Birth. Death. Wonder.
Every so often, a book comes along, where the beautiful language and evocative images are so intense, so fruitful, that each word should be savoured.
That certainly is the case with Gulliver's Wife by Lauren Chater. It is a lyrical story based on the life of a midwife, Mary Gulliver. This book is about love and truth. It’s about life and living it. But there is nothing romantic about it. Gulliver’s Wife exposes the hardships experienced by women in a difficult time — set in the early 1700s, in London.
Mary Gulliver, wife of the much-travelled Lemuel Gulliver, is a woman who works hard to maintain her lot in life. As head of the household for the past three years Mary is independent — believing her husband, lost at sea. Self-sufficient and respected in her role as a midwife, when Lem returns from a voyage with another of his far-fetched stories about an island of little people, we feel for Mary as she wrestles with the fact that his return will change her circumstances. I was drawn into Mary’s turmoil, as she is faced with adhering to the dictates of her husband, once again.
“All her accomplishments — her midwife’s standing, her children’s welfare, her ability to employ and keep a servant — seem small and insignificant, dwarfed by the grander narrative of Lemuel’s return…She needs time to grieve the loss of her old self but time has sped up, moving too fast for her to breathe, let alone think.”
Mary is measured and sensible, capable of running both her work and home life smoothly. As she takes refuge in her garden, she begins to see that all she has, and all that she has worked for is at risk of unravelling — threatened by her husband’s return and unusual behaviour. And whilst we hear very little from Gulliver himself, his presence is there on the page, lurking like a murky shadow.
Daughter Bess has a strained relationship with her mother. She’s a moody teenager at times, spoilt and naïve. She’s a dreamer too, and we find that in fact it is Mary’s constant presence in her life that protects Bess, rather than threatens her, as she so believes. The scenes between the pair show Bess’s typical teenage reactions to the confines and restraints placed on her by her mother. As Bess rebels, the truth of relationships within the household begins to unfold, as alliances shift.
This tale is intensely poignant, and the descriptive setting clearly defines the mood. Lauren Chater has a wonderful way with words, and there are pearls threaded all the way through, showing the love and care Mary offers in her role as a midwife. She is a caring soul who supports and protects the women in the community she helps give birth. Mary also takes responsibility for the protection of her two children, and her maid, Alice, who is more like family than Gulliver himself.
But at times the story is overwhelming — it was a difficult period to live in. Despite the sometimes grim setting, the author’s historical detail is so impressive that the era comes alive with her vibrant descriptions — the joy and reverence of bringing a life into the world; the taste the salt in the air as if you were standing on the wharf, or stench of produce while wandering the market. The attention to detail in the research shines through.
“The herbs and flowers in their beds are the descendants of the seeds her mother passed on to her. Perhaps it is almost pagan to indulge in such earthly pleasure but each plant in her garden has its pleasing purpose: medicinal, gourmand, ornamental. Nothing is wasted and everything has its place. Even the bees have their role to play, always pausing first at the hollyhocks before they move on to the woodruff, some elemental compulsion propelling them from flower to flower.”
Gulliver’s Wife is another masterful work to follow Lauren’s earlier book, The Lace Weaver. It has all the necessary elements to leave a lasting impression on the reader. Gulliver’s Wife provides such a high measure of enjoyment, that I treated myself by allowing small chunks of prose each day to make it last longer — like a mouthful of marchpane, from a salver of sweetmeats.
“Triumphant, it absorbs the last of the day’s sunlight, uncompromising in its delicate beauty and fragile strength.”