Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds (1999)

‘Affairs are absolutely OK as long as you don’t get involved and you’re really discreet.’
Gemma Bovery’s diary (p.63)

Gemma Bovery

True Love which Posy Simmonds published in 1981 was, apparently, the first graphic novel in English, although it is more like a set of loosely connected sketches (see my review). Eighteen years later she published Gemma Bovery, a much longer, much more wordy, and infinitely more sophisticated graphic novel.

As the title immediately indicates, the book is a modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel of 1857, Madame Bovary, whose ill-fated heroine was named Emma. In the original novel, Emma marries boring and incompetent provincial doctor Charles Bovary and, to escape the drudgery and boredom of her life, has a series of increasingly ill-fated affairs, and borrows money recklessly, until her world collapses and she commits suicide. I happened to write a detailed synopsis and review of the Flaubert novel a few years ago.

The obvious difference with the Simmonds is that whereas the Flaubert novel is about a cabined and trapped Frenchwoman, Simmonds’s graphic novel is about a free-spirited young Englishwoman from the cultured middle classes who takes it for granted that she’ll always have a job and can shift homes easily from England to France.

The plot 1

Gemma is the twenty-something, middle-class daughter of a comfortably-off dentist based in Reading. She has moved to London and made a career as a magazine illustrator who can turn her hand to interior designing and decorating. We meet her as she is having an affair with older, high-status male, Patrick Large, who is the suave, confident food critic for a Time Out-type London magazine. She resents the way he patronises her, and is always on the lookout for other pretty young things, but nonetheless she stays with him for in his company she gets kudos, the best tables at restaurants, invites to good parties, and so on.

Until one day she sees him coming out of his flat snogging some other pretty young thing. She is distraught. That night she is at a party and bursts into tears and flings herself into the arms of the innocent chap chatting to her, an older man named Charlie Bovery. Charlie is divorced, lives in rented digs in Hackney while paying alimony to his ghastly wife (Judi) who is bringing up their two kids (Justin and Delia) in Islington. Judi is always on the phone nagging for the alimony and telling him what a bad father he is.

One thing leads to another and Gemma goes to bed with Charlie and moves in with him. (It seems she can’t live without at least one man in her life.) Charlie’s wife gets even angrier when she learns her ex is living with a pretty dolly bird, can’t he think of the kids etc.

Then she and Charlie get married – an event accompanied by a drone of criticism from Gemma’s mum when she and Charlie turn down the all-expenses-paid bash her mum and dad offer. Even at the wedding her mum is sniping. Everyone snipes. All Gemma’s family, and Charlie’s wife. Snipe snipe snipe.

Gemma’s mum and dad trying to bully her into a full monty wedding (left) and Charlie’s ex, Judi, being bitchy (bottom right)

Eventually, the ex and the constant visits of the pesky kids and the crappy location of his flat in Hackney starts to really get Gemma down and she fantasises about moving away from all of it. Which is when her father drops dead of a heart attack and leaves her fifty-five grand. So Gemma persuades Charlie to buy an old country house in rural Normandy and move to France.

They do so and are, at first, enchanted. Surrounded by countryside, with a sweet little village nearby, Bailleville, all of whose shops are ‘authentic’ and locally owned. Mmmm smell the freshly baked French bread!

However, the book then reveals all the negatives about living in a plain old peasant house in rural France. It smells; there’s only a septic tank, not proper sewerage, so in the summer the whole place reeks of shit. The windows are small, making being inside dingy and depressing. After a couple of months Gemma is bored of the same old ten or so shops in the crappy little ‘one-eyed’ village, and prefers motoring to the nearest supermarket – cheaper, more convenient, and people aren’t watching you all the time. Charlie’s kids, Justin and Delia, hate coming to stay, there’s nothing to do, they hate the French food Gemma prepares, and the telly doesn’t work.

Worst of all is all the other bloody Brit ex-pats, especially the ones who don’t live there but have bought up all the surrounding pretty rural houses, and only turn up at half-term and the other school holidays, bringing along their yapping ‘Brit brats’. Suddenly the quiet village is infested with the sound of braying upper-middle-class voices – ‘Mark, daahhhhling, better get twice as many baguettes, Sam and Polly may pop in on their way back from Périgeux.’

These posh Brits are exemplified by Mark and Wizzy Rankin who have bought a large manor house near the village, which they’ve done up within an inch of its life. They’re always having loads of friends to stay – fellow corporate financiers chatting about their skiing holidays, bond traders, financial journalists and the like – piles of empty bottles of fine wine, posh guffawing late into the night. Their wealth and their effortless success (this year Mark’s bonus was £2 million – p.65) oppress Gemma (as they did this reader) and highlight the dingy poverty of the half-repaired house she’s stuck in with Charlie.

And Charlie irritates the hell out of Gemma. He’s taken to rural French life, padding round in a vest, Gauloise fag permanently hanging off his lip (as far as I can tell all the adult characters smoke incessantly), fixing up antique furniture in his workshop, not really bothered about the damp and the small and the thousand and one little tasks which need doing round the house.

Late at night Gemma lies in bed next to him consumed with anger and frustration and has half-asleep fantasies of getting back with her tall, handsome, successful London lover, Patrick Large.

Gemma lies in bed with poor, honest Charlie Bovery but fantasises about getting back together with glamorous successful Patrick Large

Until one day Gemma reads in one of the Sunday supplements that Patrick has gone and married the dolly bird she saw him snogging (Pandora) and had a baby! The supplement shows photos of his perfect wife and perfect baby and perfect up-market London flat and something in Gemma snaps. She is consumed with frustration and envy, beside herself with frustration.

She goes into the village by herself in a very short skirt and her long legs catch the eye of local aristocratic layabout Hervé de Bressigny whose family own a rundown chateau near the Bovary’s house. They chat a bit, then part.

A few days later Charlie organises a dinner party for some of the French neighbours. Gemma goes into town to do the shopping and bumps into Hervé in the supermarket where they chat a bit more. A few hours later, driving home, on impulse, and even though she’s meant to be cooking for the dinner party that very evening, Gemma swings left through the gates of the old chateau (for she’s found out this is where Hervé lives), and as a storm gathers, knocks and young Hervé comes to open the door.

Hervé, we learn, has failed his law exams in Paris and his stern mother, Madame de Bressigny, has told him to stay at the rotting family mansion and work hard for the resits. He was hard at it when Gemma knocked on the door and he is irritated by her visit. But out of politeness shows her round – and Gemma, being into interior decoration, marvels at the decaying mansion’s original features.

Suddenly there is a tremendous crack of thunder which makes Gemma start backwards… into the arms of the dapper young man and… well… they kiss, they snog, they embrace, they fumble and grope and fall to the floor and…

Then we cut away to the dinner party she and Charlie have arranged with the Rankins and two local French couples, where she arrives late, claiming to have been delayed in the storms, looking flustered, and then whizzes up a tremendous dinner (although various bits of it puzzle the French – sushi?).

Gemma serves at her dinner party (left) while thinking back to meeting Hervé in the supermarket (top right) and then going round to his gloomy old chateau and knocking on the front door (bottom right)

She is closely watched he shows her round – he is supposed to be revising for a retake of the law exam he failed. there’s a crash of thunder, she steps back startled into his arms and… snog, embrace, strip off, sex. We learn she is 30 years old.

Raymond Joubert

At this point I should explain that the entire narrative is told in flashbacks by the village baker, Raymond Joubert.

Joubert is a bearded middle-aged man who was once himself something of an intellectual, having written and taught in Paris, and occasionally still contributing to an old intellectual quarterly. But his career was going nowhere so when his parents passed away he decided to return to the village of his birth (along with his Parisian wife and two children) and take over the family bakery. In time he realised he had a real feel for making bread, and found it deeply satisfying.

Joubert noticed Gemma from the moment she arrived, and watches her changing shape and happiness and manner like a hawk. He, too, is in love with her.

And so it is Joubert who sees the first encounter of Gemma and Hervé at the market, happens to be driving in front of her on the road home when she sees Gemma turn into the chateau for that first meeting with Hervé. And who attends the dinner party a few hours later, scrutinising her for signs of post-coital passion.

And then watches her like a hawk over the ensuing weeks as her affair with Hervé deepens, notices her working hard, earning more money, and comprehensively redecorating her and Charlie’s house, chucking out the rural wood furniture and installing 18th century period pieces.

Prolepsis and the sense of doom

More than that, the narrative begins after Gemma has died. Gemma is dead and a grief-stricken Joubert is moping and reflecting on everything which led up to her tragic death. Therefore his narrative lends every detail of her life a morbid and gloomy sense of tragic foreboding.

In the first few pages Joubert pays a visit to a heart-broken Charlie Bovery and, as Charlie pours him a drink, notices Gemma’s belongings strewn about the old farmhouse – Charlie is having a clear-out – and spots some of Gemma’s diaries lying around. While Charlie’s back is turned Joubert steals as many of her diaries as he can hide and, when he gets back to his house, a short walk from the Bovery’s, starts to read them (translating with the help of his son’s English-French dictionary).

Joubert visits Charlie in his grief over Gemma’s death, and learns of the existence of Gemma’s

Thus the entire narrative is one giant flashback, heading inexorably towards the moment of Gemma’s death – and it is told via two voices, in a kind of textual split-screen effect – because the main narrative, in printed text, gives Joubert’s account of what he saw, from the moment the Boverys arrived at the old farmhouse, but this is counterpointed with the handwritten entries in Gemma’s diary – which Joubert is reading and which helps shed light on little mysteries he had observed.

The narrative is thus a journey of discovery for both Joubert and the reader.

An additional weight or significance is given to everything because Joubert has an increasingly doom-laden feeling that Gemma is fated to re-enact the destiny of her famous namesake, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, who has ill-fated love affairs with a local aristocrat, with a playboy in the local town, Rouen, runs up huge debts before killing herself with arsenic.

So, arguably, the narrative contains at least three levels – Joubert’s eye-witness account of events – Gemma’s diary giving her view of things – and the heavy hand of destiny in Joubert’s increasingly hectic concern that Gemma is unconsciously treading in Emma Bovary’s footsteps and that the same awful fate awaits her.

It’s a sophisticated narrative structure and it builds up a sense of genuine tension because we want to know how Gemma died. As events speed up and the sense of inevitable doom darkens, the reader becomes more and more absorbed until – on the last few pages – I was gripped, really gripped, couldn’t put it down and had to find out what happens.

Joubert as compromised narrator

Joubert starts to follow Gemma around. He thinks he is in love with her, concerned for her and so on, poo-poos the notion that he is a creepy pervert and voyeur, although Simmonds includes plenty of examples of how he notices Gemma’s long legs, her love bite, how he imagines her lying in bed, frustrated, finds this or that notion about her ‘erotic’ – in other words how he has all sorts of pervey thoughts about her. Plus we are given several asides in Gemma’s diary about how she has noticed that Joubert is always watching her, she finds him creepy.

So Joubert is far from being an objective narrator, he is himself implicated in the story’s passion plays. By the middle of the story he is actively stalking and following her to her secret rendezvous with young Hervé, not least because Joubert’s house lies off the path from the Bovery’s house to Hervé’s mansion, so it’s easy for him to keep tabs on her (there’s even a map showing the relative location of the three houses – the Boveries’, Hervé’s and Jouberts, along with the public footpaths, to help us visualise it all.)

I went after Gemma, and if this sounds  criminal – stalking a young woman – I can only protest that at the time it seemed quite legitimate… (p.55)

I told myself the only reason I was following Mrs Bovery was to confirm my speculations about her and Hervé… (p.56)

This stalking continues up to and including the scene where Joubert delivers some croissants to the Bovary house, knocks on the door a few times then goes round the side and, through a window, sees Gemma and Hervé making love.

A few days later, Joubert sneaks through the grounds of Hervé’s mansion in order to peer through the windows and catch them at it, again. But is he a pervert, a voyeur? Not in his own mind. “Moi?? Non, non monsieur, I was simply concerned for ‘er well-being” etc.

Joubert ‘accidentally’ bumping into Gemma on one of her walks along the path past his house

Joubert also has a comic side, playing to broad stereotypes of the Frenchman: his erotic fantasies are rather quirky, he fetishises French bread and food and is appalled at English gastronomy (Pimms! Porky scratchings!!) and doesn’t disapprove of Gemma taking a lover – what could be more French – but is scandalised at what how she goes to her assignations – chewing gum! wearing a tracksuit!!

Joubert (in the small pictures in the middle of the page, watches through the chateau windows as Gemma disrobes to her sexy underwear for the gaze of her lover

In his curious mix of Frenchness, middle-aged lust, voyeurism, and in his over-heated comparisons between Gemma and her ill-fated Victorian forebear, Joubert is in many ways the central, certainly the most memorable, character in the plot.

The plot 2

Back to the main narrative.

Through Joubert’s eyes – and through his reading of Gemma’s diary – we watch Gemma continue the affair and blossom with happiness. She goes on a spending spree, redoing the interior furnishings of the farmhouse, chucking out the heavy rural furniture and splashing out on new furniture, wallpapers, carpets etc. In other words, running up a stack of debts, just like Madame Bovary. She also spends a lot on expensive sexy lingerie.

Gemma Bovery fait le shopping

Joubert, reading her diary, disapproves of how Gemma buys the lingerie to turn herself into a sex object for her lover’s pleasure, and of the stunning, leggy blonde bombshell she has turned herself into, on the rare occasions when she comes shopping in his boulangerie (both scenes appearing in the page below).

Gemma shops, practices sexily stripping to her lingerie for Hervé, and turns up in Joubert’s boulangerie looking like a model

All this during half-term while Charlie is back in England. Returning, he is impressed by the change in the farmhouse, but appalled at how much it must have cost…

But Joubert guesses correctly that something is on Hervé’s mind, namely that he has a full-time lover back in Paris and must return to his studies there. Thus we the reader see them in bed together, but only we know why Hervé has such a distracted look on his face. He wants to end the affair. He wants to be shot of Gemma.

Hervé is soon back in Paris telling his mate Arnaud about his entanglement with Gemma (we learn that she is 30 years old, on page 61), tying to persuade his mum to let him stay part of the new academic term down in the country, and to square his suspicious girlfriend, Delphine.

Joubert is now following her all the opportunities he gets and so overhears the couple have an argument in the big park of Hervé’s house, during which the latter curses her for still sleeping with Charlie and then comes out with a passionate declaration of love. Joubert himself is torn apart and realises he is stricken with jealousy, while Gemma goes home transported. She is on cloud nine. She insists they go for lunches, admittedly at remote villages. All the time Charlie seems oblivious, not least because he receives a letter from HMRC saying they’re going to do a check of his revenue and taxes, a check he knows he will fail, and Charlie is convinced it’s his malicious ex, Judi, who has shopped him.

According to the diaries, their love-making takes on a new intensity, which is how they come to break a precious Sevres porcelain statuette at the chateau.

Gemma’s fantasies get the better of her. She stops returning business calls and emails, spends even more money on Hervé, and starts fantasising about getting a commission from  his mother to redecorate the entire chateau (never going to happen) and then commissions from her friends (cloud cuckoo land). Meanwhile Hervé’s girlfriend in Paris realises he’s got another woman and confronts him, in floods of tears.

Joubert learns that Gemma is going for a long weekend in London and has made elaborate plans for Hervé to come too, but the confrontation with his girlfriend, Delphine has crystallised his doubts.

Meanwhile, Joubert, consumed with jealousy, has decided to sabotage the lovers’ relationship and so he cuts and pastes from the English Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, excerpts from the letter Emma’s lover sends her on the day of their planned elopement, to say he is pulling out, their love cannot be etc. it is hand delivered to Gemma by a village boy and when she opens and reads it she really thinks it’s from Hervé and that he’s dumping her.

Gemma, already worrying whether a long weekend in London with Hervé will really work out, receives Joubert’s letter containing the quote from Madame Bovary as if a rejection letter from Hervé

But in fact the real Hervé is having second thoughts and, egged on by his Paris friend Arnaud who tells him to think of his future, his career and of Delphine, Hervé faxes Gemma a short note saying he can’t come with her to London. Gemma is distraught but Charlie is expecting her to go, everyone is, and so she leaves.

Five days later she is back, her hair cut short and a lost look in her eyes, as Joubert, inevitably, notices.

Cut to Hervé struggling to write Gemma a letter. Seems his mother is going to visit and will notice the absence of that pesky statuette which they broke. Gemma said she’s give it to Charlie to fix, that’s the kind of thing he’s good at – but Hervé must get it back and into the chateau before his mother’s visit.

The business with the statuette gets complicated. Hervé tells his mother he gave it to a woman who said she’s give it to her husband to fix, a Monsieur Tate (Gemma always told Hervé her maiden name, Tate – he thinks that’s her married name). So out of the blue Hervé’s mother turns up at Charlie Bovery’s house (Gemma is out) and first of all calls him Monsieur Tate and then asks for a statuette he’s never heard of.

Two things result: 1. when Gemma returns, Charlie confronts her about the statuette which she remembers she’s put in a cupboard and she decides it’s the moment to tell Charlie all about her affair but – he doesn’t want to know, he refuses to listen to her and announces he has to go to London to sort out  his tax affairs.

And 2. Hervé’s mother confronts him with her interview with Charlie, gets Hervé to cobble together more and more complex lies, before revealing that she found plenty of evidence of his affair with Gemma down at the chateau. She is disgusted that he is having an affair with a married woman, has steadily lied to her, and has lost the statuette into the bargain. She instructs her lawyers to write Gemma a stiff letter demanding the return of the statuette or their will be legal ramifications.

Gemma wakes up to her situation and realises she is drowning in official letters, claims for all her bills, not least from the maxed-out credit cards as well as all the utilities for the farmhouse. She asks Joubert in to write formal French replies to them, but he is so stunned to be in the same room where he was watched Hervé undress Gemma, that he cannot think straight and says he’ll take the bills and write out French replies that evening. Meet her in Rouen tomorrow, the day of the Saturday market, where he can hand them over.

Gemma’s financial mess deepens. The check she wrote to the electricity company bounced. Her electrics are about to be cut off and the bank has withdrawn her check facility. She has to get cash for doing a decorating job for posh Englishwoman, Wizzy. It’s while at their place that Patrick Large, her old beau, steps into the room. His wife, the perfect wife of the colour supplement, Pandora, has kicked him out and refuses to let him see their son. All this he tells quickly, and the fact that he knew Mark and Wizzy back in London and they’ve given him shelter in the storm.

Meanwhile we cut back to Joubert the next day, Saturday, in Rouen, all a-flutter waiting to meet Gemma to hand over the letters he’s typed for her. In his self-deluded way he imagines himself becoming her aid and helper, even imagines them in bed, naked, together and feels his heart racing. But she is late for their rendezvous. Eventually he hears the growl of her VW camper van and goes outside to see her climb out of it but then… a man also exit the van, who comes up besides Gemma and… they embrace!… they kiss!!! Once again Joubert’s hopes are dashed.

In an odd sequence, Joubert hears the van start up and drive round Rouen town centre – and is able (improbably) to give its itinerary. This is odd until you realise it is a parody of the scene in Madame Bovary where Emma takes a ride in a hansom cab with a handsome man and during the ride becomes his lover i.e. they have sex. In its modern-day reincarnation, Joubert follows them down to an underground car park, locates the van and is about to stuff the letters he so carefully composed for her under its windscreen wipers when he realises it is rocking back and forth. Gemma and Patrick are shagging. Disgusted, Joubert walks away wishing them dead, wishing Gemma DEAD!

But that night, out to dinner with suave Patrick, Gemma realises she he hasn’t changed at all, still treats her like a trophy girlfriends, swanks with the waiters, talks at her. She realises she doesn’t even like him any more and that the afternoon shag was a one-off. That night she fends off his advances, drops him at the Rankins and goes home alone, feeling proud of herself. She decides to sort her life out, sell the farmhouse, clear her debts, move back to London and revive her career, live simply and avoid entanglements.

Then she sees the statuette. Charlie must have repaired it. He is such a good man, he deserves better of her.

Next day she’s in the garden when Joubert passes by walking his dog. Gemma politely explains that she doesn’t need those letters she asked him to compose, she’s found the statuette, all she needs is him to write a letter in French replying to the stern missive from Madame de Bressigny’s lawyers. She talks him into going into the farmhouse and there, accidentally, he sees a Penguin translation of Madame Bovary, He starts back, knocks over a stool. Surprised, Gemma looks from him to the book, from the book to him and… rumbles him. It was he who sent her that letter, quoting the lover’s rejection from the novel.

‘You sod! How dare you interfere in my life?’

Pathetically, Joubert tries to defend himself, says he is worried for her, worried she is re-enacting the fate of Flaubert’s heroine. She replies: ‘What! Commit suicide over a few debts? Don’t be ridiculous!’

Gemma kicks him out but Joubert continues to feel hysterically frightened for her and that night has intense and ominous dreams, imagines the black figure of death closing in on her house. In the morning, unable to leave the thing alone, Joubert photocopies the pages from Madame Bovary where she takes the arsenic, and anonymously sends a copy each to Charlie (in London), Patrick and the Rankins.

Wizzy Rankin is predictably robust. She is in the mddle of frenzied preparations for her fortieth brithday party and thinks the letter a stupid plea for help and that Gemma’s brought it all on herself. But what if it’s a real cry for help and she’s about to take arsenic like Madame Bovary? To which posh wife Wizzy replies, in one of the best jokes in Simmonds’s entire oeuvre:

‘What? Take arsenic? She’d better not – she’s doing my table decorations!’ (p.91)

Mark (the rich banker) drives round to make sure Emma’s alright and she dismisses the letter as further machinations by the bonkers baker, Joubert. Mark quizzes her about her debts and when he learns they’re a measly 25 grand offers to pay them if she… if she, you know, made it nice for him.. But Gemma robustly tells him to piss off, which, shamefacedly, he does.

Then Joubert comes to discuss with us the final entries in Gemma’s diary, which describe Patrick coming round to see her in response to the silly letter Joubert sent him. When Gemma explains that Joubert was behind it, Patrick suggests she sue him. He’s not worth it, she replies. Anyway she’ll be going back to London soon. Patrick asks if she’ll consider moving in with him. But she says no. it wouldn’t work out. She has changed. She wants to be a new person.

Next morning Joubert awakens in panic and guilt. tries to write a letter of apology to Gemma. Goes to the bakery and starts kneading the dough way before sunrise. Once the shop is opened and staffed, decides to go and deliver her a fresh-baked baguette and the note. Walking through her gate he hears the sound of whale music coming from the shade of a tree. She is practicing yoga positions to whale song, with her back to him. Unwilling to disturb her, Joubert tiptoes into the open house and leaves the baguette on the kitchen table with the letter propped up against it.

At lunchtime Joubert and Martine settle down for a light lunch with cheese. they hear a van draw up and park. it is Charlie, back from England at long last, and parking this far from the farmhouse, maybe to surprise Gemma. He walks down the track. Joubert settles for his post-prandial snooze.

Next thing he knows Charlie is running over the field his glasses knocked off, blood on his face and shirt, bellowing the GEMMA IS DEAD! Joubert babbles that he knew it, he knew it, was it arsenic?? Charlie doesn’t know what he’s saying and begs to use the phone. Martine takes over from her babbling husband and calls the emergency services, as Charlie runs back to the farmhouse.

Joubert and his wife begin to walk to the farmhouse, but a car pulls up and it is Madame de Bressigny, of all people, come for her statuette. When Joubert babbles to her arsenic and Flaubert she stares at him but when the ambulance arrives, she departs. The Jouberts continue into the kitchen of the farmhouse where they find Charlie on his knees beside the body of Gemma, lying peacefully on the floor and quite quite dead.

Moments later the Rankins drive up with a doctor friend who’d come for Wizzy’s party. He checks the body, Wizzy takes control as these sturdy upper middle-class women often do, dispensing whisky to Charlie and lending him her mobile phone so he can start making formal calls to England.

The doctor and then the ambulanceman pronounce the cause of death: she choked on a piece of the bread Joubert baked and brought for her that morning. They try to to reassure him it was an accident but Joubert – who all the way through had been obsessed with a brooding sense of doom and death – who felt as if he had himself kick-started the affair between Hervé and Gemma and then supervised every step of its progression – it was Joubert himself who was the cause (at some remove) of poor Gemma’s death.

Charlie’s account

A few weeks later Joubert is in his boulangerie, inconsolable. Gemma has been buried. The Rankins paid for the small service and wake. Now, Joubert feels guilty and takes the short walk across the fields to the Boverys’ farmhouse. He’s been popping in on Charlie now and then to check he’s alright.

Now he feels guilty and starts to confess, telling Charle that a) he stole Gemma’s diaries and b) he is responsible for her death – and is about to vent a long soliloquy about how he magically created the love affair between Gemma and Hervé, all the self-centred twaddle we’ve read him gushing throughout the text – when Charlie cuts across him and says, no, he killed Emma.

He knew she was having an affair but when it did finally blow over Gemma remained distant so he thought, blow it, and went back to London. It was there that he got a phone call from a regretful Gemma, followed up by a long letter in which she said she still loved him.

But in the same post someone had sent him photocopies of pages from Madame Bovary describing Emma’s agonising death from arsenic (that being Joubert, of course). This worried Charlie so he caught the next ferry and drove to the farmhouse, parking a little way away so as to walk (as observed by Joubert and his wife).

But when he walked into the open front door it was to find Patrick Large standing behind Gemma with his arms around her. Finally, after all these months, Charlie snapped and saw red and attacked the guy, knocking him to the floor where they rolled around fighting. Only after a few minutes does Patrick make Charlie realise they weren’t snogging – Gemma was choking and he was trying to do the Heimlich manoeuvre as Charlie walked in. Those precious few minutes while they fought were enough for Gemma to choke and die.

He ran to Joubert’s they called the ambulance, Patrick ran off and fetched the Rankins (which explains their sudden arrival) – all too late. Later that night Patrick came back and he and Charlie got drunk. Patrick explained that Gemma choked because she got cross with him trying to persuade her to get back with him.

So did Patrick kill her, from provoking the choking? Or Charlie for stopping Patrick help her in the vital minute? Or Joubert for sending the photocopied pages to Charlie to make him come back? Or for breaking the baguette a fragment of which choked her?

Did all these men kill her? Or was it her own nature, unable to settle, to make her mind up, to form a fixed relationship?

Or was it a pointless stupid accident?

There’s one last thing. Joubert is still fussing and fretting about Charlie, irrationally concerned the he will meet the same fate as Charles Bovary (who is found dead in the garden, in Flaubert’s novel). And here there is the second good joke of the book, for Charlie dismisses Joubert’s concerns as nonsense – everyone calls him Charlie but his actual name – he was named after his grandfather – his actual name is CYRIL – and Joubert kisses him with relief and delight!

Epilogue

It’s Spring. Charlie sold the farmhouse and made enough to pay off his and Gemma’s debts. He’s gone back to London and picked up a new girlfriend. Joubert has inherited Gemma’s dog. As to Hervé, Joubert hears he passed his law exams but his long-standing girlfriend gave him the push.

There’s a removal van outside the Boverys’ farmhouse. New owners are moving in. Joubert’s wife met them walking in the lane. The wife is called Eyre. Jane Eyre!


The triumph of Thatcherite values

Simmonds ended the Posy strip in 1987. Twelve years later, Gemma Bovery exists in a completely different universe, a post-Thatcherite Britain, among a well-heeled, well-educated, comfortable urban bourgeoisie.

What surprised me – astonished me, really – is that sex and adultery seem to have won. In the Weber strips a powerful recurring character was Stanhope Wright, tall, blonde advertising executive who propositioned every pretty young woman he met and generally had several affairs on the go at once, but always returned to his long-suffering wife Trish. In the Weber strip-world it was understood that Stanhope was a philandering swine, while the heart of the strips rotated around the home life of nerdy lecturer George Weber and his ironic, feminist, vegetarian, Guardian-reading wife, Wendy.

They’ve disappeared. Their whole world of values to do with respect and concern for right-on political values – has ceased to exist. Instead we are in a dog-eat-dog world of late twentieth century London, where private wealth contrasts with public squalor and homelessness, where rural France is infested with shouty, posh, banker Brits.

Affair World

And where almost every character seems to be having an affair. Charlie and Judi’s marriage broke up, Patrick is unfaithful to Gemma with Pandora, but goes on to have an affair, be discovered and kicked out. Gemma is unfaithful to Charlie with not one but two lovers and Hervé cheats on his Paris girlfriend. Given half a chance Joubert would cheat on his wife, Martine. Even Gemma’s father, Michael Tate the dentist, had an affair with his receptionist while his wife was dying.

In other words, are in Middle-Class Affair World. We are in a world where almost everyone is being unfaithful to their spouses and partners, a world stiflingly familiar to me from all the other middle-class novels of our time about adultery and affairs, particularly those of Kingsley Amis or David Lodge, which I have reviewed elsewhere.

And a world I have never encountered except in books. I live in London and have brought up two children all the way through school. In those 18 years I only know of four couples who have got divorced, and am not aware of any long-running affairs. Certainly not aware of either men or women who have a new affair each year or are notorious for their philandering. I suppose it must happen, but not nearly as much as it happens in this kind of middle-class, middle-brow fiction. In the kind of genre Gemma Bovery belongs to, where it happens all the time.

Feminism

And I am a little staggered that the strongest thread in the 488 pages of the Weber comic omnibus is Simmonds’s persistent hectoring feminism, in strip after strip going on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on about the wickedness of the sexual stereotyping of women, the objectification of women, the leery association of women with sex and boobs and bras and kinky outfits…

She drew a memorable cartoon on the subject which, she explained, was a protest against the way Women in Cartoons were only treated as nymphets and sex objects by a sexist world which ignored all their other attributes and achievements…

The Seven Ages of Woman by Posy Simmonds

And yet… the central character of this book is a stunningly good-looking, gorgeous, pouting model, who makes men stop and stare when she walks by, who spends a fortune on sexy lingerie so she can drop her overcoat and reveal herself in all her splendour as an erotic pinup, and whose central activity is snaring and sleeping with men.

The story makes occasional mention of Gemma’s talent for painting and decorating, but hurries on to focus on what really matters – her relationships with men and, in particular, which one she is taking her clothes off and revealing her gorgeous, lithe, leggy nymphet body for.

Gemma stripping to her sexy underwear for Hervé (and for the reader)

Boobs. Gemma has great trim, shapely boobs and Simmonds draws them for our delectation, again and again.

Bare-naked Gemma in bed with her lover, Hervé (who is, however, distracted and worried)

Obviously Gemma keeps her clothes on most of the time but, if you flick through the book, the visual impression is of a streamlined, lithe and sexy babe, just hitting her physical and sexual prime, who loves dressing like a Victoria’s Secret sex model, and strips off and has sex again and again.

Maybe this is all some subtle way of subverting the male gaze, but it felt very much to me like encouraging the male gaze, and encouraging just about every sexist stereotype you can conceive about lithe, young, shapely women.

It is all a million miles away from downtrodden Wendy Weber and her big glasses and sensible dungarees and knitted pullovers and concern about poor people and immigrants and the environment, or the angry feminism of plain-jane art student Jocasta Wright, which dominated the Posy strip.

Who worries about the worriers? by Posy Simmonds (1986)

So it seemed to me that not only does Gemma Bovery depict the victory of Thatcherite values (the unabashed making and spending of money, basically) but also describes the triumph of a kind of post-feminist visual values of sexual fantasy and adultery. This kind of thing was consistently disapproved of in the Posy strip. In Gemma Bovery it is celebrated.

Coming to the book after experiencing the rigorous political correctness of the Posy strip makes it feel like the enemy has won, both thematically and visually.

Here’s a page of preparatory sketches Simmonds made for the character, showing Gemma about her favourite activities – shopping and wearing sexy underwear for her man.

If they’d been done by a man wouldn’t you say they were patronising, sexist and stereotyped, the kind of mindless shopper/sex doll clichés women have been fighting for centuries?

Joubert

In my reviews of the Posy cartoon collections I pointed out how frequently Simmonds used parody to make a point, copying classic paintings or putting satirical new words to well-loved carols and tunes.

Insofar as it is an extended modern take on Flaubert’s classic novel, Gemma Bovery seemed to me a triumph. It is a masterpiece of storytelling. The first time I read it I found myself seriously gripped by the book’s final pages, feverishly reading them faster and faster to discover the long-anticipated cause of Gemma’s death.

Presumably there will be millions of women readers who identify to a greater or lesser extent with Gemma’s well-meaning but confused inability to make up her mind about her men, with her ‘weakness’ in falling from one lover to another – but that part didn’t interest me so much.

By the end it was the figure of Joubert I found fascinating. In many respects a joke – without doubt a fantasist, a lecherous old man and a voyeur – he is also given the genuine imaginative power of making you believe there really is a malign destiny at work in the story. His obsession with the fictional Emma Bovary really does come to infuse the modern real-life story of Gemma.

Without Joubert Gemma Bovery would have simply been the story of a young woman who had a fling in France and died an accidental death. With him – stealing her diaries and filtering Gemma’s consciousness through his own morbid and lustful obsessions and suffusing everything with his over-awareness of the Flaubert novel – the narrative becomes something altogether richer, more complex and stranger.

The attention to detail paid to all the characters throughout Gemma Bovery is impressive and persuasive, creating a totally real world. But the invention of Joubert was a masterstroke.


Credit

All images are copyright Posy Simmonds. All images are used under fair play legislation for the purpose of analysis and criticism. All images were already freely available on the internet.

Related links

Other Posy Simmonds reviews

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.

Realism

The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.

Banality

What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)

Inevitability

The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.

Style

Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)

Composition

And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.

Comedy

If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.

Translations

As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

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