This month marks 160 years since the publication in book format of a masterpiece of literature: Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary.
In my early twenties, I read French literature at the University of Alexandria, and I was inspired by so many French writers, from the celebrated, like Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo and Marcel Proust, to those less well known beyond France, like the poet Charles Marie René Leconte de Lisle (see http://hannahfielding.net/the-poetry-of-leconte-de-lisle/). But of all the French writers, Gustave Flaubert stood out, because his debut novel, Madame Bovary, became the book on my shelf that was so well-read it required rebinding.
The story centres on the beautiful and charming Emma Bovary, who dreams of being like the heroine in the novels she ardently reads. Instead, though, she is stuck (so she sees it) living the life of a doctor’s wife in a dull provincial setting. In search of a better life – one characterised by passion and luxury and beauty – she treads a path that leads to debt, adultery and eventually, tragically, her own ruin.
Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s first work, and it might have been his last, for after the story was first serialised in La Revue de Paris in 1856, his romantic and realist writing, particularly with relation to adultery, whipped up a public scandal, and he was put on trial for immorality. He was acquitted, thankfully, and was able to publish the novel in one volume, as a book – and of course, after all the controversy, it became a bestseller. But it was not controversy that kept the book in print year after year after year; quite simply, for its new realist style and its tragic and complex heroine, the book became recognised as one of the greatest literary works in history.
As a writer, I owe much to Flaubert. From him, I learned the importance of finding le mot juste (the right word), no matter how long that may take. Flaubert did not write prolifically; he sometimes spent an entire week working on a single page of prose. He believed in taking his time, working hard and caring deeply about each and every word – he believed in style above all else, writing that Madame Bovary would be ‘a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external, which would be held together by the internal strength of its style’.
And what style! Here is just one of so many quotations from Madame Bovary that inspire me:
At the bottom of her heart, however, she was waiting for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar off some white sail in the mists of the horizon. She did not know what this chance would be, what wind would bring it her, towards what shore it would drive her, if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, laden with anguish or full of bliss to the portholes. But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the morrow.
Have you read Madame Bovary? It is widely available in various formats – the Penguin Clothbound edition is particularly beautiful if, like me, you are a bibliophile (see https://www.amazon.co.uk/Madame-Bovary-Penguin-Clothbound-Classics/dp/0141394676/).
But if nineteenth-century literature isn’t quite to your taste, there are other ways to be immersed in Madame Bovary.
I found the 2014 film adaption starring Mia Wasikowska very moving:
However, I prefer the classic 1949 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movie with Jennifer Jones, for its glamour and melodrama:
You may even finding watching this one scene gives you the sense of Madame Bovary. For as Gustave Flaubert writes in the book: ‘an infinity of passion can be contained in one minute, like a crowd in a small space’.
… so wrote playwright Christopher Marlowe in this speech for Doctor Faustus:
Was this the face that launched a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss:
Her lips sucks forth my soul, see where it flies!
Come Helen, come, give me my soul again.
Here will I dwell, for heaven be in these lips,
And all is dross that is not Helena!
These lines date from the sixteenth century, and yet their meaning resonates to this day. For a kiss can be so soulful: remember ‘Soul meets soul on lovers’ lips’ (Percy Bysshe Shelley, Prometheus Unbound). A kiss is also of pivotal importance in a love story, whether at the beginning, at the end or as a turning point.
Recently, TLC television network conducted research of 2,000 adults in the UK to discover the nation’s favourite on-screen kiss. In first place was Rose and Jack’s kiss in Titanic. The top of the list is as follows:
1. Titanic (on the front deck of the Titanic)
2. Lady and the Tramp (kiss over spaghetti)
3. Ghost (Sam and Molly’s last kiss)
4. Pretty Woman (kiss on the fire escape)
5. Dirty Dancing (kiss at the end)
6. Bridget Jones’s Diary (kiss in the snow)
7. Spider Man (the upside kiss)
8. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (kiss in the rain)
9. Gone with the Wind (‘You need kissing badly’)
10. The Empire Strikes Back (Han Solo and Princess Leia’s kiss)
11. The Notebook (kiss in the rain)
12. An Officer and a Gentleman (Richard Gere and Debra Winger)
My personal favourite has to be Gone with the Wind, although I think I prefer the scene in which Rhett and Scarlett almost kiss, but Rhett declares: ‘No, I don’t think I will kiss you, although you need kissing, badly. That’s what’s wrong with you. You should be kissed and often, and by someone who knows how.’
Which is your favourite on-screen kiss?
I confess, while I love to watch movies, and go to the theatre, I am far more likely to be found immersed in a literary world, and consequently when I consider kisses in love stories it is fiction that springs at once to mind.
Take a look at this excerpt from the novel Gone with the Wind:
“Scarlett O’Hara, you’re a fool!”
Before she could withdraw her mind from its far places, his arms were around her, as sure and hard as on the dark road to Tara, so long ago. She felt again the rush of helplessness, the sinking yielding, the surging tide of warmth that left her limp. And the quiet face of Ashley Wilkes was blurred and drowned to nothingness. He bent back her head across his arm and kissed her, softly at first, and then with a swift gradation of intensity that made her cling to him as the only solid thing in a dizzy swaying world. His insistent mouth was parting her shaking lips, sending wild tremors along her nerves, evoking from her sensations she had never known she was capable of feeling. And before a swimming giddiness spun her round and round, she knew that she was kissing him back.
“Stop–please, I’m faint!” she whispered, trying to turn her head weakly from him. He pressed her head back hard against his shoulder and she had a dizzy glimpse of his face. His eyes were wide and blazing queerly and the tremor in his arms frightened her.
“I want to make you faint. I will make you faint. You’ve had this coming to you for years. None of the fools you’ve known have kissed you like this–have they? Your precious Charles or Frank or your stupid Ashley–”
“I said your stupid Ashley. Gentlemen all–what do they know about women? What did they know about you? I know you.”
Phew! Now that’s a memorable kiss, don’t you think? For me, it’s a much more poignant and stirring than the visual version.
One of the best things about being a romance novelist is that you have free licence to daydream about kissing – a lot. My absolute favourite part of writing a novel is putting on paper the first kiss. Usually, as in my latest novel Legacy, I build up to it slowly: a polite peck on the cheek that lingers a little too long, lips pressed to the back of the hand in a courtly fashion, a night-time dream that is so vivid the heroine can almost feel his lips on hers.
Here’s an exclusive peek at that heady first kiss in Legacy, which has been a long time coming for both Luna and Ruy:
Before she knew it, he had taken her in his arms, his mouth closing over hers with all the pent-up fire that had burnt them both since they had first met. Unable to resist, she responded with equal fever. He pushed his body against her until she was backed up against the wall of the summerhouse. Flames erupted between them as their lips, hands and bodies tried to satiate the craving that had tortured their days and nights. The hard pressure of his arousal pushed against the curve of her thigh and pleasure surged through her like white, liquid heat. His tongue found hers, plunging into her mouth and retreating over and over again in such a wildly suggestive rhythm that she thought she would go mad. In that moment, with the whole of the world shut out, only the two of them existed.
That, I think, is the very essence of why a kiss is so important: it creates a moment in which only she and he exist. The world, with all its clamour and cynicism, falls away, and there is only sensation and soul.
I will leave you with my favourite poetic rendering of a kiss, taken from Lord Byron’s Don Juan (Canto II):
They look’d up to the sky, whose floating glow
Spread like a rosy ocean, vast and bright;
They gazed upon the glittering sea below,
Whence the broad moon rose circling into sight;
They heard the wave’s splash, and the wind so low,
And saw each other’s dark eyes darting light
Into each other – and, beholding this,
Their lips drew near, and clung into a kiss;
A long, long kiss, a kiss of youth, and love,
And beauty, all concentrating like rays
Into one focus, kindled from above;
Such kisses as belong to early days,
Where heart, and soul, and sense, in concert move,
And the blood’s lava, and the pulse a blaze,
Each kiss a heart-quake, for a kiss’s strength,
I think, it much be reckon’d by its length.
By length I mean duration; theirs endured
Heaven knows how long – no doubt they never reckon’d’
And if they had, they could not have secured
The sum of their sensations to a second:
They had not spoken; but they felt allured,
As if their souls and lips each other beckon’d,
Which, being join’d, like swarming bees they clung –
Their hearts the flowers from whence the honey sprung.
If you only watch one movie this Christmas, make it this one. That’s what respondents of a recent poll of more than 2,000 British people think: they heralded It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) as the best Christmas film ever made. I can see why – if there’s ever a film to restore your faith in humanity, this is it.
In case you’re not familiar with the story, here’s a summary:
The film stars James Stewart as George Bailey, a man who has given up his dreams in order to help others and whose imminent suicide on Christmas Eve brings about the intervention of his guardian angel, Clarence Odbody (Henry Travers). Clarence shows George all the lives he has touched and how different life in his community of Bedford Falls would be had he never been born. [Source]
A movie about a man thinking of suicide may sound depressing, but in fact it’s anything but. Here are seven reasons to watch the movie:
1. It was directed by Frank Capra, the acclaimed director, producer and writer who worked his way up from the ghetto to Hollywood, becoming one of the most influential directors in Hollywood in the 1930s. His approach of improvising rather than scripting scenes carefully has left a legacy of powerful cinema.
2. It’s one of the most critically acclaimed films in history, and is commonly high in ‘Best Ever Movie’ lists, including those of the American and British Film Institutes.
3. The cast is headed up by screen legend James Stewart – handsome, charismatic and indisputably believable in all his roles.
4. The film has taken on a life of its own, capturing the public imagination so that it went from box-office flop to essential viewing at Christmas over a period of thirty years. Capra told the told the Wall Street Journal: ‘I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud… but it’s the kid who did the work.’
5. Christmas is all about nostalgia, and this black-and-white classic beautifully stirs such a mood. Colorised versions of the film have been released, but nothing can beat the beauty of the original tones.
6. It has such warm, witty dialogue as this:
George Bailey: Mary Hatch, why in the world did you ever marry a guy like me?
Mary: To keep from being an old maid!
George Bailey: You could have married Sam Wainright, or anybody else in town…
Mary: I didn’t want to marry anybody else in town. I want my baby to look like you.
George Bailey: You didn’t even have a honeymoon. I promised you…
George Bailey: Your what?
Mary: My baby!
George Bailey: [stuttering] Your, your, your, ba- Mary, you on the nest?
Mary: George Baily Lassos Stork!
George Bailey: [still stuttering] Lassos a stork?
George Bailey: What’re’ya… You mean you’re… What is it, a boy or a girl?
Mary: [nods enthusiasticly] Mmmm-hmmm!
7. As expressed by David Wilson in the Guardian: ‘I watch It’s A Wonderful Life every year because [its] message needs to be repeated – time after time – and certainly just as often as Come All Ye Faithful, for it is that message that reminds us to do what we can to make this world a better place.’
No doubt the film will be on the television schedule this year, but as with all films the emotional impact is heightened by watching on the big screen. To mark It’s A Wonderful Life as the ultimate Christmas film, Odeon Cinemas are holding screenings at 80 of their UK cinemas on 15 December. The perfect outing to get you in the holiday spirit!
Did you know that when author F. Scott Fitzgerald died in 1940 he believed himself a failure? That long years of alcoholism saw a heart attack claim his life at just 44? That since the publication of his book The Great Gatsby, which had received poor reviews and lack-lustre sales, he had thought his work unimportant, forgotten?
Fast-forward to 2014 and The Great Gatsbyis commonly heralded as one of the greatest works in American literature. It’s been adapted for the stage. It’s been adapted for the big screen. And the last adaption: what a show! It reminded me of a review of my debut novel, Burning Embers: ‘an epic like Hollywood used to make’ – only it’s both nostalgic and starkly current all at once.
I love BazLuhrmann’s work – most films pale against his in terms of depth and artistry. His films, for me, are sublimely romantic: Moulin Rouge and Romeo and Juliet especially. And now Gatsby.
I could write endlessly about what I love in this sensitive, thoughtful, inventive adaption of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, but instead I will focus in on the two aspects of the film I most admired:
- The depiction of the Jazz Age:The attitudes, the manners, the speech, the costumes, the music – oh the music! Fabulous. I was swept away into that era caught between the wars.
- The incorporation of the book itself:I loved, loved this! How wonderful to show so much respect to the author of the book on which the film is based as to incorporate the very words he wrote. The narrator’s voice is so powerful, bringing to us the words from the page – and I was mesmerised by the inclusion of text and its typography. The book is there, throughout the film: not forgotten, not a shadow. The book is all.
Overall, I think the film stands as a beautiful, respectful, celebratory testament to F. Scott Fitzgerald’s once-forgotten work. It honours this writer, and in doing so makes right a wrong. As I watched the film, I found myself wondering what F. Scott Fitzgerald would think, could he see his story brought to life in this way. Perhaps he’d raise a glass to toast it. Or perhaps he wouldn’t have needed that glass after all.
When I’m writing a novel, I like to immerse myself so far as is possible in the culture and time in which the story is set. For my most recently published novel, The Echoes of Love, that meant enjoying Italian culture – watching films, reading books and listening to music – but also broadening out to popular culture of the era (the turn of the millennium) and to non-Italian works that are inspired by the Italian setting.
One of the films I most enjoyed re-watching after many years was the Merchant-Ivory adaptation of EM Forster’sA Room with a View. Have you seen the film? If, like me, you’re a romantic, and you like period dramas, then it’s beautiful – but it’s worth watching for the Italian setting alone.
The story, set in the Edwardian era, follows the developing love between two young people: Lucy Honeychurch (what a name!) and George Emerson. Lucy is limping along in a restrictive upper-class world still rife with Victorian ideals; George represents forward-thinking ideals and is deeply attractive for his free spirit. A kiss – such a kiss – ensues, but how can Lucy cast off the system of rigidity in which she dwells and accept George’s advances? It is more fitting, surely, to marry straight-laced, wealthy, respectable Cecil. Fitting, but was there ever a man more lacking in passion? Does passion matter? What is love, and does Lucy have the right to claim it? These questions, and more, lie at the heart of this evocative love story. I won’t spoil the ending, but suffice it to say that Lucy finds that room with a view that she needs – and don’t we all need one!
The film won widespread critical acclaim, and multiple awards, including Academy Awards, Golden Globes and BAFTAs.I think what I love most about the film is how it encapsulates the stirring beauty of the Italian landscape; how the romanticism of Italy can affect a foreigner to the land. This is a theme I explore in my own novel, The Echoes of Love, whose characters are also English and find love in Italy – in Tuscany, ultimately: location for Forster’s love story. Take a look at this clip and you’ll see how the setting – the breathtaking countryside; the moving Puccini aria – creates romance, demands romance.
As George says: ‘[t]here is something in the Italian landscape which inclines even the most stolid to romance’. And I would argue that there is something in this film, this particular adaptation of the Forster classic, that could incline even the most stolid to romance too.