Writing for The Guardian in 2006, Julian Barnes reimagined the end of Flaubert’s iconic novel and provided Emma with opportunity to “correct” her story. This alternative ending was originally published in The Guardian on 30th September 2006 to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the publication of the first part of Madame Bovary in the Revue de Paris. The original article can be found here.
I was never happier than the day we left Yonville, the day we climbed into the coach with our few possessions. What a relief that I would never again see the tin tricolore shifting in the wind on top of the church tower, never again listen to the confident imbecilities of Monsieur Homais, never again feel the disapproval of the women of the village, never again hear the sound of Monsieur Binet’s lathe. He used to sit in his attic making wooden napkin rings, candlesticks, finials for bedposts and curtain rails. He had shelves and shelves of them – things nobody wanted, and which in any case he wouldn’t sell. Late into the evening, and even on Sundays, the whine of his lathe could be heard. It was the background hum of Yonville, the sound of pointless activity, the sound of life just passing by, passing by without interest or protest.
Charles was just as happy to leave. After he botched the operation on Hippolyte, he thought people looked at him differently, trusted him less. And they did. They said that if you came to his surgery to be bled in the normal way, you might walk out with only one leg to call your own. And there was Hippolyte as proof, clumping around the village on his peg-leg. Tap tap tap, a reminder to Charles, just as Binet’s lathe was a reminder to me.
Of course, I was happy to leave because I had got myself into trouble. But I got myself out of it. My maid Félicité came up with the solution. “If I were you, Madame, I’d go and see Maître Guillaumin.” Those were her words. Of course I knew what would happen. I also know what you’ve been told. You’ve been told that the notary pulled me on to his knee and swore he loved me, whereupon I rose up in outrage and cried, “Sir, I am to be pitied, but I am not for sale!” Does that sound like me, I ask you? No, what happened was: he pulled me onto his knee, as I expected. He told me he loved me, as I expected. I then had a clear choice, and – how shall I put it? – what got me into trouble also got me out of trouble. Of course, I made him tell me enough times that he loved me for it to seem less of a transaction. But that is what I did. And it worked.
Charles and I never discussed what happened. I apologised to him for my debts. I burnt Rodolphe’s letters. I burnt Léon’s letters. I burnt Rodolphe’s portrait. I was generous to Félicité, who knew more secrets than anybody. I gave her some dresses and a little money to run away with her beau. And then in turn we could escape – escape the quiet mutterings and averted eyes, escape the spies and the prudes, the bloodsuckers and the moneylenders, escape the tedium, escape the whine of Binet’s lathe.
Of course I know what you’ve been told. But truly, I never thought of killing myself. At most, it seemed prudent to have a choice of solutions. There were rats in the attic anyway. I ordered the pharmacist’s lad to get me some arsenic from Homais’ store-cupboard. He was always mooning about, staring at me when he didn’t think I was noticing. I had a certain power over him. I put the arsenic in an empty pot of cold cream in my closet. In case – well, just in case.
After my dealings with the notary, I found my thoughts returning constantly to Rodolphe. Or rather, to myself when I first met him, to the woman I was then, at the start of my happy misfortunes. The next afternoon I climbed the hill behind Yonville and wandered through the forest where I had ridden that first time with Rodolphe. I found the log on which we had sat when he declared his love for me. At least, I think it was the same log. I sat down. I stirred the woodchips on the ground with the toe of my shoe just as I had done when I was a little younger and a lot more romantic. I remembered how I had believed him. I remembered how proud I had been to have a lover. I sat there, half in a dream. Eventually, I opened my eyes. There were mushrooms growing at the base of the log. I took some home and had them cooked for my supper. Charles was away at some distant farm delivering another unwanted child into the world. Later, I began to feel unwell. I put it down to the events of the day. I retired to bed.
Mushrooms have never been my area of expertise. When Charles couldn’t wake me, he became distraught. He called in Dr Canivet. They searched my closet and found the arsenic. In a panic they sent for Monsieur Larivière, who arrived in his carriage like some god descending on the village. I can imagine how Homais would have behaved – both fawning and showing off at the same time. Apparently the great man took one look at me, shoved his fingers down my throat and made me vomit. Then he examined what was in the basin. The remains of some mushrooms, that was all. No sign of arsenic poisoning. He said there was nothing he could do – nothing anyone could do – except wait. I might live, I might die. Apparently, Charles said to him, “No one is to blame. It is all decreed by Fate,” He says that kind of thing rather too often, in my opinion. But then, I am his wife.
The mushrooms did not contain enough venom. I survived. I am sorry to spoil the story, but facts are facts. I did not kill myself out of despair; instead, I nearly died as a consequence of sentimentality. And truly, I never thought of killing myself. Why did he think I might? A complicated question.
That man who told you my story did not really understand me, you see. He did not like me. He told one of his friends he thought me a vulgar little woman. He said my story made him want to throw up. He thought himself more important than me. In the eyes of the world, no doubt he was. His father a famous local surgeon; his brother too. The family house on the banks of the Seine. Society. Paris.
But you cannot tell someone’s story truthfully if you imagine yourself superior to them. He felt it gave him the right to judge me. He laughed at the romantic tales I used to read at my convent school – he claimed they had deformed my mind and my imagination. But what about the kind of books he and his friends used to read, the stories they used to tell? I was not the one hunched over the Marquis de Sade.
Listen. A woman – a married woman – takes a lover. Then another, perhaps. What is so surprising about that? It happens in every town and every village in France. Sometimes the woman is happy, sometimes she is sad. Sometimes the husband finds out, sometimes he does not. But when her story is told to the great public, in books, on the stage, then the woman must be punished. She must die! Her husband might kill her, for instance. Or, she might throw herself in front of a train. Or die of some lingering disease. But how often does this happen in the real world? Oh, to be sure, a case or two, here and there. But the men who tell stories in which women who stray are punished – they are indulging their own fantasies just as much as those who write about gloomy forests and skiffs in the moonlight, about troubadours singing at the base of castle walls to some unseen mistress.
The man who told you my story thought he understood women. He thought that women would smile in sad recognition when they heard my story – or rather, what he had done with my story. He said it would gently caress many a feminine wound – which is an arrogance as well as a displeasing phrase.
No, perhaps I am being unfair. In my opinion, he understood many of women’s sufferings, but he underestimated our ability to overcome them. He believed that because human society placed women in a weaker position than me, this made us weaker in ourselves. On the contrary – this makes us stronger. We may suffer, but we survive. Men are more hysterical than women, in my opinion, and also more cowardly. And far less practical. And as I said, I was practical. I paid what I owed. And then I arranged matters.
My father knew of a medical officer this side of Cany Barville who was retiring. Charles’s mother agreed to mortgage her house. We bought the practice. Naturally, we were poor for a while. Charles worked hard. He acknowledged his limitations. There were to be no more operations for club foot. And I acknowledged – to myself, at least – that the disaster with Hippolyte had been partly my fault. I had wanted Charles to better himself. I had pushed him into doing something he did not have the competence for. When it all went wrong, Charles blamed Fate – which was entirely predictable – while I blamed him, him and his mediocrity. But I might also have blamed myself.
Of course, I am still assailed by memories. A woman does not forget that she was once daring, that once she submitted herself utterly to the implacable laws of passion. Rodolphe and I loved one another for four years, do not forget that. Four years. At times I wonder how much Charles knew – nothing, a little, a lot? At times I wonder what his motive was when he sent me riding with Rodolphe, when he told me to stay overnight in Rouen. Not that he is responsible for my actions – I would not be so cowardly as to claim that. Do not imagine either that I feel guilty about what I did. I was never a character in a morality tale. Did I wish things had turned out differently – that those I loved had proved more courageous? Of course. But it is not as simple as that. I used to complain that Charles was weak. Is it any wonder I was attracted by Rodolphe? He was rich, he was free to do as he pleased. But it turned out he was too weak. When he wrote to say he was going away, he told me that Fate was to blame for everything that had happened. It might have been Charles speaking. And then there was Léon, who was perhaps the weakest of the three, who gave me up because his mother had heard gossip, because scandal might interfere with his glorious ambition to become a head clerk. So you see, I have had the misfortune always to associate myself with weak men – unless perhaps that is the condition of all their sex.
When Berthe was born, I had desperately wanted a boy. I had decided to call him Georges, and believed that he would have the freedom that I as a woman was deprived of. When my hopes were disappointed, I found it difficult to love Berthe as a mother should. I admit my lack of attention. But now I have a son as well. He was born a year after we moved here. When I fell pregnant, Charles supposed that I would want a boy, and would still wish to call him Georges. I replied that I was indifferent to the child’s sex, but that if it was a boy, I would call him Laurent. I did not give my reasons. And yet – despite myself – I indulged him foolishly. He was my last illusion. I set what remained of my hopes on Laurent, what remained of my dreams of freedom. But as he grew up, I realised that he was as much interested in freedom as the blindfolded mill-horse that treads its circle, ignorant of what it grinds. I realised that Laurent was his father’s son – and that this was my punishment.
It is a boring village, but no more boring than Tôtes or Yonville. And now, I am glad it is boring. I would not want it to be otherwise. Once I hoped for a torchlit wedding at midnight; I hoped for a fishpond with a water-jet. Once I had grand dreams. I imagined that life was richer than it turned out to be. I told myself that I wanted to dwell in a realm where mediocre hearts would never trespass. But as I discovered, mediocrity hides in unexpected places.
I was born a farmer’s daughter. I am good with a needle. I know how to run a house and how a table should be set. When I pile a pyramid of greengages on to a bed of vine leaves, I remember how I felt when I was first married. Sometimes I feel my piety returning. If appetite comes with eating, perhaps piety comes with praying. We shall see.
It is a life. Do you remember the widow Dubuc? She was the first Madame Bovary, the one before me. Ugly and a terrible scold, but at least she was rich when Charles married her. Then some lawyer ran off with her money – and what was he left with? Fortunately, she died of mortification not long afterwards. I’ve always teased Charles about her. Whenever we saw some hideous old crone bent over in a field, I would say to him, “Isn’t that the widow Dubuc?” At first, he used to take offence. Now he smiles and lays his hand on mine. His misfortune had been to marry women who lose their money. But at least I am not an old crone. Charles may bore me, but I know how to please him when I need to. Couples survive. And passions die. I remember when Léon got married. To Mademoiselle Léocadie Leboeuf of Bondeville. How dull she sounded. How dull she still sounds. The news did not give me a twinge. Charles thought we should have been invited to the wedding. He was willing even to be offended on my behalf. I thanked him for his consideration. He is considerate, and will never understand the panic and despair his dogged attentiveness used to cause me. As I say, couples survive. When they do, it does not make much of a story – except that it is true.
When we were first married, I used to despise Charles for the easy happiness I gave him. It was like pleasing a dog. Even his overcoat used to irritate me – I would stare at it as if it was sewn together from all the platitudes of his character. Now, I see it is just an overcoat. I help him into it on Friday evenings when I send him off to the inn to play dominoes.
He has put on weight; and my hair has gone grey – a fate I once feared. Age is beginning to suit us. Charles still goes out in his trap to visit his patients. He is trusted here. He sets a farmer’s broken leg, the farmer gives him a chicken, we eat it on Sunday. It is a life. I have my memories. Couples survive. And women survive too.
Our next event takes place on the 15th May 2019 and will combine discussion of classic and translated literature with the influential French classic Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. Our panel will bring together three expert speakers on nineteenth-century literature and French studies: Dr. Kate Griffiths, Dr. Mary Edwards, and Dr Katherine Mansfield.
We look forward to seeing you there!
Tickets are available on Eventbrite.
(Featured image source: detail from Charles Léandre’s frontispiece, Wikimedia)