A Mummer's Wife (1884) is a great read. So far, it is my favorite novel I've read this year.
130 years ago when it was first published, it shocked many English readers because of the way in which it dealt with subjects the Victorians found taboo. Yeats thought it was way too frank, and forbade the women in his family to read it. The Mummer's Wife is the juncture at which the Victorian novel meets the Modern novel. It's vigorous, crude and teeming with life. It still has the power to shock.
Author George Moore was a loyal fan of Emile Zola's work, and with A Mummer's Wife, he brought Zola's brand of Naturalism to English-speaking readers with great enthusiasm. Saying that he seemed to be out-Zola-ing Zola wouldn't be too far off the mark.
A Mummer's Wife is the story of Kate Ede, a beautiful 27-year old dressmaker who runs a small shop with her asthmatic husband and her dogmatic mother-in-law, who lives with the couple. Kate's days are spent in drudgery and boredom that is unrelieved except for her love of romantic women's fiction (a point that Moore stresses at great length) and chats with her lively sewing assistant, Miss Hender. One day, Kate's husband gets the idea to rent out an extra room in their house to make a few extra shillings a week. An actor-manager of a traveling troupe takes the room, and in a matter of a few weeks, he entices Kate to run off with him and she leaves the Potteries district where she has lived since she was born. After that, her life spirals out of control. (According to The Oxford English Dictionary, "mummer" is a derogatory term for an actor.)
This novel is like Zola's greatest hits: The love triangle reminded me of Therese Raquin, the theatrical elements reminded me of Nana and the some of the more squalid scenes echo L'Assommoir. In addition, Moore seems to have done the extreme research Zola always did when writing his novels. When he writes about the theatre or a trip to the pottery factory, you are there. You can see, hear and smell things. Before discovering literature, Moore meant to be an artist and his painterly eye is used to great effect in descriptions of the places Kate visits.
If you decide to read A Mummer's Wife, be sure to get an edition that is faithful to the 1884 original. Moore later grew cool to Naturalism and went back and changed some things and released a new version in 1917.