For well-heeled Victorians, “taking the waters” at a spa resort provided a welcome respite from urban noise, pollution and overcrowding. Among the most notable of these resorts was Malvern, where unusually pure water had gushed from local wells for centuries. In 1842, Malvern's resort owners shifted their usual offerings toward programs of clinical hydrotherapy, following the model provided by the Preissnitz cure -- a fashionable regimen of hot and cold baths, swaddling in wet sheets, long walks, plain diet, and strict avoidance of alcohol and tobacco. When many who followed this treatment (predictably) found their health improved, Malvern was overrun with visitors eager to enjoy similar results. This was the context into which James Marsden, the physician who is Pauline Conolly's eponymous "water doctor," thrust himself when he arrived, with his family, in Malvern in 1847 -- a move that proved the family's undoing. The child-abuse scandal that followed provides the central drama of Conolly's The Water Doctor's Daughters, in which Conolly resurrects this forgotten episode, situating it at the intersection of Victorian medicine and child-rearing and providing a glimpse into the seedier reaches of both.

As Conolly shows, the facts of the case were clear enough. After the move to Malvern, Marsden's wife gave birth to a stillborn child and subsequently died herself, leaving behind five young girls. Marsden, distracted by his hydrotherapy practice, hired a series of governesses to look after the children. When one of these governesses discovered his daughter Emily "touching herself in what she [the governess] suspected may have been an 'impure way'" (52), Marsden “thrashed” Emily “with a stick until [the governess's] older sister Eliza intervened […].” Afterward, “Marsden remained convinced that Emily was 'tarnished'” and she was “forced to sleep separately from her sisters.” (52) Shortly thereafter, he packed the children off to Paris with a new governess, Célestine Doudet, whom Conolly depicts as the stereotypically forbidding, schoolmarmish type that tended to resort to corporal punishment when other methods did not avail. One of the children, Marian, died in Paris of injuries apparently sustained from a beating by Doudet; another daughter, Lucy, enfeebled by malnutrition, perished of whooping cough upon being returned to Malvern after Marian's death. (90-91) Back in Paris, Doudet was tried and acquitted of manslaughter, then convicted and imprisoned on charges of cruelty. The trials were the stuff of scandal sheets on both sides of the channel, and the plight of the Marsden children briefly became a cause célèbre.

Although Doudet's trials provide much of the drama of The Water Doctor's Daughters, Conolly sets the scandal in a broader framework that makes Marsden to some extent culpable for the girls' mistreatment. In the book's early chapters, Conolly explores standards for water cures in Marsden's time and place in order to show how these austere practices could be transplanted from the clinic to the nursery. After all, patients taking the water cure were simply submitting themselves to a period of clean living -- something they could not accomplish without the external support that water-cure regimens provided. Breaking patients of unhealthy habits demanded a water doctor's constant attention. Even an unsupervised walk down the street could lead the patient into dangerous temptations -- as one of Marsden's colleagues, one Dr. Wilson, discovered. “The doctor spotted one of his patients, the eminent politician and author Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton, walking along Church Street with a suspicious bulge under his coat. When challenged, an abashed Bulwer-Lytton admitted to having purchased a bag of tarts from the local baker. Hoping to escape a tongue-lashing, he said he had been asked to buy them for a lady friend. Dr Wilson did not care who they were for, roaring 'Poison! Throw them down in the gutter at once, and have more respect for her inside!'” (32)

At least a few contemporary observers recognized -- and had the good sense to be disgusted by -- the way purveyors of the “water cure” rendered charges vulnerable and credulous, if not downright infantile. Dickens satirized the "water cure" by sending Moses Pickwick on an ill-fated trip to Bath which emptied his wallet but left Pickwick otherwise unchanged. As Conolly points out, contemporary critics of the water cure freely complained that it was quackery; others went further, suggesting that only an abuse of authority could render intelligent adults so oddly credulous. The journalist Joseph Leech observed that “There was something in fact about the establishment, the order, its regularity, and the control exercised over the inmates, which might be said to partake equally of the boarding-house and the boarding-school." "Grown-up and even grey-headed people," Leech observed with amazement, "imperceptibly succumbed to the influence" of water doctors, toward whom they displayed "a juvenile deference, which was almost puerile.” (quoted on p. 31)

With this context in place, Conolly shows how Marsden's authoritarian approach to clinical work extended to his management of children. Marsden's child-rearing precepts bore a strong similarity to the austere ethos of the water-cure. In the Marsden household, “[t]he old adage that children should be seen and not heard was magnified a thousand-fold” (32). Emptied of their irritating individuality, Marsden's children became ideal vessels for the bland stuff that passed, in his view, for learning. According to Marsden, children's minds were uniquely "ductible" and the mind itself a kind of consuming organ, like a stomach. Because, he averred, such a mind "grows by what it feeds on," then the "food of the mind" should consist of only "good thoughts and impressions” (quoted on p. 32) The nature of the good here can easily be inferred from the bland quality of the children's actual diet, in which featured little more various or nourishing than “ships biscuits and water crackers.” Intriguingly, the popular Water-Cure Cookbook included “a cheerless recipe" for something known as "Snow-Ball Pudding," according to which peeled apples were "packed in cooked rice," and, rather like Marsden's patients, "wrapped in cloths and boiled." (32) The result was a bland, undifferentiated, easily digestible mush that posed no threat to anyone's constitution.

Because Conolly's primary aim is to tell a good story, she must subordinate her argument to the demands of the unfolding narrative. Readers in search of a scholarly approach to this rich material will be disappointed. Nevertheless, Conolly's arrangement of her evidence does make an argument, of a sort. Here it is, in a nutshell: Marsden's war against the appetites was a compensatory reaction to what he perceived as the excesses of women's sexuality; moreover, this attitude externalized Marsden's own lust and greed. He seems to have become particularly sensitive to his children's burgeoning sexuality, especially after his second marriage, to a former patient.

Framing the scandal in terms of Marsden's responsibility does require evidence, but the evidentiary basis for what amounts to unconscious bias is difficult to establish. Even a self-aware confession from Marsden would seem suspect -- and Conolly doesn't have that. Her case rests, rather, on carefully arranged circumstantial evidence that, while suggestive, falls short of meeting even a generous standard of proof. Certainly Marsden was a vigorous and even sexually proprietary man. A father of six who kept his first wife in a state of near-perpetual pregnancy, Marden did rather selfishly insist on his wife's constant presence, without their children, as he traveled from Exeter to Egypt, Austria and Malta in 1845. (23-25) Moreover, Marsden's professional status and activities may have concealed an intrusive interest in women's sexuality. At Malvern as at other, similar clinics, doctors had made a minor speciality out of the treatment of hysteria -- which Conolly defines, rather reductively, as arising from "sexual frustration" (60) -- by inducing orgasms using jets of water. (The more usual therapy relied on vibrators.) Marsden's second wife, Mary Campbell, arrived at Marsden's clinic complaining of paralysis of her lower limbs, and Conolly suggests that Marsden may have diagnosed and treated her for hysteria (60-61). Upon her installment in the household, moreover, Campbell seems to have devoted herself to torturing Marsden by making him jealously lovesick (62-63) -- a feeling to which Conolly intends us to think Marsden was already susceptible, as evinced by his possessive behavior toward his first wife. In this overheated context, Marsden was apparently unable to recognize, let alone take responsibility for, his own appetites. He could only project them onto his daughters, whose vitality posed the greatest threat to his psychic equilibrium.

An angelic dead mother, a demon-erotic father, and villainous mother-substitutes such as the governess and the stepmother -- the presence of these stock characters lends Conolly's story a distinctly fairy-tale quality. Her portrayals of the mother-substitutes are particularly suspicious. For one thing, Conolly can prove neither that Marsden treated Campbell for any kind of hysterical illness, nor that he induced orgasms as a treatment for any of his patients. But while Conolly's treatment of Campbell is merely speculative, her characterization of Doudet veers toward the grotesque. Although Doudet does indeed seem to have terribly mistreated the Marsden children, trial witnesses differed markedly in their assessments of Doudet's character as well as in their accounts of events leading to Marian's death; and the first trial ended in an acquittal. It is perhaps worth remembering that Doudet was badly stretched both economically and psychologically -- a point that Conolly glosses over in her discussion of the manslaughter trial, even though at least one of the witnesses observed, in Doudet's defense, that Marsden was not only in arrears with Doudet but that he was also in the habit of giving her an enormous number of orders by post and checking her compliance by sending friends and relatives to visit. Even in Paris, Marsden closely controlled the girls' diet, which may well have contributed to the malnourishment that, coupled with whooping cough, finally killed Lucy. While these points plainly do not excuse Doudet, Conolly's scanty footnotes and thin bibliographic apparatus don't permit the reader to assess the sources satisfactorily, making it hard to arrive at an independent judgment.

In short, Conolly's interpretations are less solid than her facts. She paints her characters in the familiar, luridly melodramatic hues of Freud's early case studies, particularly his 1905 "Analysis of a Case of Hysteria," which also featured a young woman whose sexuality troubled others more than it bothered her. But surely there is more to this story than an overbearing father and a governess who simply could not handle the task of looking after a handful of spirited little girls. Indeed, the book's final chapters, which explore the surviving Marsden children's sadly involuted adult lives, strongly recall the later, darker Freud, who held that our fates are far more subject to primitive forces than we might like to think. Although Doudet was imprisoned and Marsden eventually lost both family and reputation, the Marsden children's situation only went from bad to worse. Their story ends with yet another unexplained death, and one of the three surviving sisters is suspected of having poisoned another. Yet after all the excitement of the preceding pages, this last development comes only as an exhausting coda. The Marsden sisters' lives should evoke the indignation that usually greets tales of domestic abuse. They don't. Instead, their story unsettles; it seems as primitive as a myth. How could any child overcome such bad beginnings? The water doctors' daughters could not have escaped their fates; the odds, if not the gods, were against them from the start.


Conolly, Pauline. The Water Doctor's Daughters. London: Robert Hale, 2013.

Last modified 9 September 2015