The Doctor's Wife is one of Mary Elizabeth Braddon's earlier novels published in 1864, two years after Lady Audley's Secret. I loved Lady Audley's Secret, but it did take a few chapters to get into it. So, when I struggled with The Doctor's Wife I stayed hopeful. But, tried though I did, I could not get into it. It was all rather disappointing - I really thought I'd love it.
The Doctor's Wife is a re-telling of Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1857). Isabel Gilbert is our Emma Bovary, her husband George Gilbert our Charles Bovary. The premise is much the same - Isabel is a dreamer and a book lover, and she wants her life to be like the books she loves so much. Her marriage is disappointing; like Emma, she married only to relieve her boredom temporarily, she finds her husband tedious, and her eye is caught by the rich and handsome Roland Landsdell, a perfect hero for her ideal life.
The book is full, full! of literary references. Isabel has Florence Dombey of Dombey and Son (Charles Dickens, 1848) through much of the novel, as well as Byron of course, Tennyson, Scott, Sterne, Thackeray, Shakespeare, Longfellow, King Arthur... It was, I think, rather overdone and for the bored reader it became more of a game to pick them out.
But sadly even that couldn't keep me engaged, and because I did such a bad job of reading it I'll demure from attempting to write about the subtleties in it. All is not lost, however - there was one element that I did find fascinating and that is the book's concern with the impact of reading on one's outlook. Isabel, like Emma, wanted an 'ideal', and that ideal was constructed out of Romantic narratives. Her 'failure' to achieve made her depressed, anxious, and generally discontent with her lot. As I was reading this novel I couldn't help but think of a studies published this year suggesting that Facebook and other forms of social media could lead to depression. The Huffington Post published an article quoting one of the study's co-authors:
"We found that if Facebook users experience envy of the activities and lifestyles of their friends on Facebook, they are much more likely to report feelings of depression... Facebook can be a very positive resource for many people, but if it is used as a way to size up one’s own accomplishments against others, it can have a negative effect."
The Daily Mail also covered this study and others, writing,
The Facebook test group said what riled them most were happy holiday snaps of 'Facebook friends' followed by gushing prose of fabulous lives, great jobs and cracking social diaries.
Facebook is not art (though it is not necessarily reality either!), but as reading may be a source of entertainment, so too is social media, and the universal concern is the effect of these forms of entertainment on the psyche. Some of us feel sad, sometimes even depressed because we're not 'measuring up'. In the 21st Century our measure is those we follow, in the 19th Century it could have been the books we read. Samuel Johnson wrote in 1750 that novels ought to depict morally good characters, and even earlier 335 B.C. Aristotle wrote "characters should be good"; both shared concerns that 'bad' characters were a bad influence, and good characters were a good influence. Either way, reading has an effect on the reader. If Emma Bovary and Isabel Gilbert were depressed at their lack of the passion, romance and grandeur they had read about, it's a good bet they'd be depressed on their daily checks of Facebook or Instagram. A superficial point, I know, but the concerns raised in A Doctor's Wife and Madame Bovary are similar, but the 'devil' today is another form of media.
Back to the matter in hand, though - though at times irritating and dull, I do still think The Doctor's Wife is a worthwhile read, but I feel that perhaps those who have read Madame Bovary would get more out of it. It lacked subtlety and I suppose it goes without saying I found Flaubert's effort a great deal more admirable, but nonetheless the issues raised are very provoking.