Carrying on from part I, there’s an important quote from one of the novel’s great characters, sensation author Sigsimund Smith. Sigismund, who appears to be a fictional stand in for Braddon, after all, earns a living from writing exactly the sort of books that have led to Isabel’s skewed vision of life. It seems ridiculous to presume that either Sigismund or Braddon would ever preach against novels, yet Isabel’s problematic world view has been formed by reading. According to Braddon, Sigismund Smith “sold his imagination, and Isabel lived upon hers.” As Sigismund tells his smitten friend, Gilbert, Isabel is beautiful but “she reads too many novels.”
“Don’t suppose that I want to depreciate the value of the article. A novel’s a splendid thing after a hard day’s work, a sharp practical tussle with the real world, a healthy race on the barren moorland of life, a hearty wrestling-match in the universal ring. Sit down then and read Ernest Maltravers, or Eugene Aram, or the Bride of Lammermoor, and the sweet romance lulls your tired soul to rest, like the cradle-song that soothes a child. No wise man or woman was ever the worse for reading novels. Novels are only dangerous for those foolish girls who read nothing else, and think their lives are to be paraphrases of their favourite books. That girl yonder wouldn’t look at a decent young fellow in a Government office, with three hundred a year and a chance of advancement,” said Mr. Smith, pointing to Isabel Sleaford with a backward jerk of his thumb. “She’s waiting for a melancholy creature with murder on his mind.”
Indeed, Isabel doesn’t dream of a happy-ever-after; her dream is of tragic doomed love. She idolizes Ernest Maltravers, Henry Esmond and Steerforth, and “sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind.” Sometimes she dreams of dying young of tuberculosis–a painful death, but one to her which is infused with tragic glamour. A glimpse of Isabel’s character can be seen through her employment as a nursery governess for two orphaned children under the guardianship of Mr. Charles Raymond. She loves playing with the children and teaching them her romanticized version of history:
she gave them plenty of Anne Boleyn and Mary Queen of Scots, –fair princess Mary, Queen of France and wife of Thomas Brandon,–Marie Antoinette and Charlotte Corday.
The children only said ‘Lor!’ when they heard of Mademoiselle Corday’s heroic adventure: but they were very much interested in the fate of the young princes of the House of York, and amused themselves by a representation of the smothering business with the pillows on the school-room sofa.
Mr. Raymond understands that Isabel’s approach to education is flawed, but he considers that she possesses a “decent moral region.” And that’s a rather important distinction as it turns out.
I don’t think I’m giving anything away to say that Isabel marries Gilbert. She doesn’t love him, but this marriage is an opportunity for a different life, and momentarily even Isabel is caught up in the romance of courtship. What follows is a drab, budget honeymoon with Isabel, who so wanted to look like Florence Dombey on her wedding day, dressed in a brown silk dress, not of her choosing, but purchased by Gilbert for its “homely merit of usefulness.” On her wedding day, she acknowledges “her life had never been her own yet, and never was to be her own.” She makes one attempt to glamorize her home and then when that fails, she returns to the solace of her books. Rejected by her peers who tediously discuss “the last popular memoir of some departed Evangelical curate,” Isabel withdraws even more. Gilbert who choose Isabel because she was so different from all the other young women he knew, wishes to “smooth her into the most ordinary semblance of everyday womanhood, by means of that moral flat-iron called common-sense.” Life goes on. Isabel is “content with a life in which she had ample leisure to dream of a different existence.”
Some time later, through Isabel’s former employer, Mr. Raymond, Isabel makes the acquaintance of a very wealthy man, Roland Lansdell, a local landowner who is also an author of a volume of poems An Alien’s Dream, one of Isabel’s favourite volumes. Roland Lansdell is flattered by Isabel’s very evident worship, and worship can be a very powerful aphrodisiac. Lansdell isn’t a great poet, and somewhere deep down, he knows this, but to Isabel, who trembles in his presence, he’s one of her idols–a hero stepped out from one of her books: wealthy, troubled, difficult, handsome, & restless. In fact, Roland and Isabel have a lot in common and when it comes to temperament, they rather dangerously share some character traits, a passion for books, and a yearning for doomed, impossible romance.
In Madame Bovary, the novel that inspired The Doctor’s Wife, we see Emma Bovary at the end of the line. Unleashed she destroys herself. The Doctor’s Wife is Braddon’s take on the tale, and there’s a very different moral element at play here concerning the “affair” and its consequences. For this reader, The Doctor’s Wife is a delightful read, and particularly for the growth of the characters. Even though Braddon intended to create a more literary novel which is mostly achieved here by literary allusion, there some elements of Sensation Fiction–coincidences that defy plausibility and even a murder.