It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a Victorian-era woman who gets her hoe on will get her divine comeuppance. 19th century literature is like an 80s horror movie-you have sex, you die. It doesn’t matter if the woman is cheating on her husband, or straight-up raped by her boss-extramarital hanky-panky must be punished. I decide to combine my reviews of Madame Bovary and Tess of D’Urbervilles, rather than spending two reviews covering a lot of the same ground. *spoilers for some really old books*
Gustave Flaubert’s Emma Bovary is pretty unsympathetic on paper-she’s insecure, selfish, and entitled. After being raised in a convent, she’s thrilled to marry the doctor Charles Bovary. Her dream of being a rich and glamorous lady in a perfect marriage are dashed when she realizes her new husband isn’t as handsome or ambitious as she’d hoped. Rather than dining with the aristocrats in Paris, she sits alone in her middle class home while her county doctor husband remains content to practice in a small village. Not to mention, thanks to a steady diet of trashy books, Emma’s only conception of love is of the passionate, bodice-ripping, happily-ever-after variety. Marriage doesn’t quite suit her. Emma would be much happier living in our time, where divorce was an option and hook ups were just a right swipe away. She’d probably have her own successful Youtube channel/style blog. Or maybe she’d be a friend of the Kardashians. But here in 1856, she doesn’t have an outlet, and seeks solace and comfort the only way she knows how. She starts taking lovers-a rich landowner and a young lawyer. She also tries to buy her happiness, digging herself and her unsuspecting husband deeper and deeper into debt. Obviously, this doesn’t end well. It’s easy to hate Emma, but Flaubert writes her so tenderly that you can feel sympathy towards her, as she marches blindly to her own destruction.
Tess, on the other hand, is an innocent and naïve girl who can’t catch a break. “Seduced” against her will by her employer/distant cousin, she has a son who only lives a few weeks. She later finds love later with a good man, but when she finally comes clean with him about her past (after he told her that he’d had an affair before they met) he doesn’t take it…great.
And then things go even worse for our girl. Author Thomas Hardy said the book was meant to be an indictment on Victorian morality, where women were held to different standards from men (something that never ever happened again). Hardy goes IN, savaging the rigid standards that applied to these women. Because something must be wrong when a husband says he can’t be a husband because the guy who put his dick in his wife first is still alive. Or when her rapist-sorry, seducer-thinks that’s a pretty fair point and tries to marry her even though she HAS a husband because hey, he did hit that, so basically he owns her. OBVIOUSLY she dies at the end too, because even though she’s been fucked over by everyone, she’s still impure and must be punished.
If you’re like me, and somehow managed to miss reading these classics, I’d pick them up. They’re both well your time, even though you may feel the slight twinges of a rage stroke while you’re yelling at Emma to pull her shit together or for ANYONE to be nice to Tess. I’m excited to tackle more of the classics on my list after this.