The Blurb (from Goodreads):
London, 1702. When her husband is lost at sea, Mary Burton Gulliver, midwife and herbalist, is forced to rebuild her life without him. But three years later when Lemuel Gulliver is brought home, fevered and communicating only in riddles, her ordered world is turned upside down.
In a climate of desperate poverty and violence, Mary is caught in a crossfire of suspicion and fear driven by her husband’s outlandish claims, and it is up to her to navigate a passage to safety for herself and her daughter, and the vulnerable women in her care.
When a fellow sailor, a dangerous man with nothing to lose, appears to hold sway over her husband, Mary’s world descends deeper into chaos, and she must set out on her own journey to discover the truth of Gulliver’s travels . . . and the landscape of her own heart.
I loved Lauren Chater’s debut novel, The Lace Weaver, which was set in Estonia during World War II, and so I was looking forward to seeing what she did next. Gulliver’s Wife is very different, being set in London in the early 18th century. It tells the story of the famous hero of Gulliver’s Travels, an epic satirical novel by Jonathon Swift published in 1726 – except that the story is told from the point of his wife, left at home to care for his family.
I love this premise so much. Women are so invisible in early fiction. The man goes off, has adventures, sees the world, learns what he needs to make his life a triumph. The meek little wife stays home and … does what? The implication is, nothing important.
In this novel by Lauren Chater, it is the women’s stories that matter. The narative moves between the points of view of Mary Gulliver and her teenage daughter, Bess. They both think Gulliver is dead. Mary is quietly relieved, for he was always a feckless dreamer. She sets out to rebuild a new life for herself and her family. She is a trained midwife, and it is this work which will support and sustain them through the financial mess her husband left behind. Bess, however, adored her father. Her grief for him is overwhelming. She blames her mother Mary for driving him away, and wishes he would come back and fulfill his promise of taking her adventuring with him.
Then Gulliver turns up, full of strange tales of wondrous lands. Is he telling the truth, or is he mad?
From this intriguing beginning, Lauren Chater waves a fascinating story of London in the early 1700s. Vivid and immersive, the story is driven by the tension between truth and lies, sanity and madness, love and duty. I particuarly loved the sub-plot of the midwives’ struggle to be allowed to continue with their work at a time when male surgeons sought to replace them with forceps. Highly recommended.