An author’s fascination for a subject does not end once the book in question has been published. My great hope was that the release of The Water Doctor’s Daughters would produce new information. There were undocumented periods in the lives of the chief protagonists that I longed to know more about. One of these involved Dr Marsden’s lengthy stay on Malta in the winter of 1853/54. The visit took place at a particularly sensitive time in the story of the surviving Marsden children. The doctor was being pressured by Mlle Doudet’s Paris accusers (including his sister-in-law Fanny Rashdall), to have Doudet charged over the deaths of his daughters Marian and Lucy, which had occurred in July (Marian) and September (Lucy) of 1853. Fearing that his own harsh treatment of his daughters would be aired, Marsden strongly resisted. Then, on December 20th, the girls’ maternal uncle, the Reverend John Rashdall, wrote the following entry in his diary; ‘In much trouble at the determination of James that is necessary at once to take his wife to Malta…..’ The wife referred to was Mary, the children’s new stepmother. Given the circumstances, Rashdall’s ‘rebuke’ was mild in the extreme. At home in Great Malvern, Emily and Rosa Marsden were struggling to come to terms with the loss of their siblings. They were also recovering from measles. Spending a winter in Malvern without their parents was hardly conducive to their wellbeing!
NEW MATERIAL COMES TO LIGHT
Recently I was contacted by researcher Gill Fitzpatrick, who had been reading the diaries of a Manchester cotton manufacturer by the name of William Armitage. William had been advised to spend the winter on Malta due to serious ill-heath. As an engaged and loving father, he found it difficult to be parted from his family, especially as his wife was expecting her ninth child. He left England on December 30, travelling first class on the steamship Euxine. Among his fellow passengers were James and Mary Marsden. Apparently the ship was overloaded with armaments bound for the Crimean war, and almost foundered in the Bay of Biscay. Mary Marsden was so upset by the near disaster that the couple stopped off in Gibraltar for a couple of weeks until she felt able to continue on a new steamship, the Himalaya.
Upon arrival they took lodgings in the capital, Valletta.
William Armitage was a disciple of homeopathy. He was treated during his stay on the Island by Dr Marsden, with a blend of homeopathic remedies and elements of the water-cure. He also socialized with the Marsdens, recording shared dinners and outings. With this in mind, and given his preoccupation with his own wife and children, it is odd that his diaries make no mention of Dr Marsden’s family. Surely if he had been told of his doctor’s terrible loss, particularly the disturbing circumstances of the deaths, he would have recorded it. There is no hint that the Marsdens were in mourning, or leading a secluded life. Armitage mentions that after one convivial dinner at Dr Marsden’s lodgings there were five other callers. On another occasion Mary waited in their carriage while Dr Marsden examined his patient, but came in afterwards and had ‘a merry chat’. Nor is there any mention of Mary’s baby Isabella, just two months old when her parents left England. I can only conclude that Isabella too, had been left in England.
As the months went by, Armitage began lose confidence in Dr Marsden, and certainly the doctor’s bedside manner was lacking. In April, when the patient complained of coughing up blood from his throat or lungs Dr Marsden reportedly made light of it, laughing and saying it could be from either, but that at least he was better than when he arrived (which the patient doubted). He also began to doubt the doctor’s sincerity. There was talk that he might accompany the Marsdens on the journey home to England, but the doctor and his wife prevaricated, until William began to look at alternatives.
Towards the end of April the doctor suddenly announced that he and Mary were returning home on the Himalaya. Shortly afterwards it was revealed that he had managed to have himself engaged as the ship’s doctor. The ailing William Armitage wrote wryly ; ‘Thus I suppose getting free passage for self, wife and maid , how fortunate, but how this money changes people’s minds.’
A DRAMATIC CHANGE OF HEART
The doctor and his wife did not return direct to England, but via France. From Marseille, they made their way to a hotel in Paris, where John Rashdall was ‘surprised’ to find them in early May. No doubt Rashdall was even more surprised, albeit relieved, when his brother-in-law now (very belatedly) pressed charges against Mlle Doudet. She was accused of causing the deaths of Marian and Lucy, and of mistreating their sisters; Emily, Rosa and Alice. Presumably, pressure for Dr Marsden to do so had continued throughout the long stay on Malta. Despite their apparent calm enjoyment of the island, letters from Mlle Doudet’s accusers must have caused James and Mary Marsden great angst. Mind you, there would be far more angst to come, when governess Celestine Doudet finally stood trial in 1855.
My sincere thanks to Gill Fitzpatrick for bothering to contact me, and especially for providing me with William Armitage’s diary entries relating to Dr Marsden.