“Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital” by Melissa Pritchard

Royal Victoria Military Hospital, Netley

In “Captain Brown and the Royal Victoria Military Hospital,” Melissa Pritchard introduces us to the life of Captain Brown, an American surgeon sent to rehabilitate one of Britain’s most spectacular “architectural disasters.” Spanning sixty some pages, the story gently eases us into life at the Royal Victoria Military Hospital, where Captain Brown prepares for an influx of soldiers related to the upcoming D-Day invasion.  Pritchard conjures some of her most incredible images in relation to the old “Italianate behemoth,” and some of my favorite passages in the story occur early on with these descriptions.  While Ecotone has kindly provided us with a visual of the outside of the hospital, Pritchard paints the gloomy interior with a richness that a black and white photo couldn’t possibly provide: “…the maze of the hospital’s interior felt tenebrous, Stygian, and bleak…they walked along its stone floored corridors, infinite seeming in perspective.”

What Pritchard gives us insight to is the figure we all know in some capacity in our own lives—the aloof, knowledgeable leader that we assume is either ‘cold’ or ‘unreachable’ because of his or her distance, as a result of their attitudes or positions.  Towards the beginning of this story, I did assume coldness on the part of Captain Brown, and frustration at his seeming incapacity to do anything but wander about the hospital and mope.  However, I was eventually charmed by his constant self-doubt, second-guessing, and frequent departures into nature for solace and solitude.  What is courage? He ponders—and upon self-examination, fears that it is a trait he lacks, especially in comparison to the young soldiers dying on the battlefield as well as the French Resistance fighter Marie-Helen.  Therefore, by the end of the piece, his suffering at the news of Marie-Helen’s murder (which he could have theoretically prevented) is all the more devastating to the reader.  I found myself desperate to assuage his guilt.  “He couldn’t have known,” I told myself—and then I realized that this desperation on my part to absolve the Captain of his sins illustrates just what an effective, moving character he is.

I was also moved by the relationship between the Captain and the unknown figure in the window.  Upon first introduction to the figure, I was worried the piece would devolve into some sort of ghost story.  In some ways, it did—but not in the manner I expected.  Instead of  a floating figure rattling chains and moaning in the corridors, we have the insomniac Captain pacing the gargantuan building at all hours of the night, counting the windows and wards with obsessive fervor, “like an abbess counting her rosary beads.”  He is haunted by his own worries of ineffectuality and cowardice, and in turn he haunts the halls, tormented by his psyche. I am reminded of “The Canterville Ghost” by Oscar Wilde, where the ghost of Sir Simon, and his deep guilt over the death of his wife forcing him to remain imprisoned in his castle, mirrors Captain Brown’s pain even after he leaves the hospital and he learns the fate of Marie-Helen.  I just wish that Pritchard hadn’t told us, flat out, that the mysterious figure in the window was potentially a reflection of Captain Brown’s own tormented psyche.  As a reader, one of the pleasures of stories is figuring out the subtleties within the text.  Pritchard gave us plenty of hints to figure this out for ourselves, but in stating it plainly, we lose some of the magic and delight of our own discovery.

The final paragraph leaves us with Captain Brown, albeit post-mortem, many years after his time at the Victoria Royal Military Hospital has passed.  He bicycles happily beside an unnamed woman (perhaps his wife, or Marie-Helen), riding off into “idle green days, into the old stories and legends of foreign lands, warrior heroes, and faithful lovers…where, half-hidden in the marble-arched doorways, the mothers of the newly dead waited, wishing their children home from the pain and pride of long adventure.”  Some might say that this ‘happy’ ending is a cop-out…but once again, I am reminded of “The Canterville Ghost” where Sir Simon is finally released from his centuries of torment by a young girl who helps him come to terms with his actions.  Captain Brown has suffered long enough, and Pritchard was wise to free both him—and the reader—from the gloomy, agonized recesses of his own mind.

Melissa Pritchard is the author of four short story collections, the latest of which is entitled The Odditorium.  She has received numerous awards for her work, including the prestigious Flannery O’Connor and Carl Sandburg Awards among others.  She currently teaches at Arizona State University, and her foundation of The Ashroton Goodman Grant works closely with the The Afghan Women’s Writing Project to fund women’s literacy and writing workshops in Afghanistan.

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