I’ve recently read two very different books, one set in the nineteenth century and the other set now, with two apparently very different protagonists. The first is Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, which I found surprisingly accessible, and, despite the tragedy, often amusing. The other is Janet Evanovich’s Eleven On Top, which is the eleventh novel in her series about bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. It’s the only one of the series I’ve read, but a colleague recommended the Evanovich books to me many years ago as an example of witty crime writing. I remember thinking, “You’re German and you’re a man, what do you know?” which wasn’t entirely fair. If only I’d listened to him, I’d have had a decade of fun with Plum.
While the two are on opposite ends of a continuum of modern women, I found similarities between them. Like Bovary, Plum disregards danger, is unconventional, swept off her feet by passion and somewhat childlike in her pursuit of her desires. Both are not afraid of flouting norms. Emma Bovary, with her head all messed up by romantic fiction, and bored by her very ordinary husband and dull provincial life, finds illicit love with a local squire and later with a young clerk. She has to lie to mask her behaviour, but as her addiction to retail therapy becomes more overt and her debts mount up, her situation becomes inescapably dangerous, and she commits suicide. In her profession, Stephanie Plum straddles the boundary between legal and illegal behaviour, also toying with danger. She helps to catch people on the wrong side of the law, but often strays there herself, beating them up, breaking into buildings and lying. Both heroines trangress convention, but Emma pays for it with her life. At Plum’s end of the spectrum her behaviour gets sighs and raised eyebrows, while Emma’s requires her to die.
During the course of her marriage, Emma takes two lovers. Both times she gives herself whole-heartedly. As she becomes too demanding her first lover, Rodolphe, rejects her. He represents her grand love, her passion. The second time, as she becomes more jaded with excessive love, the affair peters out through mutual lack of interest. Stephanie Plum also has two love interests, a policeman and another bounty hunter, one representing stability and the other representing a wild, transgressive freedom. She refuses to be in love with either, and, while she leans towards the policeman, prefers to retain both as sex objects. There is much jokey talk of the physical attributes of either man, which, although far more frank and graphic than Flaubert’s lovely nineteenth century prose, call to mind Bovary in thrall to her lover.
Bovary’s frantic shopping I see reflected in Plum’s obsession with sugar. They both have a need for instant gratification, and become addicted to the short sharp high the hit brings. When things go badly for Plum, she has to stop and get herself doughnuts, and likewise for Bovary, shopping briefly relieves the tragedy of her situation. They are both single-minded: Plum will risk all danger and put herself in the worst situation (being trapped in a coffin, threatened by a stun-gun wielding murderer) in order to solve the crime, while Bovary is so headlong in love with love that she will risk anything (rushing home at daylight, taking off to visit her lover without leaving a valid excuse for her husband).
As I read Eleven on Top, in which Stephanie Plum tussles with criminals and solves mysteries, I thought what Emma Bovary probably needed to keep her out of trouble was a job. She has servants to do all her housework for her, a wet-nurse and later a nanny to do her parenting for her, and far too much time on her hands. It’s a bit disingenuous to suggest that a nice occupation would have kept her passions reigned in, because without her passions, we wouldn’t have Emma Bovary, but that is the difference between a nineteenth century middle-class female protagonist and today’s heroines – they didn’t have jobs. They weren’t participating in the economy and so were disenfranchised and powerless. Instead, Emma uses the power she does have – her sexuality – to make her provincial life a little less stultifying. And she does a fine job of that.
Before I strain the comparison any longer, let me also point out that I recognise it’s not possible to compare Flaubert’s achingly lovely prose with the tongue-in-cheek, saucy writing of Evanovich. Both are satisfying in very different ways; for Flaubert the outer landscape reflects the inner one in the tradition of his time. After Emma “surrenders” to Rodolpe for the first time, she hears “a strange, long-drawn cry that hung on the air, and she listened to it in silence as it mingled like music with the last vibrations of her jangled nerves”. Evanovich’s heroine, in the tradition of our time, is allowed to be a lot more overt about sex. When her policeman boyfriend is immobilised in a cast, she realises that: “Once I got him on his back he was going to stay there, and I’d have the top all to myself.”
According the dustjacket of my Penguin Popular Classics edition of Madame Bovary, it says that the novel has been recognized as a “milestone in European literature”. While Eleven on Top is not in any way its literary peer, it can be seen as part of the Bovary continuum: a centuries-long tradition of feisty, unconventional female protagonists who risk danger and opprobrium to get what they want. Emma Bovary died so that heroines like Stephanie Plum can live.
(Now cross-posted at The Red Tent blog.)