After finishing and thoroughly enjoying Lady Audley’s Secret, I moved on to another Braddon novel. I rarely read two novels by the same author in a row, so that’s an indication of my latest obsession with Victorian Sensation Fiction. This time it’s The Doctor’s Wife–a complete change of pace for the author. The novel appeared in 1864, and according to the introduction to my Oxford classics version:
Braddon seems to have been in the process of developing a strategy, which she pursued for the next couple of years, of producing pairs of novels, one of which was aimed purely at the commercial market and the other at ‘Fame’ and artistic recognition.
Lynn Pykett goes on to explain that for 1864, The Doctor’s Wife (Braddon’s personal favorite) was her “literary novel“ for the year, and that Braddon “an inveterate recycler of her own and other novelists’ plots, borrowed this one from Gustav Flaubert.”
Here again is a quote from the intro in which Braddon acknowledged her source;
The idea of The Doctor’s Wife is founded on “Madame Bovary,” the style of which struck me immensely in spite of its hideous immorality.
Given that Lady Audley’s Secret, Braddon’s best-known novel contains bigamy, madness, blackmail, arson, murder, and desertion, I couldn’t help but wonder quite where Braddon was coming from with the comment about the immorality of Madame Bovary. Did she really mean that comment to be taken at face value or was this a pose–a pretense of shock or an excuse to “recycle” the book as her own? I’m not a Braddon scholar, so I can only speculate, and in my personal opinion, I can’t take Braddon’s comment at face value as I consider her to be a bit of a trickster. Gustav Flaubert’s novel certainly went through the laundry cycle repeatedly in Braddon’s version; the s0-called scandalous aspects of Flaubert’s novel are bleached clean and instead we get the bare bones of Madame Bovary Anglicised and Braddonised. As a result Braddon’s characters are much better-behaved people than those found in Flaubert’s tale.
Small town doctor George Gilbert, who grew from a “commonplace” lad to a decent, solid man, is just 22-years-old when he travels from his hometown of Graybridge-on-the Wayverne to London for a week’s holiday to visit an “old schoolfellow,” Samuel Smith who’s now churning out Sensation Fiction under the name Sigismund Smith. Smith is one of the novel’s great characters (and there are several here); always taking notes and looking for inspiration for the next blockbuster, he seems to be a fictional stand-in for Braddon herself:
Mr. Sigismund Smith was a sensation author. That bitter term of reproach, ‘sensation,’ had not been invented for the terror of romancers in the fifty-second year of this present century; but the thing existed nevertheless in divers forms, and people wrote sensation novels as unconsciously as Monsieur Jourdain talked prose. Sigismund Smith was the author of about half a dozen highly-spiced fictions, which enjoyed an immense popularity amongst the classes who like their literature as they like their tobacco–very strong.
Sigismund is currently working on Smuggler’s Bride which will appear, as do all of his novels, serialized in “weekly numbers at a penny.” In spite of making a decent living writing titles such as Lilia the Deserted and Colonel Montefiasco *, or the Brand upon the Shoulder-blade, he “fondly nursed” the “dream” of writing something serious and substantial. It’s through Sigismund that George Gilbert meets Isabel Sleaford, the daughter of a barrister of questionable reputation. The Sleafords rent a modest home in Camberwell, and Sigismund lodges with the “free-and-easy” family in a ramshackle house in sore need of repairs. The Sleafords rent on a “repairing lease,” and we’re told that Mr. Sleaford “must have anticipated a prodigious claim for dilapidations at the expiration of his tenancy.” Sigismund tells Gilbert that the family is thinking about sailing for Australia.
Gilbert enters into this haphazard household, meets, and is completely entranced by Isabel Sleaford, a young pale, black-eyed beauty who’s busy reading a novel by one of her favourite authors, Algerman Mountfort–a novelist whose books, according to Sigismund are “dangerously beautiful,”
beautiful sweet-meats, with opium inside the sugar.
Sigismund’s descriptions are closer to the truth than he realizes. 17-year-old Isabel’s real world is not a happy one. The Sleafords live in poverty while Mr Sleaford juggles schemes and bills. Isabel has four half-brothers and a step-mother. She’s had a patchy education, and all she wants to do is read, read, read. Unfortunately, her reading choices emphasize romance and thrilling adventure, so she has grown up with a very romantic, skewed view of life. Books are her escape, but because they’re the best part of her life they’ve also become alarmingly real.
She had been taught a smattering of everything at a day-school in the Albany Road; rather a stylish seminary in the opinion of the Camberwellians. She knew a little Italian, enough French to serve for the reading of novels that she might have better left unread, and just so much of modern history as enabled her to pick out all the sugarplums in the historian’s pages,–the Mary Stuarts, the Joan of Arcs and Anne Boleyns, the Iron Masks and La Vallières, the Marie Antoinettes and Charlotte Cordays, luckless Königsmarks and wicked Borgias; all the romantic and horrible stories scattered amid the dry records of Magna Chartas and reform Bills, clamorous Third Estates and Beds of Justice. She played the Piano a little, and sang a little, and painted wishy-washy-looking flowers on Bristol-board from nature, but not at all like nature; for the passion-flowers were apt to come out like blue muslin frills, and the fuchsias would have passed for prawns with short-sighted people.
*There’s that trickster peering through