Ever since Eve was banished from paradise for demonstrating a curiosity sorely lacking in the insipid Adam, women have suffered for harbouring desires that do not fit within the narrow confines of their lives. The list of fictional women who have been punished for wanting more than their designated lot includes Anna Karenina, Wharton’s Lily Bart, Thackeray’s Becky Sharp and, more recently, Thelma and Louise. The list is long, and to my eyes delightfully illustrious, yet of all these women who defied the conventions of their time, it is Emma Bovary who has received the worse press.
I’ve been reminded of this during a recent rereading of Flaubert’s famous novel. Books and Arts Daily (ABC RN, weekdays at 10) is delving into a selection of European classics on the last Friday of the month throughout 2014. They are commencing the series with Madame Bovary – an excellent beginning to what promises to be a great series. (The series includes Crime and Punishment and All Quiet on the Western Front, both of which make my best novels of all time list.)
While I’m rereading Madame Bovary in Alan Russell’s wonderfully rhythmic and lucid translation, I receive a copy of Rebecca Mead’s irresistible and idiosyncratic The Road to Middlemarch (Text, 2014). I find myself comparing Dorothea Brooke with Emma Bovary. Both women reveal yearnings and desires far too abundant for the limited boundaries that corseted the lives of nineteenth century ladies. But Dorothea wins a happy ending while Emma, like so many tragic thwarted heroines of literature, kills herself.*
There are many reasons, above and beyond authorial whims, that accord Dorothea her happiness while Emma’s only option is death. Dorothea’s author, George Eliot, was a woman who had felt the constraints of the society in which she lived and had bucked against them. She lived with a man who was married to someone else, and after he died she married a man twenty years her junior. In contrast, Emma’s creator was a man who took lovers but never married, whose most committed connection with a woman was with his mother. George Eliot would have wanted more for her heroine than a tragic end – as indeed she wanted more for herself. But author biography aside, the desires and yearnings expressed by Dorothea and Emma are different. Yes, there is some overlap when it comes to romantic love – both women want that sort of passion, but Dorothea has intellectual and social justice passions as well. Dorothea reads beyond the fictional romances that fill the young Emma’s leisure hours, she reads about social conditions and she observes them as well, and she yearns to improve the lot of tenant farmers. So while both women revel in active imaginations, the life of Dorothea’s mind is far broader and better nourished than that of Emma’s.
Still, these reasons alone fail to explain why Emma Bovary has received such a consistently raw deal. A consideration of sex and motherhood fills out the picture. Emma is not a Madonna type. The passion Emma wants is sexual passion, that explosive, fall-in-love-at-first-sight, take-me-I’m-yours emotion that exists primarily in romantic novels and Hollywood films. And when she does fall in love the sparks don’t last. She discovers that love, like marriage, like town life, is prey to habit. Emma is imaginative but her imagination is mostly in service to her own well-being. Dorothea’s imagination, in contrast, takes in the intellectual as well, and is thus seen as a more admirable character.
Then there’s the matter of children. Emma has often been criticised for being a bad mother to young Berthe. This judgement lacks evidence. There is a single instance in which Emma lashes out at Berthe; she is immediately appalled at her behaviour and deeply remorseful. She’s been accused of being neglectful, but the fact is that women of her class and time had nursemaids and wet nurses. Often parents saw their children only briefly in the mornings and evenings. Berthe and her mother most certainly have a relationship on which the young girl doted. This is demonstrated on a day when Emma fails to return to Yonville after a rendezvous with Léon, and Berthe is distraught because her mother is not around to kiss her good night. With this instance, many readers have simply focussed on Emma’s absence, rather than the child’s response which suggests that mother and daughter were accustomed to regular and close connection.
Emma has been excoriated through the years, but what about the men in the novel? All of them are either weak or cads – or in the case of Léon, both. But somehow a weak and rather stupid man like Charles Bovary is less deserving of our condemnation than his passionate adulterator of a wife. I can understand this response in 1856 when the book was first published, I can understand it through much of the twentieth century (although I would have thought plenty of 1950s housewives would have understood Emma’s plight). From the viewpoint of the twenty-first century though, Emma Bovary is a quintessentially modern woman. And while I wish she had more of Dorothea Brooke’s intellectual muscle, Emma Bovary nonetheless pushes at the boundaries of her life with courage and imagination.
*The comparison runs deep. Madame Bovary (1856) is subtitled ‘A story of provincial life’, while Middlemarch (1871-2) carries the subtitle ‘A study of provincial life’.