Poppy Adams is a writer and documentary filmmaker with a background in science. She has made films for the BBC, Channel 4 and the Discovery Channel. Her first novel, The Behaviour of Moths, was shortlisted for the Costa First Novel Award and the Author's Club First Novel Award, long-listed for the Desmond Elliot Prize, and read on BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime. Poppy lives in London with her husband and three children and is currently working on her second novel. Below she thinks about Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
Poppy Adams on Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Some fiction I enjoy for the story-telling; other fiction purely for the prose; yet other fiction for more specific qualities like an author's observational skills, or ability to express perfectly the most subtle of human feelings. Although I admire Flaubert for all of these reasons - especially the last - it is for none of them that Madame Bovary has always fascinated me. There is no question of the book's literary merits. It has been unanimously celebrated in a chorus of approving voices by famous literary figures for the last 150 years and, quite frankly, no sane person would dare criticize it now.
Yet the real fascination for me doesn't lie directly at Flaubert's feet at all. What has always intrigued me is the public's reaction to the novel, from its first publication to the present day, and what it tells us about society, human nature and changing ideas.
Madame Bovary is an absorbing and honest portrayal of the intimate, often trivial, feelings of Emma Bovary as increasingly she despairs of her life and marriage. She retreats into her fantasies and is driven to adultery. Her illusions of life eventually lead to her downfall and suicide. Emma's loss of dreams and her disillusionment with love and marriage are, I believe, not a reflection of a woman's life which will ever date. Every bride should study it!
But Madame Bovary caused a national scandal when it was first published in France in 1856. It was banned for a while and Flaubert put on trial, the book deemed dangerous as 'an offence against religion and morality'. It turned out that that wasn't the most shocking thing about it - or the most dangerous. This was a completely new type of fiction. It was dangerous purely because of its resonance with the truth – the unspeakable truth. The public at that time were so deluded by the trend of romantic literature - Dumas, Chateaubriand, Gautier, Victor Hugo - writing of those 'fantasy' lives that they all publicly conformed to, that they didn't recognize the truth in the numbing desperation, deceit and self-serving gratifications of Madame Bovary. They took time to realize, or to admit, that this was, in fact, how they all viewed their lot. Even her indiscretions were what they all privately did, or longed to do. Far from distasteful speciousness, this book was a scrupulously truthful portraiture of life.
So Flaubert invents Realism; and with it spawns Feminism: the freedom for women to think the unthinkable, the unutterable, the truth of their feelings. Where would we be without Madame Bovary?
Within a year, Madame Bovary had become a best-seller and Flaubert was celebrated. For fun, I like to think of that process of realization: how did something considered so scandalous become so esteemed? How the truth slowly sank into an outraged society: first a few brave non-conformists, perhaps, introduce the idea that this amorality could, in fact, be considered a candid account of something natural or, dare they say it, widespread in their society. This avant-garde suggestion is then claimed by the intellectuals of bourgeois society, and sweeps through the Parisian social scene; gossiped about, perhaps, in the very salons in which these indiscretions occur. At once realism becomes respectable, de rigeur, and the notoriety of Flaubert's story quickly turns to acclamation.
But why did it take them so long? Why should it have been such a revelation for them, collectively, to turn to the mirror and be truthful about what they saw? They were blinded by self-deception. It is difficult for us to be honest with ourselves, but this story is an example of the power of society's brainwashing, the social conformity we must learn to wear on the outside, to mask our transgressions and a multitude of ugly thoughts on the inside.
It is realism which is dangerous, and which shocks us. Fantasy is easy. We don't ever need to ask ourselves if it could be true. But realism makes us uneasy. The truth of human nature is hard to determine and hard to admit. The line between innate human character and learned social convention is indistinct. It is that ambiguity which makes human nature, in its pure and instinctive form, difficult to assess. And, of course, the fear of what we might find.
[All the pieces that have appeared in this series, with the links to them, are listed in the index here.]