As most avid readers already know, Jonathan Swift’s 1726 satire, Gulliver’s Travels, is the classic tale of Lemuel Gulliver, a travelling surgeon and sea captain who finds himself shipwrecked and stranded on the mysterious island of Lilliput. Swift’s work was famous for its commentaries on eighteenth-century English politics, represented through allegorical nations and peoples.
Taking on a new direction, Lauren Chater’s Gulliver’s Wife brings to our attention matters of the heart and the domestic world, profound realities which are mostly absent in Gulliver’s Travels. Through the obscure character of Gulliver’s wife, Mary, and the women under her care, Chater reveals the familial, marital, and societal issues of Gulliver’s homeland.
In 1702, Lemuel Gulliver, believed to be killed at a shipwreck, has returned to Wapping, London. During his absence, Mary has been working independently as a midwife and herbalist. She enjoys the freedom of work and being able to provide for her growing children, Bess and Johnny. The return of her husband has been all but a joyful event. Lemuel is physically weakened, gruff, and distant, preferring to go out to the tavern with his friends and to gamble the family’s possessions away. Bess has missed her father all this time, and clings to her childhood dream of traveling to the remote parts of world with him one day. Her relationship with her mother is strained when she is sent to train under the senior midwife, Anne Clifton.
Family and marriage pose great challenges for Mary. While she is a faithful wife and mother, her marriage with Lemuel has always been unhappy, and her heart still yearns for Lemuel’s cousin, Richard, who cares about her deeply. For the sake of their unity, Mary and her family must make the right decisions, now that Lemuel’s companion, Piet Willems, proves to be a bad influence and a potential hazard to the Gulliver family.
Chater explores the complexities of love, loss, marriage, motherhood, and its concomitant trials of pregnancy, childbirth, and miscarriage. Her meticulous storytelling interlaces excellent research and stark characterisation, bringing to life the realities of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England. Adding to the novel’s realism, Chater incorporates several historic personas and places, such as the English philosopher and advocate of women’s rights, Mary Astell, the physician and obstetrician, Hugh Chamberlen, and the Hotel Dieu of Paris.
Gulliver’s Wife would be perfect for readers interested in historical fiction. A celebration of women, mothers, and daughters, it would make a great Mother’s Day gift. Gulliver’s Wife offers a glimpse into the essential yet often undervalued province of the heart and hearth.
Reviewer: Azariah Alfante
Simon & Schuster, RRP $34.99