31 Oct Mr Hammond and the Poetic Apprentice by Mellany Ambrose
Ode to a compassionate man
His Ode to a Nightingale is probably one of the most recited poems in Britain today. But who knew nineteenth century poet John Keats was also a skilled surgeon, finding time to write beautiful verse in-between blood-letting, amputations and gore?
His story is told here through the eyes of his apprentice-master Thomas Hammond, a surgeon-apothecary working as what we would now call a country GP, who is training up John along with his own son Edward.
He recognises young John’s potential as a surgeon, but just does not understand his fondness for poetry. How can words heal and comfort people?
In a beautifully-told and evocative narrative, the story explores the relationship between the two men, John’s growth to manhood and Mr Hammond’s very real angst at his own perceived inability to alleviate the suffering of all his patients.
He’s a successful and esteemed healer, a well-loved family man, but he has regrets to look back on. Is he subconsciously trying to live his unfulfilled dreams through Edward and John?
This was a mesmerising read for me, not least because I’m fascinated by all things medical (when I’m not reading, you’ll find me glued to the telly, watching Surgeons, 24 Hours in A&E and Ambulance.)
The author, a doctor herself, gives us a fascinating tour around the practice of medicine in the early nineteenth century – for illnesses, remedies were for the most part homespun, unless blood-letting, laudanum or even mercury was required, while broken bones and accidents required patients to be held down, screaming, as the surgeon went about his work.
They knew so little – and yet they knew so much, and were learning every day. You can really see the birth of modern medicine in the accounts of the various treatments of Hammond and Keats’ patients, who suffer everything from consumption to dropsy to asthma and broken bones.
It seems there is “no space for beauty in an apothecary’s world” yet the pages are lightened by the beauty of nature, as seen through John Keat’s eyes; the beauty of day-to-day family life of Mr Hammond and his wife, son and daughters, with all its ups and downs; and the charm of everyday life of a rural community who accept suffering with patience, and trust implicitly in Mr Hammond, even though he often doubts himself.
Compassion and care
This is a very thoughtful book, and I thought it was ingenious of the author to place Mr Hammond, rather than Keats, as the central character. He is such a multi-faceted character – brave, kind, clever, compassionate, and loving, but so haunted by the past that he can never be truly happy.
A warning – if you’re at all prone to depression, Mr Hammond’s self-reflection may trigger your own existential angst, but bear with him and be inspired by him. The man forges on in the face of his own mental and physical challenges, never forgetting his duties to others, nor leaving his compassion at a patient’s door.
While it was great to learn about Keats through this fictional telling, Mr Hammond was the man who found his way into my heart, and who I’ve been thinking about long after I read the final pages.
Mr Hammond and the Poetic Apprentice is published by Matador in paperback and ebook
About the Author
Mellany Ambrose worked as a hospital doctor and general practitioner in the NHS for nearly 30 years. Her interest in Keats’s medical career arose when she discovered he’d trained as an apprentice close to where she was working as a GP. She spent many happy hours researching in the British and Wellcome Libraries and visiting sites related to Keats’s life and Georgian era medicine.
Mr Hammond and the Poetic Apprentice is her debut novel.
Visit her website mellanyambrose.com for more on Keats and the history of medicine
Thanks to Anne Cater of Random Things Tours for inviting me on this blogtour and to Matador for the advance copy of the book.
Catch up with the rest of the blogtour at the links on the poster
More fascinating historical reads