On the trail of Madame Bovary

Pig is on the 13 euro lunch menu at Le Bovary in the small village of Ry, near Rouen.   Nothing fancy – museau vinaigrette (cheek), plat du jour (more pork), plateau de fromages. This last offering fulfils expectation: a chalky camembert, Pont L’Evêque past its smell-by date, and a tasteless wedge of Livarot.  What could be better, in a village immortalised by Flaubert for “the worst cheeses of the whole Neufchatel district”?   The literary lunch would be perfect, if only they brought the bill – the painful reckoning that brings indulgence to a close – concealed in a basket of apricots.

maitreguillauminRy was Flaubert’s model for Yonville in Madame Bovary, that everyday tale of middle class adultery and suicide in 19th century Normandy.  In the attractive village of half-timbered houses – its only street ‘long as a rifle shot’ – Le Bovary occupies the premises of the Lion d’Or.   Its rival, L’Hirondelle, takes its name from the diligence that transported Emma every Thursday to her ‘piano lessons’ in Rouen, where “she discovered in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.”

Villagers drink at Le Flaubert and buy their smalls from the sublimely named Rêve Ry, a jeu de mots that may allude to Emma’s romantic aspiration, wherein lie the seeds of her downfall.   Rêve Ry’s patronne seems obliging enough, but then so did the insinuating draper and money lender Lheureux, whose merciless demands provoke the novel’s grisly denouement. A plaque above the toy shop door confirms the site of the chemist Homais’ ‘Officine’.  We can find the Bovarys’ two houses and look for the window where Emma leaned out after being jilted by the loathsome Rodolphe on the day of their planned elopement. She thought about jumping, but didn’t.  Good decision: from that height, you would be lucky to break an ankle.

The 'real' Emma's grave at Ry

The ‘real’ Emma’s grave at Ry

Flaubert did not choose Ry with a hatpin.  In the shadow of the old church, two stones – one contemporary, the other installed recently by a Flaubert Society, remember the village doctor Eugene Delamare and his wife Delphine, who took a lover, ran up debts, and poisoned herself in 1848 at the age of 26, using arsenic stolen from the village chemist, leaving a young child and an inconsolable husband. Like Charles Bovary, Eugene Delamare followed his wife to the grave in less than a year.

Although Flaubert always denied the connection, Ry recognised itself as Yonville straight away and lost no time capitalising on its macabre good fortune. Pears from a tree planted by “Charles Bovary” were soon on sale, at a premium price.  Delphine Delamare’s servant Augustine Ménage, who was obliged to address her mistress in the third person, survived in to the 20th century and spent her old age entertaining tourists with memories of ‘the real Emma Bovary’.

“This is the shelf where the real Madame Bovary found the arsenic,” explains the keeper of the Galerie Bovary, a museum chiefly devoted to a display of mechanical automata that act out scenes from the novel.  “La Pharmacie Jouanne’s new owner gave us all the old fittings – racks, bottles, everything.”  Mercifully, the display does not include “pickled foetuses decaying in their jars of viscous alcohol.”

At the attendant’s flick of a switch, tiny dolls whir into action.  The young Madame Bovary dances with le Vicomte.  Emma swoons on receipt of the termination letter that Rodolphe has sent in a basket of apricots, hidden beneath a layer of vine leaves.   And there they are, a cluster of ball bearings painted orange and glued in a miniature basket.

Galerie Bovary, Ry. That cab ride

Galerie Bovary, Ry. That cab ride

The Galerie does not spare us the detail, any more than Flaubert did.  We see the famous cab ride through Rouen, when Emma and Leon get it together in the confessional-like intimacy of the shuttered cab, and in the next scene the Emma doll reveals all – at least, the top half of all.

“She flung off her clothes with a sort of brutal violence, tearing at her thin stay so that it hissed about her hips like a slithering snake.”

Naturally, Ry’s neighbours are in on the Bovary act. We can follow a Circuit Emma Bovary, touring country lanes in search of La Huchette, Rodolphe’s home, the obvious candidate being the château de Gratianville, home of Delphine Delamare’s lover Louis Campion, two kilometres south of Ry.  On a hill top we will pause to look down on Ry, as Rodolphe and Emma did when out riding one misty morning in early October.

“Never had the wretched village where she lived seemed so small.  …   The horses breathed noisily, the saddle leathers creaked.  “Where are we going?” To this question he made no reply. She was panting slightly. Rodolphe looked about him, gnawing his moustache.”

We know the rest. A few short paragraphs later Rodolphe has a cigar between his teeth, after the act, and in forty pages the apricots and vine leaves will be on their way.




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