Birth. Death. Wonder … One woman’s journey to the edge of love and loyalty from the bestselling author of The Lace Weaver
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.
Lauren Chater, author of The Lace Weaver (a personal favourite of mine), has returned with a new historical fiction release, Gulliver’s Wife. In a sort of fan-fiction type of mash up, Lauren has breathed life into a character that didn’t get much airtime in the original classic, Gulliver’s Travels: Mary Gulliver, wife of the main character, Lemuel Gulliver.
‘The decision to set my own novel between the first and second of Gulliver’s journeys was driven by the desire to condense the action and highlight the drama around his possible madness and the impact it might have on his wife’s life.’ – Author note.
Innovative and unique, this novel was gripping from the very first page. It’s very much a character driven narrative, there is certainly a lot happening within the story, but for me, it was the character responses to these events that took centre stage rather than the events themselves. Eighteenth century London was not a safe place, particularly for women and children. I feel this period of history is not as touched upon within fiction as often as the 17th and 19th centuries are. It was a grim time, crime and disease running rife, child labour laws still non-existent, women and children considered as the property of their husbands and fathers. Lauren Chater has done her research in the crafting of this novel and it shows within the meticulous details and the manner in which she’s recreated this entire world with such authenticity. More often than not this is a dark and confronting story, but that’s the way I like my historical fiction, and that’s also the way in which this novel sets itself so firmly within its chosen era.
Gulliver’s Wife is very much a story of female agency and it’s a magnificent ode to midwifery. Instead of trying to paraphrase, I’ll once again share Lauren’s own words:
‘Contrary to stereotypes (reinforced by male practitioners) that the London midwives were ‘ignorant, incompetent, and poor’, they commanded immense respect within their close-knit communities and their commitment to the role, which included apprenticeships, licensing and oath-taking, meant they were often viewed as experts in the ‘secret women’s business’ of childbirth. They also testified against criminals accused of rape and sexual assault and were considered ‘expert witnesses’ by the courts, since their work required extensive knowledge of female anatomy. Not everyone approved. In the early 1700s, a movement aimed at discrediting female midwives to promote the interests of male practitioners began to gain momentum, supported by surgeons who favoured the medicalisation of birth via forceps and ‘lying-in’ hospitals which eventually led to devastatingly high mortality rates in the latter half of the 18th century.’ – Author note.
Enter Mary Gulliver, who I adored from the outset. Like a shining beacon of hope, she tended to the women of her section in London, and sometimes further into other neighbourhoods, juggling home and work in a time when there was no respect to be had for doing so. She was far from perfect, and she definitely dropped a few balls from time to time, but she was real, so genuine and a character I became deeply invested in. I felt so much sympathy for her, being married to Lemuel, who really was an arrogant arse, among other things. Life was not easy for Mary, but she remained selfless and steadfast. Her relationship with her housemaid, Alice, was a particular drawcard for me and I enjoyed the sections where this was highlighted. As ever, the botany aspects caught my attention the most. It’s an interest I can’t seem to shake.
‘This garden is her private sanctuary, the symmetry and geometry of the plants and trees designed to foster a deep, contemplative sense of calm. 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. The ants consume the garden’s dead waste, chomping through old branches and litter, stripping leaves down to their skeletal core while in the cool darkness beneath the topsoil, the earthworms dance.’
Now, this story is not just about Mary. It’s also about Bess, her fourteen-year-old daughter. I really struggled with Bess, right alongside Mary, but I have a suspicion that may have been the intended response. Spoiled, naive, selfish, and most irritating of all, the misplaced hero worship she displayed towards her father. She constantly put herself at risk, caused Alice and her mother no end of distress and worry. As much as I found her intolerable, I am filled with admiration for Lauren’s authentic rendering of a headstrong teenager within such a setting. It was also a risk, to create a character such as Bess, one who just didn’t know when to stop pushing her luck, for not every reader would develop empathy over impatience for the girl – I certainly didn’t. And yet, I still loved this novel. Bess was indeed fortunate, more than she was capable of realising, to have a mother such as Mary. Her future could have been vastly different – a whole lot worse off. And as insufferable as Bess was, her presence within the story and all of the trials and petty nonsense that she brought to the table just further displays Lauren Chater’s skill as a writer. In less competent hands, a contrary character like Bess may have given me cause to abandon a novel – I have too much lived experience of teenage dramatics and egotism to want to escape into it by choice through literature!
‘This is the beating heart of London – of life, really. Men like her father are the lynchpin on which the world turns. Without them, everything will grind to a shuddering halt. They are like the Titans Pa told her about, like Cronus or Hyperion or mighty Oceanus, gods of sea and of land. Mam and her friends consider their midwife’s work indispensable but Bess knows it is men like Pa who ensure London’s children have a future. Men keep them all afloat.’
‘Her mother was just a worrier who liked to flaunt her authority whenever he was away. Bess had enjoyed watching Mam grow flustered as Pa ordered her about. She loved to watch her pa scoop handfuls of coins and traders’ tokens out of the teapot in the parlour while Mam was at work. The china teapot had belonged to Mam’s mother, Bess’s grandmother. It was one of the only things Mam owned which had belonged to her and Mam kept it filled with farthings and pennies for emergencies only. Not that the notion ever stopped her father. Munching on a pilfered shortcake, Bess had watched with glee as her father breathed new life into their stale existences and upended her mother’s carefully ordered world.’
Gulliver’s Wife is a literary achievement, a smorgasbord of delight for fans of historical fiction. I know we’re in for a bit of a wait, but if this is the standard we can expect from Lauren Chater, I honestly can’t wait until her next release.
‘Love takes strange forms. Sometimes it is a pebble, hard and unyielding, at other times a willow birch, bending to accommodate the headlong rush of water in a stream.’
Thanks is extended to Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy via NetGalley of Gulliver’s Wife for review.
About the Author:
Lauren Chater is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Lace Weaver and the baking compendium Well Read Cookies: Beautiful biscuits inspired by great literature. She is currently working on her third novel, The Winter Dress, inspired by a real 17th century gown found off the Dutch coast in 2014. In her spare time, she loves baking and listening to her children tell their own stories. She lives in Sydney.
Published by Simon & Schuster Australia Released April 1st 2020