The proposer began our discussion with an account of Flaubert’s background, with particular regard to matters bearing on the novel, which was first published in serial form in 1856. The book had taken him five years to write, and was set in a part of Normandy that was familiar to him. The action occurs in the period 1827-46. It is one of the best-known nineteenth century French novels and counts many eminent writers among its admirers, including Henry James (who wrote “Madame Bovary has a perfection that not only stamps it, but that makes it stand almost alone; it holds itself with such a supreme unapproachable assurance as both excites and defies judgment”) and, more recently, Mario Vargas Llosa. The eminent critic James Wood remarked that “novelists should thank Flaubert as poets should thank Spring” because “he established for good or ill, what most readers think of as modern realist narration, and his influence is almost too familiar to be visible”.
The group acknowledged that Flaubert seemed to be revolutionary in his attention to detail and his deployment of a style of narration that anticipated the Joycean “stream of consciousness”. But in spite of this capacity for getting inside his characters’ heads, the group felt that he was contemptuous of their bourgeois attitudes and essentially pessimistic and misanthropic. We had all struggled to find sympathy with either Charles or Emma Bovary, and wondered if Flaubert himself had any sympathy for them, despite his famous remark “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. We wondered if this lack of sympathy resulted from him being a self-confessed reformed romantic, whereas she never fully understands the falseness of such a world view.
One reader remarked that he had missed any humour in the novel, although the proposer commented that in his case he had found humour that he had missed when he first read the book at the age of sixteen. He cited the satire on the slow speech mannerisms of rural folk, and Madame Bovary’s visit to the curate. The figure of the apothecary Homais had comic elements, but it was remarked by the proposer that he felt the focus on Madame Bovary herself tended to squeeze the life out of the other characters.
We turned to discussion of the book’s themes. We couldn’t come up with any novels of an earlier date that portrayed an adulterous marriage in such detail. Was the novel ground-breaking in this respect as well as in its realist style of writing? We couldn’t be sure, but we thought so. There was some discussion of its contemporary reception as immoral, and comparison with later frank treatments of sexuality that got into trouble with self-appointed moral authorities, such as Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ and Lawrence’s ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. However, ‘Madame Bovary’ was in fact anything but an apology for adultery. It contains the observation that adultery ends up in the same banality as an unsuccessful marriage, and punishes the adulterous protagonist with a slow and painful death.
We discussed the quality of the various translations we had read. One reader had been put off while reading one otherwise good translation by a number of modern Americanisms which he felt disrupted the nineteenth century European ambience of the story. The proposer pointed out the similarities in the life of one of the book’s best-known translators – Eleanor Marx-Aveling, the daughter of Karl Marx – with the life of Emma Bovary herself, notably her suicide by swallowing poison. The usefulness or otherwise of notes and indexing was considered, and it was felt that they drew attention to many contemporary allusions that we would otherwise miss. For one member of our group, the detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century rural life that the book portrayed was its chief pleasure.
A few structural oddities in the book were brought up. For example an unidentified “we” begins the narration but subsequently disappears in favour of a generalised omniscient narrative voice, albeit one close to the inner thoughts and feelings of Emma Bovary in particular. Another oddity identified by one reader was the failure of Madame Bovary’s affectionate father to show any further interest in his daughter once she had married. For him, this was not credible, but another member of the group pointed out the insularity of life at the time, and the difficulty of making journeys in rural France in those days.
Finally, in spite of its undeniable historical importance and influence on other writers, did ‘Madame Bovary’ stand up as worth reading for a contemporary readership? The response was a rather muted ‘yes’ from the group. Certainly for this reader, the experience of a first reading of a classic text that had long been on his “must read one day” list was one of indifference to the fate of the characters, and a sense of having somehow missed the point. Although others in the group had enjoyed the book more, even the proposer declined to champion the work as a masterpiece.