Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It is only the truth for you, not for us - Janet Lewis's The Wife of Martin Guerre

Another short novel today, Janet Lewis’s The Wife of Martin Guerre (1941).  Lewis’s historical novel is written on entirely different principles than Saramago or Sebald use.  The story is based on a famous 16th century court case, and Lewis constrains herself with the details contained in the legal record.  The fictiveness of the novel exists between the legal facts, within the head, really, of Bertrande de Rols, the wife.

The Wife of Martin Guerre is probably closer to what most people think of as a historical novel than Baltasar and Blimunda.  Still, does this sound so different:

“Little sister,” [Bertrande] answered in despair, “how can I deny the truth?”

“It is only the truth for you, not for us,” returned the weeping girl.

Put a writer as good as Lewis on the trail, and these kinds of questions are inevitable.

The story – the real story – is that Bertrande’s husband runs off and only reappears eight years later.  Bertrande welcomes him back, but becomes convinced that he is an impostor, mostly because he is so much nicer, such a better husband, than he used to be.  Eventually her conscience torments her so much that she takes her husband to court, where surprising events occur.  Regardless of the outcome, the core of the novel is Lewis’s step by step construction of Bertrande’s character and state of mind.  And of course none of that is recorded in the medieval court archives of Toulouse.  That’s all fiction.

The setting is the 16th century French Pyrenees.  The characters are mostly well to do peasants.  The first half of the novel is not exactly plotless but is concerned with establishing the ordinary life of the family.  The first few pages, for example, describe Martin and Bertrande’s wedding.  They are both eleven years old.

Everyone was intensely jubilant, but the small bride received very little attention…  Bertrande, immune from observation in the midst of all this commotion which was ostensibly in her honor, looked about the room at her ease, and fed pieces of hard bread dipped in grease to the woolly Pyrenean sheep dog with the long curly tail who nosed his head into her lap from his place beneath the table.

We need to get to know Bertrande, and to see how she lives with her new family, before anything really extraordinary happens to her, before she or we know that she will be part of such a strange story.

I saw the 1982 film version of this story, The Return of Martin Guerre (dir. Daniel Vigne), a long time ago, so I knew what would happen, more or less.  The film, with the assistance of historian Natalie Zemon Davis, operated under the same constraints, drawing dialogue, when possible straight from the court testimony.  I wonder if the film and Davis’s 1983 non-fiction book have overshadowed Lewis’s novel to some extent.  The story is so strong, especially the question that Lewis works on – what was going on in the head of the wife of Martin Guerre  – that it can support multiple tellings, factual or fictional.

Update: I forgot to link to D. G. Myers's enthusiastic review of The Wife of Martin Guerre.


  1. This is one of those novels I've been aware of for some time but have never read. It sounds quite fine, though yesterday's The Murderess sounds like more fun. Maybe you should do a survey of crime novels through history.

  2. It's a cold novel, Scott, one written with a lot of distance, and with careful, usually plain prose. I would say it is quite a bit deeper than The Murderess, but, yeah, maybe less fun.

    That crime novel (widely defined) survey would be fun, although I am not the person to do it. Moll Flanders, Clarissa, Oliver Twist, Vanity Fair, crime novels all, looked at a certain way.

  3. The Eustace Diamonds. Jane Eyre. Clarissa -- oh, you said that one. Our Mutual Friend -- well, most of Dickens, one way and another. All of Wilkie Collins. The Crime of Father Amaro. Is all 19th-century literature based on crime? Maybe not Middlemarch?

  4. Jenny, excellent point. What else have I been doing at Wuthering Expectations but surveying crime novels throughout history?

    Middlemarch does have a criminal subplot, with blackmail and so on, the details of which I have forgotten.