Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 3, 2022

Gulliver’s Wife (2020), by Lauren Chater

If anything in this review raises issues for you, help is available at Beyond Blue,
or at White Ribbon Australia
or your local support service.

I made space for three books on my Australian shelf A-D when I took this one down to read during further travails with my eyes. It’s a big, fat book, with a big, well-spaced font, and a coherent chronological sequence of events which made it easy to read in the brief windows of time when my eyes weren’t bothering me.

I admit to being attracted by the beautiful cover design, but the blurb is enticing too.

London, 1702. When her husband is lost at sea, Mary Burton Gulliver, midwife and herbalist, is forced to rebuild her life without him. But three years later when Lemuel Gulliver is brought home, fevered and communicating only in riddles, her ordered world is turned upside down.

In a climate of desperate poverty and violence, Mary is caught in a crossfire of suspicion and fear driven by her husband’s outlandish claims, and it is up to her to navigate a passage to safety for herself and her daughter, and the vulnerable women in her care.

When a fellow sailor, a dangerous man with nothing to lose, appears to hold sway over her husband, Mary’s world descends deeper into chaos, and she must set out on her own journey to discover the truth of Gulliver’s travels . . . and the landscape of her own heart.

Frontispiece illustration by Leonard Weisgard, see below

Like the best historical fiction, the story still has resonance today.  The Gulliver known to those of us who read the children’s version of  Jonathan Swift Gulliver’s Travels, told us about his gentleness and good behaviour and though his motives were mixed, he proved himself to be a friend of the Lilliputians.  But the Gulliver of Gulliver’s Wife is not a nice man, and the novel is a cautionary tale about the complexities and risks of marital loyalty. Which is especially problematic if there is a suspicion of mental illness, but pity and compassion compromise decisions that must be made.

Even today, a traveller who returns home with strange tales that test credibility would raise eyebrows, and in Chater’s novel, it certainly did in the early 18th century.  When Lemuel returns after a long absence with bizarre tales of little people, his wife Mary fears the consequences.  For him, and for her.

She suspects that he is mad, and that means the end of his career as a surgeon, because reputation means everything at a time when medical services were haphazard, to say the least. Worse, unless she can conceal it, his madness, most likely, means incarceration in a primitive asylum.  Mary had seen her mother in an asylum, living with what was probably the late stages of dementia, and she was haunted by it.

But she also has to protect her own reputation.  Having learned long ago that Lemuel is an unreliable husband who drinks and gambles and pawns her most treasured possessions, in the three years of his absence Mary has built up her practice as a midwife to become one of the most respected in her community.   They are still poor, but they are getting by. Any hint of her husband’s ‘malady’ threatens the livelihood on which she and her family depend.  Her son John is away at school, but teenage Bess, who is wilful and impulsive, is a problem.  She is deeply attached to her father, and is still clinging to his careless promises to take her away to sea to become a surgeon like him.

But Mary has another reason to be disappointed by Lemuel’s unwelcome return.  She married the wrong bloke, and the right one, Richard, is still part of her life.  While never compromising her virtue, he has loved her and supported the family through all its travails.  When Lemuel was thought to be dead, there was a prospect of a happier life, and it was only Mary’s determination to be independent that stood in the way.  [And the seven years requirement before there can be a  ‘presumption of death’?]

Added to these domestic complications is the presence of a serial rapist who makes it risky for a midwife to be out and about at night, and a thread about the competition from surgeons wanting to medicalise childbirth.  The author note in the back of the book plays the gender card in noting that ‘male practitioners’ reinforced the stereotyping of midwives while promoting their own efforts to ‘medicalise’ childbirth.  This is not the place to discuss a complex issue, which is still characterised by turf wars muddied by failures of outdated practices on both sides, but I hope that readers don’t just digest the message from this novel, to extrapolate a false narrative from it about contemporary practice.

Because, as Laura Helmoth concludes in her article about this issue at Slate, the medicalisation of childbirth has made it safer for mother and baby:

… when you take a world-historical look at childbirth, it’s not midwives and cozy home births that get credit for making maternal death such an unthinkable outcome today. One of the great victories of modern times is that childbirth doesn’t need to be natural, and neither does the maternal death rate. It’s modern medicine for the win. (Laura Helmoth, American science journalist and the editor in chief of Scientific American, viewed at 3/12/22).

Yes, I feel strongly about this, for reasons I choose to keep to myself.

Image Credits:

Gulliver’s Travels, by Jonathan Swift, Edited for Young Readers, Junior Deluxe Editions, Doubleday 1956, illustrations by Leonard Wesigard (1916-2000).  Do visit Weisgard’s webpage, an homage created by his children. I have a set of these Junior Deluxe Editions, and two more of them were illustrated by Weisgard:  Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Andersen’s Fairy Tales, (which by the inscription in a childish hand I seem to have treasured since I was six years old.)

Author: Lauren Chater
Title: Gulliver’s Wife
Publisher: Simon and Schuster (Australia), 2020
Cover design: Christabella Designs, cover image by Magdalena Wasiczek/Trevillion Images
ISBN: 9781925596380, pbk., 404 pages
Source: Personal library, purchased from Blarney Books and Art, Port Fairy, $32.99



  1. A fascinating review of this historical novel ( which I have not read). The genre is very broad, and often raises for me questions of where established history sits within the fictional narrative. The problem is mine. I find I often fail to be fully engaged by the blend.
    Great to hear that you still have your Grimm from when you were six.


    • It’s amazing really, because we had to leave most of our books behind during my peripatetic childhood.
      As a teacher, I’m quite impressed that I could read it!


  2. Another challenging review, Lisa! Well done!
    Your account of “Gulliver’s Wife” reminds me of the striking 1996 TV min-series (Ted Danson as Lemuel Gulliver, and Mary Steenburgen as his long-suffering wife): faithful to the four voyages, and with a brilliant cast, but framed within the conclusion of Gulliver’s journeys, when he returns to England, his mind seemingly turned by his bizarre adventures, told in flashbacks.

    I am also reminded of another great voyager, and his long-suffering wife, imagined in “Mrs Cook: The Real and Imagined Life of the Captain’s Wife” by Australian novelist Marele Day. Although I have not read Day’s novel, I was fascinated by the 1987 Australian TV mini-series, “Captain James Cook” (with Keith Michell as Cook, and Carol Drinkwater as his wife Elizabeth: John Gregg as Joseph Banks):

    And there is the Australian historical fiction, based on another great navigator and explorer, Matthew Flinders, “My Love Must Wait”, by Ernestine Hill (1941)

    As a child I knew chapters of “Gulliver” in a 1935 anthology (“A Children’s Treasure House”), with striking line-illustrations, and a “Classics Illustrated” comic book retelling, not to mention an amusing 1935 animated film, by the Fleischer brothers, a musical!

    And Leonard Weisgard! The Leonard Weisgard who is famous for his several “Little Golden Books”, treasured from my childhood, and collected for my children and grandchildren. Googlng his name and looking at images reveals many fine books!


  3. I’ve got a copy of My Love Must Wait. Goodness knows when I’ll get round to reading it.
    But all these books and series &c show us what stoic women there were in the days when men set sail for months and years…


  4. We read and discussed this book at our book club this year and most of the members enjoyed it. They were also very sympathetic towards Mary, whom they recognised as a strong woman doing all the work while her husband sailed away again.They also thought Gulliver was very unfair in the way he kept promising to take his daughter,Bess, to sea when obviously there was never a chance of this happening. It just made her more resentful towards her mother.
    I personally found the book a bit histrionic and the plot involving the serial rapist completely unrealistic.
    I think if you want to read novels based on actual historical events you can’t go past Maggie O’Farrell. Her last two books, “Hamnet” and “The Marriage Portrait” are both masterpieces in creating a credible and riveting story based on a small, and largely unknown, historical fact.


    • I agree, entirely. It is what it is, popular historical fiction, light reading with a dark theme that just happened to be the right book at a difficult for me.

      I do think it shows the quandary that occurs in fractured relationships when the erring party has some condition evoking pity and compassion. Even today, it’s very hard to break away from someone toxic if they have a life-threatening disease or disability or mental illness. The world is still judgemental about that, usually harder on women who leave than men.

      Rodney Hall wrote a modern version of this quandary in A Stolen Season. Adam was severely wounded in Iraq and though their marriage was dead when he enlisted, now Bridget is trapped in the role of carer. It was published in 2018, but if you can track down enough copies, it would make an interesting choice for your group.


      • That one sounds interesting Lisa. I am a carer for my husband who has Parkinson’s and dementia. While I’m not thinking of leaving the marriage I can understand why someone else might ( especially if the relationship was not strong beforehand).
        Books are my salvation.
        And I find your suggestions very helpful.


        • Oh my, you must be having a difficult time of it.
          But I think that’s the key, Bernadette, if the relationship is strong, it makes it easier to deal with the very hard times.
          No, wrong word, not ‘easier’. More endurable, and better able to see glimpses of the one you used to know.


  5. You know, several years ago there was a TV series about a trial of Gulliver that focused on his wife. Ted Danson played Gulliver and Mary Steenburgen played his wife. This sounds like a similar idea.


    • Now, that would be interesting…
      I looked it up, it was a Channel 4 production. and it came out on VHS in Australia and DVD in the US. Alas, lots of Disneyfied Gulliver but no sign of this series…
      I shall keep an eye out at the Op Shop.

      Liked by 1 person

      • IMDb says it is a 1996 two part mini series called Gulliver’s Travels.


        • Yes there I looked, and I went exploring from there. (I’m hopeless, I can’t resist these quests!)

          Liked by 1 person

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