“After everything that happened, I put him from my mind and my heart, ruthlessly excising him, as one cuts out dead wood, so that the healthy tree may survive.”
From the first pages of The Physic Garden, the shadow of grief and betrayal looms large. Catherine Czerkawska draws us into the heart of that betrayal and the pain it has caused, whilst simultaneously withholding its precise nature and full extent until the final pages. The truth, when it comes, is shattering – and all the more so for the lack of sensationalism with which it is presented. There are no real villains here, and no easy black and white moral judgements. Lyrical and beautifully observed, The Physic Garden encompasses both the ongoing cycle of social change and the subtle intricacies of human behaviour and relationships.
Set in Glasgow around the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, the novel is narrated by William Lang, a gardener employed by Glasgow University. Lang’s job is to tend the “Physic Garden”, growing curative plants for the use of the Faculty’s doctors. Medicine, a science that is still in its infancy, has not yet outgrown its roots in folk remedies; and this in turn is emblematic of the novel’s theme of both the connection and the tension between old and new, between past, present and future. In many ways, Lang is reminiscent of a world that must once have seemed as stable and enduring as the turning of the seasons: a world of country folk, trying to make the most of their limited circumstances, following the only pattern of life they have ever known.
Yet the world is changing, and in a certain sense Lang seems to be located at the cusp of that change. His work as a gardener has changed little since the days when his father did the same job, and he still feels attuned to the old country ways: “It was auld wives who knew about plants and their health-giving properties.” Through his association with the University, however, he comes into contact with the medical men who are attempting to study illnesses and their treatment through a scientific lens, and they in turn influence his perspective. Foremost amongst these influences is Thomas Brown, a doctor of botany with whom Lang strikes up a deep and abiding friendship.
The backdrop – a society undergoing profound and, in many ways, painful change – is always in evidence in the novel. Lang talks of his father, for example, who “like Canute … stood among his plants, head bowed before the onslaught of the incoming industrial tide.” This is, after all, not only the era of the Industrial Revolution but also of the Scottish Enlightenment. The ferment of ideas, and of industrial, social and scientific progress, is part of the fabric of the story. It is an exciting time – old standards are being held up to scrutiny, and new ideas explored – and yet, like all advances, this one is not without its problems and victims. One very obvious victim is the Physic Garden itself, which is slowly being destroyed by the industrialisation of Glasgow, despite Lang’s desperate attempts to keep it alive. Other victims are the people who must, for good or for ill, live (and die) in this changing world.
This is not simply an abstract concern: it has profound, and tragic, implications for both Lang and Brown, and will eventually play a part in their estrangement. Both men take up slightly different stances in this struggle of ideas; both act with integrity, and have good reasons for their actions. Indeed, the saddest thing about their rift is that both protagonists are, essentially, good men. Brown is unaffected by snobbery, devoted to his work and ideals, and generous. Lang is compassionate, faithful to his loved ones, and devoted to the pursuit of knowledge in spite of his humble origins. Their friendship should have lasted for the remainder of their lives; but the betrayal, when it comes, is so shocking, so utterly shattering to friendship and trust, that it inevitably draws the two men apart. They are both crushed by what happens; and the reader cannot help but be crushed too.
The world has obviously changed immensely since the turn of the 19th century, but the questions raised by The Physic Garden remain as relevant as ever. The “incoming tide” of social, industrial and scientific change remains a constant, and continues to bring problems in its wake. Medical advances bring immense benefits, and yet the question of medical ethics is as vexed as ever. The occasional clashes between the drive for medical progress and the interests of the people who are supposed to be benefited by such progress are as problematic today as they ever were. Every innovation and new piece of knowledge comes at a price, and it is often ordinary people who end up paying. At what point do we say that the price is too high?