I didn’t set out to read Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring in combination with Gustave Flaubert’s Madam Bovary (WHICH as it turns out, I read already but didn’t realize it until like page 200 both because of a terrible memory and because the book isn’t that memorable). And sure, Pearl Earring is set in the 17th century, and Bovary in the 19th, so not a direct historical overlap, but the books share some of the same concerns with Honour and Fallen Women and how to preserve morality by shaming women and their sexuality.
Because I read them in sequence (and Flabuert, obvs, in translation) I couldn’t help but draw comparisons (btw: why do we draw comparisons? It’s a strange verb choice and I’d like it explained. Maybe it has roots in tracing paper?). Similar plot set up: respectable woman (in the case of Pearl, respectable maid, but still) catches the eye of powerful man, powerful man proves enticing. Then the books diverge in their responses. While our maid protagonist, Greit, totally wants to sleep with Vermeer (the painter), she resists – or they resist – and instead marries the butcher (like how much more of a contrast to romance do you need than fancy painter versus Butcher) and prospers because of it (like she gets to eat meat for the rest of her life). Emma as we know, dies penniless and alone because of her adulterous and lavish ways. Differences aside, both are unhappy and feel cheated out of their true desires because of restrictive expectations for women’s behaviour.
And I’m sure there’s some great and lasting moral lesson in both tales that has startling resonance in 2019 – something about how women continue to have their bodies, sexual desires and aspirations policed by a misogynistic state – but yawn. I wasn’t into the morality tale of either and mostly felt frustrated and annoyed for both characters, but also for the enduring ‘present’ of both ‘historical’ tales (knowing of course that Flaubert isn’t historical fiction!).
Maybe it’s a sign I need to be reading more speculative fiction where gender is exploded or women all have tails and use these tails to strangle things/people that get in their way. I don’t know. It could also be the three cups of coffee.