Simon & Schuster, Australia, 2020
With this, her second novel, Lauren Chater cements her reputation, so deservedly won with The Lace Weaver, as a fine storyteller and a mistress of atmospherics.
The notion of a fiction arising from a fiction is an interesting one. Lauren Chater has crafted her story with inspiration from Jonathan Swift’s 18th century tale, Gulliver’s Travels, first published as a prose satire: Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World. In Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon , and then a Captain of Several Ships.
However, this story focuses on the author’s imagining of Mary Burton, the long-suffering wife of Lemuel Gulliver, and the way she forges her own way in a life which throws up constant challenges.
The story takes place at the time when Gulliver returns from his first voyage, that to Lilliput. Her husband has left her in debt, struggling to make ends meet through her profession of midwifery and herbalism. Not only that, but he returns highly disturbed, deranged and under the thrall of opium. His stories of little people and tiny sheep confirm the view of the community that he is mad.
In Mary’s world of 18th century London, the lot of the woman is fraught with dangers at the best of times. The streets are unsafe, filthy and must be traversed day and night in her care of women in childbirth. Her daughter Bess is a rebellious teenager, at first fiercely enamoured of her father and determined to hear no ill of him, believing his tales of taking her to sea and freedom from the domestic drudgery she so loathes.
Mary’s less emotionally robust son is home from boarding school where he is suffering from the abuse of his peers. The midwives are under attack from the surgeons’ old boys’ network. Lemuel’s duplicity has resulted in the loss of what might have been a happy marriage to Richard, the longing for what could have been.
Despite all of this, Mary pushes on with her life, trying to advance her professional status as a midwife, a calling and career of which she is fiercely and justifiably proud. She does her best to protect her children from the evils that surround them and she cleverly and tactfully takes on both the establishment of church and the surgeons to keep midwifery in the expert and gentle hands of the women whose practice it is.
Lauren Chater’s depiction of 18th century London is graphic and detailed – we struggle fearfully through the streets and opium dens with Mary (and with Bess).
We fear with the women as news of a violent rapist spreads through the community. We fear and summon courage with Mary as she resists Lemuel’s rages, always looking for answers to help and protect him (well past the call of duty, we feel) whilst extricating herself from her own dilemma.
We feel for Mary and her terror of madness and the madhouse, which she experienced as her own mother was incarcerated. In short, we are totally on side with Mary, a force of nature, but mercifully and disarmingly, not without self-doubt.
This is a fundamentally salutary way to learn history. Fiction has the capacity to engage where tracts may not. Lauren Chater is endowed with a prodigious capacity to transport us to this 18th century reality in all its grimness.
There is no gilding here. There is however a clear generosity to the fictional people of this book. Even the unforgiveable is treated with respect, and the triumph of spirit is its own reward for tenacity and courage.
As readers we ride along with this from start to finish, but the author’s command of pace is such that we at first trudge through the mire and then as the climax is upon us, gallop to the conclusion with all the urgency required to prevent a great evil.
It’s absorbing fiction. Don’t miss a word of it.