I tried this a few months ago after I had been reading a lot of commercial fiction (YA Fantasy generally). I didn’t keep reading because it felt so slow to get into at the time, think Thackery or Dickens, just a bit to much for my current mood. It definitely shows the importance to read what you want when the mood strikes. Saying that, this time around, reading this book was a joy.

We (eventually) meet Emma (who becomes Madame Bovary when she marries) and it is fascinating to watch her life unfold. It is a book about expectations, anticipation and our perception and internal dialogue with ourselves. At first Emma’s character struck me as something like Austen’s Marianne Dashwood, always seeking violent emotions, drawn to the extremes.

“Accustomed to the tranquil side of nature, she sought the dramatic in its stead. She loved the sea only for its storms, and the green grass only when it grew in patches among ruins. She had to derive a kind of personal profit from things, and rejected, as useless, anything that did not contribute directly to her heart’s gratification – for her temperament was sentimental rather than artistic, and she longed for emotion, not scenery.”

She is a character in love with the idea of love. It leads her to marriage, to an affair, to spending excessively and, of course, eventually, to ruin.

When she finally concedes to having an affair there is a luscious, descriptive paragraph of the countryside. Her actions have changed it and she perceives herself as changed.

“Evening shadows were falling, the sun, low in the sky, shone through the branches, dazzling her eyes. Here and there, all round her, in the foliage and on the ground were shimmering patches of light, as if hummingbirds had scattered their plumage as they flew past. All was silent; a mellow sweetness seemed to be coming from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat agin and the blood flowing through her body like a river of milk. Then she heard in the distance, from the other side of the wood, on those other hills, a vague, long drawn-out cry, a voice that seemed to linger in the air, and she listened to in silence, as it blended like a melody with the last vibrations of her tingling nerves.”

Even when she falls into ruin, coming close to madness, Emma hangs onto her deeply-rooted belief in love.

“She stood there utterly stupefied, aware of her own existence, only in the throbbing of her arteries, which she thought she could hear outside herself, resonating through the countryside with a defining music…she was still confused, for she had no recollection of the reason for her horrible state, the problem of money. She was suffering purely through love, and at the thought of it she felt her soul slipping out from her body – just as the wounded, in dying, feel their life slipping away through their bleeding wounds.”

Madame Bovary is a brilliant testament to the way we all perceive our lives with unique perceptions and internal dialogues that can never be fully known to others. I see it as homage to the fact that often an idea is more beautiful than the thing itself. So too, that in some ways there is far more life going on within an individual’s mind than in the real world, and that life can be a pale comparison to the vibrant world of the imagination.

(Screenshot from the 2014 film, Madame Bovary, starring Mia Wasikowska)