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.
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, furnishings 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 themselves; 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.