I really enjoyed this story. I love Lauren Chater’s writing and was a huge fan of her first book, The Lace Weaver, set during World War II. Gulliver’s Wife takes us further back in history – to 1702 in London – to imagine what life might have been like for the fictional wife of Jonathan Swift’s fictional character, Lemuel Gulliver.
Mary Gulliver is imagined as a midwife fighting against the surgeons of London for her right (and the right of other qualified women) to earn her living as the primary carers of women in childbirth. After her husband is declared dead – lost at sea – she spends years fending off abject poverty, trying to pay off her spendthrift husband’s debts and shield her daughter and son from the hard realities of life.
There are two fabulous voices who tell their own stories side by side when Lemuel Gulliver suddenly appears back from the dead one day, clearly unwell and raving about little people and their tiny flocks of sheep.
The first is Mary, whose life is suddenly turned upside down once again by her violent, drug-addicted husband. His behaviour threatens to tarnish her own reputation. Without an unblemished reputation she will lose her clients and the whole family will be destitute.
She is torn between her desire to confront her husband about his behaviour, and the knowledge that society would not support her if she did:
“She suppresses the sudden urge to berate him. If she starts, who knows where it might end? If she opens her mouth, everything she has locked away for fear of offending him will be given voice. She could lose it all: children, house, income. He has the power to snatch her life away…”
I really enjoyed learning more about the early trade of midwifery, and the fight they had to maintain their right to practise against male surgeons who would have preferred to use their new-fangled forceps to simply pull every baby from the womb.
The second story belongs to Mary’s daughter, Bess. Bess’s is a coming-of-age story. Largely sheltered by her mother, teenaged Bess is a spoiled, petulant thing who still hero-worships her absent father. She believed his wild promises to her childish self many years ago that he will return and take her to sea with him, to see the world and have exciting adventures in foreign lands. When her father returns, a broken man, she is forced to grow up and face the realities of the limitations of her gender. A woman in 1702 would never be allowed aboard a ship. Her place is at home, at the beck and call of her husband.
Lauren Chater has woven an immersive narrative that brings together fact and fiction with via the rickety bridge of madness. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves early 18th century fiction, especially those involving the largely forgotten voices of the women who stayed behind to eke out a living to in a world determined to crush them, while their husbands abandoned them for the promise of adventure.