Thursday, February 18, 2021

The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon: A Victorian Trainwreck


Victorian sensation is my kind of escapist fiction -- normally chock-full of over-the-top swooning, scandal, mistaken identities, dubious women, and rascally men. The Doctor's Wife by Mary Elizabeth Braddon is oddly lacking in the most dramatic elements -- and yet it is one of my favorites of the genre so far.

Published in 1864, the story begins with the short history of George Gilbert, a young surgeon, son of one of two local doctors in Graybridge-on-the-Wayverne, a fictional town in the fictional county of Midlandshire. He is expected to take over for his elderly father someday, and though a local brewer's daughter has been making eyes at him, he's not interested. While visiting an old school friend on a whirlwind week in London, he meets Isabel Sleaford, daughter of his mate's landlady, and his life is forever changed. 

Isabel is seventeen, dreamy and romantic, and lives for the novels and poetry that fill up her time when she isn't helping her stepmother take care of her multiple half-siblings, their boarders, and her unscrupulous father. George is instantly smitten with lovely Isabel, unlike any girl he'd ever met. I instantly adored young Smith, who was christened Sam but has changed his name to the more literary Sigismund. Clearly, he's a stand-in for Braddon herself, and the novel is full of delightful references to the writer's process.

Perhaps there never was a wider difference between two people than that which existed between Isabel Sleaford and her mother's boarder. Sigsimund wrote romantic fictions by wholesale, and yet was as unromantic as the prosiest butcher that ever entered a cattle-market. He sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers. To him romance was something which must be woven into the form most likely to suit the popular demand. He slapped his heroes into marketable shape, as coolly as a butterman slaps a pat of butter into the semblance of a swan or a crown, in accordance with the requirements of his customers. But poor Isabel's heroes were impalpable tyrants, and ruled her life. She wanted to be like her books; she wanted to be a heroine -- unhappy, perhaps, and dying early.

Great cover on this yellowback edition.

But the acquaintance is cut short when the Sleaford family literally disappear in the middle of the night to escape creditors -- George and his friend Smith, a budding novelist, are lucky to escape without losing their own luggage. George is disappointed to cut the acquaintance with Isabel short, and a year later, he's thrilled to get a letter from Smith saying Isabel is now settled nearby, working as a governess for a distant relative. George wastes no time meeting with her and pops the question ASAP.

Sadly, though, Isabel realizes on her honeymoon that she's made a mistake -- George is far to pragmatic and thrifty for a dreamy, romantic girl. She is quickly bored to death in the country with little to do and doesn't get on well in local society, who are scandalized that George didn't marry a local girl.

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 every-day womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common sense.

A few months later Isabel is thrilled to meet a real Byronic hero -- the dark and handsome Roland Lansdell, heir to Mordred Priory, recently returned to the neighborhood from the Continent. He is everything that Isabel has ever dreamed of -- dark, handsome, moody, and a poet! He's handsome, bored, and rich, she's beautiful, bored and married -- what could possibly go wrong? 

Naturally, what follows is a trainwreck for everyone -- a bit like an English Madame Bovary, but if Emma Bovary were more sympathetic. I knew it wouldn't end well, but what was interesting for me was how Braddon got to the end of the story -- there were some twists and turns that I wasn't expecting and took me completely by surprise. There were less of the inevitable dramatic tropes one normally finds in Victorian sensation novels, and I've since learned that Braddon was determined to write a more literary novel. 

I really enjoyed The Doctor's Wife and I'd rank it as one of Braddon's best -- different than Lady Audley's Secret, but good in its own way. It was a bit closer to early Thomas Hardy than Wilkie Collins. I was really sympathetic to all the main characters and found some of the side characters really endearing, especially Smith who gives the reader such wonderful insights into the mind of the writer: 

Portrait of M. E. Braddon by William Powell Frith, 1865

And if I were a young lady," continued Mr. Smith, speaking with some slight hesitation, and glancing furtively at Isabel's face,—"if I were a young lady, and had a kind of romantic fancy for a person I ought not to care about, I'll tell you what I'd do with him,—I'd put him into a novel, Izzie, and work him out in three volumes; and if I wasn't heartily sick of him by the time I got to the last chapter, nothing on earth would cure me."

I'm counting this as my 19th Century Classic for the Back to the Classics Challenge; also counts for the Victorian Reading Challenge.

10 comments:

  1. Great review! I can't remember if I've read this one or Lady Audley's Secret it's been a few too many years.

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    1. I've read four of her novels so far and I liked them all, but this one and Lady Audley are my favorites.

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  2. This sounds right up my street. I don't really know this genre of Victorian fiction at all and your review has whetted my appetite.

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    1. Victorian sensation fiction is a hoot! Braddon and Wilkie Collins are my favorites so far, but some of Thomas Hardy's early novels are also sensational novels. The term "cliffhanger" comes from Hardy's novel A Pair of Blue Eyes, which literally has a character hanging off a cliff.

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  3. I enjoyed this too - although, as you say, it doesn't really have many typical elements of the 'sensation novel'. It's been a long time since I read it, but I do remember loving Sigismund Smith!

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    1. I really enjoyed Sigismund, he's definitely a stand-in for Braddon. I would love a whole novel about him.

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  4. I've only read two of Braddon's books, but I liked both of them. And this one is on my list. Love your review!

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    1. Thank you! I've fallen in love with Braddon and sensation fiction, I want to read ALL OF THEM.

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  5. I've wanted to explore the world of sensation novels for a long time, and this book has been on my TBR for a long time, so I really enjoyed reading your review!

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    1. They are SO MUCH FUN! And there are so many of them, and you can get nearly all of them for free on digital download!

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