When Emma met Lucia Madame Bovary goes to the opera
MADAME BOVARY GOES TO THE OPERA
Gustave Flaubert published his first novel, Madame
Bovary, as a series of magazine installments in La revue
de Paris from Oct. 1 through Dec. 15, 1856. French government lawyers immediately attacked it for obscenity, protesting that it was the story of a woman who, aspiring beyond her place in life as a married woman in a town in Normandy, has affairs outside her respectable marriage, craving the sort of excitement a woman might experience … in a novel. The author tells us that one of the novels his heroine, Emma Bovary, has ingested is Sir Walter Scott’s The Bride of Lammermoor, on which Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor is based.
As Flaubert observed of Emma in chapter nine: “Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read, and the lyric legion of these adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her. She became herself, as it were, an actual part of these imaginings, and realized the love-dream of her youth as she saw herself in this type of amorous women whom she had so envied.” The officials brought Flaubert to trial in January 1857, and he was acquitted in February. There is nothing like an obscenity trial to spur book sales. When it appeared as a standalone volume that April, Madame
Bovary became an instant bestseller. A hundred and sixty years later, it remains the defining classic of literary realism. Apart from its importance in the history of the novel, it is a splendid narrative told with an affecting sense of intimacy.
By the time we reach chapter 15, Emma has indulged in two romantic infatuations that she keeps private from her husband, Charles Bovary, a dull provincial physician. The first — for the law student Léon — remains (for the time being) in the realm of fantasy; the second — for the landowner Rodolphe — is very physical, and when he ends their relationship, Emma falls ill and practically dies. As she recovers, Charles decides to cheer her up by taking her to the opera in nearby Rouen, to see the (fictional) tenor Lagardy in Lucia di Lammermoor — or, since they are in France, Lucie de Lammermoor. It was a natural choice for Flaubert; one of the most widely produced operas at that time, it also tells the story of a woman for whom a respectable marriage is emotional anathema.
Here we join Emma in her thoughts and impressions as she watches the first two acts of the opera. (At one point she mentions the character Gilbert. We know him as the retainer Normanno, a minor character in the opera, but Donizetti and a pair of French librettists renamed him when they revised Lucia di
Lammermoor for a Paris production in 1839.) Where we break off, Léon appears on the scene and Emma can no longer concentrate on the opera. We present Flaubert’s scene, slightly abridged, as it appeared in the first published English translation of
Madame Bovary, made in 1888 by Eleanor Marx Aveling, daughter of Karl Marx.