Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

Gemma coverReview by Sharon Robinson.

This graphic novel is Posy Simmonds’ take on Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, about a good girl gone to the bad, to adultery, debt and finally, to a long drawn-out and horrible suicide. It retains many of the qualities of the original, the gossipy nature of rural life, the claustrophobia and double standards which governed women’s lives in Flaubert’s time and continue to do so to some extent in the modern age, and the preoccupation with getting and consuming. However, it is very different, offering its central character choices which were not available to Emma Bovary and a complex commentary on the problems besetting Gemma as a modern woman.

Posy Simmonds had spent many years writing and illustrating children’s books as well as running a series of cartoon strips in The Guardian, before turning her attention to this massive project. It wasn’t to be her last foray into graphic novels; she’s since gone on to produce Tamara Drewe, a very loose re-rendering of Thomas Hardy’s Far From The Madding Crowd. Both were published in episodic chunks in The Guardian over a long period, before being issued in book form. Weekly publication in newspapers and journals was in fact, the way in which many 19th novelists first brought their work to the attention of readers.

Although Gemma Bovery is described here as a graphic novel and is shelved with them in most bookshops, anyone who picks it up expecting an easily browsable cartoon strip will be in for a surprise. For one thing it is text-rich, with dialogue, thought-bubbles, diary excerpts, letters and chunks of narrative. It resembles a 19th century novel in its multiplicity of viewpoints and its challenge to the certainty of a single narrative voice. As well as text, the cartoon itself is rich with  detail and cannot be easily skimmed. There are single boxes in sequence, larger drawings and flashbacks and most of all there is an incredible amount of detail – in facial expressions, clothes, Gemma inside 1furnishings and backgrounds and it requires as much careful reading as the text does. We understand a lot about Charlie when we first see his kitchen as Gemma does. It’s cluttered and there is a radio on the table, tuned, of course, to Radio 4 and The Archers. (p19)

Although there seem to be many parallels between Emma and Gemma, the differences between them are marked and cannot be missed by the reader. Emma belongs to the 19th century. She’s sheltered and protected and her middle-class background and status as a middle-class wife mean that she has little to do but shop and wallow in romantic fiction. Even the care and nourishment of her small daughter is taken out of her hands and Berthe is handed over to a wet nurse. By contrast, Gemma is of the late 20th century. She has a job, (as an illustrator, interestingly enough) a flat and a sexual history. While Charles Bovary is a widower, Charlie is divorced. His relationship with his ex-wife is fractious and their two children resent their father’s new partner.

The other thing to bear in mind is the powerful impact that the lack of an omnipotent narrator has on the story. We see events through a multiplicity of perspectives, especially that of Raymond Joubert, the Boverys’ neighbour in Rouen. His imagination can be fairly compared with that of Emma, as it and his frustrated passion for Gemma lead him to make connections between the two  women that don’t really exist. There is nothing inevitable about any of the things that happen to the characters – they are all a matter of choice, action or dumb luck, good or otherwise, The illustrations remind us time and again, of the characters’ capacity to fool Gemma inside 2themselves; this is shown to amusing effect on p59, where Joubert tells us that he finds Gemma to be ‘quite without allure’ while his eyes are almost out on stalks.

The narrative takes in the Boverys, but also their neighbours and their friends, especially the rather pretentious Rankins. Posy Simmonds’ Guardian cartoon series specialised in people like them and she has spent a good deal of her career commenting on them with varying degrees of cruelty, but always to great effect. We also see members of the minor French gentry and Gemma’s lovers, the suave Patrick and the vulnerable Herve. In that sense, Simmonds gives us a view of a whole community and a rich cast of characters we can identify with.

Gemma Bovery is a graphic novel in the sense that much of the story is told through pictorial representation. But it is not a quick, easy read. Nor is it a substitute for Flaubert’s novel. It is a fresh way of looking at his heroine and to my mind, it works better than the original. Having said that, one of the pleasures of reading Gemma Bovery is in appreciating the differences between the two. If Madame Bovary did not exist, nor would Posy Simmonds’ classy modern adaptation of it.

Jonathan Cape. 1999.  ISBN-13: 978-0224052511.  106pp.

11 comments on “Gemma Bovery by Posy Simmonds

  1. Hilary
    March 18, 2009

    Sharon, that’s brilliant! Thanks for reminding me of – IMO – a forgotten masterpiece by Posy Simmons. I remember snatching the Guardian from the doormat on Saturdays when it was being serialised and turning straight to it. The forgotten sensation of desperately wanting to get hold of the next episode was very strong.

    It is a unique creation, where the combination of written and visual material adds up to something greater than the aim of its parts. I wonder how well it did in the market? I’m sure every hooked Guardian reader rushed out to buy a copy – but how did it play with those who were not in the know?

    Incidentally, everything we’ve both said about Gemma Bovery applies to Tamara Drewe – I was even more addicted to that and I recommebd it unreservedly.

  2. Hilary
    March 18, 2009

    Oops! Blame pesky girly pink phone and lack of attention to predictive text for some typos – sorry!

  3. Kari
    March 18, 2009

    Thanks, Sharon; this comic sounds very interesting. I do feel just a little bit obliged to counter once again the assumption that a comic is likely to be a “quick, easy read” or an “easily browsable cartoon strip.” There are many comics out there that are neither of these things. Every form has its pulp; the assumption that comics are all pulp (and if they aren’t, they must be miraculously amazing, unusual accomplishments) tends to make me get all red in the face and throw stuff. Ah well. At any rate, your explanation of the book intrigues me, as does Hilary’s description of its appeal as a serial.

  4. Moira
    March 18, 2009

    I think you have a life mission there, Kari … convincing people that comics do NOT necessarily equate with ‘quick and easy’, and are not exclusively for those who move their lips when they read.

    I was certainly one of those people until I started hanging out here … I really had no idea at all that comics/graphic novels could be complex, challenging and groundbreaking.

    This sounds fascinating … and I can see how easy it would have been to become hooked when it was run in serial form.

  5. Kari
    March 18, 2009

    Yeah, sorry about that. I know I must come across as a broken record sometimes. However, I can also be obsessive and annoying on other subjects. Try me on people who claim that all children’s fantasy is “ripping off Harry Potter” or declare that Edgar Allan Poe was writing in “Old English.”

  6. Moira
    March 18, 2009

    It’s okay, Kari … everyone should have a Purpose in life – and you’ve done an excellent job on me!

  7. Sharon
    March 19, 2009

    Hello and thanks for your responses to my review of Gemma Bovery. I know about the easy assumptions that are made about graphic novels and that was part of what I was taking on in the review. As Hilary wonders, how did the novel play with those who hadn’t seen it serialised in the Guardian? I also wondered about those who would miss out because they don’t think graphic novels have anything to offer them, so I was at pains to point out that Gemma Bovery (like Coraline) is a beautifully-crafted piece of literature in its own right.

    Gemma Bovery was a huge treat when it was running in The Guardian; I couldn’t get hold of my copy fast enough, although I hadn’t read Madame Bovary at the time and only had a vague impression of the story. I’ve since read Madame Bovary, dislike it heartily and much prefer Posy Simmonds’ version. The sense of anticipation is something you lose when you have the whole work in your hands, but it’s a beautiful book to browse and linger over. IMPO, the same goes for Tamara Drewe, only more so.

  8. Jackie
    March 20, 2009

    It reminds me a little bit of those Classic Comics which took literary works & turned them into comic books that were complex & lengthy & encapsulated the story. I like the idea of moving the general plot to the modern day. This one looks well done, the drawings are quite atmospheric. Libraries in the US are carrying larger numbers of graphic novels, so I need to see if I can find this one. Nicely done review, Ms. Robinson!

  9. pierre l
    March 24, 2009

    Sorry for the late comment, but I wanted to say that Posy Simmonds draws beautifully, and the level of detail is surprising (as stated in the review).

  10. Pingback: Tamara Drewe by Posy Simmonds « Vulpes Libris

  11. Pingback: Gemma Bovery (2014) « A Grande Ilusão

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This entry was posted on March 18, 2009 by in Fiction: 19th century and tagged , , , , .

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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