January 24, 2014
Brian Moore: The Doctor’s Wife
(This post is part of my Mooreathon, a project to read all of Belfast-born author Brian Moore’s novels in order of publication.)
After The Great Victorian Collection, Brian Moore quickly published The Doctor’s Wife – just a year later. The speed was a result not of writing the book quickly but of a delay in the publication of the previous novel. It brought him acclaim previously unknown: it did well critically and commercially (“On this book, unlike others, I have finally tasted the smell of riches which most successful authors must sense,” he said), and gave him his first Booker Prize shortlisting. It didn’t win, reportedly because one of the judges, poet and prime minister’s wife Mary Wilson, vetoed it due to its explicit sex. (She also vetoed Julian Rathbone’s King Fisher Lives: “I couldn’t be party to giving the prize to a book about cannibalism.” The prize went to David Storey’s Saville.)
The Doctor’s Wife (1976), Moore’s eleventh novel, also holds a special place in my reading history: it is the only novel that my wife (who reads very little fiction) and I both loved. We raced through it consecutively, and that’s a tribute to Moore’s unfussy style and storytelling ability. The plot is simple: a woman travels to France and falls in love with a man ten years younger than her. In other words, this is another of Moore’s novels – like, to degrees, his first seven – which examines one life at a time of crisis. The woman is Sheila Redden, 37, married to a doctor and living in Belfast. She is interested in books and is attractive to many men, “like Pat Lawlor down at Mullen’s Garage who, when she drove in for petrol, would pull a comb out of his overalls and arrange his hair over his bald spot. Or the young butcher at Kennedy and McCourt’s who would bully his other customers to make up their minds so that he could get over to serve her.” Her husband, Kevin, is portrayed as staid and stuck, and it has taken a couple of years for Sheila to persuade him to revisit their honeymoon resort in the south of France. When we meet her in the book, she has just arrived in France, alone – Kevin has some last-minute surgery work to do and will join her in a day. “All of her life, it seemed, he had forced her to wait.”
Throughout the book, the narrative refers to Sheila only as “Mrs Redden”. She is identified by her marital status and husband’s name, just as in the title it is her marital status and husband’s occupation. It reflects how she is perceived by the society at the time (and Moore had previously played with questions of how name informs identity in I am Mary Dunne). This fits with the slightly formal style of her story and the presentation of her thoughts. It seems more 1950s than 1970s – more Judith Hearne than Sheila Redden – but it fits the social conservatism of Northern Ireland, where the old joke when arriving by air – “Please set your watches back 30 years” – still has some currency.
What makes it clear that this formality is a deliberate presentation by Moore rather than his own limitations as a writer – and he is no stylistic experimenter – is the frank portrayal of sex in The Doctor’s Wife. Sheila and her lover, American student Tom, are at it frequently and graphically. More interestingly, we get a little of it when Sheila is recalling her early days with her husband.
Kevin was the one, whenever we’d come up to this room to change, the wine in us, the minute I’d take my dress off, he’d be pulling down my knickers, with a big cockstand on him, always wanting.
It’s poignant (the occasional ridiculous word notwithcockstanding), because it reminds us that Kevin and Sheila once had a vital sex life, perhaps one as good as she now has with Tom – and that this new one too will likely decline, and indeed that this sort of entropy is a common feature in human relations.
I have said very little about the plot of The Doctor’s Wife so far. There isn’t much, really, other than the affair and its consequences, though there are a few dramatic moments and reversals, not least bang in the middle of the book. This gives it a unity and force that drives the reader on. There is some background unrelated to the characters: this was Moore’s first novel with a (part) Northern Irish setting since the beginning of the Troubles, and they feature here as static interference. “‘They done Divis Street last night,’ Mrs Milligan said. ‘A big bomb. They say it was the UDF.’” It feels tacked on, however, and Moore may himself have realised that he could do better on the subject, which he did with his 1990 novel (and third Booker shortlisting) Lies of Silence. The book also exhibits Moore’s trademark psychological insight. A quote on the back cover of my edition says “No other male writer, I swear (and precious few females), knows so much about women.” I am in no position to judge that (though Moore at the time of writing this book had had practice at perfecting his female viewpoint, from Judith Hearne to Mary Dunne), but he certainly has people down pat. He gets the semi-logical way of thinking, how we justify things to ourselves, how we cope with things we can’t accept, how ideas and desires creep in from the fringes of our consciousness and eventually become unignorably central.
I’ve noted previously that Moore’s books explore the death of God in Northern Ireland (at least for some people: see link earlier) and how the resulting void is filled. Sheila Redden fills it not with sexual satisfaction per se, but with what it teaches her about living in the moment: “there is no past, there is this, just this.” She imagines what could happen if she could “forget my past forever. My past, that small story which is my life.” Not easy, when it involves not just a husband but a fifteen-year-old son. “My son. He is what I did in life.” So there is no guarantee of happiness, or even peace. The question is whether Sheila will stay with her lover, or return home. If she does, she will be reminded that Schadenfreude could be an Irish word. “As the old women in Donegal used to say of a pregnant unmarried girl, ‘Now she’s crying the laugh she had last year.’”
So The Doctor’s Wife is, in its way, a blast and a breeze. Its weakness is that it is never surprising: not in plot but in structure and form. Moore is so expert, and so courteous to the reader, that we know the only shocks will be the elegantly detonated ones we are expecting from the beginning. He is writing to his strengths, which is why The Doctor’s Wife is one of his best books. But where The Great Victorian Collection was (it seemed to me) in part about his limitations as a writer, here there is just the odd reference to the other end of contemporary literature. Sheila, early in her holiday, picks up a book by Muriel Spark that she has brought with her. “She had read a good review of this book, but after a few pages she put it aside: these new novels were strange, not like the early ones.”