By Weldon, Fay
New Statesman (1996) , Vol. 132, No. 4657
I've clocked up various adaptations for the stage in my time. I've "done" Tess of the d'Urbervilles and Jane Eyre (which got a West End run, directed by Helena Kaut-Howson). I've doctored literal translations of A Doll's House and The Good Woman of Setzuan for the English-speaking stage. I've "done" Pride and Prejudice for television (the BBC'S 1980s version: they like to do a new one every decade). That is to say, I have spent time inside the heads of Hardy, Bronte, Ibsen, Brecht and Austen. It is easier, let me say at once, to be inside female heads than male. The scenery is more familiar.
Recently I have been in Flaubert's head, with a stage adaptation of Madame Bovary: what an honour! That nervy, acutely intellectual, vividly aware, highly principled, wholly non-macho writer of the mid--19th century was a head and a half to find yourself in, I can tell you. The agricultural fair in Rouen, circa 1846, is as vivid now as the day he went to it and made Emma flirt with Rodolphe: blue sky, green grass, boring speeches and prize pigs.
I didn't engage too closely: you might never get back to yourself. So it's a notably loose adaptation, my Madame Bovary, subtitled "Breakfast with Emma", a chamber piece now going into production with Shared Experience, directed by Polly Teale who recently dramatised the life of Jean Rhys in After Mrs Rochester with great success. Its substance is Emma's conversation with country-doctor husband Charles over breakfast. Will she, won't she, take the arsenic?
Meanwhile her lovers drape themselves over the breakfast table while the domestic drama unfolds (it is a Polly Teale production, after all). More coffee, nay dear? I wave at Flaubert from time to time across the years, in a genial and I hope respectful manner, and I get the feeling he doesn't mind too much. It's OK by him.
Because I like Charles. He needs allies. He is not the dull old stick Emma thinks he is, and that Flaubert suggests. He is as blinded by love for her as she ever was by love for handsome young men. She's a wretch and a spendthrift and, sure, she destroys him. "Emma Bovary, c'est moi," said Flaubert, unforgettably, so we know whose side he's on. He looked into himself and found her. But he was always one for a good argument, a lively protest. Even though he never did allow Emma a brain or a glimpse of anything outside the personal.
See the play as an exercise in things that were better not said, that once said cannot be unsaid, a lesson in how to hold the tongue. Flaubert based the novel on a press cutting a report in the newspapers of a provincial doctor's wife who, having taken poison, is discovered to have been engaging in adulterous liaisons. (Thomas Hardy, incidentally, was another one who sometimes worked backwards from press cuttings, though apparently he didn't wish this to be known. Why not? Chaucer borrowed from Boccaccio, Shakespeare from everyone; a plot's just a plot, it's the working out that counts.) Charles believes in Emma's virtue to the end--and the fate Flaubert designs for him is so dire, so tragic, it is as hard to read as the end of Jude the Obscure. I could not do this to Charles. I took liberties.
Emma confesses, in the hope of her salvation, and his, and perhaps there is a future for at least one of them? …