Gustave Flaubert’s great novel Madame Bovary was published in France in 1857, after a notorious obscenity trial, but for almost 30 years no English publisher dared touch the book. An anonymous reviewer in a London paper described its principal character – an unhappy provincial wife who betrays her husband and then kills herself – as “one of the most essentially disgusting” characters in literature. Women such as Emma Bovary, he wrote, threatened to destroy society from within. He reassured his readers that there was no danger that “our novelists” would outrage public decency as Flaubert had done.
My new book, Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace, tells the story of an English Madame Bovary, a dissatisfied, well-to-do wife called Isabella Robinson who became infatuated with a series of young men. Like Emma Bovary, Isabella was tormented by her desires – sexual, intellectual, romantic – and longed to escape her arid, loveless marriage. In the years that Flaubert was composing his novel, from 1851 to 1856, Isabella was writing a private diary detailing the miseries of her domestic life and the bliss of her erotic encounters. Her personal narrative came to an end in 1856, the year Flaubert finished Madame Bovary, when her husband read and confiscated the diary.
In 1858 Henry Robinson launched a petition to divorce his wife. His counsel read out many of Isabella’s diary entries, and they were reproduced in the press in full. The British public may have been shielded from Emma Bovary’s exploits but, in the daily papers in June 1858, they were able to read the words of a real-life middle-class adulteress of their own. The most euphoric sex scene in Isabella’s diary even took place, like Emma Bovary’s last dalliance, in a curtained horse-drawn carriage.Madame Bovary was finally published in England almost 30 years later, a year before Isabella Robinson’s death in 1887. The novel’s translator was Eleanor Marx, the youngest daughter of Karl Marx, and I learnt that her life, too, had curious affinities with that of Emma Bovary. Where Isabella Robinson unwittingly shadowed Emma Bovary’s story, Eleanor seemed to be haunted by it. As a woman in late 19th-century London and the daughter of a radical thinker, Eleanor Marx had freedoms of which a provincial wife such as Madame Bovary could barely dream. But she recognised Flaubert’s heroine, and she felt for her. The depth of her identification became clear only upon her death.
One of three sisters, Eleanor Marx was born in a cramped terrace house in Soho, London, on January 16 1855. Her father was an impoverished writer, who spent his days researching the history of capitalism and formulating his ideas about social revolution. Karl Marx was indulgent towards Eleanor and she adored him. She recalled their relationship as intensely close. In a strange echo of Flaubert’s statement “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”, Eleanor later told a friend that though Marx identified his eldest child, Jenny, as “most like me”, he said that Eleanor “is me”.
Eleanor was a “wilful” and “unusually brilliant” young woman, reported her friend Marian Skinner in 1922. Though she had “a clear, logical brain”, her emotions ran high: “She either passionately admired or desperately scorned, she loved fervently or she hated with vehemence. Middle courses never commended themselves to her. She had amazing vitality, extraordinary receptivity and she was the gayest creature in the world – when she was not the most miserable … She was not really beautiful, but somehow gave the impression of beauty by reason of her sparkling eyes, her bright colouring, her dark locky mass of hair.”
While nursing her sick mother in 1881, Eleanor fasted to the point of illness, and upon her mother’s death that year she descended into depression. “I really do fear a complete breakdown,” she wrote to Jenny in 1882; “doctors … cannot and will not see that mental worry is as much of an illness as any physical ailment could be.”
In 1883, Eleanor’s beloved father died, and the next year she set up home with the atheist zoologist Edward Aveling, a married man with whom she had fallen in love. Aveling, she later wrote to a friend, “brought out the feminine in me. I was irresistibly drawn to him.” She asked her friends and family to understand her decision to live with a man who was legally bound to another woman. In order to be together, she told an acquaintance in 1884, she and Aveling felt justified in “setting aside all the false and really immoral bourgeois conventionalities”.
Yet her friends’ doubts about the relationship were less moral than personal. Aveling was known to be a hard-drinking philanderer, “morbidly scrupulous” about his religious and political convictions, according to George Bernard Shaw, while having “absolutely no conscience about money and women”. May Morris, the daughter of the artist William Morris, considered him “a little lizard of a man”.
In 1885, a year after becoming Aveling’s common-law wife, Eleanor was commissioned by publisher Henry Vizetelly to translate Madame Bovary. She approached the task with caution: “To write anything of such a man as Gustave Flaubert, and of such a work as Madame Bovary,” she noted in her introduction, “must give the boldest pause.”
Madame Bovary, Flaubert’s first novel, was an extraordinarily innovative work: its style was at once ironic and lyrical, detached and passionate, ambiguous and precise. It was to become probably the most influential novel of the 19th century. In the face of Flaubert’s “exquisite perfection of style”, said Eleanor, his dazzling blend of “cold impartiality” and “warm sympathy”, she could offer only diligence and humility. She described herself as a “conscientious worker”, one of those who “can but strive to do his best; to be honest, earnest”.
The literary critic George Steiner later argued that Eleanor’s decision to translate the novel was driven by her political convictions: “Eleanor Marx was principally inspired by what she took to be the radical posture of Flaubert’s book. Here was a statement of the condition of women under the suffocating regime of bourgeois hypocrisy and mercantile ideals.” Yet Eleanor was moved as much by Emma Bovary’s inner compulsions as her outer constraints. “The tragedy of Flaubert’s characters,” she wrote, “lies … in the fact that they act as they do because they must. It may be immoral, contrary even to their own personal interests, to act thus or thus; but it must be – it is inevitable.” Emma ends her life by taking arsenic, having betrayed her husband and run up debts in his name. She “is foolish, even vile”, wrote Eleanor, “but there is a certain nobleness about her too … Emma Bovary is in search of an ideal … It is part of the irony of her fate that she is punished for her virtues as much as for her vices.”
While she was translating Flaubert’s novel, Eleanor was herself tortured by her feelings for a man. Her common-law husband Edward Aveling, like Emma Bovary, was spendthrift and unfaithful, and in 1885 Eleanor struggled to “get through the long miserable days, and longer, more miserable nights”, she told a friend. In 1887, after a joint lecture tour of America on which Aveling was accused of swindling their hosts, she was said to have made an unsuccessful attempt to kill herself.
Through this period and beyond, Eleanor tried to ward off despair, and financial anxiety, by immersing herself in work. She wrote articles, she acted as an interpreter at international socialist conventions, she edited and translated her father’s writings, she gave lectures, she campaigned for the rights of women and workers. “After all, work is the thing,” she had told her sister Jenny in 1882. “To me at least it is a necessity.” Eleanor’s campaigns could even deliver physical thrills. Her father’s great friend Friedrich Engels described her emerging from a demonstration in the 1880s with “her coat in tatters, her hat bashed and slashed”.
Throughout her life she was fascinated by the theatre, and became a passionate advocate of Henrik Ibsen’s work. In 1886 she and her friends gave a private reading of Ibsen’s Nora, as The Doll’s House was then known, the first performance of the play in England; Aveling took the part of Torvald Helmer and Eleanor that of his unhappy wife, Nora, who finally, shockingly, walks out on her home and family. Eleanor went on to learn Norwegian in order to translate Ibsen’s work into English: she published a version of An Enemy of Society in 1888 and The Lady from the Sea in 1890.
Yet this frenzy of activity did not save her from sadness. “Though I am always busy I am also very lonely,” she told her sister Laura in 1893. Aveling was still accumulating debts, drinking heavily and consorting with other women. He could not help himself, Eleanor said: “I do see more and more that wrongdoing is just a moral disease, and the morally healthy … are not fit to judge of the condition of the morally diseased.”
Aveling’s wife died in 1890. He and Eleanor continued to live together but in June 1897 he secretly married an aspiring actress of 22. Eleanor, then 42, discovered his treachery that August. In acute distress, she wrote to her friend Frederick Demuth, whom she had recently learnt was also her half-brother, the son of Karl Marx and his housekeeper. “I am broken,” she told Freddy. She implied that Aveling had compounded his betrayal with blackmail: “I am so alone, and I am face to face with a most horrible position: utter ruin – everything, to the last penny, or utter, open disgrace. It is awful; worse than even I fancied it was.”
Still, she stood by Aveling. “Much suffering has taught me to understand,” she explained to Freddy, “and so I have no need even to forgive. I can only love.” Aveling, who already had kidney disease, fell gravely ill with congestion of the lungs. Eleanor nursed him assiduously.
Aveling’s medical treatment was expensive, and Eleanor – like Flaubert’s Emma and Ibsen’s Nora – became desperately worried about money. “Sometimes I hardly know how I shall hold on!” she wrote to Freddy in March. “It is not only the awful anxiety, but the actual material difficulties.” She added: “It is a bad time for me. I fear there is little hope, and there is much pain and suffering. Why we go on is the mystery to me. I am ready to go, and would gladly. But while he wants help I am bound to stay.”
At their house in Sydenham on the morning of March 31 1898, Eleanor quarrelled with Aveling about a journey he planned to make to London. He defied her and set off for the city. At about 10am, Eleanor sent her maid to the chemist with a note, initialled by Aveling, requesting chloroform and a small quantity of prussic acid, a form of cyanide. The maid delivered the packages to her mistress and shortly after, at 10.45am, she looked in on her in her bedroom. Eleanor was lying in bed, barely breathing. The maid raised the alarm but, by the time a doctor arrived, Eleanor had died.
The inquest jury returned a verdict of “suicide by swallowing prussic acid at the time labouring under mental derangement”. Though Aveling was suspected of having colluded in the suicide, nothing was proved. He went to live with his young wife in Battersea, where he died four months later.
Eleanor left two suicide notes, testament both to her misery and to her sense of romantic drama. One was to her nephew, Jean Longuet, the son of her sister Laura: “My dear, dear Johnny,” she wrote. “My last word is addressed to you. Try to be worthy of your grandfather.” The other was to Aveling: “DEAR. It will soon be all over now. My last word to you is the same that I have said during all these long, sad years – love.” Rather than take the path of Ibsen’s Nora, who abandons her home in order to save herself, Eleanor had submitted to the fate of Emma Bovary, a woman consumed by her own desires. Her translation of Madame Bovary remained in print, as it has done ever since.
Adapted from Kate Summerscale’s introduction to ‘Madame Bovary’ in the Special Edition ebook (RRP£18.99) of ‘Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace’, which features Eleanor Marx’s translation of ‘Madame Bovary’. ‘Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace’ is published in hardback and ebook by Bloomsbury (RRP£16.99)
Inventing the modern: James Wood on Flaubert’s influence
Writers before [Flaubert] had agonised about style. But no novelist agonised as much or as publicly, no novelist fetishised the poetry of “the sentence” in the same way, no novelist pushed to such an extreme the potential alienation of form and content (Flaubert longed to write what he called a “book about nothing”). No novelist before Flaubert reflected as self-consciously on questions of technique. With Flaubert, literature became “essentially problematic”, as one scholar puts it.
Or just modern? Flaubert himself affected a nostalgia for the great unselfconscious writers who came before him, like Molière and Cervantes; they, said Flaubert in his letters, “had no techniques”. He, on the other hand, was betrothed to “atrocious labour” and “fanaticism”. In different ways, the modern novelist is shadowed by that monkish labour. The rich stylist – the Bellow, the Updike – is made newly self-conscious about his richness; but the plainer stylist – Hemingway, for example – has also become self-conscious about his plainness, a stylishness of renunciation. The realist feels Flaubert breathing down his neck: is it well written enough? But the formalist or postmodernist is also indebted to Flaubert for the dream of a book about nothing, a book flying high on style alone.
Flaubert loved to read aloud. And when he dined in Paris at the Goncourts, he loved to read out examples of bad writing. Even Henry James, the master stylist, was somewhat appalled by the religious devotion with which Flaubert assassinated repetition, unwanted clichés, clumsy sonorities.
So what did Flaubert mean by style, by the music of a sentence? This, from Madame Bovary – Charles is stupidly proud that he has got Emma pregnant: “L’idée d’avoir engendré le délectait.” So compact, so precise, so rhythmic. Literally, this is “The idea of having engendered delighted him.” Geoffrey Wall, in his Penguin translation, renders it as: “The thought of having impregnated her was delectable to him.” This is good, but pity the poor translator. For the English is a wan cousin of the French. Say the French out aloud, as Flaubert would have done, and you encounter four “ay” sounds in three of the words: ‘l’idée, engendré, délectait.’ An English translation that tried to mimic the untranslatable music of the French – that tried to mimic the rhyming – would sound like bad hip-hop: ‘The notion of procreation was a delectation.’
Edited extract from ‘How Fiction Works’ by James Wood (Vintage, RRP£8.99)