‘Oh, why, dear God, did I marry him?’
Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored, trapped in her marriage to a mediocre doctor and stifled by the banality of provincial life. An ardent devourer of sentimental novels, she longs for passion and seeks escape in fantasies of high romance, in voracious spending and, eventually, in adultery. But even her affairs bring her disappointment, and when real life continues to fail to live up to her romantic expectations, the consequences are devastating. Flaubert’s erotically charged and psychologically acute portrayal of Emma Bovary caused a moral outcry on its publication in 1857. It was deemed so lifelike that many women claimed they were the model for his heroine; but Flaubert insisted: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’
This modern translation by Flaubert’s biographer, Geoffrey Wall, retains all the delicacy and precision of the French original. The edition also contains a preface by the novelist Michèle Roberts.
Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
The older Monsieur Bovary, Monsieur Charles Denis Bartholome Bovary, had been a good-looking man when younger, with a big moustache and rings on his fingers. He was not, however, an impressive man, and although he wore expensive clothes, he always looked like an uncomfortable mixture of a military man and a cheap shopkeeper. His good looks and ability to sell himself did, nevertheless, win him a wife with a good income. After he was safely married, he lived for two or three years on her money. He ate and drank well, and spent his days lying in bed till midday, smoking his pipe and never coming home till the theatres and cafes closed.
When his father-in-law died, the old man left very little money to his daughter. Disappointed, Monsieur Bovary tried to start a textile business, but lost a lot of money and finally retired into the country with the idea of showing the people there how to run a farm. However, he knew as little about agriculture as he did about textiles. He rode his horses instead of making them work, ate the fattest chickens instead of selling them, and cleaned his shooting-boots with his own best bacon-fat. He soon discovered that he had little chance of making a fortune.
Around this time he found a place on the borders of Caux and Picardy, half farm, half private house, which he could rent for two hundred francs a year. He took it and there, an angry, disappointed man, at war with the rest of the world, he shut himself up at the age of forty-five. He said that he was disgusted with other people and wanted only to live by himself.
At the beginning, his wife had loved him above all others, but this only seemed to add to his dislike of the world and he never had a kind word for her. She had been cheerful, kind-hearted and friendly, but as she grew older, in the same way that good wine turns into vinegar, she became bad-tempered and bad company. She was a hard worker, though, unlike her husband. She was always on her feet, always busy, hurrying to see the lawyers, knowing exactly when the next bills had to be paid. Indoors she was always working: sewing, washing, keeping an eye on the men and paying them their wages. Her lord and master, paying no attention to what was going on around him, sat smoking by the fire…