It is 1841. Patty Clare is married to John Clare: peasant poet, genius, and madman. Travelling home one day, Patty is shocked to find her husband sitting at the side of the road, having absconded from a lunatic asylum. Delighted to see him, she is devastated when it becomes clear that John's mental health has deteriorated, and he now thinks himself married twice: to both Patty and his childhood sweetheart. Patty still loves John deeply but he seems lost to her, obsessed with the idealised memory of another woman. She finds herself consumed with jealousy and struggling to cope with her unruly family.
Will she ever be able to conquer her own anger and hurt and reconcile with this man she now barely knows?
©2010 Judith Allnatt (P)2010 Isis Publishing Ltd
The Poet's Wife tells the story of Patty, the long-suffering wife of the mad peasant poet John Claire. It opens with Patty surprised to run into her husband on a road not far from home, since he is supposed to be a patient at an asylum 80 miles away. Apparently he has walked all the way--but not to be with Patty and their children, but in search of his 'other wife,' Mary, his childhood sweetheart. Not only were the two never married, but Mary died in a fire some years earlier--a fact that John refuses to believe. Patty has to endure John's cruel slights, including his fervent penning of love sonnets to another woman. And the more violent aspects of his madness begin to reassert themselves as well.
The novel is aptly titled, for most of it focuses on Patty's struggles to maintain a decent household for her large family. In addition to the basically useless John and his aging father, there are still five children at home, and the daughter who lives nearby is none too happily married. Yet there were moments when it was difficult for me not to get frustrated with her as a character; she was just a little too resourceful and self-sacrificing and loyal to be believable.
Then there is her second eldest daughter, Eliza, who needed a cold pail of water dumped over her head and a good smack. Eliza is "in love" with her sister's husband, and she spends most of the second half of the novel whining and moping in bed with the covers pulled up over her head because she can't have him. The reason I put "in love" in quotation marks is that--as if it isn't bad enough that she slept with her pregnant sister's husband--this jerk is a drunken sot who can't hold down a job and who rejects his newborn daughter because she has a birth defect. Now, if you're married to a man who later turns out that way, well, that's one thing; but who in their right mind would CHOOSE a guy like this and act as though her life is ruined when she can't have him? Oh, and did I mention that he sold the watch his wife gave him for Christmas the day after to buy a silver locket for Eliza? And that he blames Eliza for leading him on ("After all, men must have their fancies") and causing God to curse him with a deformed child? What a guy! Um, can you tell that I wasn't moved to sympathy by the Eliza subplot? It really rather ruined what wasn't a bad story up to that point.
I began to wonder if I am getting tired of historical novels. But then I remembered several that I've recently read, like Bring Up the Bodies and Merivel, and I know that it's just that some, like this one, are pretty formulaic and run-of-the-mill. I'll likely be moving on to a different genre for awhile.
Anna Bentinck does a reasonably good job narrating this novel, although the voices she puts on for the menfolk all sound a bit like she's reading The Big Bad Wolf.
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