Little reviews on little (and big!) books

A Mummer’s Wife by George Moore

on April 27, 2015

This novel was originally published in 1884, but several sources cite it as officially being available to the public in 1885. Due to its naturalistic composition and content, Moore’s novel was deemed unsuitable to be included in Mudie’s library and subsequently went under several reconstructions and rewritings in order for it to be acceptable. Therefore, I have noticed that through studying it at University, reference books sometimes contain reworked moments which are different to that which I was reading! I have already talked about Moore’s writing style in my review of his novel, Esther Waters, which is equally as good as A Mummer’s Wife. This novel is somewhat different. I, for one, didn’t feel as much empathy for the main character of Kate Ede as I did for Esther Waters. I will explain why later 🙂 As I have already acknowledged, Moore drew a great deal of his writing style from Émile Zola so his stories can sometimes be highly descriptive with moments which wouldn’t normally be mentioned in typical Victorian novels. Moore opens his story with a quotation which accurately depicts the events in this novel, but could also be used in reference to Zola’s novels like L’Assommoir and Thérése Raquin (see earlier reviews). The quotation is from Victor Duruy’s L’Introduction Générale à l’Histoire de France and reads ‘Change the surroundings in which man lives, and, in two or three generations, you will have changed his physical constitution, his habits of life, and a goodly number of ideas.’ What’s funny is that the characters in Moore’s works as well as Zola’s don’t need a few generations to change themselves – the transformation takes place during the course of the novel and this is what I will show with the character of Kate Ede

What’s first noticeable is that Moore doesn’t name his novel after his title character, his leading lady if you will. Esther Waters gets the story of her life named after her, but Moore doesn’t choose to name this tale Kate Ede. Instead she is simply depicted as a mummer’s wife – not even THE mummer’s wife. The only reason that I could potentially see for this is that Esther’s tale is full of promise and hope and she fights her way out of every situation whereas Kate is more of a passive character to a certain extent. Granted, she fights but it is with others, not against what eventually becomes of her life.

Kate Ede is the wife of a draper. He’s asthmatic and doesn’t really excite her. She dreams of living in a world that Byron or Shelley have created, perceiving herself to be simply a drudge and a slave in the life she is currently leading. That is, until Mr Dick Lennox shows up to lodge with them. Lennox is an actor and is deemed far more interesting than Kate’s husband. He can regale others with stories of the theatre and travelling – the life that Kate would love to escape to. The novel shows the perils of dreaming of a different and more exciting life as soon Kate falls for Lennox and they begin an affair. The moment where she enters Lennox’s room for the first time to spend the night with him is one of those moments where different editions of the novel depict it in different terms. In my edition, Moore writes:

‘Although she could not see his face she felt his breath on her neck. Strong arms were wound about her, she was carried forward, and the door shut behind her. Only the faintest gleam of starlight touched the wall next to the window; the darkness slept profoundly on landing and staircase, and when the silence was again broken, a voice was heard saying, “Oh, you shouldn’t have done this! What shall I tell my husband if he asks me where I’ve been?” “Say you’ve been talking to me about my bill, dear. I’ll see you in the morning.”‘

This is ultimately the section of the novel that was deemed to make it unsuitable reading material for the Victorian public. Granted, there is nothing explicit here, but for the time period, the very implication of Kate’s actions would be enough to cause censorship on Moore’s work. From this point on, Kate’s life is forever changed. She cannot bear to be without Dick Lennox and runs away with him and his travelling theatre group to see the world. On the morning that they are due to leave, Dick’s aloof attitude start to frustrate her – this is the biggest thing she has ever done and he starts to dawdle before heading onto the train. However, this is the first real glimpse we get into Kate’s interchangeable nature. She watches him sit and eat his breakfast, urging him to hurry for fear of being stopped, but then we see that:

‘Her distress of mind fluctuated. After a passionate appeal for haste, her anxiety would slip from her, and she would abandon herself to the delight of dreaming of the time when she would see the landscape passing behind her, feel the wind in her face, and know that she was being carried as fast as steam could take her to a remote country, from whence there is no returning.’

As the novel progresses, we see Kate’s life play out with her runaway lover. He becomes busier, continuing to leave her in whatever place they are staying with only herself for company. There are moments where Moore analyses the type of person Kate has become. He writes:

‘These were moments in which a little childish rage boiled like a kettle within her, and she would clench her hands, and a mad instinct of scratching burned like lightning through the muscles of her arms… what annoyed her even more… was the absolute unconsciousness he always displayed of having ever done anything wrong… she seized him by the fuzzy hair, and pulled until the tears came into his eyes. It was, however, half in fun, and Kate burst out laughing soon after; but Dick, unobservant as he was, could not help looking at her in astonishment. The change that had come over her since she left Hanley was apparent. Physically the change was for the better… Psychologically the change was even more marked. The broad, simple lines on which her view of life and things had formerly been based, had become twisted, broken, and confused… The middle-class woman, in a word, had disappeared.’

Moore’s analysis of Kate’s transformation is extremely interesting. He essentially uses her as a case study of women who commit adultery, get a divorce, and lose their morals. By becoming a woman of the world, by earning her own money through stage work and by being part of the new institution of divorce, Moore shows Kate to be exhibiting behaviours unsuited to that of the typical Victorian woman. Not only that, but he also takes away her rationality. He develops Kate into an alcohol-dependent and violent woman who lashes out at her new lover presumably through the guilt of her own actions. Dick Lennox is shown to be carefree, but now in this relationship, he walks on eggshells for fear of an argument or violence. On several occasions, Moore depicts the violent nature of his female protagonist, showing her to be irrational. One night, after drinking, she blames Dick for her situation, claiming that he lured her away from her husband. When he tries to hold her and reason with her, she lashes out. Dick suggests that she shouldn’t drink any more wine, and the result is as follows:

‘This was the climax, and, her pretty face curiously twisted… So astonished was Dick at this burst of passion that he loosed for a moment the arms he was holding, and Kate, profiting by the occasion, seized him by the frizzly hair with one hand and dragged the nails of the other down his face.’

Ouch! This is the least of Dick’s worries. As the novel progresses further, Kate starts to blame him completely for the life she now leads. Sinking lower into the depths of alcoholism, she loses all of her previous traits and simply becomes a monster. Gone is the woman who cared for her first husband; gone is the woman who whimsically dreamed of adventures whilst reading her stories. She attacks him later in the story, hitting him across the face and back with a stick, teeth clenched and foaming at the mouth like a wild animal, simply because he broke her bottle of alcohol. He manages to subdue her, but always within reason. He never treats her with the same violence with which she treats him, and Moore acknowledges that:

‘The patience with which he bore with her was truly angelic. He might easily have felled her to the ground with one stroke, but he contented himself with merely warding off the blows she aimed at him.’

When Kate has calmed down, she is always apologetic to Dick, and seems to forget everything she has done, even asking him at one point after a rage if she was violent to him. However, it isn’t long before she is drinking again and accusing Dick of having affairs with other women in the theatre group. So obsessed is she with her own guilt that she cannot see that her partner is anything but unfaithful. Kate cannot see past her sheer hatred of what this man has done to her life. I won’t spoil the ending but it really is worth a read!

To conclude, I really enjoyed A Mummer’s Wife 🙂 It was interesting to see Moore turn what is essentially a story about domestic violence on its head and use the woman as the attacker. I can see why it was deemed controversial in the 1800s! All in all, I think Moore’s case study method is intriguing to read, but as a result, we don’t really feel a strong connection to Kate (well I certainly didn’t!) I saw her downfall and her guilt and anger all resulting from her own hand, and Lennox, albeit a bit to blame for taking her away from her first husband, can’t be deemed as doing anything wrong. Give this book a try if you want another great example of how Naturalism should really look! 🙂


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