Review Blog

Apr 02 2020

Gulliver's wife by Lauren Chater

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Simon and Schuster, 2020. ISBN: 9781925596380.
(Age: Senior secondary - Adult) Highly recommended. Mary Gulliver, widow of the famous seafaring ship's surgeon, Lemuel Gulliver, has carved an existence for herself as a midwife to women in need, her hard earned income and frugality gradually paying off the debts left by her careless husband. It seems that finally she might manage to maintain her household - herself, her teenage daughter Bess, young son Johnny, and the household help Alice, an escapee from a violent home. It is the early 1700s London; women are completely dependent on men to protect and provide for them. Mary has always to be careful of her reputation, opinion could quickly turn against her, and she could find herself spurned and despised, without anyone to stand between her and the mob - apart perhaps from the steadfast Richard, cousin to her husband, and probably the man she should have married. It seems she has finally managed to work out a reasonable existence, when what should happen but that the long lost husband, presumed dead in a shipwreck, suddenly reappears drunken and dishevelled, and invades their lives.
This is a novel in the style of The other Bennett sister by Janice Hadlow, where the author has picked out a minor character from a classic novel and reimagined the story from their perspective. In this case, Mary Gulliver is a minor character, barely mentioned in Swift's story of Gulliver's travels. Chater has sought to understand what her life would have been like, abandoned for years on end while he sailed the seas, and then suddenly having to deal with a husband returned from the dead, with stories of monsters, little men and tiny sheep. If Hadlow's story of Mary Bennet highlighted the desperate need for women to ensnare a suitable husband and provider in the 19th century, Chater's story reveals the even worse situation in the 18th century where women could be raped, abused, and cast out with nowhere to go.
Centre to Chater's story is the mother-daughter relationship between Mary and Bess. Bess cherishes her memories of her father's wondrous stories and treasures from distant lands. She wants to live his life of adventure and is unappreciative and alienated from her mother's work with suffering women. Mary's desire to protect her daughter from harsh realities means that the two have become distanced from each other, and only with time does Bess come to understand the kind of bravery that Mary represents.
This novel provides a unique perspective on the hidden lives of women in literature, and in history, whilst also exploring the mother-daughter relationship in a way that is relevant to today.
Themes: Women, Mothers and daughters, Abuse, Childbirth, Midwifery.
Helen Eddy

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