Gulliver’s Wife: Lauren Chater on re-imagining a classic

by |March 30, 2020
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Lauren Chater is the author of the bestselling historical novel The Lace Weaver and the baking compendium Well Read Cookies: Beautiful biscuits inspired by great literature. Her latest novel is Gulliver’s Wife, the story of one woman’s journey to the edge of love and loyalty based on the Jonathan Swift classic, Gulliver’s Travels. In her spare time, Lauren loves baking and listening to her children tell their own stories. She lives in Sydney.

Lauren Chater

Lauren Chater

Why do we love reading classics? Despite the thousands of wonderful new books which hit our shelves each year, we return time and again to favourites like Little Women, Jane Eyre and Great Expectations. One possible explanation is that these books provide comfort. They transport us to a place which exists outside time – a place of safety, untouched by modern anxieties. Considering our current global climate, perhaps there has never been a better time to lose ourselves in the natural wonder of Anne Shirley’s Prince Edward Island or the golden sands of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. If you fancy spending a little longer within the pages of your favourite book, allow me to humbly recommend delving into a re-imagined classic.

For years now, modern authors have been revisiting and reinventing some of literature’s greatest works, everything from Jane Eyre (Jean Rhys’ Wide Sargasso Sea) to Little Women (Geraldine Brooks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning March) and Pride and Prejudice (Curtis Sittenfield’s Eligible). If done well, a modern take on a classic story can reveal deeper themes and illuminate character motivations in a fresh new way. In some cases, re-imagined classics offer us a rare glimpse into the lives of secondary characters who have been pushed to the outer edges of the story and, by extension, the public consciousness.

My new novel, Gulliver’s Wife, explores the life of Mary Burton Gulliver – a herbalist, a midwife and the long-suffering spouse of Lemuel Gulliver, the hero of Jonathan Swift’s classic Gulliver’s Travels. Mary’s ordered world is thrown into chaos when her husband returns home three years after being declared lost at sea and she must balance her care for him with that of her clients and those of her two children, Johnny and Bess. In Swift’s story, Mary is referred to less than ten times. Lemuel Gulliver, busy meeting fantastical creatures as he makes his way around the globe, hardly thinks of her until it’s time for him to return home. Their relationship is therefore quite one-sided and by the story’s conclusion, he’s become something of a misanthrope anyway who prefers the company of his horses to that of his wife.

Gulliver's TravelsThe point of my novel is to understand what life might have been like for women like Mary, left behind to care for hearth and home whenever their menfolk went ‘adventuring’. With such little information provided by the original text, there was ample scope for me to develop Mary as a flesh-and-blood woman with her own dreams and desires, her own vulnerabilities and strengths. As a working woman balancing both domestic and professional roles, Mary experiences some of the same challenges still faced by women today – although in Mary’s case, these troubles are compounded by her marriage to a man who is notoriously gullible (the surname ‘Gulliver’ is one of Swift’s many jokes, a play on the old 17th century word ‘gull’ which meant convincing someone that something false was actually true).

As the daughter of a hosier, I figured Mary would be a dab hand with a needle – something which serves her well in her line of work, although technically women were not supposed to suture. That task, along with the handling of surgical instruments, was performed by members of the exclusively male Company of Barber Surgeons who had their headquarters in London. These ‘professionals’ undertook training which was significantly less rigorous than that of doctors who had to attend classes at the Royal College of Physicians. As such, they offered a sometimes perplexing range of services which included both bloodletting, teeth-pulling and beard-trimming (!). And yet, despite these humble foundations, certain members of the guild continued to look down their noses at the work performed by the local parish midwives. London midwives like Mary worked incredibly hard to provide a safe environment in which women could give birth within the comfort of their own homes. They had their own training and apprenticeship system and their actions were endorsed by the Bishops of the Church of England, the highest authorities in the land, second only to the Queen.

By the time Gulliver’s Wife begins in 1702, the Queen had already given birth to her last child. Tragically, she went on to lose all of the sixteen children she managed to conceive during her marriage to Prince George. If you watched The Favourite, starring Olivia Colman, you’ll have an idea of how this kind of loss might affect a woman’s mental health. The midwives of 18th century London not only delivered children – they provided support for mothers and connected the community in ways which might have been invisible to some but were nevertheless vital in ensuring the well-being and survival of future generations. When the Company of Barber Surgeons became aware of a new birthing instrument (known as the forceps) doing the rounds, they began to campaign for greater authority in the birthing chamber, putting them in direct conflict with the London midwives who had always favoured a home-based birth with personalised care. This power struggle sits at the heart of Gulliver’s Wife and echoes the interrogation of political class systems and power that Jonathan Swift satirised in his classic travelogue, albeit from a female perspective.

Although the story belongs to Mary (with Lemuel playing a much smaller role), Gulliver’s surname remains part of the title – a homage to Swift’s spirit of adventure and the enduring popularity of his classic work.

Gulliver’s Wife by Lauren Chater (Simon & Schuster Australia) is out on the 1st of April.

Gulliver's Wifeby Lauren Chater

Gulliver's Wife

by Lauren Chater

Birth. Death. Wonder … One woman’s journey to the edge of love and loyalty from the bestselling author of The Lace Weaver

London, 1702. When her husband is lost at sea, Mary Burton Gulliver, midwife and herbalist, is forced to rebuild her life without him. But three years later when Lemuel Gulliver is brought home, fevered and communicating only in riddles, her ordered world is turned upside down. In a climate of desperate poverty and violence, Mary is caught in a crossfire of suspicion driven by her husband’s outlandish claims...

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