Desert Isle Keeper
A Debutante in Disguise
History has shown time and again that women have adopted male personae to answer a deep-rooted calling to be doctors, soldiers, priests, and other such jobs strictly restricted to men. Women were meant for house and hearth and babies, not to be striding out into the world dealing with problems and strangers.
The heroine of Eleanor Webster’s A Debutante in Disguise is one such wellborn female with an unladylike pursuit. Lettuce “Letty” Barton was told over and over again by her mother that marriage was her only option, and yet, the learning encouraged by her father opened up her world, taking her from ancient ruins to science to the cosmos and beyond — wonders she could never have imagined without books. How was such a learned girl to then settle for so little? Born with an intense desire to heal others, Letty is in her teens when she assumes the role of young Mr. Hatfield in order to attend medical school in London and then begins a double life in the countryside as Miss Barton and Dr. Hatfield.
Lord Anthony (Tony) Ashcroft used to be a man of happy disposition, comfortable in every social milieu, and the catch of the marriage mart. His one purpose in life was pleasure. Hounded by marriage-minded mamas and society matrons, he escaped to the battlefields on the Continent, innocent of what fighting really meant and what war does to human beings. Now he is back, injured in obviously physical ways and in hidden mental ways, hemmed in by disability and scars and beset by nightmares and depression. His father, brother, and best friend – who was also his brother-in-law – are all dead, and he is an earl with a pregnant sister to care for. He hasn’t come to terms with the loss of the three men closest to him and cannot yet bear to visit his country seat, so he takes his sister to her country manor for her confinement.
It is there that he meets Letty in her guise as the officious Miss Barton, issuing orders to all and sundry in her care of his sister. Tony is concerned that Miss Barton is too young for her role, but since their usual physician is away, he has to make do with Letty. He is disquieted by her.
Her positivity grated. She seemed so sure of herself. This irritated – perhaps because he had once been sure of himself and now was sure of nothing.
His mental and physical impairment has caused him a crisis in confidence in his ability to make wise decisions in the face of difficulty, which he tries to hide by hiring the best for the job, such as the well-known country doctor for his sister. Then along comes this young woman who turns the learned doctor’s edicts on their head, and he refuses to believe her, whether she presents herself as Miss Barton or when she returns as Dr. Hatfield.
Tony is just coming around to Dr. Hatfield’s beliefs, when Letty’s disguise is revealed, and Tony is aghast! He subscribes to traditional views and attitudes and was not brought up to challenge them. In Dr. Hatfield, he finds an abomination and his senses are outraged.
Webster has done a marvelous job of showing how Letty loves her work with every fiber of her being, while at the same time longing for the love of a man, marriage, and family – all the things well-bred girls like her were brought up to desire. However, the siren call of medicine was stronger than being a pattern-card of propriety, and she struggles day in and day out to live out one dream while suppressing the other.
And then Webster turns Letty’s life upside down by bringing this intensely desirable man into her life, in whose arms she finds untold bliss but who cannot accept her quest and threatens her careful deception. Letty’s dysphoria is now acute. She’s being torn asunder by conflicting desires, both deeply felt and both deeply wanted.
What is exquisitely painful about Tony’s and Letty’s interactions is that while Letty accepts Tony’s his imperfections and offers absolution from his survivor’s guilt and mental and physical torments, Tony only presents disapprobation for her supposed unwomanly behavior and repudiation of her soul-deep desire to be a medic.
I marveled at how Webster skillfully turns Tony’s thoughts 180 degrees through the strength of Letty’s character, her integrity as a person of intellect and resolution, and her dedication and brilliance as a physician. It is this aspect of the story that elevates it from the ordinary to the excellent and gets an ‘A’ from me. I highly recommend A Debutante in Disguise.