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Rochester's Wife by D. E. Stevenson

Rochester's Wife (1940)

by D. E. Stevenson

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This is one of the “secondary” D.E. Stevensons, and, I believe, a “stand-alone” book, as none of the characters seem to reappear in any of the other stories. Though published in 1940, the time frame is pre-W.W. II, as there are only a few references to the “situation in Europe”, and, though the atmosphere is cloudy with foreboding, the focus is on the troubles of the individual characters, versus those of the wider world.

Young (in his late twenties) Dr. Kit Stone has returned to England after four years of travelling round the world seeking adventure. He had long cherished the ambition to become a sailor, but his (widowed) physician father had pressured him into studying medicine instead, with a view to taking over the family practice. The elder Dr. Stone died just as the younger Dr. Stone qualified, and the practice was instead sold, with the proceeds being split between the family’s two sons. The elder brother, Henry, had gone into business as a successful stockbroker and invested his share accordingly, while Kit, suddenly at loose ends, has decided to see something of the world.

Kit’s travels are touched on continually throughout the novel, and sound quite fascinating in and of themselves. He’s been in China, “looking for the war”, and has seen more of it than he had planned for. There is a reference, near the end of the book, to his standing in a marketplace when a shell fragment kills a mother and baby standing next to him; he is “spattered with their blood”, and there is a statement that he has seen quite a lot of blood in his travels. Strong stuff for this mild romance! Another incident, which has more bearing on the eventual plotline, is that Kit has had experience with diagnosing and treating a case of insanity while in America. One would rather like a full itinerary of his wanderings; he seems to have covered quite a lot of ground!

So now Kit is back in England, and though he still feels that he can’t bear to be “tied down”, he allows his brother to persuade him to try out steady employment for a while. Henry’s business partner, Jack Rochester, lives in the village of Minfield, just out of London. Jack’s wife, Mardie, is good friends with the elderly village doctor, who is getting overwhelmed with the demands of his practice, and when she hears of Henry’s brother’s sudden return, puts forward the idea that perhaps Kit might be interested in a position as assistant to the Minfield practice.

So Kit, rather reluctantly, agrees to try out life in an English village. Dr. Peabody welcomes him with gruff suspicion, which we (and Kit) immediately see as merely hiding the proverbial heart of gold. The Peabody household consists of the elderly doctor, his bitter spinster daughter Ethel, and a grandson, precocious (and exceedingly likeable)young Jem, who is living in England for the “healthy climate” while his parents reside in Ceylon on a tea plantation. They are soon joined by another daughter, Dolly, recently married and, unbeknownst to her family, newly pregnant. Her husband, stationed in Malta, has asked her to stay in England because of her pregnancy, and Dolly’s reluctance to share this news with all and sundry has led to some speculation that perhaps her marriage is already in trouble, because otherwise why wouldn’t she be following her spouse?! Dolly and Ethel are the classic bickering sisters, and their feuding and continual cutting comments to each other add a lot of spice to this rather pedestrian tale.

The heart of the novel is an (apparently) doomed love triangle between Kit, the absolutely beautiful, charming and saintly Mrs. Rochester (Mardie), and her high-strung husband, Jack. Kit is immediately smitten with Mardie; Mardie is deeply in love with Jack; Jack depends on Mardie for emotional support as he deals with his stressful job, and much is made of how happy Mardie and Jack were in the first year or two of their marriage, though now, in year three, things are rather more difficult.

As young Dr. Stone is absorbed into the Minfield world, all seems to be going well with the “settling down” process, but for the unrequited love bit. Kit yearns for his unavailable love, and we start to see little hints that perhaps his passion is exactly unappreciated and unreturned, but of course, there is a husband in the picture. Jack, however, is showing signs of what could be charitably described as nervous tension; his personality is deteriorating by the day, and Kit and Dr. Peabody are soon looking up the characteristics of “insanity” in their medical books, and talking of bringing in a specialist.

The ending of this tale is a bit sloppy and unlikely, though everyone ends up neatly paired and with problems happily solved. I’m sorry to say that this is not one of D.E. Stevenson’s better efforts, among those I’ve read so far, though there are many diverting situations throughout the book, mostly with secondary characters. We have the relationship between the Peabody sisters, young Jem with his brilliant talent for mimicry, an elderly Scottish housekeeper, Hoony, and her illegitimate grandson, Wattie, and, off in the background, the very happy marriage between Henry and his rather liberated wife, Mabel, who dabbles in the stock market quite successfully on her own, with her husband’s proud approval. The relationship between the two brothers, Kit and Henry, is nicely portrayed as well. They do seem a likeable family, with reassuringly human flaws fully recognized and easily forgiven by the reader.

A reasonably decent read, though I found myself groaning and figuratively smacking hand to forehead occasionally, especially regarding the whole “insanity” thing, and the remarkable (!) scenario the author has dreamt up for its resolution. Definitely worth reading as part of the D.E. Stevenson canon. ( )
  leavesandpages | Apr 6, 2013 |
D E Stevenson’s novels are like the advice given to upset people: hot bath, asprin and bed with a hot water bottle. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Rochester’s Wife is as sentimental as an old Viennese waltz and just as enjoyable more so given that the plot involves an unhappily married wife, Mardie Rochester, and a dashing new doctor, Kit Stone, who falls for her. With Mrs Stevenson as your guide this is not going to be horrid sordid territory, but it is painful and you do worry about the fate of all the participants. From the intrigue of a small country village to the delights of blissful Scotland and the most sublime of scenes involving Scottish country dancing, Rochester’s Wife is Sunday afternoon comfort reading. It also has one of the nicest and most lovable little boys in 1950s fiction, grandson Jem.
  Sarahursula | Sep 3, 2010 |
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When Kit Stone landed at Southampton he took the boat-train to London and made a beeline for his brother's house in Halkin Street.
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'A young doctor accepts the post of assistant to a country G.P. and embarks on his new work with a freshness and enthusiasm that is most attractively illustrated in the entertaining incidents with which the book opens. But, when the young doctor meets Rochester's wife (and Rochester's terrible secret is disclosed) the story deepens to a dramatic intensity such as Miss Stevenson has rarely achieved. As a background there is all the humour and vexation of a country doctor's practice; there are scenes of lyrical beauty in Scotland where the two lovers wander over the open moors; there is the old doctor's grandson, Jem, surely one of the most truly delightful and captivating of all Miss Stevenson's characters; and, watching over everything there is the old doctor himself with his guiding wisdom and humorous understanding'.
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