Hazel McHaffie

The Doctor’s Wife

As promised last week, a dip inside the second treasure discovered in Scotland’s National Book Town last month.

Isabel Gilbert is the naive and unworldly heroine of The Doctor’s Wife – a ‘frivolous sentimental creature, eminently adapted to make any man miserable.‘ She’s trapped in a marriage to a decent but plodding and hard-working country surgeon, with a generous heart but little ambition beyond being useful: George Gilbert, who sets ‘himself conscientiously to work to smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.’

Content to trudge along in the furrows ploughed by his father and grandfather, unsentimental George is frankly incapable of understanding his wife’s addiction to fantasy; and she is indeed obsessive when it comes to fiction. She wills herself into the ‘phantasmal worlds‘ created by poets and romantic writers; she even longs to develop interesting diseases … starve on the wild cold moorland … be beaten and cast out … know tragedy … to have some kind of grievance … anything to add spice to her life!
‘She wanted her life to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine,- unhappy perhaps, and dying early. She had an especial desire to die early, by consumption, with a hectic flush and an unnatural lustre in her eyes.’
But in reality
‘Poor Izzie’s life was altogether vulgar and commonplace, and she could not extract one ray of romance out of it, twist it as she would.’

Consumed as she is by a desire for beauty and powerful emotion, luxury, aesthetically pleasing objects, it’s small wonder that she’s attracted to fellow-book-lover and poet, Roland Landsell, the epitome of mystery and smouldering passion, clad in splendidly careless perfection; ‘a grand and beautiful creature, who possessed in his own person all the attributes of her favourite heroes.’ He is the incarnation of all her fantasies, the quintessential romantic hero of all her over-heated dreams, possessed of a fortune, lands and property, aristocratic pedigree, and literary aspirations, all wrapped up in a gloriously enigmatic visage. ‘It was such a love as this which Isabel imagined she had won for herself … the dearest desire of womankind,- a beautiful, useless, romantic devotion,- a wasted life of fond regretful worship.’

So far so very Jane Austen … But in reality, Roland is ‘a kind of failure and a disappointment … a beautiful, useless, purposeless creature; a mark for manoeuvering mothers; a hero for sentimental young ladies,- altogether a mockery, a delusion, and a snare … He had so much money and so much leisure, and so little knew what to do with himself.’

The real enigma is that this rich selfish man of the world should fall earnestly in love with a superficial, unlearned, vapid girl who is so far beyond his honour and class and social milieu, but he loves her ‘fatally, unaccountably, mysteriously, but eternally’, and try as he might, he’s utterly unable to rid himself of the enduring emotion – it’s ‘true metal’, ‘virgin gold’. Having fought against it in vain, he throws caution to the winds and offers her his whole heart and life.

But in fact, Isabel’s own infatuation goes no further than a kind of idealised spiritual unfaithfulness … she is ‘strictly punctilious with herself even in the matter of her thoughts … She only thought of what might have happened if Mr Lansdell had met her long ago before her marriage.‘ There is no sense of danger or disloyalty to her husband in her mind as she meets him clandestinely; she continues to give her duty and obedience to George Gilbert, whilst bestowing the poetry of her soul on Roland Lansdell – after all, why not? – that half of her nature is despised and rejected by her husband. So she is utterly bewildered by Roland’s sense of degradation and shame and humiliation and suffering. Perfect happiness has come to her; she is loved by the bright object of her own idolatry.

Idealised her love may be, but, sadly, her rose-tinted view of the master of Mordred and what he might offer, serves only to highlight ‘the utter hideousness and horror of her life.’  Her only escape is to imagine scenarios where ‘if only …’ had brought her within his orbit under other circumstances and they could have spent their days in idyllic splendour and artistic bliss, or she could even yet succumb to an early romantic death.

As long as Roland remains a remote might-have-been to her, she lives her dream, but when he demonstrates the seriousness of his real-life intentions by expecting her to abscond with him, Isobel is appalled. In desiring something outside the poetical parameters of her ideal, something carnal and earth-bound, he plummets from demigod to cruel villain, debasing something pure and sacred to vulgarity and depravity. She wouldn’t have hesitated to commit suicide and occupy a marble mausoleum with him for all eternity, but to betray her marriage vows, to spend her life in shame and disgrace? –  that would outrage the high ideals of her adoration. His feet are now occupying ordinary mundane ‘common ground’; he himself has become an ‘everyday creature‘. Her dreams are shattered.

But on the wings of that fragmented vision she loses her naive outlook, her childhood, the ‘sweet age of enchantment‘, for ever. Disappointment, followed quickly by tragedy and death, bring reality crashing into her life, mowing down her romantic silliness, and gradually a sadder, wiser, more mature and altruistic woman emerges from the ruins. I won’t spoil the book for you by spelling out what happens.

The Doctor’s Wife was first published in 1864, the eighth of more than 80 novels by author, Mary Elizabeth Braddon, who’d already made her name with her (at that time) notoriously scandalous book, Lady Audley’s Secret. This one is not in the genre of sensation fiction for which she’s principally famous, but does include a character, Sigismund Smith, who writes such commercial productions and who debates the good and bad aspects of reading ‘penny-dreadful’ literature. (Speaking of his decision to change his first name from Sam to Sigismund, Mr Smith declares: ‘If a man’s evil destiny makes him a Smith, the least he can do is to take it out in his Christian name.’ – love it!)

The Doctor’s Wife was Mary Braddon’s deliberate attempt to please her more discerning critics with a literary work, borrowing the plot from Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, and littering the text with literary allusions to real fictional works, although I fear the majority would be lost on most readers (psst … some versions – including mine – add explanatory notes which go some way towards explaining the references for the uninitiated). And inasmuch as it’s all description and analysis and very little plot, it fulfils the requirement for ‘literary’. Those descriptions, however, are wonderfully evocative, wry humour marching alongside perceptive observation and psychological perspicacity, and even occasionally laugh-out-loud funny, but the author takes whole chapters to recount the pecadilloes of her main characters, to animadvert on the folly of their behaviour, the sorrow they fall prey to – and I couldn’t help but picture any reputable agent/editor today scoring nine tenths of it out with a vicious red pen. Indeed, I estimate the whole book is almost 190,000 words; more than twice as long as the recommended length for a novel today, even though there were no computers, no cut-and-paste, 300 years ago! Likewise the adverbs, intrusive verbs, the surfeit of punctuation marks … all no-nos nowadays.

It feels strange to our modern understanding too, to have the all-seeing eye of the omniscient narrator taking us into the thinking and motivation and aspirations of all the characters. And every now and then the said narrator even pops her own head out from behind the screen to animadvert of some reminiscence or preference of her own. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the power of prose that carries you along at a pleasing gentle pace reminiscent of a leisurely stroll in the country lanes of Yorkshire.

Not the best kind of writing to tuck into when I’m seriously editing my own writing I suspect: I’d be adopting the ponderous precision of a bygone age without noticing it. But in between drafts, just what the doctor ordered! The length and style of this review is my personal homage to a lady whose writing should be more widely acclaimed than it is.

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