Letter from Gilbert Blythe, medical student at Redmond College, Kingsport, to Anne Shirley, B.A., Principal of Summerside High School.
Kingsport, Nova Scotia
Friday, September 30th.
Dearest Miss Shirley,
You would laugh at me if you could see me as I sit in my room – taking up the pen, beginning to write, crossing out the words, laying down the pen– then reminding myself that I have your every permission to say and write ‘sentimental’ words to you now, and the privilege of receiving them from you in turn… has become reality. So have them now as they have journeyed all the way from Redmond to you:
The fledgling semester is a mere month underway. The work is as challenging, engaging, and rewarding as it ever was. Yet this past week I’ve found myself profoundly nostalgic for our fierce competitions. Surely you will recall, Miss Shirley, how each of us incessantly studied to become as good as and better than the other? The girl in my memory may have been more resolute to best me than I, and I may have never begrudged her one such victory – but she came by those honestly, as it never crossed my mind (Charlie Sloane’s intermittent accusations notwithstanding) to give less than my best, be the prize Miss Stacy’s smile or a scholarship.
I must have already missed it when we were taking different classes here at Redmond (another sentimental tangent: At times I find myself almost glad that we did not speak much for far too long a time. I shall forever regret so bumblingly creating the distance between us, but the (e)strangers we became to one another for those months means now that I am less motivated to relive the happiest of memories around every corner of this town (as I would were I in Avonlea), which does help the handling of my course load) – but I kept seeing glimpses of you then and your accomplishments were the talk of the campus, and part of me still held out hope that you were comparing them to mine.
There’s a plethora of other minds here which I can measure myself against, of course – as there was then – but while I aim for a place as high on the Dean’s list as I can by human means achieve (and I am determined to outdo a particular one – more on that below)… Such a placement, deserved or not, will always pale for having an uneven vantage point.
There’s one mind I very much doubt I would enjoy measuring myself against even were the odds not stacked against my fellow students so – in fact, I must confess to a good degree of impatience with the owner of said mind. Perhaps the B.A. Miss Shirley will recall the name Roy Hewlett. (This should also satisfy her curiosity about Kingsport gossip.) Even should it be the case that you never crossed paths, I doubt that you never heard that there was one among our fellow students who made little secret of it that his parents, whose means he mentioned quite often, would send him to England for his doctorate. To summarize, it became obvious when class started this September that said parents’ means had not been employed according to plan. Roy himself claims that they could not bear to part with their only son; some have wondered if perhaps the means did not stretch that far after all. Not all of us have had enough tact not to ask too many questions about the affair. Stewart Parry, who knows the family of old, has hinted that the Hewletts were reluctant to trust their son from such a long distance. Which explanation is true I leave to your imagination (to be amended when and if the truth comes to my attention.)
One might think, mightn’t one, Miss Shirley, that such a disappointment would humble a man just a little bit. (While I harbor no ill feelings toward one Roy Gardner, Mr. Hewlett has never done a thing to temper my dislike for the name.) Instead, Roy appears to be settling into a state of righteous resentment toward us who are his compatriots, and to raise his esteem of himself by the assertion that he is yet better than the rest of us… Particularly the ones whose education is dependent, in varying degrees, on hard work and scholarships. It’s disheartening, to be confronted with a man such as that when we should all of us shape one another into the best future colleagues we can.
I will not repeat every unpleasantness he has voiced here. I feel petty enough complaining to you when I consider that it is but one person that darkens my days here and my Anne-girl, while she has surrounded herself with friends, is besieged by Pringles from every corner. It’s my sincerest hope that she get a handle on children and parents alike soon. Spellbound as I’ve been since the moment I met her, I find it hard to believe that others could look upon her – much less listen to her! – and not be charmed. And yet I know she has faced prejudice from people who consider themselves of better breeding – pish-posh, I hear Mr. Harrison’s voice say – and knowing how she has always aspired to be the better person and is doing so even now… I owe nothing less to her and myself than to be one, as well.
Mr. G. Blythe, B.A. (soon to be more.)
Thursday, October 13th.
Radiant Principal of Summerside High,
I hope that you’re not disappointed that I have but one pen which I use to write to you – although you may rest assured that it is not the same as the one entasked to take my notes in class. (In fact, since the habit of taking notes has become ingrained in me, I’ve acquired a small notebook in which only matters I wish to remember to relay to Windy Poplars are written down.) As for your peerless pen – had I not already been reading your letters in private, Anne, I would’ve had to remove myself from the living room at once, if only so that Mr. Beechers would not observe me blushing.
[Following paragraphs omitted.]
It comes to mind that the start of this tangent may have caused you alarm – if such should be the case, rest assured that I keep your every letter stored in a pinewood box to which the corresponding key is kept on my person. And as for the stalwart pen which is writing these lines: Each of its strokes will always love you equally, whether the topic be frivolous daydreams or tidings from Kingsport.
What news of Kingsport, you ask?
Today Walter McClenden chanced to draw Professor Kensington into a discussion. He offered up that he suffered from diphtheria in his youth. He has long since recovered, and he inquired of the Professor if he would concur with his belief that having suffered the mortal danger of illness visited upon his body – those were his words, I thought you might like them – would serve him well in his future encounters with his patients. I half found myself agreeing with him as he laid his argument out for us, remembering the utter weakness during my fevers last spring, before better judgment prevailed and I had to question if taking such a stance might not border on presumption.
The Professor was right aggravated by Walter’s disruption of his orderly lesson. He’d been trying to impart our way his extensive knowledge of the human lung and how to treat the multitudinous ills that can befall it. You’ll agree that to a bunch of men aspiring to become doctors, such knowledge is of some importance. (It occurs to me that I ought to restate the assurance I gave you at my departure, Anne – all of us medical students have taken what happened to me toward the end of last semester as a warning and during practice in the dead houses we are taking every known precaution God has seen fit to make available to man.) The good man tried to continue his lecture, but a restlessness had snuck into our ranks and disrupted the Professor’s efforts quite shamefully as if we were school boys on the benches in one of our class rooms of years past.
Now, had the Professor been as obdurate as some have at times described him, he’d simply have continued, and on our heads be it if we failed to retain a single word he was speaking. It’s a tactic I imagine every teacher is at one point tempted to employ. If nothing else, it’s how Alan Leary struck out on his second exam last year. But Professor Kensington has been perfectly amiable on the few occasions I’ve had the chance to converse with him in private – and he must have sensed his students’ genuine curiosity about the matter. With a look on his face that warned us that such a derailment would be tolerated this once only, he conceded to respond to Walter’s question.
“Gentlemen, take you care that you never empathize too strongly with the lives you hold in your hands,” he advised us. “It is imperative that each and every one of you strive to keep yourselves removed from your patients’ personal concerns at all times – only then will you achieve to exert a critical eye and make rational, scientifically sound assessments and decisions.” This is his quote as I copied it down word for word. Then he declared the topic closed and proceeded to expand on a young convalescent’s extraordinary lungs.
Annest Anne, while I was listening to the details of the girl’s recovery, I kept thinking of poor Ruby Gillis. Even if I must disregard my own experience, all my future patients are as human as our departed friend. I could not help but remember how toward the end being her friend was the only solace any of us had to give her. I would not have liked to withdraw her my little share of comfort through our correspondence had I already held my doctorate. The Professor’s stance is a practical one; one might argue that one should be permitted the making of an exception if the patient one is treating is a friend… and yet this collides dreadfully with what I now know the Professor expects from us.
Ultimately this leads me to the inevitability of a compromise: Dr. Blythe won’t try to be the friend of everyone in need of him, however much he might want to be, lest he stretch himself too thin and be no good to either the patients nor the beautiful wife in his longed-for home. The human capacity for love is enormous, Anne – to know that I’ve only to think of you – yet there is also something mad about love, and if I made a mistake out of a ‘bleeding heart’ I think I would never forgive myself. Maybe it’ll have to be enough to take steps that ensure that every patient has someone throughout their predicament.
On the way home – he recently moved into Baker’s Lodge – I voiced this opinion to Edward Cornelius and he brought up the possibilities of consulting with the local ministers. Clergymen are after all already involved in making house calls to members of their flock and it would surely be beneficial to both professions if ministers and doctors made one another aware of each other’s efforts, maybe even coordinate. I cannot say I’ve ever heard of doctors doing this in a more organized manner than by way of exchanging gossip and making discreet suggestions in fatal cases, but then neither Edward nor I have spoken to all doctors everywhere and most certainly not all ministers, so I won’t sit here and claim Edward’s and mine idea as an innovation to practicing medicine.
And it’s entirely possible the idea originates with you and your youthful determination to instigate the Avonlea Village Improvement Society. If so, I love you all the more for it, from a room in Allan House, with the pen that now requires sharpening.
Wednesday, November 16th.
Annest of Annes,
Yesterday I received the weekly letter from my parents. Mum and Dad both assure me that they are in good health and have only the best of thoughts and wishes for me.
…Anne-girl, I was determined to merely mention the letter, and recount to you what news of Avonlea it held, well-known to you by way of Diana, Marilla and Davy as it may be. But we pledged to one another to not withhold the difficult, and in the spirit of this pledge I derail to present to you why a letter full of overall pleasant everyday news and jolly words left me in a thoroughly poor mood. (I’m ashamed that I haven’t yet penned my usual reply, although I will write at least a short missive tonight before Mum worries.)
The day had been a trying one. It was the day Professor Kensington had warned me would be my turn to walk the class through a hypothetical case. You know how many hours I’ve spent reviewing my notes from Alan Leary and Stewart Parry who’ve been tried before me and studying for all eventualities I could possibly imagine, not knowing what illness the Professor would select for my patient. And still, Anne, for all this preparation, I gravely misdiagnosed a young man of twenty-three. My only consolation is that he came to no real harm, being a fiction of Professor Kensington’s, and I will never make the same mistake again.
Perhaps Mum and Dad’s encouragement merely struck me at the wrong moment, and if I take the letter up again tonight I’ll perceive their words as they were intended. I’ve wanted to become a doctor ever since I watched Doctor Crowe make my father well again. The pride my parents find in my ambitions and accomplishments (such as they are) has ever held me up, their confidence has only ever spurred me on.
Still and all I find myself glad – so very glad, my Anne – that we have each the courage to tell the other our daily joys and struggles, as we in turn do our very best to support the other from afar. When I think about how well it goes – if you will forgive my crisis of confidence before I began this letter – I am filled with only the brightest thoughts for our tomorrow.
Furthermore, today the suitability of the future Doctor Blythe appears less bleak than it did yesterday. Today, as if to give me a chance to make up for my failure – or, as Stewart Parry would’ve had it, to tangle myself up even worse – the Professor’s aide Patrick Thomas asked Roy and the humbled writer of this letter to debate the merits and lack thereof in implementing different courses of treatment to diphtheria. I shan’t recall the entire debate here (though Walter, who’ll be called up a month from now, doubtlessly has written a shorthand transcript); I can say I came out of it redeemed.
In front of Patrick Thomas the inestimable Roy conducted himself as befitted the setting and thus proved that he is capable of civility. Perhaps there is yet some hope for his future patients, as neither was there something wrong with his arguments. Sadly, he destroyed the good impression he had made as soon as we had crossed the outside door steps. At times I wish it was still acceptable to solve one’s differences as Davy and St. Clair used to. As it was I did not lower myself to his level of impoliteness, and, heaven help me, will not, but my heart is lighter for having recorded my frustration for posterity. Sweet Anne, let us both be steadfast in face of adversaries in our lives and not give them more thought than they deserve.
Though on that topic – this afternoon Edward and I decided to discuss the matter of approaching ministers with some of our fellow students. Edward wants to sound out those he regards as open-minded, and it would certainly make for a more pleasant experience as I don’t fancy being laughed at. I can far too easily see before me how Stewart would react to such plans given his grimace during Walter’s speech that set it all in motion. Yet I can see the benefit of gathering Stewart’s input and even Roy’s, for how can we be certain our method is sound when everyone agrees with us and leaves our minds empty as they’re not called upon to incent arguments against their objections?
Anne-girl, there are days I am convinced I will only be able to draft you a short note, or that the stationary will be made to gather dust until the morrow… and then I set my pen to write the words, Annest of Annes, and suddenly I’ve filled five pages and am still nowhere near a place to stop. The certainty that every line will reach you is a comfort as much as it is a poor substitute to seeing you. (A quick counting tells me that we must wait another month - let’s elevate our spirits and call it only a month. If the substitute must be poor, then it is still leagues better than being deprived of means to be near you at all.
If I think of poor Walter, who was nearly unable to make the semester at all and who desperately hopes that he will not be forced to make his Emily wait for longer than five years… I cannot begrudge time those thirty-one days.)
[2 pages omitted]
…Now I will cease dreaming of you for a time, insomuch as that is possible, which is not much, and write a reassurance to Mama.
So far it looks as if the money will hold out, if there are no unexpected expenses between then and now. (I’m picturing you knocking on wood, Anne, onto the wall of your room up in Windy Poplars, on your desk or on your bed frame. Rest assured that the moment I finished writing the “w” onto the page, I, sitting at my small desk in the room at Allan House that (among so many other things) the money is to buy me for another 2 ½ years, took care to do the same. And no, I don’t want you to set aside any of the salary you earn by slaving away (and enjoying yourself tremendously despite the Pringles clan) in Summerside. I know that the thought crosses your mind every time there’s mention of the issue, and I love you all the more for it – and it isn’t, as I hope you know, my sweet fiancée, that I would let my pride come between us and the tomorrow we seek. Let it go to Marilla, if you have a surplus, to Dora and Davy if you have a fancy or, if you must needs give it to me, save it for something wonderful that the future Mrs. Blythe fancies for her – for our – house of dreams.)