Friday, August 22, 2014

Review: THE DOCTOR'S WIFE by ME Braddon

book cover Original Publication Date: 1864

Genre: Sensation, kinda.

Topics: books, temptation, good vs. evil, society, love, marriage

Review by heidenkind:

Isabel Sleaford is an usual young girl who reads copious amounts of sentimental poetry and fiction, and rarely cares to venture into society. It is this very quality—and also the fact that she's really pretty—that attracts the attention of George Gilbert, a lower-middle-class country doctor who proposes marriage after he discovers Isabel's father is dead and she's been forced to take up employment as a governess. Isabel doesn't exactly say yes, more like, "Mmm, that doesn't sound too bad." But then she marries George AND IT IS THAT BAD, IT TOTALLY IS. Bored out of her mind, Isabel escapes even deeper into the world of books. Her favorite book of all the times is an obscure collection of (objectively bad) verses titled The Alien, which she thinks are just soooooooooooooooo romantic. I bet you can guess what happens when Isabel meets the author of The Alien, Roland Landsdell, who just happens to be young, brooding, dark, handsome, and exceedingly rich.

It's something like this.

I loved every trashy, soap opera-y minute of Lady Audley's Secret, so I thought The Doctor's Wife would probably offer the same entertainment value. Boy, was I wrong.

The Doctor's Wife is a much different novel from Lady Audley's Secret. It has all the elements of a sensation novel—adultery, criminals, curses, back-stabbing bitches—but they feel like a minor part. Overall, The Doctor's Wife is much more self-consciously literary than one would expect from a sensation novel. According to all the synopses I've read online, this is Mary Elizabeth Braddon's response to Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Perhaps if I'd read Madame Bovary I would appreciate it more, but I haven't and have no intention of doing so in the foreseeable future.

Even aside from The Doctor's Wife literary inspiration, there's a lot of book talk going on in the novel. Isabel an insatiable reader, her and George's mutual friend, Sigismund Smith, writes penny dreadfuls; and Roland is of course a writer. The characters talk and think about books a lot, how books should be and what their ideal book is. Braddon takes pains to show us how the books Isabel reads affect her view of the world, what she expects from life and how she interprets people's actions—if she ever takes a moment from her reading to notice other people, that is.

I actually liked that part of The Doctor's Wife. The novel is also a lot more cynical than Lady Audley's Secret. There are no good guys or bad guys, love doesn't conquer all, and there's no such thing as happily ever after. This is not a romantic novel, either in the literary or genre sense.

I kind of liked that part of The Doctor's Wife, too. As for the characters, Isabel would probably annoy some people, but personally I found her likable and extremely sympathetic. Partly because Braddon spends a considerable amount of time and energy making her so, but also because I recognized a lot of Teenage Me in Isabel, too.

So with all these points in the book's favor, why did I not enjoy The Doctor's Wife that much? First of all, it is WAY too drawn-out for what it is. It is a long walk getting to anyfreakingthing in this novel. For example, we know pretty early on that there's a secret about Isabel's father that she's trying hide (that's the plot, basically), but Braddon kind of forgets all about it until the very very end, when it's employed as a deus-ex-machina to get Roland out of the picture. In the meantime, Braddon's concerned with explaining Isabel's woeful life to us, but here's the thing: I might like and sympathize with Isabel, but she's not terribly interesting. I don't need to spend THAT much time with her to get a good picture of her psychological makeup, you feel me? Even the death scenes were dragged out to the inth degree. Where's the homicidal Lady Audley when you need her??

buffy the vampire slayer death
Just die already, dude.

As for the whole adultery thing, MOST BORING LITERARY LOVE AFFAIR EVER. Like I get that love really isn't the point of this whole exercise, but I would think some sort of emotional resonance or stakes would only help make Braddon's point, not to mention keep me as a reader engaged. Instead, George was a saint and I hated the oblivious bastard, so I didn't care about Isabel betraying him at all. But I also didn't feel like Isabel loved Roland in any substantial way. She loved what he stood for and his lifestyle, but as far as wanting him sexually or even as a friend, no (and speaking of sex, I have my doubts George ever went there. He seems like the type of Victorian guy who would marry a girl and then neglect to mention the whole sex thing because he'd see it as indelicate). Likewise, Roland seemed to "love" Isabel only because she thought he was a literary genius and because she was pretty. Sigh and yawn.

I didn't hate The Doctor's Wife, but it was a bit of a haul with not much of a payoff. If you want to jump into the Victorian sensation genre, I'd recommend starting with Lady Audley's Secret or Wilkie Collins' The Moonstone, instead.

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