Books: The female yahoo runs away to sea

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The Mistress of Lilliput

by Alison Fell Doubleday pounds 12.99

The question regarding Alison Fell's latest novel, a satire based on Swift's famous Gulliver's Travels, only told here from the point of view of that intrepid traveller's long-suffering wife Mary, is whether it can resist the inevitable comparisons with a classic work of literature and hold its own as a piece of satire in its own right. Fell has an impressive pedigree as a successful poet, novelist and editor of collections of short stories - her feminist credentials are well established, and of all the writers one can imagine taking on the grand old satirist himself, surely Fell must be pretty near the top of the list.

Fell has commented that she has always been struck by the marginality of Gulliver's wife in Swift's original. Dismissed by her deranged husband for smelling like a "female yahoo", Mary is sidelined in favour of the horses in the stable. It was to give that forbearing wife a voice that Fell has taken up her story, and set her on a train of adventures and travels of her own.

Mary Gulliver is a bit of a cold fish, the product of a strict Scottish Presbyterian upbringing and subsequent marriage to a man not exactly demonstrative with his affections (and that was before the yahoos). She waits patiently for 17 years for her husband to return, and when he disappears off again to the South Seas, she sets out after him. By coincidence, she too is shipwrecked on Lilliput where she is taken captive by the inhabitants.

Fell has clearly had a lot of fun with the stuffy figure of Mary who has up until now been the model of an obedient, subservient wife, and she uses her captivity on Lilliput not only to loosen up the character but, in one particularly hilarious scene, to make some feminist play with the way the female body is treated. Mary is put on show for the inhabitants to gawp at, and for the members of the Queen Bee Club, a set of undistinguished libertines, to abuse. The hugeness of her body exaggerates the problems of women subjected to the male gaze, not only giving that gaze more to consume but also providing the opportunity to enter that body almost unnoticed. The image of the straight-laced Mary being bombarded by tiny men on treadmills, ropes and all sorts of apparatus as they try to rouse her is a memorable one.

Fell has researched her subject so thoroughly that her novel goes beyond pastiche and becomes a wonderful mix of 18th-century voices and attitudes, infused with a narration that displays 20th-century feminist sensibilities. The only problem with so carefully adopting the narrative style of another age is that it may repel those readers for whom 18th-century prose isn't exactly the most exciting style ever put on paper. Fell eases the effect somewhat by handing the narrative over to Mary's doll, Lady Mary, who provides both the account of the adventures taking place as well as insights into Mary's behaviour. This device not only makes Mary a more sympathetic character than she otherwise might be, but also provides a more irreverent view of their escapades.

The satirical aim of Fell's quite amazing work has to be the condition of women not just in the time of Mary Gulliver but in the present day, through an exploration of female sexuality and a need for independence. To a large extent she has succeeded in illuminating a previously darkened corner of Swift's classic as well as providing an interesting morality tale for the end of the 20th century.