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Review: "The Doctor's Wife" by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

The Doctor's Wife may be downloaded for free from our ebook catalog. Thanks to Joyce and Christine who proofread this text as part of our proofreading project with

“To be handsome and proud and miserable, was to possess an indisputable claim to Miss Sleaford's worship. She sighed to sit at the feet of a Byron, grand and gloomy and discontented, baring his white brow to the midnight blast, and raving against the baseness and ingratitude of mankind. She pined to be the chosen slave of some scornful creature, who should perhaps ill-treat and neglect her.”

The Doctors WifeI recently completed my first proofreading project for Project Gutenberg under the direction of Marc and Christine at There was one single disadvantage in fulfilling the task: I had to be very vigilant in keeping focused on the text and not let the story carry me away. It is a long novel, but so infinitely readable that one could rightly classify it as a “page turner.” Judging from the speed at which my proofing partner, Christine, completed her duties, she was as taken with the novel as I was.

Mary Elizabeth Braddon was author of perhaps the most successful sensation novel of her time, Lady Audley’s Secret, published two years before The Doctor’s Wife. During this two years, she would found Belgravia Magazine which presented readers with serialized sensation novels, along with poems, travel narratives, and other items of interest. The Doctor’s Wife makes humorous allusions to this “penny press” and the authors who produced it, and uses the concept of a serialized novel to create stories within stories within stories. This novel's depiction of sensation writer Sigismund Smith and his talk of reworking the plot of The Vicar of Wakefield for the penny press certainly alludes to the fact that The Doctor’s Wife itself is a rework of Madame Bovary.

The Doctor’s Wife was written with a wicked sense of humor and a hand that paints its characters with such vividness that they sometimes resemble caricatures. Regardless of the author’s intent, the characters in the novel are always amusing and the story always absorbing.

Our heroine, Isabel Sleaford, has led a sheltered life, not as a pampered aristocrat but as the oft-neglected daughter of a man who purports to be a barrister but handles all his business deals surreptitiously and his debts poorly. Isabel’s mother died when she was very young, and she constantly endures the ear-boxing of her step-mother and the taunts of her multitude of step-brothers. She copes with life’s lot by reading novels and poetry almost incessantly. Because of this upbringing, most of what she knows about life has been imparted to her from one or another romantic novel.

Perhaps if Isabel had been able to join a book club, or if her friend Sigismund Smith, a hack novelist, had married her, she might have been able to cope with life a little more effectively. As it is, she marries Sigismund’s friend George Gilbert, an adoring, if boring, physician. George does not share Isabel’s taste for literature, preferring to spend his free time with his newspapers and his medical books. Isabel is most annoyed with him when he fails to appreciate her reading aloud for him from her favorite book, a collection of verse called The Alien. One fateful day their friend introduces George and Isabel to his protégé, Roland Landsdell, and Isabel soon learns that Roland is the author of The Alien. In Roland Landsdell, Isabel sees everything she has dreamed of in a hero. For his part, Landsdell cannot help admiring the beautiful woman who adores his book of verse, and he sets about sharing with her his knowledge of literature and love of poetry. Although their relationship is purely intellectual, the wagging tongues of the local folk soon complicate matters, almost beyond redemption.

All her life, Isabel has tried live her life in a way that imitates those of her greatest heroes: Lord Byron, Percy Shelley, Napoleon, Romeo and Juliet. But as her life begins to take on complications worthy of her heroes, she begins to find what it is like to grow into a mature woman. It takes some real tragedies to demonstrate her resilience as well as her tender heart.

“If the drowsy life, the quiet afternoons in the deserted chambers of the Priory, could have gone smoothly on for ever, Isabel Gilbert might have, little by little, developed into a clever and sensible woman; but the current of her existence was not to glide with one dull motion to the end. There were to be storms and peril of shipwreck, and fear and anguish, before the waters flowed into a quiet haven, and the story of her life was ended.”


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