Framing Life in Art: Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery (1999)

Gemma Bovery is one of my favorite graphic novels--and indeed, novels period--and I've read it a good 4-5 times now. It gets better every time. It's also a work that truly benefits from the comic book form, even though it is a highly 'literary' work, where you have to do a fair amount of reading. Yet words and pictures are closely allied, and make for a rich, complex reading experience. 

The book loosely follows the general plot of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1856), though acquaintance with the novel is not necessary to appreciate Simmonds’s story.  The novel opens in the French town of Bailleville (in Normandy), where the local baker, Raymond Joubert, consoles Charles Bovery, still mourning the death of his wife.  Raymond admits to the reader that “the blood of Gemma Bovery is on my hands” (2), and jumps at the chance to snatch her recently discovered diaries, which Charles has been too distraught to examine.  Spiriting them away one by one, Raymond fills in the gaps of the tragic story he both witnessed and played a significant role in creating. 

After a failed relationship, Gemma Tate attaches herself to a disheveled divorcee, Charles Bovery, who nurses her back to health.  Though Gemma secretly hopes to find her way back to Patrick (a recently married restaurant critic), she finds life seductively comfortable with Charles.  However, lack of money, coupled with Charles’s demanding ex-wife and children, leads her to contemplate a simpler life where “Culture and style go hand in hand, where the business of living is taken seriously, where food isn’t full of chemicals.  Where property is dirty cheap” (28).  In other words, France.  Though Charles has little interest in France, he is carried away by Gemma’s enthusiasm and promises of a happy life—much to the chagrin of his ex-wife, who accuses him of betraying his children and financial responsibilities. 

In France, life settles down to much the way it was in London.  Charles becomes quite content in his country existence, restoring old furniture for British vacationers, while Gemma feels trapped in a rotting, leaking, vermin-infested hovel.  Their neighbor, Raymond, follows her at a distance, eager to be a modern-day Flaubert.  To this end he “wills” her to strike up a romance with a local landowner and law student, Hervé de Bressigny.  When this becomes too serious, he decides to intervene, sending a break-up letter plagiarized from Flaubert.  Though Gemma suspects the letter’s authenticity, the tragedy is confirmed when Hervé writes his own letter—far less literary—canceling their planned elopement to London.  To make matters worse, Hervé’s mother is planning to sue her over a piece of furniture she promised to have Charles restore, but which has now disappeared. 

Heartbroken, Gemma is left to face Charles’s wrath (who learns about the affair from Madame de Bressigny) and a tremendous pile of debt.  In a plot twist that surprises even Raymond, she enlists the baker’s help to draft a letter to the Bressigny’s lawyers.  However, when coming to collect the letter, Gemma is shocked to find a copy of Madame Bovary in her kitchen. Gemma notes his guilty reaction and banishes him from her house.  Nevertheless, Raymond feels that he, alone, can save her from Madame Bovary’s fate.  He writes letters to Charles, the Rankins (English friends in Normandy), and Patrick, warning them that “something was closing in on her, something was going to happen to her…An accident of some sort” (90).  Again, his authorial pretentious fail him, as she mysteriously dies a few days later. 

With Madame Bovery as its inspiration, Gemma Bovery is an understandably rich and complex work.  Yet the chief ideas that motivate the work are the relationship between life and art (or reality and illusion), and a satire of middle-class life and values.  Starting with the first, the novel itself is a profound meditation on the question, “what is art?”  Do the great works of art, such as Madame Bovery, provide mirrors into the human soul, timeless critiques of modern society?  Or are they ideals dreamed up by artists that, even in their disappointments, far surpass our mundane achievements?  Raymond is clearly in love with the past (as exhibited by his dropping out of a career in Paris to resurrect his family’s bakery), and pines for the fictional Madame Bovary.  Through Gemma he hopes, foolishly, to consummate his love of art, and by the end of the novel, to save her from her fateful demise.  Of course, Raymond is disappointed time and again by the reality, particularly when she loves men he feels superior to, and she rejects him as a snoop and voyeur.  In the end he can only cling to the illusion that he has ‘created’ her story, and seeks validation in her discovered diaries (which, ironically, say very little about him at all).  In this sense, Gemma Bovery is as much his story as hers, as he tries to emerge as a modern-day Flaubert, rather than a character in his own tangled plot. 

Of course, Simmonds set out to do much more than translate Madame Bovery; her work has a keen eye for satire and caricature.   Simmonds honed this gift with her satirical portraits in The Guardian, and brings this chiefly to bear on the pretensions of the vacationing Brits.  The Rankins, in particular, represent a class of well-to-do suburbanites who view France as a kind of European Disneyland, hawking a quaint brand of nineteenth-century culture unavailable at the shops.  Wizzy Rankin adores the superficial aspects of France, but when it comes to the people themselves, she demurs, “Oh God, they’re frightfully difficult to know…I mean, they’re jolly friendly in shops…and our builders are sweet…but other frogs, they aren’t bothered…well, why should they?” (43).  This attitude is shared by most of the English, even to some extent Gemma herself.  The satire, however, is double-edged, for most of the French deplore the uncultured, commercialized English.  Hervé’s mother dismisses Charles as a “repulsive anglais” (78), and Raymond, when confronted with Patrick’s charm and polished French, can only remark, “All this was said with the most perfect French accent I have ever heard in a foreigner…Absolutely repellant” (82).  Neither side can ever truly know the other, since conventional stereotypes and cartoon reality get in the way.  Fittingly, a ‘comic book’ exposes this cultural ignorance, allowing us to see both sides as they truly are.