Books: Dazzling horseplay around the pleasure-dome

Helen Stevenson revisits Lilliput with a female guide and enjoys a galloping satire on masculine follies ancient and modern; The Mistress of Lilliput by Alison Fell Doubleday, pounds 12.99, 351pp
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The Independent Culture
"SATIRE", WROTE Jonathan Swift, "is a sort of glass wherein beholders do generally discover everybody's face but their own." If a narrative is a glass, then what shall we say of Lemuel Gulliver's face? Age may not have withered him, nor even the fierce sun of the southern seas, but 300 years have lent a perspective to his features which no woman is inclined to find appealing. If we remember him now it is usually in an image from children's abridgements, pegged to Lilliputian earth, mightily fallen and ridiculous, pinioned like some weird voodoo doll.

Meanwhile, Mrs Mary Gulliver stayed at home and brought up the children, patiently biding her time: "Like many of her sex my mistress was more interested in the mysterious continents of her own nature than in regions further flung".

Now, at last, she has been given something to do. Alison Fell's narrator is Mrs Gulliver's doll, who owes equanimity to the fact that she is less susceptible to the sliding scale of self-regard and loathing than most women - being of an unvarying size.

Nothing daunted by her husband's brief visit home, at a time when he was suffering from severe Hippomania and unable to abide his own species, Mrs Gulliver adopts a cheery attitude. She resolves to go and find him. Accordingly, she sets sail with her little wooden doll, hoping to make up for lost conjugal time.

A cloak of wide-eyed naivety is standard dress-code for the ironist. Travels and travails do not dim Mary's optimism. Her experience of the exotic does not so much whet her appetite for a voyage of personal discovery as lead her more fervently to wish for a time when she may be reunited with her errant spouse.

In the meantime, she suffers her due ration of shipwrecks, sunstrokes and persecutions. Her most memorable experiences occur on Lilliput, where the little people decide to punish her by proxy for her husband's offences against their country. The construction of a stately pleasure dome is decreed, in which Mary will be displayed to a curious public. "The emperor has endorsed the establishment of a Popular Pleasure Palace, with opportunities for sport and leisure, and arcades for market stalls and penny amusements, for he is persuaded that such an enterprise will not only swell the coffers of the country but also distract the populace, whose minds dwell with resentment upon their penury." Most of the satire in this novel is directed at the familiar notion that women are keener on ecstasy than on enquiry. I enjoyed this brief instance of plain contemporary pin-sticking.

Gulliver is bound to be completely off his head by the time Mary catches up with him, but he was only ever a pretext. Given a choice between a humourless Hippomane (he is still inclined to the odd snort) and a giggly Frenchman obsessed with breeding strawberry plants, you might think she would have done better staying at home and getting to know a nice merchant or vicar. But some women just don't know what's good for them.

Words like sprightly, dazzling, brilliant spring to mind. Alison Fell wields glittering 18th-century pastiche prose like a deadly letter-opener concealed in a lady's purse - itself concealed in a larger envelope, which is a literary form invented by men for men. The Mistress of Lilliput is an extraordinarily clever and impressive piece of writing, but it is not immune to the weaknesses of the genre - monotony, an atmosphere of relentless performance, the risk that the wind will change and the prose will stick like this till the final sentence. Men call this consistency. Alison Fell is a superb writer, but by the end of this novel, I felt her skills were dwarfing a genre she had outgrown in the course of writing. I look forward to more of the same, but different.