- Never Great, Only Popular:Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s The Doctor’s Wife and The Literary Marketplace
From the time of its initial publication, Mary Elizabeth Braddon’s 1864 novel The Doctor’s Wife1 has most frequently been read in relation to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), the plot of which Braddon borrowed for her first serious foray into realist fiction. In terms of style, character, and, for the most part, plot, The Doctor’s Wife presents an ostensible departure from the sensation fiction on which Braddon had built her reputation, yet as the Pall Mall Gazette recognized in an 1865 review, the tie to Madame Bovary rather cleverly positioned the novel for success in the literary marketplace:
[A] good stroke of business may sometimes be done by taking a clever but improper French novel, omitting the improper incidents or transforming them when they are not hopelessly bad into proper ones, and giving the residuum to the world as an entirely original story. The great advantage of this literary and commercial operation…lies in the fact that in England the improper original, whatever scandal may say to the contrary, is tolerably sure not to have been read by ladies; and they are the great supporters of novel literature.(4)
In his analysis of the commercially-driven motives he assumes were behind Braddon’s choice to adapt Flaubert’s novel, this reviewer conflates Braddon with Sigismund Smith, her sensation novelist alter-ego within The Doctor’s Wife; to Smith, the reviewer attributes the ingenious plan to make money by transforming Flaubert’s story for an English audience, while to Braddon, he assigns blame for presenting a corrupting influence to impressionable young ladies through a novel that is “superficially ‘proper’” but “altogether unsound” (4). The business of novel-writing, the destructive models of behavior fiction provided for women readers, and Braddon’s self-representation through Smith are indeed central concerns in The Doctor’s Wife, yet these themes work together to quite different ends than the Pall Mall Gazette’s reviewer supposes. [End Page 423]
Braddon’s novel certainly resembles Madame Bovary in its use of a romantic heroine who marries a boring country doctor and then engages in an extramarital relationship (albeit an innocent one in Braddon’s version of the story) to experience some of the romance she desires in her life, but the two novels are quite different beyond this shared plotline. Reading novels initially feeds Emma Bovary’s dreams of a luxurious lifestyle, yet Flaubert shows little interest in chronicling the details of what Emma reads.2 The Doctor’s Wife, on the other hand, is concerned with the specifics of the heroine’s reading as well as the business of novel-writing. Unlike Flaubert, Braddon includes references to specific character names and plot points when describing Isabel Gilbert’s reading, and she could safely assume that her readers would understand these allusions because she cites only famous, highly-respected authors—Byron, Shelley, Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Bulwer-Lytton, Tennyson, and Charlotte Brontë are featured most prominently. Braddon moves even farther away from Madame Bovary through her inclusion of Sigismund Smith, who allows her to engage quite pointedly in the heated debate over sensation fiction at the center of which she found herself because of her wildly successful novels.
Braddon’s contemporaries were confused by her overt references to sensation fiction in The Doctor’s Wife. The Bristol Mercury (in a favorable 1864 review) misinterprets Braddon’s characterization of Smith as well as the types of works her heroine reads:
To show how much she despises the fame of a mere ‘sensation’ writer, as against the reputation of an author who regards true artistic development, she introduces, as one of the characters of the book before us, Sigismund Smith, a shining light of that ‘raw-head and blood-bones’ kind of literature which figures in numerous penny publications, and no small pains are taken to hold up the class he represents to ridicule. Moreover, the heroine of the work is herself throughout a moving protest against the ill effects accruing from exclusive attention to that morbid kind of literature [sensation fiction]….In fact, this is...