Historical fiction inspired by “Gulliver’s Travels” from the perspective of his wife
2020 was a tough year for authors with new releases and unfortunately this was another book that missed out on its due publicity. I first heard about this author through her amazing cookie art. She is also a really lovely person and sent me a gorgeous note and gift when my wedding was postponed last year. It’s a beautifully designed book with bronze foil and I was really excited to read it.
“Gulliver’s Wife” by Lauren Chater is a historical fiction novel that asks the question: while Lemuel Gulliver sailed around exploring previously uncontacted lands as depicted in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels“, what did his family do without him? Moreover, it asks what did his family do when he comes home after years of being missing, presumed dead, telling stories of tiny people? Set in London, UK, in 1702, this book follows his wife Mary and his daughter Bess as they navigate the change his return brings to their home’s dynamic, the financial impact his presence has on their lives and their increasingly strained relationship with each other.
This is a meticulously researched book about life as a woman in 1700s England. Using the tension between Mary’s lack of individual rights as an apparent widow and the family’s increasing economic needs as a framework, Chater explores what options are available for a woman of Mary’s background and station, and how they are further limited when her husband resumes his position as head of the household. Choosing midwifery as Mary’s career was a really clever choice: one of the few roles for women with minimal male influence. I thought that the interaction between midwives, surgeons and the church was really interesting as well as the lenses through which decisions are made about who was best placed to handle the work of delivering babies. Mary is a fully rounded character with hobbies (gardening), a love interest (not her husband) and
One of the most powerful elements of this book was the mother-daughter relationship. With utmost sensitivity, Chater teases out the complexities of the way Mary and Bess relate to each other, and how they are at once too close and too distant. Bess idolises her father, and I thought that there were some interesting questions posed about whose responsibility it was to disabuse her of reverence. Should Mary have been more frank with her and risk further teenage derision, or should Bess have been more realistic and let go of her childish ideas about her father’s promises? I really liked the way their relationship evolved over time and how space was made for a new type of respect. Alice, the family’s sole domestic worker, is a great counterbalance to the tension between the two as well as having her own complex family background.
One ever-present challenge for historical fiction is being as true as possible to the era while while still writing for a modern audience. I think that for the most part, Mary’s tolerance for others and openness in relation to social issues is done really well. A career as a midwife creates more room for Mary to be exposed to a variety of different circumstances and creates a bit of distance from an otherwise very religious, patriarchal society. However, there were a couple of situations in which I thought Mary was perhaps a little too understanding for a person of her time.
A creative take on a classic novel. Unlike other works of historical fiction that have used classics as inspiration, I think that this novel has a very clear purpose and prompts the reader to consider what life may have been like for the people literary heroes left behind.