Gulliver’s Wife takes place in early 18th century London, telling the story of a mother and daughter, Mary Burton Gulliver and Bess Gulliver. The hard-wrought balance that Mary has achieved on her own as a successful midwife is thrown into disarray by the return of her husband, Lemuel, who has far-fetched claims about his time away. His erratic and selfish nature threatens to topple the balance and security of their family.
The mother and daughter relationship is one of the many aspects of this novel that resonated with me—the connection between Bess and Mary is imperfect and this gave it authenticity. Bess’s desire for independence and adventure is tempered by her mother’s protectiveness in a London where attacks on women are frequent. Added to the tension is Mary’s wish for her daughter to follow in her footsteps by becoming a midwife, a path Bess is unsure of. I empathized with Bess’s willful and sometimes self-conscious nature but also with Mary’s motivations. Her experience of marriage has been one of uncertainty and disappointment. Midwifery has kept them from poverty in her husband’s absence and she wants Bess to have a safety net.
Gulliver’s Wife is a rich novel with a lens that encompasses the intimacy of family and the wider issues of early 18th century London. The practice of midwifery was under threat with the invention of forceps and Hugh Chamberlen’s campaign to reduce midwives’ influence and credibility. He aimed to make forceps an essential part of childbirth and remove the influence of women in the birth process. It was interesting to reflect on how this early interference has led to birth becoming the medicalised experience it is today.
Lauren Chater is also masterful with sensory prose—I was totally immersed in the world she created. I could see it, smell it, hear it. I loved Bess’s curious and fiery nature—she felt very real as a teenager to me. As a mother I connected with Mary’s character—trying to hold it all together and at the same time maintain a strong bond with her daughter.
Gulliver’s Wife is well-paced, beautifully written and moving. Highly recommended. Thanks to Simon & Schuster Australia for my ARC copy.