Recently, I read and thoroughly enjoyed M.E. Braddon’s book, The Doctor’s Wife. It was her take, if you like, on Madame Bovary, a novel of, in Braddon’s opinion, “hideous immorality.” Personally, I don’t believe that she really thought the book was immoral (people in glass houses, etc), but since Madame Bovary wasn’t in wide circulation in England at that particular time, her ‘moral outrage’ was a great excuse to fly on Flaubert’s coat-tails. Reading Braddon’s book led to a discussion here regarding the source material, and as a result, Emma and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary. This is either my fourth or fifth rereading, but it’s been at least a decade since the last sweep, and every time I re-read, I always wonder, will I enjoy the book as much this time?
I’m a believer in re-reading favourite books. Every 5 years or so, I re-read Jane Eyre, and it seems to be different every time I read it. Of course, the book hasn’t changed, and so my responses to the book tell me about myself more than anything else. After this latest re-reading, I could write a series of posts on Madame Bovary; Baudelaire was right when described the novel as “essentially suggestive, and capable of inspiring a whole volume of commentary.” Originally serialized in 1856, Madame Bovary was published in book form in 1857 and sold 15,000 copies in two months.
I’m not going to spend a great time of time on the plot–most of us know it because even if we haven’t read Madame Bovary, it’s one of those books with a plot that’s widely referenced, but for the benefit of this post, briefly, this is the story of Emma Bovary, a farmer’s daughter, convent-educated and with an unfortunate love for finery, who lands a widower, mediocre doctor Charles Bovary for a husband. It’s a wild mis-match with Emma, beautiful & passionate, flitting through her short life like a doomed firefly. Her dullard of a husband isn’t a bad man, but he never understands Emma, and allows her so much freedom that she destroys them both with her financial decisions.
After reading Madame Bovary hard on the heels of The Doctor’s Wife, there are inevitable comparisons, but I was struck by the dissimilarities more than anything else. Braddon’s characters are much better people–much less selfish and self-indulgent.
Charles Bovary is a weak man. His life has always been directed by someone else–first his mother who manages his education (and a good thing too) and who then marries him off to a shriveled, supposedly wealthy widow. We only get brief glimpses of the first Mrs. Bovary (someone I paid more attention to for some reason this time), and none of them are good.
She had to have her chocolate brought to her every morning, and expected to be waited on hand and foot. She was for ever complaining of her nerves, of the state of her lungs, of her many and various ailments. The noise of people moving about made her feel ill, but no sooner was she left alone than she found her solitude unbearable. If anyone came to see her, it was, she felt sure, because they wanted to make certain that she was dying. When Charles came home of an evening, she would bring her long skinny arms from beneath the bedclothes, clasp them about his neck, make him sit on the edge of the bed, and then tell him of her woes. She accused him of neglect, of loving someone else, and always ended up by asking for something to take for her health, and a little more love-making.
Poor Charles Bovary. No wonder, then, that he plunges off the deep end and decides to marry for love the second time around. Too bad that Emma doesn’t feel the same way, but as her father considers “that she had too good a mind for farming,” Bovary looks like a good match, and since the Rouault farm isn’t exactly overrun with suitors, a match is made. Emma has successfully established a foot up in society. Emma’s marriage to Charles is followed by extensive feasting, and two days later, Charles returns to his practice.
The couple in Braddon’s novel, The Doctor’s Wife, Emma and Charles Bovary’s literary counterparts, are Isabel Sleaford and George Gilbert. While Charles Bovary is a bit dense and weak, Braddon’s George Gilbert is a genuinely good man, from good stock, and much loved by his patients. Charles Bovary’s parents on the other hand are problematic–his father is essentially a wastrel, saved from the gutter by his steely-spined wife, and he opts out of involvement for most of the book. Isabel and George Gilbert at least have a honeymoon, but it’s a fairly miserable one with George counting pennies and pledging no more than a 10 pound note on the event. And then there’s the matter of poor Isabel’s wedding dress, picked out by her future husband: brown. It’s dull and a horrible disappointment. It’s impossible to imagine Emma Bovary wearing a brown wedding dress or allowing Charles to make the choice.
The two novels also differ on the issue of out-of-control consumerism. After the honeymoon is over, Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert wistfully attempts to beautify her drab home and add some decorative touches. All her ideas are immediately nixed by her husband and Isabel retreats once more into her beloved books. Emma, as we know, goes wild with credit.
And what of books? Emma Bovary is influenced by the novels of Walter Scott:
she grew enamoured of historic scenes, and dreamed of old oak chests, guard-rooms and medieval minstrels. She would have loved to spend her days in some ancient manor-house like the damsels in long-waisted gowns who dawdled away their time beneath Gothic traceries, chin in hand, their elbows resting on stone sills, watching white-plumed horsemen come galloping from afar on sable chargers. At that period of her life she cultivated a passion for Mary Stuart, and indulged in an enthusiastic veneration of all illustrious and ill-starred ladies. Jeanne d’Arc and Heloise, Agnes Sorel, La Ferronnière the beautiful, and Clémence Isaure, shone for her like comets from the dark immensities of history
Emma certainly loves finery, and we know she studies “descriptions of furniture” in the novels of Eugène Sue. Emma turns to books “seeking in their pages satisfaction by proxy for all her longings.” Charles’s mother sees Emma’s reading as the root of the problem, and tells her son that reading isn’t helping Emma at all: ”reading novels–a lot of wicked books full of quotations from Voltaire which hold priests up to ridicule.” Braddon’s Isabel Gilbert reads constantly too–it’s her one escape from a dull life, but in Isabel’s case we learn about specific characters she admires: Ernest Maltravers, Steerforth, Henry Esmond, and Florence Dombey. Isabel Gilbert’s husband doesn’t mind if his wife reads all day long–even if he doesn’t understand the attraction. It’s fairly easy to conclude that while Isabel and Emma are both bored and trapped in loveless marriages, Isabel’s temperament allows her to accept her life and find solace in books. Emma, however, beats against the bars of her marital prison, and as her life spirals out of control, she seems far too restless to read. Then again, there’s the sneaking idea… could Emma ever be happy? What would have happened if she did run off with Rodolphe? Something tells me Emma is born to be restless and discontent. She’s one of those kamikaze women.
Perhaps the biggest difference between Emma Bovary and Isabel Sleaford is passion–Emma is a woman who desires sex while Isabel does not seek sexual gratification outside of marriage. There are several passages that reference Emma’s sexual appetite. After her wedding night, for example, guests note that Charles acts as though he’s the virgin while Emma “gave no indication that anything had happened to her.” Emma is a passionate, sensual woman and through her affairs and her secret life, she is unleashed from her bourgeois upbringing. Isabel’s love, on the other hand, is very cerebral–much more the embodiment of courtly love. Emma, however, gets down and dirty. While she’s seduced by Rodolphe, her first lover, by the time she gets to Léon, she’s the seducer. Flaubert isn’t shy about letting us know that Emma craves sex.
All the time she was playing the part of the virtuous wife her mind was on fire with memories of the familiar head with its black hair falling in curls over a sun-tanned brow, of the figure at once so strong and so elegant, of the man who combined intellectual experience with such fervent desire.
He became her mistress far more completely than she was ever his. Her kisses and her tender words stole away his heart. Where had she learned the arts of a power to corrupt which was so profound so well disguised, that it appeared to be almost disembodied?
when next she saw him, she was more on fire, more exigent, than ever. She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay-lace so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.
Another element of the novel that struck me this time is how expertly Flaubert shows that Emma’s affairs do not occur in a vacuum. Rodolphe is compared (favourably of course) by Emma to Bovary, and then when the affair dips, her hopes rise in her husband through the surgery he intends to perform on the unfortunate human guinea pig, Hippolyte. When the surgery fails, and all of her ambitions for her husband are crushed, Emma returns to the affair with even more abandon.
Flaubert, IMO, is a better stylist than Braddon. There are many stunningly beautiful passages in the novel:
The round crimson moon was coming up on the horizon beyond the meadows. It rose rapidly between the poplar branches, which obscured it here and there like a ragged black curtain. Then it emerged, brilliantly white, lighting up the empty sky; moving more slowly now, it let fall on the river a great splash of brightness which broke into an infinity of stars. The silver gleam appeared to turn and twist upon itself as though it had been a headless snake covered with shining scales. At other moments it resembled some monstrous candelabra scattering from each long arm a rain of melted diamonds.
For this read, I decided to pick a favourite scene, and the award goes to the segment in which Emma and Léon arrange to meet at the cathedral. Emma writes a letter cancelling the “arrangement for the meeting,” and then she decides to personally deliver the letter which really, almost comically and certainly preposterously, undermines the sham of her fragile moral stance. This little diversion shows us that Emma isn’t being entirely honest with herself, and that she loves to add drama to the intrigue. Plus this maneuver has the benefit of making Léon work a little harder to ‘seduce’ Emma. I loved this scene for the way in which the verger insists on giving the tour while the lovers can’t wait to get away from him. Plus the presence of the verger and his lecture serves as the backdrop of morality for our soon-to-be lovers, so it’s appropriate that Diane de Poitiers is referenced. No doubt she’d be someone Emma admired. I loved the way Léon hustles Emma out of the cathedral into the hired carriage practically panting the whole way, and it’s here of course, that their first sexual encounter takes place. Not too surprising that the sex-in-the-carriage scene should end up being one of the most scandalous scenes in the book, and one that even his publisher suggested Flaubert should cut.
While of course I remembered how Emma died, I’d oddly enough forgotten how she gobbled the arsenic. She rushed to her death as she rushed to her lovers. It’s a desperate scene and one that made me pity Emma–a woman who never understood herself.
Flaubert’s masterpiece, incidentally, was inspired by the all-too real story of Eugène Delamare, a medical man who, like Bovary, was blind to his second wife’s extravagances and flagrant infidelities.
See here for Emma’s post
Translated by Gerard Hopkins