When Emma met Lu­cia Madame Bo­vary goes to the opera


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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.

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