Madame Bovary review

[I read the Penguin Classics 1992 edition of Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated into English by Geoffrey Wall.]

This is the first novel on the Telegraph list  that I feel nervous about reviewing, and I have delayed publishing this review but haven’t come up with any flashing insight or sparkling prose to justify the delay. I know that reviews are always personal responses to the book, but in this case I am unqualified to comment on the setting (alternately 19th century rural France and Paris, which are portrayed in stark contrast) or Flaubert’s style. The novel was packed with allusions and references which went right over my head. I do have some understanding of post-revolutionary France, but not enough of Rabelais, Hugo and Balzac. Perhaps had I read or studied any of them previously it would have given me a better basis on which to appreciate Madame Bovary.

The novel Madame Bovary, first published in 1856, concerns Emma Bovary, a doctor’s wife who reads romances and despairs of her banal life in the countryside. She commits adultery, and secretly goes into debt, both in attempts to escape her life.

The story was Flaubert’s first novel and was published as a serial. Flaubert was put on trial because of the scandalous nature of his story.  Michele Roberts, in the introduction to the edition I read, comments, “We cannot, of course, respond exactly as Flaubert’s contemporaries did to his masterpiece; great upheavals in our intellectual, political and sexual lives have subsequently intervened.” If published now, I suspect a novel like this would be considered disappointing rather than shocking. The novel contains no explicit descriptions of intercourse, just allusions, and has little physical description of the heroine apart from her ankles and her hair, although her clothes receive a great deal of the author’s attention.

Madame Bovary laid the path for Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina (published sometime in the 1870s) and other books where the female protagonist follows their desires rather than fitting in with accepted social customs. It is also considered to be one of the best examples of literary realism and inspired many contemporary and subsequent authors to write in this style. The book marked a turning point for Flaubert himself, who had previously written in the Romantic style and wrote the novel as a response to a challenge from his friends.

Flaubert documents details of everyday life in 1840s France, from the appearance of Emma’s different dwellings, to the entering of accounts in ledgers, plus other descriptions that are more symbolic than representative. For example, early in the book is a prominent and bemusing description of a rather unique hat that Charles Bovary wears as a boy in boarding school. I hope I grasped the symbolism in this passage, but I am sure I missed the importance of many other passages in which he chooses to focus on certain details to the exclusion of others.

I had to read the introduction to my edition before I noticed that Emma Bovary rarely spoke, and was framed in terms of her relationship to the men around her. I confess that I expected her to be more in control of her life. I knew that the story was about a woman committing adultery, and I was surprised to read that her first affair, with Rodolphe, was entirely planned by him. Although she enters into it willingly, she is clearly seduced rather than being the seducer.

It seems that Emma is more in control when she is in the middle of her second affair, with the clerk Leon. By this point in the novel both Emma and Leon have become strong enough to act on their feelings towards each other. But it is the kind of control where one is behaving destructively and refusing to acknowledge the consequences. Emma deludes herself that she is managing to escape her boring life, and one of the consequences of her delusions is to sink further into debt. Like a Greek tragedy, her behaviour only hastens her fate. Just before the sad ending of the book we read of her rushing around trying to get someone to bail her out, and even Leon refuses to help her.


Illustration d’Albert Fourié pour le livre Madame Bovary de Flaubert, gravé à l’eau-forte par Eugène Abot et Daniel Mordant. Albert Fourié [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Emma, as Madame Bovary, is not only the title of the book but the main character and we are given unparalleled insight into her feelings and thoughts. We may not even sympathise with her – she can be impractical, selfish and cruel – but we understand her motivations. Flaubert is said to have commented, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” Clearly this is not an autobiographical novel but it is implied that he is writing Emma to share his frustrations in love and maybe also his own romanticism. He also has more to say about the repression of women than many modern-day authors. Sophie Barthes, who directed a 2015 movie adaptation of the novel starring Mia Wasikowska, said that “I think Flaubert had a very strong feminine sensibility. I think he felt for women at that time who couldn’t work, couldn’t divorce and are trapped for life.” (Susan King for the LA Times)

Charles Bovary is drawn right from the start as somewhat lacking and we are invited to laugh at him, not just because of the ridiculous hat. This one scene shows us what his character will be like in the rest of the book. He works hard but he is not particularly intelligent and he does not fit in. Before he marries Emma he has to put up with being married to a much older woman. After his wedding night with Emma he is the one portrayed as if he is the one to have just lost his virginity, not her. We are set up to understand why Emma might be dissatisfied with her life as his wife.

Leon is another of the main characters and we see him change through the book. He begins as a nervous, shy clerk, strongly attracted to Emma but unable to act on his feelings. They are drawn to each other partly because he loves the same kind of romantic books as Emma does and also longs to escape the country. When she meets him again he is living in Paris and has grown into a confident young man who has had several lovers.

Monsieur Homais is a character who is thrust in our face. He is not very educated and he is firmly middle class but he wants to improve his lot. Both the novel’s readers, the Bovarys and the readers of various regional newspapers cannot escape his pronouncements on everything and nothing. The last line of the story tells us that he has received the Cross of the Legion of Honour. Flaubert would have been unfaithful to his aims if he had made M. Homais somehow be punished for his behaviour. Instead he is showing us that the selfish, mediocre and undeserving people often achieve more than the kind and passionate.

If you read the book yourself then you will be able to pick up the themes pretty quickly, or if you don’t, there are always revision sites like Shmoop or SparkNotes to help you. I recommend this novel, despite my misgivings mentioned earlier. I am glad that I read Madame Bovary, especially as the reading corrected my impression of what Emma Bovary’s character would be like. I found it far easier to read than Moby Dick. Just don’t read it expecting a ‘Sex in the City’ raunch-fest and don’t necessarily expect to feel too much sympathy for Emma Bovary, either.

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David Copperfield review

After Disgrace and D’Lacey’s Last Dragon Chronicles, I went back to the nineteenth century with Dickens. David Copperfield was written in serial form, but, unlike D’Lacey’s ‘organic’ plots, the whole story is well planned from start to finish. Several of the characters are cartoonish. Nevertheless, I found the novel engrossing right from the first page where we read that baby David was born in his caul, plus the superstitions held about this event.

Dickens describes the life of the eponymous hero right from his birth to some point in middle age where he is a settled family man. It is no secret that his life goes through many low points including the death of family members, a wicked step-family, boarding school and child labour.

The rollercoaster of David Copperfield’s fortunes allows Dickens to describe a wider section of society than Eliot does in Middlemarch. The book is semi-autobiographical and one section which particularly benefits from Dickens’s own experience is when David is working in a factory and counting his pennies to keep himself alive.


David arrives at Miss Trottwood’s house

Dickens introduces a menagerie of different characters that pop in and out of David Copperfield’s life. I was amused by and attracted to Copperfield’s aunt Miss Trottwood, a great example of a woman who didn’t seem to care what society thought of her (much like George Eliot appears to have been). I was justifiably suspicious of Steerforth, a fellow pupil at the boarding school who was idolised by David, and I was concerned by the cruelty of David’s stepfather Mr Murdstone and by Mr Peggotty’s pilgrimage to find his niece.


Little Em’ly is described in great detail as a child. Her ‘terrible’ fate is alluded to early on and mentioned in many pages thereafter, but we are disappointed if we want details about her character as a grown woman, or to understand her motives for what she does. In fact the only strong woman character is David’s aunt Miss Trotwood, and she is allowed to be so, largely because she is rather eccentric and has sworn not to give in to foolish love. The women that David admires, for example his mother and his darling Dora, are either doormats or irresponsible or both. The other women are either wicked harridans or comically exaggerated, such as his dear Peggotty (formerly his mother’s housekeeper) and Emma Micawber, initially described as always having one or both of her twins nursing on her breasts.

I do not think that we can forgive Dickens his misogyny simply as a product of the time. According to Miriam Margolyes, Dickens was abusive towards his own wife, describing her as “as near being a donkey as one of her sex can be.”Furthermore, there are plenty of nineteenth century writers who were capable of writing strong women. Dickens was 5 years old when Jane Austen died. George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte were his contemporaries.

I was uncomfortable when Dickens introduces the dwarf Miss Mowcher, Steerforth’s beautician. I had already understood that Dickens tended to write caricatures, or, more favourably, archetypes: the poor orphan; the abusive schoolmaster; the devious lawyer and so on. His description of Miss Mowcher just seemed to be cruel. I couldn’t understand why he had introduced this character into the novel apart from to poke fun at her. Luckily for Dickens, he wrote in serial form. Apparently his wife’s chiropodist recognised herself in the description of Miss Mowcher and threatened him with a lawsuit. He had the opportunity to write her a more edifying part later in the novel.

I also didn’t take to Micawber, the verbose letter writer who always seems at the brink of bankruptcy, based on Dickens’s father. I tired of Micawber’s epistles, although I was happy to see his part in Uriah Heep’s eventual downfall. The determination and organisation Micawber shows in this part of the story serves as an example of a Dickens character who does not necessarily act in predictable ways.

What was Dickens’s main aim? What was he trying to achieve by writing this book? In his preface he describes the book as his favourite ‘child’. He certainly managed to write a page-turner. He brilliantly describes the feelings and experiences of childhood and he acquaints his readers with the variety of suffering that could be experienced in nineteenth century England. I suggest that his moral, if there is one, is of the benefit of hard work and the importance of family. Family relationships, whether good or bad, are key to the development of most of his characters.

Education is important too, in a broad sense rather than limited to a school setting. I liked the descriptions of how the little boy grew up (being forced to do so at an early age) and taught himself how to cope with his limited means. Then later as a young man he was determined to learn shorthand and although he did not take to it at first, he stuck with it and was able to supplement his income by taking notes of Parliamentary speeches. After marriage he keeps trying to teach himself and his young wife to manage the household better, although he does not take to this very kindly and asks him to think of her as a ‘child-wife’ rather than a responsible adult. This links back to the weakness of Dickens’s female characters (in this book at least).

I enjoyed the detailed descriptions of the interior of the various places that David lived, and even more so the references to places in London and the South of England that I actually knew. This aspect of Dickens’s novel was far more satisfying than when I read Middlemarch, supposedly set in my home area (the Midlands) but with no locations recognisable to me. If you have visited or lived in England you appreciate how gruelling a walk from London to Dover would be, for example. Having lived in London I could imagine David Copperfield walking between the different districts he mentions. I see that The Guardian newspaper organised several Dickens walks during their Charles Dickens at 200 series in 2013 . Here is a pdf of the David Copperfield walk, which takes in several of the pubs that Dickens mentions and also the Adelphi theatre on The Strand.

Dickens says hardly anything of his overseas locations. Whether India or Switzerland, the main feature of any of these places is just that they are not England. I was amused to read of Australia as essentially somewhere that people get sent when you don’t know what to do with them.

Again in contrast to Middlemarch, there is little to no information about the date or political climate in which the novel is set. We read about events within the families that Dickens has invented but we know nothing about the Reform Act, the Chimney Sweep Act or building of railroads, and certainly nothing about any international events. Also, despite the references to child labour and bankruptcy, the novel seems to end up reinforcing the class system. David Copperfield keeps himself physically and psychologically apart from the other children in the factory. The good working class people like the Micawbers and Peggottys do well for themselves in the end, but we are given to believe that they will never do as well as David and his aunt.

In summary, I found the book entertaining. I appreciated Dickens’s sympathy for people in unlucky situations, particularly as children. I was cheered to read descriptions of places that I recognised. While Dickens’s attitude to women and lack of politics disappointed me, and I acknowledge that many of his characters are caricatures, he certainly makes them memorable and he tries to flesh them out so that they are not necessarily behaving in predictable ways. David Copperfield  is well worth reading.

Finally, from the Guardian series mentioned above, take a look at this tongue-in-cheek guide to the ‘quintessential’ Dickens novel.

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The Last Dragon Chronicles

I read these books as light relief after the slog that was Moby Dick. Also, my pre-teen was reading them and I like to keep an eye on what my children are reading.

There are 7 books in the series. The main character, David, lodges with a woman who makes clay dragons to sell at a market stall. The reader soon finds out that some of these dragons have magical properties, although it takes David longer to believe this. The first book is set in an English village (or Massachusets if you believe the American edition) but they quickly incorporate other locations in the British Isles and further afield.


I bought the first book, The Fire Within, for my son when we were in England three and a half years ago. When he and I enjoyed that one I ordered the second, Ice Fire. We borrowed the rest of the books from the library. The first two books are mostly realistic but with a strong vein of fantasy running through. I have never been a lodger myself but I recognised many aspects of his setting – a local library and gardens, local craft market, English weather, and being a student with lectures and essays never the main focus of your life but always somewhere on the periphery. The author says that David is based on himself when he was younger, and you can see this from his writing at this point.

I became uncomfortable with the books from the second book onwards. My main concern was with the plots. I like my novels to be well planned. I like stories with plenty of twists, and my ideal novel is one that I finish and want to go straight back to the start so I can look for all the clues, hints and foreshadowing that I missed the first time. In this series there were new elements introduced in each book (polar bears, witches, aliens, parallel universes etc.) but none of them seemed to fit in with what had come before. This becomes particularly clear in the interview at the back of The Fire Ascending, the last book in the series. Chris D’Lacey had not planned the books as a series of seven. He said that he started writing each book with an idea of how it ended, but otherwise it grew ‘organically’.

My next concern was with the audience. Liz, David’s landlady, has a daughter called Lucy who is 11 years old in the first book. Her character might not behave quite as parents experience their 11 year olds behaving, but she is written quite well. One might think, from this character and from the subject matter of the story, that the books are aimed at children around this age. As I said, my son and I enjoyed the first book. The second book is far darker than the first, and I worried that some of the imagery would scare him. I started to wonder if the books were not suitable for a child his age.

I am not a prude, but I was unhappy with David’s girlfriend of the first book being pushed aside, and the introduction of the beguiling goth ‘Zanna’. D’Lacey never misses an opportunity to tell us how beautiful and attractive Zanna is. We are treated to more of the same when David goes to a publishing company staffed by young, attractive females. And after David and Zanna both go to the Arctic, we are told at the end of Fire Star that she is pregnant with his child. There is no description of sex, admittedly, but the attention to physical characteristics and sexual attraction seems to me to fit better in a young adult book. It might, were the book written for young adults. My teen, for one, is not in the slightest bit interested in these books, so I am unsure who the books are written for.

Yet again, the interview at the end of the last book is revealing. The name ‘Zanna’ was taken from a real woman who came to a book signing after D’Lacey had written the first book. I am sorry to say that David’s attention to Zanna throughout the rest of the series seems to me like a middle aged man incorporating his own fantasy woman into his books.

Many of the characters in the books are not given full attention, and particularly the women. After the second book Lucy seems to fade into the background. Suddenly five years seem to have passed and she emerges as a teenager. The teenage Lucy is barely given any character at all, simply sketched out. She has a crush on one of the other characters and nothing D’Lacey wrote explained to me why this would be so. He is telling us that’s the way she feels, rather than showing us. David also has a daughter who, for most of the last four books, is five years old. She is meant to be a key plot point but she is almost forgotten most of the time. When we do read about her she doesn’t behave like any five year olds I know, apart from maybe her habit of drawing pictures whenever she can. The gorgeous Zanna is supposed to be a great mother, but I can’t see much evidence of that apart from the fact that she lives with her daughter and tries to look after her. David, in contrast, is very much an absent parent for most of the last books.

I mentioned the American editions above and I found the editing infuriating. I did not understand why Scrubbley, which is clearly an English village and described as such, had to be translated to a US location in any case. The part where they drive from Scrubbley (MA) to Cambridge (MA) via Birmingham (AL?) is ludicrous. In the English edition of the second book David also travels from Scrubbley to London on the train to see his publisher. I wonder how the American edition dealt with that train journey, or another journey in Fire Star when he travelled to a remote Scottish island to find Brother Vincent.

My 11 year old enjoyed the whole series but I don’t recommend these books. I enjoyed the magic involving dragons and polar bears and I like the cover art. Many of the devices D’Lacey introduces are familiar to readers of fantasy or sci fi. I am happy to read about aliens or parallel universes but I think other authors are more skillful in the way they turn these ideas into stories. For children’s fantasy I prefer the books I grew up with, by authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula Le Guin, plus Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels which are both cleverly written and amusing.

If you want to try D’Lacey’s books maybe the best advice is what a friend once told me about the film Highlander: enjoy the first one but don’t bother with any of the others.


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