A ‘heroine’ I wanted to shake………
Belgian writer, Madeleine Bourdouxhe’s La Femme de Gilles, published in 1937, originally written in French, and published in translation by Faith Evans in 1992, was republished in 2014. The book originally received interest through its ‘quiet strength’ and beautiful writing, and being seen as having something to say about female sexuality and desire, and ‘selfless love’ to quote one of the professional reviews excerpted on the back cover of my 2014 copy.
The French title has been kept in translation because of its nuance – femme holding both the idea of wife and of woman, and indicating that Gilles, the central male character, ‘owns’ Elisa, the title indicating that Elisa, the ‘femme’ in question, gains her identity only in relationship to her man, and has no meaningful ‘I’ on her own account
Elisa is a young woman in her twenties, married to Gilles, a factory worker. The pair have young twin daughters, and appear to have a settled, happy relationship. She is pregnant again, and the two are delighted. Elisa adores Gilles in every way possible. It is he who is the centre of her world, and the twin daughters come second to her man. The book sets this up well, right from the start:
‘Five o’clock,’ says Elisa to herself. ‘Soon he’ll be home.’ The thought paralyses her completely. She’s spent the whole day polishing, washing, scrubbing, making a thick soup for supper – most people round here don’t eat a proper meal in the evenings but Gilles works at the factory and has only an egg sandwich for lunch. Now she finds herself transfixed, unable even to lay the table. Her arms hand helplessly, hopelessly at her side, Giddy with tenderness, she clings to the metal rail of the stove, stock still, panting for breath.
This always happens a few minutes before Gilles gets back. Overcome by the thought of his return her body, drowning in sweetness, melting with languor, loses all strength.’
Almost right at the start, the tragedy of the book uncurls itself into the harmonious setting. Elisa, a remarkably passive submissive woman, – one might say she has a certain rather cow-like placidity – insulting though that may sound – has a younger sister, Victorine. Victorine is far more worldly. Whilst Elisa seems almost timeless, rural, the ‘ideal’ hausfrau, well behaved, biddable, whose vocation is to serve her man, – abnegating self, if you like, Victorine is sharp, mocking, utterly selfish and driven only by her own fast and giddy desires for her own pleasure – be that sexual or monetary. She could be said to stand for a kind of greedy capitalism – she does not feel loyalty or responsibility to anyone.
Gilles, right at the start, suddenly sees Victorine, who up till now has just been his wife’s younger sister, as an object of desire. In a coup de foudre moment, he is smitten.
This is a novel about adultery, about the breaking down of a marriage, and it is Elisa the reader is invited to feel for and care about. However……this reader did not see this as any kind of story of ‘selfless love’ – it is a story of a dreadful, unhealthy co-dependency. Perhaps because it is set in the modern era, I had far less empathy and compassion for Elisa than, for example – Madame Bovary, or Hardy’s Tess – some obvious comparisons who suggest themselves. In earlier times, women had far fewer choices.
I did ‘like’ the book for the quality of its writing, and also because it provoked me to such impatience with its central character, who is rendered very real, rather than being ‘symbolic’ of a certain kind of femaleness. Though if ever a woman needed to find a consciousness raising group to belong to……
One event, or a couple, puzzled me, making me unsure what the author wanted her readers to think/feel about Elisa. There are a couple of occasions when Elisa leaves her young children alone in the house, for some hours, the two little girls (and they are little) being left responsible for the new baby boy, whilst she obsessively tails Gilles, wanting to see where he is going – she is aware, very early, of what has happened to Gilles’ affections.
No comment is made about this – she doesn’t arrange for neighbours to look after the children, she just goes, because Gilles is all she cares about. The ‘trope’ I was obviously expecting was that something would happen, or even, that there would be some self-realisation that she should not be so careless of her children, or that Gilles would return home and discover she had done this. But no reference is really made. It’s almost as though her complete lack of identity outside that of being ‘La Femme de Gilles’ is rendered acceptable. I could not rid myself of the feeling that the author was not just asking us to have compassion for her creation (as Flaubert does, as Hardy does) but in some way finds her a noble figure, that this sort of love IS what the state of being female is about.
Bourdouxhe died in 1996, aged 90. I wondered how the rise of politically conscious feminism in the 70s touched her.
The book was made into a film – here is the subtitled trailer
Now I came to the book on the back of a strong review of it by Heaven Ali, which was reinforced by an equally strong review from Jacquiwine . I had intended to (and indeed DID) read it as part of a challenge run by Biblibio – August as Women In Translation Month. Though I had indeed READ it last month, it took days to simmer down enough to review it! I do enjoy books which confront me and make me think/feel outside their pages, books that have a substance to them. And this has, though the substance frustrated.
It won’t be re-released in the States till November – the earlier publication is available, expensively, but I have linked the November 2016 publication