Getting someone else hooked on a life destroying addictive drug is one of the most insidious things a person can do.
I was really excited to receive a review copy of The Pharmacist’s Wife that I read it straight away. Certain words on the blurb caught my eye; Victorian Edinburgh; pharmacy; heroin and addiction. Anything to do with Victorian Medicine and I am all over it, so to say my curiosity was piqued with a story about Victorian Pharmaceuticals set in Edinburgh, a city less than an hour away from my Glasgow home, is quite an understatement.
Having given up hopes of her childhood sweetheart, Gabriel, ever returning to her, Rebecca Palmer makes a more pragmatic life choice in her marriage to the handsome pharmacist, Alexander. She envisages her life as the pharmacist’s wife to be content and comfortable, however her dreams of married life are shattered when Alexander reveals himself to be controlling and manipulative with some strange sexual desires. When Rebecca begins to show dissent towards her husband he sees this as the perfect opportunity for experiment and decides to treat her for “hysteria” with the new wonder drug he and his partner Mr Babcock have been working one, heroin. Given to Rebecca as a salt solution to drink, Alexander surreptitiously makes notes on the seemingly positive effects the heroin has on Rebecca’s mood.
Rebecca initially enjoys the feeling heroin gives her, it alleviates her anxieties, provokes pleasant sleepy dreaminess, and a warm, fuzzy feeling of calm and contentment. It is all the more of benefit to Alexander to have Rebecca in this state, the more docile and pliable she is, the easier it is for him to carry on his secret life of debauchery. However these initial feelings do not last as the effects of the salts don’t seem to last as long and Rebecca begins to need a higher dosage to achieve that same dreamy state. When sickness seems to coincide with the times she has not had her daily dose of salts it becomes apparent that the heroin has sunk its claws deeply into Rebecca and she is now dependant on it. Although isolated, Rebecca is incredibly smart and determined and she musters up all of her inner strength to beat her addiction and achieve redemption and retribution.
The book covers a range of themes such as addiction, poverty, feminism and the stark inequality between men and women at that time. Sexual, economic, legal and psychological power all rested in the hands of men. At a time when even a normal bodily function such as menstruation is regarded a disease and it was believed that a women’s temperament could not bear as much as men.
Vanessa Tait has clearly well researched this era and paints an iconic picture of Edinburgh in the late 19th century; social standing, money, social engagements, nice clothes and servants. On the flip side of that we see brothels, disease, opium dens, prostitutes and poverty, and on occasion these two sides overlap each other. Her exquisite writing brings the Victorian era alive from the pages, and I could clearly imagine the horrific sights and smells from the underbelly of Edinburgh.
The characterisation is perfection, each individual multi-dimensional and varied. A lot of characters are not as they first seem, and I changed my opinions on them multiple times as another layer of their personality was peeled back to reveal something even more surprising. Some got under my skin so much that I was infuriated, and Rebecca understandably earned a place my heart.
This engaging, entertaining and inspiring story is a must read for fans of Historical Fiction.