In transcribing the following material from The Reader, an interesting, unfortunately short-lived intellectual magazine of the 1860s, I have used the Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. The full-text version is generally accurate, and the most common OCR error here takes the form of turning the letter “e” as “o.” I corrected the scanning errors, and for ease of reading I have added a few paragraph breaks. If you come upon any errors I have missed, please do not hesitate to let the editors of this site know. — George P. Landow
Flaubert sacrificed propriety to truth, and Miss Braddon has sacrificed truth to propriety. . . . There is a school of English writers who seem to consider that the one fault their heroines may not commit is a breach of positive chastity. If these writers had to emendate the gospels, they would take especial care to inform us that the woman taken in adultery had been guilty of bigamy believing her just husband to be dead, and that the Magdalene had been seduced under the pretext of a fictitious marriage.
his is not a sensation novel.” So writes Miss Braddon in the closing pages of "The Doctor's Wife;" and the statement, in its literal sense, is true enough. There is very little in this novel of the wild improbabilities and startling coincidences which created the fame of "Lady Audley's Secret;" and we doubt, in consequence, whether "The Doctor's Wife" will over win the peculiar popularity acquired by other works which have proceeded from the same hand. The story, however, will raise the reputation of the authoress with all who look for something in a novel beyond a tale. Passion, not incident, is the subject-matter of "The Doctor's Wife;" and, unless we are mistaken, Miss Braddon has bestowed upon it more study and thought and talent than on any of her earlier writings. Whether that talent has not been wasted on a hopeless enterprise is a doubt we cannot conceal from ourselves. "The Doctor's Wife" is a French novel adapted to English tastes; and the process of adaptation is, we fear, both for good and bad, one of which the secret has not been yot discovered.
All persons who have really studied the wonderful literature of modern French romance must be acquainted with "Madame Bovary." To those to whom the work is unknown the story may be told in very few words indeed. The heroine of Flaubert's novel is a half-educated woman of some cleverness, much sentiment, and with a mind perverted, rather than corrupted, by the low creed of the novels on which her mental life was sustained. As a girl she is married to a worthy commonplace parish-doctor utterly unable to satisfy her sentimental aspirations. Weary of a weary life, panting for the excitement she is taught to believe is to be found alone in passion, yearning for a love such as she has read of in her favourite novels, she becomes a faithless wife more from silliness than from vice. Then the punishment of her sin falls upon her. With a cruel minuteness of detail we are told of the petty miseries of her wretched life, of the disappointment which any attempt at realizing her ideal entails upon her, of the miseries of the concealment she is forced to throw over the intrigues which she would fain make so noble, and feels at heart so miserably degrading. And then we learn how she sinks lower and lower, falls into petty debts and miserable connexions, and at last dies by her own hand, broken-spirited.
A story more wretchedly and squalidly real it is difficult to find than "Madame Bovary;" and it is this story which, we conceive, has suggested the plot of the "Doctor's Wife." The coincidence is too marked to be accidental. Isabel Sleaford is the daughter of a broken-down adventurer, and is bred up amidst the squalor and wretchedness of a shiftless out-at-elbows home in the suburbs of London. Left to herself, like her French prototype, motherless, and without any one to direct her studies, she lives in a world of romance filled with ideal heroes and heroines. By the course of events, which we need not repeat, she marries a homely country practitioner, the very counterpart of Monsieur Bovary. Then, as soon as she becomes Mrs. Gilbert, the utter weariness of her dull monotonous country life falls upon her; and, after one or two feeble efforts to find some sympathy with her common-place husband, she sinks back into the dreamland of her girlhood.
She was satisfied with her life, which was the same every day, and with the dull old town, where no change ever came. She was satisfied as an opium-eater is satisfied with the common everyday world: which is only the frame that holds together all manner of splendid and everchanging pictures. She was content with a life in which she had ample leisure to dream of a different existence. Oh, how she thought of that other and brighter life! — that life in which there was passion, and poetry, and beauty, and rapture, and despair! Here, among these meadows, and winding waters, and hedgerows, life was a long sleep: and one might as well be a brown-eyed cow, browsing from week's end to week's end iu the same pastures, as a beautiful woman with an eager yearning soul. Mrs. Gilbert thought of London — that wonderful West-End, May-Fair London, which has no attribute in common with all the great metropolitan wilderness around and about it. She thought of that holy of holies, that inner sanctuary of life, in which all the women are beautiful and all the men are wicked, in which existence is a perpetual whirlpool of balls and dinner-parties and hothouse flowers and despair. She thought of that untested life, and pictured it, and thrilled with the sense of its splendour and brightness, us she sat by the brawling waterfall, and heard the creaking wheel of the mill, and the splashing of the trailing weeds. She saw herself amongst the light and music of that other world; queen of a lamp-lit boudoir, where loose patches of ermine gleamed whitely upon carpets of velvet-pile; where, amid a confusion of glitter and colour, she might sit, nestling among the cushions of a low gilded chair — a kind of indoor Cleopatra's galley — and listen contemptuously (she always imagined herself contemptuous) to the eloquent compliments of a wicked prince.
The wicked prince comes at last in the person of Roland Lansdell, the lord of Mordred Priory. But here ends the parallel between the French and English conceptions of the self-same character. Flaubert sacrificed propriety to truth, and Miss Braddon has sacrificed truth to propriety. A faithless wife can never be made the heroine of a novel which is destined for British family-reading; and the anatomy of a guilty passion is a subject forbidden to writers who wish to appeal to the general public. Thus the author of the "Doctor's Wife" laid before herself a problem of the utmost difficulty. The whole pith and marrow of her story was to consist in the passion entertained by a wife for an unmarried man; and yet everything was to be conducted with the extremest regard for decorum. The problem is solved as nearly as it ever can be solved under the above conditions. We need not say that Mrs. Gilbert only goes to the extreme brink of the precipice and does not topple over; she never forfeits her technical right to be called an honest woman; and, with the exception of a stolen kiss or two, no overt act of absolute impropriety can be laid to her charge. This we might have foretold beforehand. There is a school of English writers who seem to consider that the one fault their heroines may not commit is a breach of positive chastity. If these writers had to emendate the gospels, they would take especial care to inform us that the woman taken in adultery had been guilty of bigamy believing her just husband to be dead, and that the Magdalene had been seduced under the pretext of a fictitious marriage. We have no wish to see our English novelists imitate their French colleagues. We hold that illegitimate love is not the proper subject for an English story; but, if we are to have romances based on guilty passions, then, in the name of goodness, let us have the truth.
No doubt Miss Braddon conscientiously believes that " The Doctor's Wife" is a moral work. Yet, in our judgment, it is far less so than "Madame Bovary" itself. Here, at any rate, we see how idle indulgence of morbid sentiment leads to sin, and how sin brings wretchedness and works out its own punishment. In the English version we have the same story with a different moral. The heroine has all the pleasures of passion, but stops short at the actual sin, and escapes without any punishment whatever. The subject is a delicate one, but we own that, if Mr. Gilbert could have known the truth, we think he would scarcely have felt that the wrong done him was the less because his wife confined her infidelity within the limits of platonic love-making. The English surgeon dies believing in his wife's truth and affection; the French doctor dies broken-hearted when the discovery of his dead wife's letters to her lover shows him that she had been faithless to her vows. One learns the truth — the other dies ignorant of it; but the truth was the same for both.
After all is said and done, the "Doctor's Wife" is a painful story. All Miss Braddon's marvellous delicacy of touch and feeling cannot remove the faults inherent to the idea, or at any rate to her mode of treating it. When her husband is lying dead at home Isabel is called from the room, next to that where her husband lies, to come and witness the deathbed and listen to the dying rhapsodies of her lover. Before the breath is well out of George Gilbert's body she is again pouring forth her love in the presence of Roland Lansdell — dying, it is true, but still the object of her heart's passion. Yet, with all this, Miss Braddon has accomplished the most difficult task of making Isabel not altogether hateful or unnatural. The conception of the weak, fond, child-wife, "whose heart," in Mrs. Browning's words, "was breaking for a little love" — who lived in a cloud-world of her own, shrinking from real life, dreading the realities of sin as much almost as the realities of duty — is drawn out with a skill unrivalled of its kind.
[The following paragraph, which appears an ordinary running text in the The Reader, is obviously a quotation fromn the novel:]
So there was no thought of peril to herself or to others in Mrs. Gilbert's mind when she stood on the bridge above the mill-stream talking with Roland Lansdell. She had a vague idea that she was not exactly doing her duty to her husband; but poor George's image only receded farther and farther from her. Did she not still obey his behests, and sit opposite to him at the little dinner-table, and pour out his tea at breakfast, and assist him to put on his overcoat in the passage before he went out? Could she do more for him than that? No, he had himself rejected all further attention. She had tried to brush his hat once in a sudden gush of dutiful feeling; but she had brushed the nap the wrong way, and had incurred her husband's displeasure She had tried to read poetry to him, and he had yawned during her lecture. She had put flowers on his dressing-table — white fragile-looking flowers — in a tall slender vase, with a tendril of convolvulus twined artfully round the stem, like a garland about a classic column; and Mr. Gilbert had objected to the perfumed blossoms as liable to generate carbonic-acid gas. What could any one do for such a husband as this? The tender sentimental raptures, the poetic emotions, the dim aspirations which Isabel revealed to Roland would have been as unintelligible as the Semitic languages to George. Why should she not bestow this other half of her nature upon whom she chose? If she gave her duty and obedience to Othello, surely Cassio might have all the poetry of her soul, which the matter-of-fact Moor despised and rejected.
The whole interest centres round Isabel. Sho stands before us a clear distinct picture, the woman whom all men who come across her path love, and whom her sister women look upon as eminently insipid and uninteresting. The odd thing to us is that a writer who can paint a man's woman so perfectly should fail so thoroughly in representing a man. Roland Lansdell is one of those impossible compounds of Don Juan and Rochester and the Heir of Redclyffe which only a lady-writer could ever conceive. Fancy a man of the world — a gentleman with all the morbid self-reserve of a high-bred nature — prosing on for hours upon his dying bed in language like this: —
A man has no right to desire perfect happiness: I can understand that now. He has no right to defy the laws made by wiser men for his protection, because there is a fatal twist in the fabric of his life, and those very laws happen to thwart him in his solitary insignificance. How truly The mas Carlyle has told us that Manhood only begins when we have surrendered to Necessity!
Happily, passages like these are few and far between. It is only at the end of her novel that Miss Braddon thinks it incumbent on her to give some incongruous theological instruction, as a sort of grace after meat.
Of the literary merits of "The Doctor's Wife" we can hardly speak too highly. It is a consolation to those who, like ourselves, recognised a latent claim to genius in Miss Braddon's first works to see how her strange power exerts itself more fully as she gains strength and experience. Faults there are in "The Doctor's Wife" and to spare; but these very faults are of a kind which no ordinary writer could have committed.
Braddon, M. E.. The Doctor’s Wife. London: Maxwell & Co., 1864.
E. D. “Miss Braddon’s Novels.” The Reader: A Journal of Literature, Science, and Art. (October 1864): 474-75. London: “Published at 112, Fleet Street.” Hathi Digital Library Trust web version of a copy in the Princeton University Library. 18 July 2016.
Last modified 17 July 2016