Isabel Sleaford lives in a dream world filled with characters from novels by Dickens, Scott and Thackeray. She longs to break away from her boring existence as a children’s governess and live the exciting life of one of the heroines in her favourite books. When parish doctor George Gilbert proposes to her, she accepts but quickly finds that her marriage isn’t providing the drama and adventure she’s been dreaming of. George is a good man, but he’s practical, down to earth – and boring, at least in Isabel’s opinion. After meeting Roland Lansdell, the squire of Mordred Priory, she becomes even more discontented. Roland is romantic, poetic and imaginative – in other words, he’s everything that George isn’t…
This is the second Mary Elizabeth Braddon book I’ve read – the first was the book that she’s best known for today, the sensation novel Lady Audley’s Secret. Apparently The Doctor’s Wife was Braddon’s attempt at writing a more serious, literary novel, with a plot inspired by Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The Doctor’s Wife is not very ‘sensational’ – apart from maybe the final few chapters – and although it’s interesting and compelling in a different way, if you’re expecting something similar to Lady Audley you might be slightly disappointed. At one point in the book, Braddon even tells us “this is not a sensation novel!”
The focus of The Doctor’s Wife is the development of Isabel Gilbert from a sentimental girl with her head permanently in the clouds into a sensible and mature woman. I didn’t like Isabel much at all, though I’m not really sure if I was supposed to. Throughout most of the book she was just so silly and immature – wishing that she would catch a terrible illness or some other tragedy would befall her, just so she could have some excitement in her life – although as several of the other characters pointed out, she wasn’t a bad person, just childish and foolish. It was sad that her own romantic notions and ideals were preventing her from having any chance of happiness.
I thought some of the minor characters were much more interesting and I would have liked them to have played a bigger part in the story. I particularly loved Sigismund Smith, who was a friend of both George and Isabel, and a ‘sensation author’ – probably a parody of Mary Elizabeth Braddon herself. Sigismund (whose real name is Sam) is a writer of ‘penny numbers’ – cheap, serialised adventure stories. His enthusiasm for his work and his unusual methods of researching his novels provide most of the humour in the book.
Due to Isabel’s reading, almost every page contains allusions to characters and events from various novels, plays and poems – most of which I haven’t read – so I found myself constantly having to turn to the notes at the back of the book (until I decided I could follow the story well enough without understanding all the references to Edith Dombey and Ernest Maltravers).
Overall, this was another great book from Mary Elizabeth Braddon, although not quite what I was expecting.
Genre: Classics/Pages: 431/Publisher: Oxford University Press/Year: 2008 – originally published 1864/Source: My own copy purchased new