The Doctor’s Wife
Beard’s Roman Women
Moses: A Narrative
Sheila Redden, thirty-seven years old, married, handsome, tall, self-conscious about her height, well-educated, nursing a sense of past risks and chances not taken, falls in love with an American eleven years younger than herself. After a brief, nervous idyll, she decides she can’t go away with him, and can’t go back to her husband and her teen-age son, and disappears from all their lives, “like the man in the newspaper story, the ordinary man who goes down to the corner to buy cigarettes and is never heard from again.” The image is Sheila’s own, the best explanation she can offer for her conduct, and her novel ends with her leaving a London park as it closes for the evening, quite alone, her whole past, recent and distant, shaken off: “She went through the gates and walked off down the street like an ordinary woman on her way to the corner to buy cigarettes.”
There is much to admire in Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife, which is the story of how Sheila Redden came to disappear in this way. There are briskly evoked settings in Paris and Villefranche, the scenes of Sheila’s affair; discreet descriptions of Belfast, where Sheila’s home and married life have been. There are remarkably sharp pictures of the inadequacies of the men in this book, from Sheila’s weak, kind brother to her bullying husband, who to his own surprise is inflamed by his wife’s infidelity and rapes her in Paris when he thought he had come to talk peace and take her back. The best moment in the book occurs when Kevin, the husband, after the rape, feels master of the situation again, and thinks his wife feels his mastery too. “You’re coming with me,” he says. “Right, Sheila?” “When you’re ready, I’ll take your suitcase and we’ll go downstairs and I’ll tell your friend that you’re going home….” He doesn’t understand that he has, now, lost her for good. Not even her silence as he keeps talking persuades him, and he scarcely believes her when she tells him. “No matter what happens to me, Kevin, I’m never going back to you. That’s final.”
Moore’s grasp of Sheila’s dilemma is sympathetic and subtle. Her husband and her brother, both doctors, can see her behavior only as a sign of mental instability, for which there is some precedent in the family, and Moore has Sheila deal with this line of thought very firmly. “Falling in love is a mental crisis,” she replies when a woman friend tries to remonstrate with her. Yet it is her brother Owen, with all his limitations, who perhaps best understands what has happened. Sheila has fallen into adultery in a time and a place where it can’t properly be seen to be wrong. It seems merely damaging and inconvenient and irresistible. “It happened to me,” Sheila says. Their father, Owen thinks, would …
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