A Russian Madame Bovary in Scotland?

Any woman novelist who writes about adultery has to hate Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. The French writer’s novel of 1859 is a masterpiece of nineteenth-century realism, but its attitude to ‘the fallen woman’ as used to be said is contemptuous. Lydia Davis, the Canadian writer whose new translation appeared a couple of years ago, told an interviewer at the time that she came downright to dislike Flaubert. She admired his style, and I mustn’t put words into her mouth, but perhaps in the end, like me, she abhorred the maestro’s cruelty.

Compare Flaubert’s unfeeling attitude to the silly, superficial, mildy lustful Emma Bovary to Tolstoy’s vision in Anna Karenina (1877) of a beautiful and vibrant woman simply married to the wrong man. It’s only in the need to tie up the plot, and his feeling that literature has a moral lesson to teach, that Tolstoy’s deep sympathy for Anna runs out and this dear creature who is more than society can take ends up on the railway line. Well, we know he was always ambivalent about womanly attractiveness, I mean not the superficial kind, but the deeper kind he was supremely able to show happening through his writing. In Natasha Rostova in War and Peace (1869) I always felt he created another potential Anna. She had that same marvellous excess of life about her when young. Tolstoy gave Natasha the man of her dreams in Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, and then took him away and settled the undoubtedly good but less exciting Pierre Bezukhov on a tamed older version of her. Here is an echo of Anna’s fate already, I fear: the fate of the woman who is just too much for conventional society to accommodate. Let’s say it’s the novelist’s right to change one of his leading character’s personalities half-way through, to tame her for the sake of the plot, but you do feel the moralist has a part in her safe delivery into happy married life ever after.

The other great novel of nineteenth-century adultery is Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest, published in 1895. The exuberant and charming Effi is married off to Baron von Instetten at an unspecified early age, when in her manner she is is still a carefree child. A passing transgression in her ensuing unhappiness earns her the lasting condemnation of her husband who is too bound to the conventions of stiff Brandenburg society to forgive her. He banishes her from the family home and brings up their daughter to condemn her mother. Effi’s catastrophe leads not only to her premature death but to self-questioning on her mother’s part. Are we not partly to blame for having married her off so young, she asks her husband after they have buried Effi. But the father doesn’t want to think about anything so complicated, and so this wonderfully delicate novel, rich in emotional nuance, gently hinting at the still mostly hidden consequences of social repression on individual happiness, ends. Perhaps the near forty years dividing Flaubert from the magnificent and comparatively neglected Fontane made sympathy for the woman who overstepped the mark easier, but actually I don’t think so. A few years ago I was disappointed to find Francois Mauriac’s Therese Desqueyroux, which has classic status in early twentieth-century French literature, guilty in 1927 of the same coldness and contempt as Flaubert in 1859. It only wanted to punish the woman-who-makes-a-mistake-and- leaves-and/or-betrays-her-husband.

These landmark works come to mind because when I was imagining Sophie Asmus’s fate the shadow of Madame Bovary hung over both of us. Duncan McFadden seemed exciting when he was still in military uniform. Emotionally alert to the great suffering the Great War had foisted on the world, he was full of new social hope. But, as seemed to Sophie, who soon found their marriage unsatisfactory, he turned into a conventional man when he returned to his native fishing village in the north of Scotland with her as his bride. Her ‘transgression’ had to happen. In consequence her situation as a divorced Russian exile in a still highly conventional Scotland, and later in Cambridge and London, makes huge demands on her capacity to survive alone. 

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