All these wives of doctors…

When I tried to find the book by Brian Moore The Doctor’s Wife at the local library, they didn’t have it, but instead, they had a rather unexpected one dating from 1864 with the same title. So I ended up reading both of them, since they are related thematically, but separated by 110 years or so. They are both about women married to doctors who dream of ‘something more’ and embark upon affairs. What is interesting is that, although they are very different in terms of sexual explicitness, in both books the ‘heroines’ are viewed as someone else’s wife and property, and adultery is very much frowned upon (yet the authors have a sneaky sympathy for the adulteress).

Mary Elizabeth Braddon: The Doctor’s Wife

This prolific author shot to fame with her novel Lady Audley’s Secret and became very much known as an exponent of the ‘sensation novel’ (what would nowadays be called pulp or trash fiction or chick lit), which relied on huge coincidences, Gothic elements, and other soap opera stalwarts such as bigamy, fraud, false identity, assassinations etc. In The Doctor’s Wife, Braddon was trying to prove that she had literary chops as well, so she cuts down on the melodramatic plot features (although not entirely) and tries instead to focus on the psychology of her characters.

George Gilbert is the doctor of the title, a rather naive, inexperienced young man, who falls in love with the pretty, dreamy Isabel, while visiting a friend of his in London. Isabel is rather keen to escape her family, for her father is a con man and her stepmother would rather she helped around the house instead of daydreaming and reading far too many romance novels.

Although there is a complete mismatch between the kindly but very practical George and the unrealistic, Madame-Bovary-like Isabel, they get married. What surprised me was how modern some of the descriptions of marital relationships were; Haddon shows surprising sympathy for her ‘superficial’ heroine, although the village community disapproves of her.

He had married this girl because she was unlike other women; and now that she was his own property, he set 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.

I have heard of a lady who was an exquisite musician, and who, in the dusky twilight of a honeymoon evening, played to her husband – played as some women play, pouring out all her soul upon the keys of the piano, breathing her finest and purest thoughts in some master-melodies of Beethoven or Mozart. ‘That’s a very pretty tune,’ said the husband complacently. She was a proud reserved woman, and she closed the piano without a word of complaint or disdain; but she lived to be old, and she never touched the keys again.

Isabel starts fantasising about a young local landlord Roland Landsdell, who seems like a brooding Byronic figure. He showed great promise when young, but has frittered away his youth living an expensive lifestyle abroad, and not produced anything much beyond a volume of poetry.

Roland’s schemes were not successful… because he had no patience to survive preliminary failure… He picked his fruit before it was ripe, and was angry when he found it sour, and would hew down the tree that bore so badly, and plant another. His fairest projects fell to the ground, and he left them there to rot; while he went away somewhere else to build new schemes and make fresh failures.

At first, Roland is amused by the naivety of Isabel, and there is much charm and humour in their initial scenes together:

‘You are fond of Shelley?’

‘Oh yes, I am very, very fond of him. Wasn’t it a pity that he was drowned!’ She spoke of that calamity as if it had been an event of the last week or two…

‘Yes, it was a pity, but I fancy we’re beginning to get over the misfortune.’

However, he soon fancies himself in love with her too and tries to convince her to run away with him. Although their love affair is never consummated physically (Isabel is almost shocked that he would dare to hope for more than pining sighs and reading together under a tree), the village gossips are out in force. What with her husband falling ill, her father making a surprise reappearance, Roland furious at being turned down, Isabel is beset by the demands of men from all sides. We are meant to find her foolish, but not wicked, although it might be hard for modern readers to believe she could be as ‘pure-minded’ as all that.

Despite the long digressions and repetitions, the side characters who are great fun but not really essential to the story (like Sigismund Smith, who writes sensation novels), the undeveloped but potentially interesting secondary threads (perhaps because the novel initially appeared in serialised format), plus a love for the rather contrived plot twist, I rather enjoyed Braddon. I zipped through this work at great speed, and thought her sardonic humour and gentle mockery of each one of her characters worked really well. I can understand why she was so widely read back in the day.

Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife

By way of contrast, Sheila Redden, the doctor’s wife in Brian Moore’s novel (who is mostly referred to as Mrs Redden throughout the book), although not much more sexually experienced than Isabel (she married her husband very young), does consummate her adulterous relationship with the charming young American Tom while on holiday in France. In fact, she is so besotted with him and her newfound sensual delight, that she is considering running away to America with him after only one week together, although that would mean leaving her fifteen-year-old son behind in Belfast with her husband.

The doctor and his wife are supposed to be enjoying a second honeymoon in the south of France, where they originally honeymooned. Their marriage is not exactly unhappy, but they are not well matched and communication is kept to the bare minimum.

At home, these last years, conversations seemed to fail. At home, if she would try for an hour of ‘general’ talk, it was like floating on water. The moment you thought of sinking, you sank. Kevin would turn back to the television, she to a book. Lately, she read books the way some people drank.

The husband is not only disdainful of his wife’s love of literature and travel (and the French language), but once he finds out that she is having an affair, he becomes downright jealous and vicious.

It’s books of course that you got all your notions from. Not from real life. All those novels and trash that’s up there in your room at home. I wonder sometimes if some of these authors who write that stuff shouldn’t be prosecuted… Because you’re not the heroine of some bloody book.

This book might take place in a post-Pill, post-1960s sexual revolution world, but Sheila and Kevin live in Northern Ireland and are from a Catholic background (even if she hasn’t been to church in ages). The chaos of Northern Ireland is always there in the background, although not in a heavy-handed way. Sheila clearly feels trapped there and, early on in the book, she envies French parents and wishes she could let her child go wherever he pleases ‘without your worrying about bombs, or their being stopped by an army patrol, or lifted in error by the police, or hit by a sniper’s bullet’. It certainly plays a big part in her desire to escape (even if she hasn’t quite admitted to herself yet what she wants to escape from). The men in her life (her husband, her brother, her son and even her new lover) are all fairly manipulative – they try to push or pull her in directions that suit them best. She has hitherto been quite passive and allowed them to get away with this. In the course of this novel, the scales finally fall from her eyes and she emerges from hibernation.

I know several readers thought Tom’s character was a bit less clearly defined (and I agree we get no direct insight into his psyche), but I did not find it implausible that a 26-year-old would fall for a 36-year-old. If the younger person were a woman and the older person a man, no one would blink, yet everybody in the book seems irate when it’s the other way round and believe that the relationship is doomed. It probably is, but not sure that age is the determining factor here.

The other thing that most readers take issue with is her apparent readiness to abandon her son. I wonder if Moore is once again pointing out double standards here (how many men readily abandon their children and embark upon new relationships and build new families,), but also pointing out that uncomfortable truth that mothers discover their own redundancy when their children hit their late teens, especially boys, who might side more with their father. The ultimate hypocrisy of course is about how much more easily a husband’s adultery is accepted rather than a wife’s, and Dr Redden’s obsession with revenge demonstrates that perfectly.

I was impressed with both authors’ ability to understand and describe women, without judgement (although they each get some sort of punishment), making us the reader rather sympathise with them, however faulty their reasoning. I was startled by just how well these books spoke to each other, although it was pure accident that I read them in parallel. Long live library serendipity!

Thank you to Jacqui, Ali, Simon and Cathy, who have all recently reviewed the Brian Moore book and made me curious to read it myself.