A Mummer’s Wife (1885) was my first introduction to George Moore, and I found myself captivated by this intriguing literary figure, who attracted praise and censure in equal measure. W B Yeats found the novel so shocking that he forbade his sister to read it, and the conservative press was almost unanimous in condemning its “coarseness”.
Moore’s novel tells the story of Kate Ede, a bored Midlands housewife unhappily married to an asthmatic draper. When Dick Lennox, a handsome travelling actor, comes to lodge with her family, Kate succumbs to temptation, with disastrous consequences. Moore describes in almost unbearable detail Kate’s sense of claustrophobia, disillusionment, and subsequent ignominious descent into alcoholism. 124 years after it was first published, A Mummer’s Wife retains its ability to shock.
A Mummer’s Wife is a significant novel both in terms of its sensational content and within the context of literary censorship. Mudie’s decision to ban the novel from his famous circulating library prompted a virulent attack by Moore in his pamphlet Literature at Nurse (included as an appendix to this edition). Moore defends the sexual content of his novel, comparing it with some of the sensation fiction approved by Mudie, and arguing that works by Ouida and Florence Marryat were far racier.
The novel begins with Kate’s husband Ralph suffering a severe asthma attack. Although she performs her wifely duty in looking after him, Kate endures endless provocation from her puritanical mother-in-law. Kate’s circumscribed existence in the manufacturing town of Hanley is vividly portrayed and there is a palpable sense of ennui.
The arrival of Dick Lennox and his theatre company suddenly opens Kate’s eyes to a world beyond her own sphere of existence, and it is the work of a moment for the handsome actor to seduce the lonely draper’s wife. Freed from the restrictions of her former life, Kate also discovers a talent for acting and reinvents herself as an actress. Being a mummer’s wife, however, is not quite what she expected, and Kate soon becomes disillusioned with the travelling life. She takes to drink, and a tantalising glimpse of her former security sends her into an inexorable decline.
A Mummer’s Wife is a fictional assault on romantic fiction, showing all too clearly the dangers of extra-marital liaisons, and highlighting the deleterious effects of novels such as Flaubert’s Madame Bovary on impressionable female minds. Although highly critical of women novelists in Literature at Nurse, Moore goes much further with his anti-heroine than Florence Marryat or Rhoda Broughton would have ever dared. Through Kate, Moore relentlessly exposes and upholds the sexual double standard, thus making the novel an often uncomfortable read. In so doing, however, he shows with exquisitely-drawn realism, that the consequences of adultery were far more devastating for women. A Mummer’s Wife is shocking and depressing, but ultimately a novel of extraordinary power.