Although he wrote quite a number of other acclaimed fictional works, the title Madame Bovary is instantly trumpeted whenever the name of Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is mentioned. His best-known novel is in fact a bit of an industry. Numerous film treatments – one in 1934, another in 1947, a TV mini-series in 1975, to take but three - plus a new and appealing translation a couple of years ago, have helped keep the novel’s classic status well-lit.
First published in 1856-7, Madame Bovary is the quintessential novel of nineteenth century French bourgeois and provincial life. AS Byatt has set the scene well. “The nineteenth-century novel, however much it criticises the bourgeoisie, is a bourgeois form that grew up with the prosperous middle classes who had time for reading, and were interested in precise discriminations of social relations and moral and immoral behaviour,’’ the novelist wrote in a Guardian piece.
Byatt read the novel for the first time as an au pair in France in the 1950s. All sorts of people love Madame Bovary, and Wexford playwright Billy Roche lists it among his favourite novels of all time.
Byatt notes the obvious comparisons with Leo Tolstoy’s equally celebrated Anna Karenina, which novel has also been the subject of many films. The most recent 2012 version starred Keira Knightley, Jude Law and Matthew Macfayden. (Tolstoy’s novel first appeared in serial instalments in 1876-1877.) ``Both heroines have sexually unappealing husbands, and lives that leave them dissatisfied,’’ observes AS Byatt. She notes how both Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina involve themselves in adulterous affairs, while both are betrayed or misled by their lovers. Doomed femmes fatales, they both end their own lives.
There is, however, another novel in the Flaubert canon which some critics would argue is the better story. Set between the years 1833-1869, and first published in 1869, L’Education Sentimentale (or Sentimental Education) unfolds against a time of profound social transformation not just in France, but also across Europe. The revolutionary risings of 1848 are part of the story, republicans and monarchists, the years of Louis-Napoleón Bonaparte.
“The environment in which my characters are involved is so copious and intricate that they nearly disappear into it in every line,” Flaubert wrote in a letter in 1866. “Consequently I am obliged to to push into the background the things which are precisely the most interesting.’’
In Sentimental Education, Frederic Moreau is the law student besotted by Madame Arnoux, a married woman of intense beauty. She is some years older than the student, but Frederic's infatutation will endure. He courts the friendship of Monsieur Arnoux, a successful entrepreneur, and ensures that the couple's paths cross with his for what will always be significant encounters in the young man's life.
The entrancing story is based on Flaubert’s own passion for an older woman, but the story bears striking resemblance too to a similar pattern in the life of the great Russian novelist, Ivan Turgenev. Turgenev also fell for a married woman, similarly befriended her husband, similarly crossed paths with the married couple in Europe.
Geoffrey Wall writes the perceptive, informative introduction to the Penguin edition of Sentimental Education, which uses the time-honoured Robert Baldick translation. “Paris would hold it all together,'' writes Wall, imagining the great French novelist’s conception for what would be a love story,a sweeping historical novel and a comic satire combined in one entity. “On this canvas, under a spaciously suggestive title, Flaubert could explore the secret stuff of his own life and also give eloquently precise expression to the larger feeling of modernity.”
This charming, lyrical tale should be the choice of book clubs throughout the country this winter. As one might expect there have also been film versions of Sentimental Education, one in 1962, a TV mini-series in 1970, starring Robert Powell. However, do not be unecssarily misled by the 1998 film, called Sentimental Education, which revolves around the lives of a group of international fashion models. Yet the writer and director of the film, CS Leigh, was inspired by Flaubert’s masterpiece to pen his modern catwalk saga. There is no getting away from Flaubert’s enormous influence to this day on popular culture, and he is not just someone French students have been reading and enjoying for decades. Book club - now!