Book Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis

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This book was on the English reading list when I was in Year 12 but it wasn’t one of the texts my school selected for us. I’m almost glad because so many of the books we did read have gone on to become my least favourite – maybe it was the books themselves, maybe it was the way they were taught to us but I can’t deny the pattern.

The Wife of Martin Guerre could have been called “The Husbands of Betrande de Rols”. Based on a true story in sixteenth century France, Bertrande is married off at a very early age to the son of a well-to-do local peasant family. She’s too young to take on the duties of a wife so she returns to live with her own family. She’s fourteen when her mother dies and it is deemed an appropriate time to rejoin her husband and take up the role she has long been destined for.

Bertrande and Martin’s relationship develops gradually and they learn to love each other (what other choice do they have?) but it seems only because it is expected of them. The story is set in a time when love had little to do with marriage and neither Bertrande or Martin question this. They have a child when they are twenty and a short time after that Martin steals some seeds from his father’s granary and plants a field without his permission, knowing his father would not have approved the action. He tells Bertrande he is going to go away for about a week to let his father’s temper abate and then will return.

Eight years later, Martin finally comes back. Everybody is thrilled, except for Bertrande. Because she suspects that another man has taken the place of her husband, an imposter. However, he is kind and gentle and respectful, things Martin never was, and she allows him back into her life and into her bed. They have a child. Three years pass. But by this time her suspicions are driving Bertrande into a kind of madness. If they are correct, then she has been a party to her own dishonourable downfall, accepting a man that in her heart of hearts she knew not to be her husband.

Bertrande accuses him publicly and there is a trial to determine whether the man is Martin Guerre or just a strikingly similar looking man taking advantage of a grieving family.

First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre is a novella, 90 pages long (or short as the case may be). I read it in an afternoon. What really struck me was how Bertrande was tormented by the kindness of the man claiming to be her husband. Ultimately, it was how she came to decide he wasn’t her husband at all. But instead of embracing the kindness, she focuses on the sin she has been forced into – adultery – and how it will endanger her immortal soul. It’s a reflection of a very different time. In 1941, such thoughts might still have been around. Now, I suspect, few people would think of it the same way.

Even back then, there were some who questioned where the blame lay. In the afterword that discusses the real life basis for the novella, Etienne Pasquier, who was a contemporary of the main players, wrote, “But I would willingly ask you if this Monsieur Martin Guerre who was so harsh towards his wife, did not deserve a punishment as severe as that of Arnaut Tillier (the man convicted of being the imposter), for having been by his absence the cause of this wrongdoing?”

The entire book is a commentary on how people are so often victims of themselves, how in seeking to do the “right” thing, we bring down upon ourselves terrible consequences. It is also a commentary on trust. We want so much to trust in this world and we are let down so often when we do.

The writing is lovely, also a reflection of a different time. It is unhurried (something of an achievement in a book that is only 90 pages long) but it uses no more words than is absolutely necessary to convey the story, a genuine skill that I wish more writers – myself included – had today.

Selfishly, I almost wish there were a little more of this book. Perhaps I’ll just have to content myself with reading some of Janet Lewis’s other works, although as far as I know none of them have endured the way this one has.

If you read The Wife of Martin Guerre in high school and were underwhelmed, I’d encourage you to read it again with the hindsight of having lived a little. If you’re still in high school, I hope you have an English teacher who isn’t draining the enthusiasm out of you and you can appreciate it now. If you’ve never read it, it’s the kind of book you won’t regret reading, even if it isn’t really your thing.

4 stars

*First published on Goodreads 9 March 2016

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