Tuesday, 2 November 1999

Alison Fell: The Mistress of Lilliput (1999)

Edition: Doubleday, 1999
Review number: 379

In something of the manner of John Barth's The Sot-Weed Factor, The Mistress of Lilliput is a twentieth century novel masquerading as an eighteenth century one. It is written in a pastiche of the style of many novels of the period, though it is informed and driven by modern concerns (particularly with reference to the role of the sexes). The major influence is of course Swift, though Sterne and Fielding are also important, the former explicitly quoted at one point.

The Mistress of Lilliput tells the story of Mary Butler, the wife of Lemuel Gulliver of Gulliver's Travels. An ardent wife, who expected bliss from married life, she was rather unhappy when her husband announced that he was to leave on a voyage that would take him from her for several years. Then she receives the news of the loss of his ship, but believes that Lemuel continues to live; and then he returns, rewarding her faithfulness with revulsion, for she to him is a brute Yahoo. To find that he prefers to spend his time in the stables with the horses (and Fell makes more specific hints of miscegenation than Swift does) is a bitter blow, only to be followed by another when he runs off again, to set out on another voyage.

At last Mary has had enough, and so she herself takes ship for the South Seas, aiming to find her husband and to get him to return to her. The main part of the book tells of her adventures and discoveries, both about herself and her relationship with her husband.

The message of the novel is overtly feminist (to do with the fulfilment of women in a patriarchal society), yet Fell manages to avoid polemic. The point is made principally through the general outlines of the plot, but it is not allowed to stand in the way of the characterisation or the narrative flow; it is never insisted upon. To do this well is one of the most difficult feats in fiction writing, and Fell has certainly achieved it.

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