The Pharmacist’s Wife by Vanessa Tait

The Pharmacist’s Wife
Vanessa Tait
Corvus
€15

When Rebecca Palmer’s first and true love Gabriel went away to foreign parts, she did not think she would hear from him again. Fearing she would be left an old maid at the age of twenty eight, she agreed to marry the handsome pharmacist Alexander and purportedly live a life of a well-heeled gentlewoman in Edinburgh’s Victorian society. However, her marriage to the pharmacist proves disastrous as she learns of his infidelities and strange sexual desires. But by the time Rebecca realises her mistake in her choice of partner, the deceitful Alexander has her hooked on the experimental drug heroin which he uses to keep his wife pliant. The essence of the plot concerns how Rebecca tries to overcome her addiction and eventually free herself from such a villain.
The conversations about the administration of this drug from which Alexander hoped to make money and achieve fame with his crony, the appropriately named Mr Badcock, sounds contrived. Besides, it is not made clear why a healthy woman such as Rebecca would so readily agree to be subjected to it on the spurious pretext of appearing too ‘eager’ sexually to her husband. Although when she does become addicted, Tait’s description of Rebecca’s craving and withdrawal symptoms are convincing: as ‘…her skin puckered up in painful shivers… ‘ and ‘her elbows ached with irritation, as if insects were shaking out their wings.’ And when Rebecca does with dogged determination eventually overcome her addictions, there are flashes of inspirational writing as ‘the sky leached the colour from the houses’ and ‘the oppression had lifted from her crown as a black hat might lift away, and now she felt this new thing – happiness.’
It is saucy read in places as in the references to Alexander’s shoe fetish, and the discovery of a lady’s’ red shoe in his study introduces suspense and whet’s the reader’s appetite to discover its owner. This part of the book is page turning as one is sucked into the seedy world of Victorian Edinburgh.
With the exception of Lionel the pharmaceutical apprentice, however, and Gabriel, there is nothing salutary about the male characters. And Gabriel’s account of his journey among the Bedouins is as far fetched as Alexander’s so-called scientific analyses of Rebecca’s drugged condition. But Gabriel does return later in the flesh with a crucial role to play in a gripping finale as the former maid Jenny, who was sexually abused by Badcock, escapes to her mother’s highland croft; and it is here that Rebecca also finds refuge from the increasingly menacing Alexander. But these men are presented for the most part as one-dimensional in their evil and Tait doesn’t lose any opportunity to take a dig at them and indeed at men in general: ‘…men like to make this business (pharmacy) seem complicated’ and ’tis a woman’s trick to make all the articles you sell look as attractive and neat as possible.’ This propagandist writing coupled with occasional plodding prose and some unfortunate sentences such as ‘Alexander poured himself a glass of water from the windowsill’ can make for frustrating reading at times. However, it is offset by evidence of excellent research into the period capturing the Scottish patois of the time with words such as cuckquean (which Rebecca is forced to become) and gooseiron and tupping and cordwainers and threepenny uprights and cigares de joy and journals which literate women read such as The English Woman’s Journal or Alexander’s Scientific Dialogues or The Playbook of Science.
While there are a lot of things to admire in this work, one feels that more art and less agenda would have made it a better novel.
Published in the Irish Examiner, 01/09/2018

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Author: James Lawless

Irish novelist, poet and short story writer.

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