The Doctor’s Wife was published in 1975 and brought Brian Moore his first taste of commercial success. It secured him his first shortlisting for the Booker Prize and good sales despite mixed reviews. ‘On this book, unlike others, I have finally tasted the smell of riches which most successful authors must sense’ he told his friend Bob Weintraub. It didn’t win the Booker because, it is said, judge Mary Wilson vetoed it on the grounds of its sexual explicitness.
While the sex scenes in The Doctor’s Wife are quite tame by today’s standards, it was a departure for Moore, however the explicit scenes are integral to a novel which explores the idea of sex as an awakening and as a substitute for religion.
The plot is relatively straightforward and recognisable. Sheila Redden (Mrs Redden as she is referred to throughout) is an attractive 37 year old wife and mother from Belfast. She has a degree in French Literature, but has never done anything with it, instead she is a housewife and her husband Kevin a busy surgeon. After much persuading, she has finally managed to convince Kevin to come on a ‘second honeymoon’ to the South of France. Kevin, engulfed in his work, cannot make the first few days of the trip and so Sheila travels to Paris to stay with her friend Peg, until Kevin can join her in a few days’ time. It is a delay that will prove devastating for their relationship.
All of her life, it seemed, he had forced her to wait. He was the bread-winner: he made the plans and he changed them. He rarely consulted her. He was the man, he paid the bills: he played on that. My God, how he played on it.
In Paris, Sheila meets Tom Conway, an American in his twenties who is a friend of Peg’s. There is an immediate attraction between Tom and Sheila and when Kevin delays his trip even longer, an affair ensues which will see Sheila struggle with her responsibilities to her family and her new-found independence. Tom wants Sheila to come with him to America, but Sheila procrastinates, leading to several meetings with her family who attempt to make her see sense.
There is nothing ground-breaking about Moore’s plot, but it is told with a great technical skill and fascinating insight into the female psyche. As he did in I Am Mary Dunne and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Moore proves himself adept at inhabiting the thoughts and fears of a wife and mother who is aware that she is about to turn her life inside out, with no way back. Moore depicts Sheila’s deliberations and desires with a subtle intuition.
The fabled sex scenes are not so subtle, but they are also not gratuitous, for this renewed interest in sex and her own desires are at the heart of Sheila’s epiphany about the emptiness of her life. Where once – particularly in insular Northern Ireland – the promise of eternal life following years of dedication to the Church was enough, now a loss of faith has led Sheila to wonder what the point of her life is. Moore doesn’t simply suggest that Sheila is replacing faith with lust, there are other factors at play, but there is a clear suggestion that by finally doing what she wants, with no thought for anyone else, she has found her peace.
Yet tonight, in the quiet of this moonlit room, that feeling came back to her, that pure Sunday communion peace. It filled her, shocking her, for wasn’t this sin, here in this room, committing adultery with this boy, how could this be the same state, that pure feeling of peace? Yet it filled her, it possessed her totally. It was as though wrong were right. Her former life, her marriage, all that had gone before, now seemed to her to be sin. These few days with Tom were her state of grace.
Sheila has come to the point where she wants to forget her past, start again from scratch, but that is not so easy when she has a fifteen-year-old son waiting at home for her. It is this relationship with her son that is difficult to reconcile. Moore has Sheila note that Danny her son ‘is what I did in life’ but he also shows her easily cast his feelings aside. It is one aspect of the novel which jars but it also reminds the reader that, no matter what decision Sheila makes about her future, it is unlikely that she will find true happiness, for anything she does following the affair, will involve a sacrifice.
Like many of Moore’s novels, despite the focus on one central often titular character, there are regular shifts in narrative voice and a range of finely drawn supporting characters. Here Sheila’s brother Owen brings a weary gravitas to the proceedings, fearing that his sister is succumbing to a depression that runs in the family. Kevin, who is nearly always at the other end of a phone, is portrayed as being in just as much of a rut as his wife, but he responds with violence rather than betrayal.
Tom, Sheila’s love-interest is paradoxically, the least interesting of all the characters in the book, but his banality reinforces the idea that it is not Tom per se who derails Sheila’s life, but the promise of something different that his mere existence offers. When her brother asks why she has done this Sheila retorts ‘It happened to me.’ Religion has failed her. Life in Northern Ireland is becoming untenable due to the Troubles and her husband no longer seems to care. Sheila comes to realise that any change in her life will have to come from within and her ability to grasp any opportunity that comes her way.
What do you believe in? Do you believe that if you live a good life here on earth you’ll go to heaven? Do you believe in politics? Do you believe in trying to make this world a better place to live in? In Daddy’s day, people believed in those things. The present made sense because they believed there would be a future.
The Doctor’s Wife is an incredibly readable and subtly ambiguous novel which raises important questions about passion, commitment, responsibility and female agency. It is as much the examination of a marriage as it is a depiction of an affair and is a fine example of Moore at the height of his powers.
Why not join in next month when we will be reading Brian Moore’s 1994 novel No Other Life
You can also check out the great events happening throughout the year at the official Brian Moore at 100 website.
READ ON: BOOK
NUMBER READ: 330
NUMBER REMAINING: 416
I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!