The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

Brian Moore 100

2021 is the centenary year of his birth for Northern Irish writer Brian Moore (1921-1999), academically celebrated at Brian Moore 100 and by interested readers in the year long Brian Moore ReadAlong. I have read and reviewed two titles, Lies of Silence (1990) and The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne (1955) and I have The Magician’s Wife (1997) plus No Other Life (1993) still on the shelf.

A Distrustful Reader

Brian Moore 100 Northern Irish Literature literary fictionI enjoyed Lies of Silence, however was completely wound up by his treatment of the character in The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, a feeling of indignation in his treatment of the female protagonist that was expounded on by Colm Tóibín who admitted:

“that Moore clearly knew that you could achieve certain effects by writing about a woman in the Ireland of his time which you could not achieve in writing about a man, the same behaviour would not bring disgrace, pity perhaps, tolerance certainly, humour most likely, incarceration – never”

I came to The Doctor’s Wife, another novel in which Moore again takes on the voice and attempts to get into the mind of a female protagonist, with significant caution and a not unreasonable dose of distrust.

The Plot: Awaiting her husband’s arrival on holiday in France, Sheila Redden, quiet, middle-aged doctor’s wife from Northern Ireland, suddenly finds herself caught up in an illicit affair with a young American ten years her junior.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1976.

To Prelude or Not

Brian Moore The Doctor's Wife Paris Hotel

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In a short prelude to the first chapter, Shelia’s brother arrives in Paris and from what we glean Shelia has disappeared and there is a letter waiting for her at a friend Peg’s apartment, from a T. Lowry in the US. Shelia’s brother phones this man in America; he says is he is sorry, he can’t help.

The prelude creates an element of intrigue, an unnecessary addition reading it in 2021, though it may have affected readers differently in 1976, by what it implied. That no one knows where she is. That we know where she is not.

Backing Up to the Beginning

Due to his commitments as a Doctor, Shelia’s husband delays his departure for their holiday, they are returning to the Mediterranean  where they honeymooned sixteen years ago. Sheila travels on alone to Paris.

Staying in Paris with her friend Peg, Sheila’s emotions are overwhelmed by the mix of frustration at her husband and the nervous excitement of being in the city with her confident friend, who introduces Ivo, her lover four years younger than herself. Sheila is in awe of Peg’s way of life, the result of having continued her education, pursued a career, travel.

She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me,  stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.’

It is through Ivo she becomes acquainted with Tom, the two keep each company while waiting for Peg. Tom is taking a year after his Anglo-Irish Lit studies at Trinity in Dublin to think about his next step. Sheila enjoys being able to talk with Tom on a subject she is virtually forbidden to elsewhere; speaking animatedly about literature to a man at a party has being the cause of reprimand by her husband in the past. Trying to engage with her husband in conversation fails every time these days.

While initially petulant and annoyed with her husband for putting his work ahead of their holiday, at a certain point Sheila begins to will him not to come. The distance and solitude heightens her feelings towards everything. She is at the beginning of developing a kind of resistance, even if that shows itself through what appears to be recklessness. Eventually she will embrace it, learn from it and change.

Before anything is even hinted at with this young man, while still in that isolated wonder of being alone in Paris, with her friend, engaging in a social life, and interesting conversation, she asks herself:

What about those men you read about in newspaper stories who walk out of their homes saying they are going down to the corner to buy cigarettes and are never heard from again? This is Paris. I am here. What if I never go back? page 42

Looking back at this now, it is clear that this thought indicated a turning point for Sheila, who throughout the novel is referred to as Mrs Redden, unless represented in dialogue when she is Sheila. From here she departs Paris to Cap Ferrat, knowing she has at least a few days until her husband may or may not join her. As she gets out of the hotel bath, the telephone rings.

The Objectification of a Man

Love Entrapment Escape The Doctors Wife Brian Moore

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The rest of the story portrays Sheila’s continued attempts to resist what is occurring, until she doesn’t. The focus is always on her, on her thoughts, her decisions, her mind. It is not a novel that looks into the mind of a 27 year old man.

Ironically, the young man is objectified, something more common to woman characters, but here Brian Moore diverges and flips the coin, reducing HIM to an object of sexual pleasure and gratification. Though he doesn’t go so far as to emasculate him, he risks the character of Tom being perceived as inauthentic, for the very reasons Tóibín above, referred to.

Men too, were expected to behave in certain ways, even while conducting illicit affairs. However, Tom is a post-war baby, a baby boomer, he is of a different generation and from another culture, it is quite normal that his behaviour will be perceived by some as childish, ill-considered, unrealistic. Personally, I could believe it. Sheila was born before the war, she was indeed a Traditionalist. In a sense then, her behaviour and responses are the more radical.

Moore however is clear, he elicits only her thoughts, provoking her to express them aloud, to hear herself speak. What she has to say is far more interesting.

‘I don’t know’ she said. ‘Some people never want to go outside the place they were born in. And others seem to want to run away from the day they’re old enough to walk.’

‘And which are you?’

‘A runaway.’

‘But you didn’t leave, did you?’ 

When it becomes clear what Sheila is contemplating, the men in her life, her husband and her brother will resort to the kind of tools that men in power, medical men were able to use to exercise control over what they considered a wayward woman. There’s a history of mental illness in Sheila’s family, something her husband doesn’t hesitate to consider using to his advantage. It is a scary moment.

Understanding Women

It is to his credit, that Brian Moore takes a different approach twenty years after writing about Judith Hearne. This time he pursues other perspectives, making thought provoking choices that engage the reader. 

Female empowerment Women

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It reads like a kind of thriller because she acts so out of convention and the longer she does so, the more likely it seems there is a possibility she might indeed be upending her life.  The reader can feel she is hovering between two choices. The detail with which her encounters are shared and the response of her family to them, increase this duality.

I really enjoyed this, perhaps because I did read it with that level of distrust and was therefore surprised to see how much the author’s perception of a woman character had developed. Although, here too, I had a sense of the author almost writing this in collaboration, I imagined him discussing and arguing this premise with his women friends, or was he reflecting on his own doomed affair? Who knows, but he left me wanting to know more, wanting to pursue Sheila further in her adventure towards liberation.

This one I definitely recommend!

Have you read any Brian Moore this year?

 

13 thoughts on “The Doctor’s Wife by Brian Moore (1976)

  1. I have a great affection for Brian Moore’s writing with good reason. The fact that I had just read The Lonely Passion got me an agent. We were talking at a party – I was pitching & his eyes were glazing over – then he changed the subject and asked about the last thing I had read. When I told him, he said well, if we like the same authors then it’s possible I’m going to like your wtiting, send me something. And later The Doctor’s Wife influenced the structure of my novel.
    I must re-read the Lonely Passion in light of your comments (that party was a long time ago). I thought then it was painful description of the narrowness of women’s lives, the few choices open to them, the prison of social expectations from which there was no release…but it was without doubt a 1950s book. If nothing else I think it probably still has a literary importance if only because it brings to life the mental landscape of the world our mothers, grandmothers and great grand mothers had to negoiate. It might even explain some of the decisions they made and the roads thye didn’t take. But I’ll read it again to make sure.

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    • Wow that’s a wonderful story of connection Bridget, I’m so happy that the mention of Brian Moore opened doors for you and that being a reader was judged with such importance.

      I think you are absolutely right about those themes of the narrowness of women’s lives and societal expectations and it is interesting because it was not marriage that trapped Judith, it demonstrated how much worse life might be for a woman, having passed by that option.

      That and some of the authorial choices made in depicting Judith annoyed me, making it harder to have sympathy or empathy for her, which could have been within reach. To me his creation of her as a character was too close to being a caricature to take seriously. Do check out my review of it, it would be interesting for you to read it now and see how you feel from a writer’s perspective. And the big difference between that and Sheila who he creates 20 years later.

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  2. As a recent convert to Moore’s writing, I haven’t yet read this one. But it looks interesting for itself, and as a period piece of women’s lives even as late as the 70s. It’s interesting that we tend to be more surprised by a male author scrutinising a female subject than the other way round.

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  3. A truly excellent review, Claire. I really enjoyed reading your thoughts on this – such a perceptive and balanced consideration of Sheila’s situation. Your comments on the history of mental illness in Sheila’s family reminded me of just how chilling I found that aspect of the story. The sense that Kevin would be prepared to use this as a means of stopping his wife from going to America, leaning on her brother (who also happens to be a doctor) to support him with a letter/documentation to this effect. It’s a terrible situation to contemplate, but also entirely believable (from what I know of the traditional mindset/culture of Kevin’s generation).

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    • Thanks Jacqui, I really enjoyed going back to read your review and all the comments, to see where we had similar views and it seems we did. I probably enjoyed this one more because of the relative difference in approach compared to Judith Hearne and the revelation of why the male character was the way he was. I like what you said in your review that he is in effect a plot device to demonstrate her character. I did notice looking back over the passages I’d highlighted having read the book in its entirety that all the clues were there well before anything happened with Tom. They are much more noticeable looking back.

      I thought the atmosphere he created was interesting, it really was not clear what she was going to do, up to a certain point the reader understands her and towards the end, we too are pushed into the unknown.

      That way of using mental illness to try and incarcerate women is scary indeed and it reminded me of reading Z is for Zelda, a fictionalised memoir of Zelda Fitzgerald, another true life example of a woman against whom this leverage was used, and one whose symptoms developed as a result of having been controlled by a man, prevented from developing her own interests and career, in order to be of service (and entertainment) to him.

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  4. It’s really interesting to read your different responses to Moore’s portrayal of women – as you say. maybe 20 years changed his perspective. I have I Am Mary Dunne in the TBR so I’ll be interested to see how he writes her character after reading your reviews.

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    • I’m sure that 20 years made a difference to his portrayal of women, that’s many more years of observation and a few experiences no doubt. The contrast is significant. I see Mary Dunne was published in 1968, so that’s about the midpoint between the two.

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  5. This is the Brian Moore book that sounds the most appealing to me after reading the perceptive posts by both Jacqui and yourself. It’s a sad commentary that so few male writers can write well about women and our lives. Then there’s the related reality that there are just not that many men who read books written by women.

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  6. This was so relatable and very real, “She lives like a man, free, having affairs, travelling, always in big cities, whereas, look at me, stuck all these years at home, my M.A. a waste. I don’t think I could even support myself anymore. ‘You know’, she said to Peg, ‘it’s working and travelling that keeps a person young. It’s sitting at home doing nothing that makes you middle-aged in your mind. I was just thinking about it the other day. It’s as if the only part of my life that I look forward to now is my holidays. There’s something terribly wrong about that.” There are two kinds of People, the one who left and traveled, and the one who stayed. Each will have a story, on both the good, the bad, joys and heartaches.

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  7. I think I’ve mentioned on one of your earlier Moore reviews that I intend to read more but have only read Ginger Coffey (which bears some similarities to Judith Hearne, I believe, but with a male protagonist). Someday…maybe…I do have Judith around, for sure. And Black Robe, too, I believe.

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