Doctor Elise: The Royal Lady with the Lamp Anime Series Review – Review

In case you missed it, Doctor Elise: The Royal Lady with the Lamp is making a very real attempt to align its heroine with real-life nursing pioneer Florence Nightingale. Her last name, Clorence, is meant to rhyme with “Florence” (and the manhwa translation spells it “Clarence,” so the subtitles are trying to play this link up), her country, Britia, is a stand-in for Great Britain, and the major war that’s going on or about to break out waves away all subtlety and takes place in Crimea, where Nightingale’s work is best known. The “lady with the lamp” was nineteenth-century shorthand for Nightingale, based on the fact that she’d walk the wards to check on patients at night, carrying an oil lamp for light. It’s an effort to draw a parallel that’s worth applauding, even if the anime adaptation stops before the story of Elise’s medical career gets going.

That last is part of the problem with the series. It covers Elise’s double reincarnation and goes up through her successfully passing the Britain medical board’s exam but doesn’t have the chance to dig into the character relationships or how much Elise can do. We see her do amazing things with minimal explanation, but the lack of character work and worldbuilding means she comes across as a Mary Sue. It’s wonderful to see a competent woman in a STEM field in anime who isn’t a raging nerd stereotype and is as emotionally intelligent as she is intellectually. Still, the drive to show how awesome Elise is at being a doctor severely undercuts this. There’s a real “read the manhwa, kids!” feel to the open-ended finale that risks not working because of the lack of anime’s interest in making Elise feel human.

The other major issue is the difficulty in pinning down a basic sense of the technology level in the story’s world. We know there are rifles but not automobiles, which is comfortably mid-19th century, but some medical advances are less clear. Both general anesthesia and hypodermic needles were starting to be used in the 1840s in Europe, but the sort of cardiac surgery Elise performs under the approving and knowledgeable eyes of other doctors wasn’t done until the 1940s. On the other hand, successful splenectomies were first performed in Europe in 1549 and England in the 1820s, so the British medical community being floored by one when they’re fine with open heart surgery feels awkward. Yes, this is all fantasy taking place in a fantasy world. Still, with the apparent efforts to show that Elise is very, very good at her job rather than creating innovations every step of the way, it starts to feel like shoddy worldbuilding.

These issues aside, there’s quite a lot that Doctor Elise: The Royal Lady with the Lamp does right. Chief among them is the underlying story of a young woman trying to excel in a field not typically open to her. While there are female nurses in the story’s world, the actual medical students and doctors are overwhelmingly male, and the implication is also that very few, if any, of them are nobility. As a noble lady, Elise is swimming against the tide as she tries to return to the profession that gave her so much joy as Aoi (Song Jihyun in Korean), and she faces two other significant hurdles of her past life. Before reincarnating post-modern life, Elise was a spoiled brat; when Aoi comes to as Elise, she’s confined to her room for an unspecified act of brattiness. Her terrible handwriting (which doubles as a joke about doctors having illegible penmanship) shows that she was anything but studious, and now she has to work hard to prove that she isn’t the same little girl she was an hour ago. This goes hand-in-hand with her engagement to Crown Prince Linden; previous Elise desired nothing more than to marry him, which eventually led to her (apocryphal) Marie-Antoinette execution. Present Elise needs to get out of the engagement, not just to save her neck but to return to her work in the medical field. No one, and certainly not the king, who wants her bloodline, believes that she’s serious, and she has to prove herself over and over again.

Watching Elise butt up against the king and his desire to have her become the empress (for reasons that appear to be mostly related to her lineage, but there’s some implication that they were birds of a selfish feather) is the best piece of the series. It’s so familiar – a woman wants to defy the conventions of her society to do something “unwomanly,” and the men in power don’t want to let her do so. Elise wins over the medical community handily (part of her Mary Sue problem, it must be admitted), but the king continually tries to block her path forward. He wheedles and cajoles, and when that doesn’t work, he attempts to rig the medical board exam so that she’ll fail and have to marry Linden. The resolution of this storyline, such as we get, is almost equally frustrating in that it has Elise again be the bigger, kinder person when it would have been much more satisfying to have her rub her medical successes in the king’s face.

In many ways, watching this show is at least mildly annoying. In part, this is because only the very beginning of the story is being adapted, so things like Elise’s relationship with Linden and his brother Mikhail are sadly underdeveloped. We never really understand where they fit into her vision for her future. Its art and animation are also not the best, although they certainly don’t inhibit viewing. I like that the medical issues covered, Parkinson’s disease, which my father has, is mentioned and mildly explored. But if you want to experience Elise’s story, the better option would be to read the manhwa, which, as of this writing, has an official English translation on Tapas. This isn’t terrible, but it’s painfully clear that it could have been better.