This wonderfully tinted 1918 photo is a postcard of Rouen cathedral where Madame Bovary, bored Normandy Housewife of Gustave Flaubert’s famous novel, behaved so atrociously that in 1856 the author was put on trial for obscenity. What on earth did he write?!
This was his debut novel, set in a large Normandy village. Not an obvious choice for Parisian readers, but they were agog. Against a scene of dull respectability Flaubert placed a very pretty young woman, Emma, and marries her to the unimaginative, plodding, unexceptional doctor Charles Bovary.
Her fate is sealed by her romantic heart. She yearns for love and luxury and finds her the quiet muddy village lacking.
Here is a picture of a young lady by James Tissot, painted just a few years after Flaubert wrote Emma Bovary. A bored beauty with eyes so dark you could lose yourself in them. A young woman, like Emma Bovary, whose life is not meeting her expectations.
A moment of glamour in a dull life
After her marriage, with little to do, little money and few friends, Emma’s life is unexceptional. She is bored and incapable of amusing herself. Parisian readers would have sympathised, the countryside was for paintings and day trips, not for life.
Charles and Emma are invited to attend a ball, Emma’s first. Here Flaubert’s flawed heroine sees a glimpse into the world she has always dreamed about. She is thrilled by an impossible flirtation with Léon, an impoverished law student, then smug at her own chaste behaviour.
Still nothing to worry the censors.
Soon afterwards, still glowing from the evening’s drama, virtuous Emma catches the eye of one of her husband’s patients, Rudolphe Boulanger a rich neighbour who says to himself:
“she is very pretty, this doctor’s wife. Fine teeth, black eyes, a dainty foot, a figure like a Parisienne’s. Where the devil does she come from? Wherever did that fat fellow pick her up?”
Gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen-table
Rudolphe assesses her position, and his own, very quickly:
“I think he is very stupid. She is tired of him, no doubt. He has dirty nails, and hasn’t shaved for three days. While he is trotting after his patients, she sits there botching socks. And she gets bored! She would like to live in town and dance polkas every evening. Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen-table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”
Those last words reveal Rudolphe as a rotten rake, this will not end well.
After quite a lot of accidental hand touching, inappropriate gazing, a declaration of love (by Rudolphe) Rudulphe offers to take Emma riding ‘for her health’. Charles Bovary is flattered the local dashing aristocrat wants to take his pretty wife riding (really Charles? Really?) his respect for social hierarchy is admirable, if foolish.
Unsurprisingly the horse-riding does nothing to damp any ardour:
“She was breathing irregularly. Rodolphe looked round him biting his moustache…”
So with much sighing and talking nonsense, they kiss and …. Emma falls. Very discretely. No details are given, just heaving hints. The text does boldly state that they are lovers but it is a beautiful romantic thing.
The public prosecutor is frowning by this stage, nothing more, as…
It is suggested that for many months Emma and Rudolphe thoroughly entertain each other. Increasingly the contrast between her daily life and the dazzling time she enjoys with her lover becomes unbearable and Emma suggests they run away and start a new life together.
That rascal Rudolphe!
Heartless Rudolphe waits until the very evening of their planned escape to end the liaison, with a note placed under a gift of apricots in a basket – the 19th century version of dumping by text. Emma proceeds to have an appalling breakdown.
So far so intriguing and beautifully written by Flaubert, whose understanding of human nature was extraordinary. Still this is not the reason for the court case.
What really shocked the public prosecutors was just how much further Emma would fall, during a restorative trip to Rouen.
Falling hard, in Rouen
To aid Emma’s recovery from her mysterious illness, Charles takes Emma to the Opera in Rouen. Who do they meet? Back from Paris and considerably more sophisticated then Emma remembers is Léon. Charles doesn’t suspect a thing and Emma doesn’t give her husband a thought while she flirts outrageously. Although Charles has to return home the next day for some reason he suggests Emma stay in Rouen. Oh Charles…
Once Charles leaves Léon visits Emma’s hotel and, encouraged by her warm reception, arranges to meet the next morning in Rouen Cathedral.
“I shall be there,” he cried, seizing her hands, which she disengaged. And as they were both standing up, he behind her, and Emma with her head bent, he stooped over her and pressed long kisses on her neck. “You are mad! Ah! you are mad!” she said, with sounding little laughs, while the kisses multiplied. Then bending his head over her shoulder, he seemed to beg the consent of her eyes. They fell upon him full of an icy dignity. Leon stepped back to go out. He stopped on the threshold; then he whispered with a trembling voice, “Tomorrow!” She answered with a nod, and disappeared like a bird into the next room.”
At this point the public-prosecutors probably sat up and sharpened their pencils.
Emma feigns piety
Once virtuous Emma spends the evening drafting notes to put Léon off, and then arrives promptly at Rouen cathedral for the agreed time of 11am. One of her letters of rebuke carefully folded into her purse of course.
Léon had sneaked over to the Cathedral sometime earlier, not wanting to be seen and is lurking within.
Emma, keen to reinforce her modest credentials, feigns piety then a deep interest in the cathedral’s history, but Léon sees through her prayers and hustles a clearly enamoured Emma out of the side door.
Leon has waited three years for this moment. He demands of a local urchin find them a cab.
As they wait Emma demurs…
“Ah! Léon! Really—I don’t know—if I ought,” she whispered. Then with a more serious air, “Do you know, it is very improper—”
Then Léon the lawyer, no longer the shy student of three years ago, gives our pretty country doctor’s wife a compelling argument:
“How so?” replied the clerk. “It is done at Paris.” And that, as an irresistible argument, decided her.
And so Emma falls again. Into a cab and one of the most notorious journey’s in French literature.
The cab ride
It starts like this…Just before the blinds are draw…
“Where to, sir?” asked the coachman.
“Where you like,” said Leon, forcing Emma into the cab.
And the lumbering machine set out. It went down the Rue Grand-Pont, crossed the Place des Arts, the Quai Napoleon, the Pont Neuf, and stopped short before the statue of Pierre Corneille.
“Go on,” cried a voice that came from within.
No straight on!
The cab went on again, and as soon as it reached the Carrefour Lafayette, set off down-hill, and entered the station at a gallop.
“No, straight on!” cried the same voice.
Along by the river
The cab came out by the gate, and soon having reached the Cours, trotted quietly beneath the elm-trees. The coachman wiped his brow, put his leather hat between his knees, and drove his carriage beyond the side alley by the meadow to the margin of the waters.
It went along by the river, along the towing-path paved with sharp pebbles, and for a long while in the direction of Oyssel, beyond the isles.
A third stop but…
But suddenly it turned with a dash across Quatremares, Sotteville, La Grande-Chaussee, the Rue d’Elbeuf, and made its third halt in front of the Jardin des Plantes.
“Get on, will you?” cried the voice more furiously.
At midday Madame Bovary admits defeat
Once in the middle of the day, in the open country, just as the sun beat most fiercely against the old plated lanterns, a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom.
Thirst, fatigue and depression – for the cab driver
The cab is forced to continue its random journey.
From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses. He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop.
He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him.
Then he lashed his perspiring jades afresh, but indifferent to their jolting, running up against things here and there, not caring if he did, demoralised, and almost weeping with thirst, fatigue, and depression.
A final halt at 6 o’clock!
The journey continues, the cab “tossing about like a vessel” until the early evening. Then:
At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.
The beginning of the end
And that is the beginning of their soon disappointing affair and a life of dishonesty for Emma Bovary who adds fraud and debt to her wifely cv. As predicted it does not end well.
It did, however, end very well for the author Gustave Flaubert.
In defence of fine Flaubert
Flaubert’s defence lawyer Antoine Sénard shredded the po faced accusations of the Paris Public Prosecutor, pointing out that all immodesty was suggested, no lewdness was described. He gave many examples of highly respected authors (mostly French) who had written in a similar way such as ‘The Double Mistake’ by Prosper Merimee. He read some samples to the jury who were finding their legal duty considerably more enthralling than they expected.
Gustave Flaubert was acquitted on 7 February 1857.
“It was marvellous” wrote Flaubert to his brother on the evening after the trial. He had every reason to gloat. By April the story of Madame Bovary was published as a single volume. It was an instant best seller.
Want to make the trip?
- Lots of location names changes and one way systems make the cab ride near impossible to replicate today, but to view the cab ride have a look here at a map by the University of Rouen.
- To read Emma Bovary for free online, view here on the Gutenberg website.