Book Review: “Madame Bovary” by Gustave Flaubert

My Facebook Reading Challenge 2018 is well underway and March’s theme was a classic. I chose Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert’s 1857 classic, because it seemed to fit well with a lot of the women’s issues around and being discussed at the moment, particularly gender equality and sexual exploitation. It is fair to say that it had a mixed reception among the readers on the Facebook group!

2018-02-22 14.12.54I had read this book previously, but many years ago as an undergraduate, so whilst I had remembered the basic story, I had forgotten much of the detail. I had forgotten for example just how brilliant the writing is and how very like Jane Austen Flaubert can be in his use of irony. By all accounts, Flaubert was a perfectionist and spent years on this book; it is certainly masterful and for me the writing was sublime. I had also forgotten how unlikeable all the characters are! Even Emma, our supposed “heroine”, is at times unpleasant, childish, selfish, superficial and self-obsessed. When I discussed it with my husband (who speaks fluent French and read it in the original) he was surprised that I did not find Charles Bovary, Emma’s husband, sympathetic. Interesting that he felt affection for the long-suffering, betrayed husband who loved his wife to the death, despite her many faults, whereas I found him ineffectual and basically unable to connect with his wife on any level, and that was part of the problem in their marriage.

I don’t think even Flaubert liked his characters and I think it was the intention of the author that we stand with him and examine the people he puts before us, with all their flaws. I believe he wants us also to dig a little deeper and examine the French provincial society that gave rise to Emma. As a young woman she lives a dull and uninteresting life with her widowed father on a farm, until the day she marries Charles, a physician in a neighbouring town, and goes to live a dull and uninteresting life with him. Passed from one man’s home to the next. Emma would not have had expectations, but she was an intelligent woman and the kind of life she was forced to lead did not fulfil her deeper needs. She is a woman of deep passions, but there is no outlet for them, apart from the romantic novels she devours. Certainly, Charles does not really do it for her! “Charles’s conversation was as flat as any pavement.”

Flaubert hints that Emma’s lack of fulfilment may be dangerous when he observes, after she and Charles were invited to an aristocratic ball, where she glimpses how the other half live and begins to fantasise:

“This life of hers was as cold as an attic that looks north; and boredom, quiet as the spider, was spinning its web in the shadowy places of her heart.”

What a sentence! Emma is naïve and inexperienced, however. Her life has been limited and she sees events in the most superficial of ways:

“She confused in her desire, sensual luxury with true joy, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.”

Flaubert doesn’t expect us to like Emma very much, but I think he wants us to see her as a product of a time and a place, not as wilful and malicious.

Seduced by romantic fantasy, Emma takes lovers, both of whom are equally selfish and unpleasant. Whilst she is clearly a willing participant in her adultery, there is no doubt that both Leon and Rodolphe exploit Emma. When Emma’s reckless behaviour leads her to run up unsustainable debts, the town’s notary, from whom she has been borrowing money, also exploits her. When he requests sexual favours in return for his continued discretion we can see how deeply lost Emma’s situation is and how as a woman she has almost no power or autonomy. Her response to him, is when we begin to see for the first time something more admirable in her spirit:

“You are taking insolent advantage of my distress, monsieur. I may be in a pitiful state, but I am not up for sale!”

Parts of the book are heavy going, but it is in Part Three that we see the tragic coming-together of events, the closing-in on Emma of all the consequences of her misguided actions, her falsehoods, and the tremendous dislike she accrued. She is not a nice woman – she betrayed her husband, who did not understand her, but loved her in his own way, rejected her daughter and treated those about her with contempt. She was the architect of her own downfall, but she was also a victim of heartless men, of social norms and conventions that failed women like her and gave them no outlet.

She is a difficult heroine for us, but one who makes us think, for sure. Recommended because it’s just one of those books you have to read!

Do you find it hard to connect with the classics? What is your favourite?

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Book and theatre review: “Frankenstein” by Mary Shelley

I had my fill of Frankenstein last week – I read the book, saw the play and listened to Derek Jacobi narrating the audio book! My book club selected it as we were looking to read a classic, and, as it happens to be the 200th anniversary of the novel’s publication, it was also showing at the Manchester Royal Exchange Theatre in a new adaptation by April de Angelis.

2018-04-19 11.30.32It is extraordinary to think that this remarkable novel, still as popular and as shocking today as ever, was written when Mary was just 19 years old. The fact that she was such a literary talent is not surprising given that she was the offspring of the two famous intellectuals, Mary Wollstonecraft, philosopher and author of the seminal feminist work A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and William Godwin, the radical political philosopher. In her lifetime, she was highly regarded as a radical writer and intellectual, as well as being the wife of the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, whom she met and fell passionately in love with at the age of 17. Her reputation since her death, however, has been overshadowed by that of her husband’s, with whom she bore four children (three died in infancy), whose affairs and financial troubles she endured, and whose poems she edited both before and after his death. Percy Bysshe Shelley drowned at sea in 1822, just six years into their marriage when she was 25. She died at the age of 53 in London from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary ShelleyBy any standards her life was remarkable and in the last few years her reputation has been revived and she has begun to be more widely considered as a formidable talent in her own right, rather than just a ‘one-book author’. Frankenstein has been a staple of English literature GCSE and A level syllabuses for years, but most of her other works have fallen out of print. A new biography, In Search of Mary Shelley: The girl who wrote Frankenstein, by Fiona Sampson was published earlier this year, some of which I caught when it was serialised in Radio 4 recently. What I heard sounded fascinating. Sadly it is not available on the BBC iPlayer at the moment.

Frankenstein is a brilliant book. It’s not particularly long so if you are not accustomed to the classics it is not too daunting. It is extraordinarily sophisticated in the themes it explores, from ideas about religion and creation, the vanity of man (men) and moral relativism. Its structure is also interesting: it is narrated initially by Robert Walton in letters to his sister. Walton is the Captain of a ship which he is sailing to the Arctic in the hopes of making a great discovery about the North Pole. He describes his ambitions, but also his loneliness and need for companionship. He meets an unexpected friend in the form of Victor Frankenstein who is on an unlikely pursuit of a mysterious giant figure which Walton and his crew had previously spotted. Frankenstein takes over the narration and we learn about the terrible events that preceded this chase, from his early family life in Switzerland and tragic death of his mother, his relationship with his cousin Elizabeth, to his university life in Ingolstadt. It was in Ingolstadt that he first felt the pain of academic embarrassment, when his naïve ideas were exposed, and he set out on the extraordinary task of creating a human. Unfortunately for Frankenstein, he did not think it through, and once he realised the horror of what he had done, quite soon after he brought his creation to life, he disowns it and leaves to its own fate while he spends the next few years wringing his hands. Frankenstein’s procrastination is fatal.

For a time there is also narration from the ‘monster’ (relayed by Frankenstein) who manages initially to survive on vegetation whilst concealed in a hovel, from which he is able to spy on a once wealthy but now fallen French family in a small village. From them he learns language and the ways of humans, and hopes that he will be able to become friends with them, as he longs for company. Unfortunately, when he introduces himself to them, his hopes are shattered; they assume from his, presumably horrific appearance, that he means them harm and they beat him and drive him out of the cottage. Disappointed and infuriated, the monster goes in search of Frankenstein, with the intention of demanding that he make him a female companion, with the threat of death and destruction if he refuses.

I will say no more. Though the story is well known, I do not wish to give away any further spoilers for anyone unfamiliar with it. I wanted to finish the book before seeing the play, so I mixed reading it with listening to the audiobook narrated by Derek Jacobi. This was read brilliantly, as you would expect, though I have to say it gives you the impression that both Walton and Frankenstein are older, wiser men when in fact it is their naivety and youthful impetuosity that is partly responsible for the grave decisions both make.

Frankenstein play
Copyright –  Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

The play was also wonderful and provided a rewarding extra-curricular outing for the book club! It was visceral, shocking, truly gruesome in parts. I loved the way the complex narrative structure, and the jumping back and forth in time was handled. I also loved the way it was interpreted for a 21st century audience, particularly in drawing out the feminist undertones (Elizabeth is played more strongly than in the book, while Frankenstein is often exposed as foolish). It had thrills, spills and lots of action, and stayed very true to the book, leaving out remarkably little and using some of the really powerful passages (particularly those spoken by the monster) verbatim. It will have been a fantastic bonus for any young people studying it for exams this year.

A thoroughly enjoyable monstrous week!