurate.