Top critical review
A dark tale of drugs and deception in Victorian Edinburgh
14 April 2018
The Pharmacist’s Wife is set in Victorian Edinburgh, a setting which interested me immediately. There are so many novels set in Victorian London, it always makes a nice change to find one set somewhere else! Although I felt that the sense of place could have been strengthened by the use of more Scottish dialect, I did like the contrasting descriptions of the Old Town and the New Town.
North Bridge, the road linking Old to New, is the location Rebecca Palmer’s husband Alexander has chosen for his new pharmacy, the Grand Opening of which is celebrated with a brass band and a performing monkey. These are exciting times for Rebecca who, as a spinster of twenty-eight, had given up hope of ever marrying anyone, let alone such a clever and distinguished man as Alexander. Almost as soon as they move into their new home, however, Rebecca is forced to question whether her husband really is the man he appears to be. She suspects him of having an affair with Evangeline, a woman from the Old Town, and when she finds a ladies’ red shoe on his desk she’s sure her suspicions have been confirmed.
Alexander doesn’t like a wife who asks questions or has too many ideas of her own and, with this in mind, he has been developing a new medicine in his laboratory above the pharmacy – a medicine which he hopes can be used to control women and which he persuades Rebecca to try by telling her it will make her happy and content. Soon Rebecca is dependent on her medicine, taking it more and more often and relying on her husband to provide it for her. It is, of course, heroin – and it seems that Rebecca is not the only woman on whom Alexander has been testing his new invention…
This is certainly a dark novel but I didn’t find it a particularly thrilling one and it wasn’t until near the end that I started to feel gripped by the story. I suppose I was expecting more from the plot; there are lots of good ideas and plenty of interesting topics are touched on, but it’s only when (without wanting to spoil too much) things begin to go less smoothly for Alexander that it becomes really compelling, in my opinion. What this book does do, very well, is explore the inequalities between men and women in 19th century society. Although Alexander is not a real person and his discovery of heroin is fictitious, he uses the drug to keep his wife quiet and submissive and to take away whatever small amount of independence and freedom she may have had. Rebecca’s situation is oppressive and frightening and as her addiction to the drug deepens it becomes difficult to see how she is going to break out of the cycle in which she has found herself.
I liked Rebecca as a character and was pleased to see that she does develop as a person as the novel progresses, but I thought the villains, Alexander and his friend Mr Badcock, were too obviously ‘villainous’ and could have been given more depth. As well as the drugs, it seems that there’s no type of cruelty or depravity of which they’re not capable! Thankfully, there are two decent male characters to balance things out slightly – Lionel, the apprentice who helps Alexander in the pharmacy, and Gabriel, Rebecca’s first love.
The Pharmacist’s Wife is an interesting novel and, as I’ve said, a very dark one. I couldn’t love it, but I would be happy to read other books by Vanessa Tait.