No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Monday, May 08, 2006

#41: The Mistress of Lilliput -- Alison Fell

This is the tale of Mrs Mary Gulliver, a woman with "a mind more given to ecstasy than enquiry", abandoned by her husband while he adventured in Lilliput and all those other exotic lands; briefly overjoyed at the return of said husband, but distressed by his repulsion of her; and, when her husband flees England, pursuing him with devoted determination, through shipwreck and privation, until she is cast ashore on that very isle where Gulliver made such an impression upon the locals.

It's also the story of a young French botanist whose aim in life is to grow a huge hybrid strawberry. We hear some of the story of 'Bluebottle', a Negro prince enslaved and working as a common sailor, who is Mary Gulliver's salvation. And it's the story of Lady Mary, the narrator of the novel, who is soon revealed to be Mary Gulliver's doll.

This is a beautifully written novel, but it's not altogether likeable. Following the maxim that no man is a hero to his valet, it seems that no woman's a heroine to her doll. Lady Mary, mostly unperturbed by her own limitations (motionless, sexless, voiceless), is a cool and occasionally cruel observer, and though she repeatedly assures us that she will remain an invisible narrator she returns again and again to the oppressive behaviour of her mistress. Lady Mary shows surprisingly little sympathy for Mary Gulliver's plight, but instead represents a strict, meek virtue:

Life has many lessons to teach a woman if she will learn, the first being that the mind must not get above itself, for it is marooned in the body like a castaway on an island, circumscribed not by the ocean but by the mighty materiality of flesh. At first she may rail like a madman against the alien environment, against wild surf, strange fruit and inhospitable thorn, but after years of rebellion she will begin to see the sense in coexistence, and will gradually desist from gazing at the horizon, building rafts and screaming for rescue, and learn instead to savour the produce of the place, learn its livestock and its lineaments, and not only be reconciled with it, but even favour its rhythm above all others.

There's a lavish sensuousness to many of the scenes -- Lady Mary living vicariously, for she never tastes a strawberry, or an embrace -- and inventions that are almost, self-consciously, absurd. The Gentlemen's Supper Club (Lilliput's version of the Hellfire Club) is a case in point: "so refined were their appetites that they had bored themselves with every protruberance in the province, and exhausted themselves in every orifice." When we first meet them, they are eagerly eyeing the flowers of the garden, muttering about calyxes and stigma ... That rococo sensuality (complete with plenty of swooning) is deceptive, because it puts a gloss on some unpleasant events, not least what's essentially a rape.

After Lilliput, Mary Gulliver finally encounters her husband in a fabulous, though rather laboured, three-isled archipelago: she visits Sumina, Amina and Oge before finding what she's been looking for. Though it's a happy ending, it feels almost too facile.

There's a lot to this novel if one looks beyond the surface. Duty versus desire; the nature of servitude and submission; ecstasy versus enquiry. And, too, the fate of the Lilliputian sheep that Gulliver brought to England; the fate of the man himself; and the pleasures of intellectual curiosity.

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