Oi, Flaubert! Get in the corner with Hardy.
*spoilers, tons of ’em*
Madame Bovary is one of the most page-chewing, pillow-punching books I have ever read. To start with, she’s just not likable, and an unlikable protagonist is a very hard trick to pull off, the writer has to make us want to spend time in their company, not slap them. Repeatedly. Hard.
Remove the moral issues of adultery and the selfish amassing of debt, and we’re still left with a woman who annoys readers with her clinging to lovers, desperately and demanding confirmation of undying love every ten minutes (except from her husband, who loves and forgives her no matter what), and who upsets everyone with her cold and neglectful treatment of her child. Flaubert probably wanted to show how desperate she was feeling when she pushed her toddler daughter from her knee, resulting in a cut face for the child, but it just caused a lot of gasping and hoping fictional French social services came by.
The fact is she is obviously mentally ill, and has a couple of breakdowns, and so we forgive her to a certain extent, but we can’t like her. She bankrupts her husband, has two prolonged affairs, and in the end takes arsenic, because no one will lend her any more money. After her death, in desperate sadness, her loyal husband just goes and dies as well.
But the real kicker, the most Hardy-esque moment that made me say ‘Oh for crying out loud!’, actually out loud, is the last paragraph. Here we learn the poor orphan child, the one who found her father dead, is sent to live with her grandmother. Granny then dies within a year, and the child is sent to an aunt, who has no money, and so sends the little girl to work in a cotton mill. Was that really necessary, Flaubert??
If Thomas Hardy were to take the story over, the little girl would either be fatally injured in the mill machinery, or die in secret, shameful childbirth, after, in her lonely and unloved-state, she unwisely accepted the advances of the evil mill owner.
If it were Victor Hugo, she’d be selling her teeth and hair down the docks, before going to prison for stealing bread.
So, in my head, Dickens take the story over. Little Berthe Bovary, after a tough childhood and some worrying scrapes (the kind that would make good musical theatre numbers), will catch the eye of a the mill owner’s son. He’s a loving, gentle, hard-working man, and after he has taken her in her penniless situation, she will then discover one of the mother’s lovers has left her a load of money in their will. With it, she opens a school to enable the mill-working children to learn to read. And she will be happy, and herself and her family live a long time, dammit.