Home Sweet Homais
Was any daughter ever cursed with a mother such as hers? A self- centered, social-climbing, materialistic, coldhearted, calculating adulteress. Oh, yes, and she disliked children, too.
Everyone in the village of Yonville and the city of Rouen and all the towns in between knew the story of her mother's disastrous affairs; her wastrel ways; her total disregard for her husband, his reputation, and his finances. And her complete disinterest in Berthe, her only child. It was her mother's friend, Madame Homais, who put it into words for Berthe on the day of her father's funeral. Yes, even at her father's funeral they were still gossiping about her mother, who had poisoned herself almost a year before.
"Your poor, dear mother. She always wanted what she couldn't have," Madame Homais said as she pulled a comb through Berthe's long snarled hair. Berthe hadn't brushed her hair in weeks or possibly even months, ever since her father had fallen ill. "And what she had, she didn't want. As for your papa, all he wanted was just a little of her love. Mon Dieu, what a rat's nest." She untangled the comb from the girl's hair, then gave Berthe a gentle push. "Now go and put on your best dress." Did she know that Berthe only had two dresses to her name? Neither could be described as "best." All the pretty dresses that she had once owned had been sold months before. There was nothing left but the house, and that was going to be auctioned off in an effort to make a small dent in her father's enormous debt.
It was a beautiful spring day. Much too beautiful a day on which to be buried. The bright sun shone down on the small market town. Surrounded by pastureland on one side and the Rieule river on the other, Yonville boasted one main street. Lining the street and the large square were a chemist's shop, a blacksmith's shop, a simple vegetable market, the town hall-designed by a Parisian architect who favored the Greek Revival style-and the almost famous Lion d'Or Inn. On cramped side streets were the residential houses. It was a snug, self-contained little village only twenty-four miles from Rouen.
The entire village attended Charles Bovary's funeral. He had been, after all, the town physician. And beyond that, the villagers had great sympathy for him. He had died quite simply of a broken heart and everyone knew it. Berthe kept her head down so she wouldn't see all the people staring at her with their sad eyes. They just want to see me cry, she thought. But she wouldn't cry. She couldn't cry. On what was supposed to be the saddest day of her life she felt only a paralyzing, numbing fear. She looked down at her hands. Her nails were bitten to the quick and she had never been a nail biter.
She knew that being orphaned was not an unusual situation. How many times had her father told her about the many orphans who littered the land as a result of sickness, war, or the normal hardships of a poverty-stricken life? But Berthe wasn't an ordinary twelve-year-old orphan, as people of the village kept reminding her. She was the progeny of the most scandalous woman who ever lived.
"How will the poor thing make her way in the world?" she heard someone whisper behind her.
"Perhaps, like mother like daughter," said her companion.
"Don't forget her father. He was a decent man, after all."
"Much good that did."
"She has the beginnings of her mother's beauty. That in itself does not bode well."
"She is a strange child. But is it any wonder? With a mother like that?"
Berthe shot a look at the woman. She wanted to scream I'm not a strange child, and tear the hypocritical mourning veil off the woman's head. Where were the reassuring words? Weren't they supposed to tell her everything was going to be fine? She looked around. All she saw was a row of black-clad women-a line of crows shaking their heads in disapproval. Her terror grew. She felt as if she were taking the last steps to her own funeral.
Suddenly she was visited by the image of both her parents' deaths: Her mother from self-administered poison and her father from a self- acknowledged broken heart. She saw her mother in those last moments, her pale waxen features, her eyes covered with a kind of second skin, her mouth, that black poisoned hole sucking in air, and her curled hands picking aimlessly at the sheets. Her father sitting under the oak tree, his head bent, his eyes half open, his jaw unhinged. Dead to the world-and to his only daughter, who had come out to the garden to wake him for a dinner he would never eat.
So strong, so vivid was this image of her dead parents that she felt herself gag. She thought she was going to be sick in front of everybody. Sweat broke out on her forehead and she wiped it away with the back of her hand.
"Stand strong, dear child, it will all be over soon," said Madame Homais, taking her wet hand and squeezing it tight.
After Emma Bovary died her husband spent a fortune on designing and building an elaborate granite mausoleum complete with cherubs and crucifixes. He had even begged money off his good friend Monsieur Homais with the promise that he would repay the loan in a timely fashion. How he was going to do that was a mystery, considering the fact that he had already pawned his instruments and medical books. Monsieur Homais was ignorant of this and assumed that Charles would be back on his feet as soon as his mourning period was over. It was never over.
As they drew nearer to the mausoleum, Monsieur Homais looked up at his friend's final resting place. He shook his head sadly. "This could have been Madame Homais's much-wished-for third bedroom," he muttered to Berthe. It was a good thing his wife had no knowledge of her husband's loan.
The crows continued to rustle their black capes and whisper in all-too- audible tones as Berthe passed by, following her father's coffin.
"She spent all his money on herself," one said.
"And someone else," said another. "Don't forget the Someone Else."
"No one is about to forget that little piece of scandal."
"You know there were two."
"Oh, yes. Do you remember young Monsieur Léon?"
"But he left town."
"He may have left town, but he didn't leave her."
Several women gasped and covered their mouths with their black-gloved hands. Their eyes gleamed in anticipation of hearing more.
Because of the size of the mausoleum, Charles Bovary's coffin could not be placed directly next to his wife's but had to be wedged in at a perpendicular angle at the end of her triple-enclosed casket. The four men who had carried the coffin from the village struggled to fit it in. Thus, Madame Bovary's husband was laid to rest literally at her feet. And given the state of his estate, or the lack thereof, an expensive coffin for him was out of the question. He had been put in the plainest of pine boxes. It made a curious sight: the rough-hewn pine coffin lying at the foot of the lustrous rosewood casket like a humble servant at the feet of his beloved queen. The four pallbearers stepped out, rubbing their sore hands together. Then the Homaises and Berthe squeezed in what little space was left while the rest of the villagers had to make do with paying their respects from outside.
So, Berthe thought, her mother would be housed for eternity in the luxury she had always yearned for. How many years and how much money had she spent stuffing their humble home with the trappings of a much grander establishment? Silk damask armchairs, Chinese screens, crystal candelabras, brass andirons, heavy brocade curtains, a hand-carved prayer kneeler, a graceful four-poster bed. And when her husband occasionally protested, she explained: "We will need these things when we move to the new house."
She held out this vision of a grand dwelling as though it were a reality. Her dream house was based on her one visit as a young bride to the château at Vaubyessard. She described her visit often and in great detail to Berthe. It was her idea of a bedtime story.
"I walked up three flights of marble steps and into the great hall. As I looked up I saw a chandelier hanging from a glass dome. It was made of a million crystals that caught the light and glittered so brightly it hurt my eyes. There was a pink marbled staircase that circled around and up to a gallery. The walls were covered in silk. The air smelled of roses and lilacs."
But in Emma Bovary's mind, it was the effect this splendid château had on its inhabitants that was so magical. The château seemed to transform every person in it.
"They were ordinary men and women but they looked like they were another species altogether. Their hair was more lustrous, their skin had a polish and glow, their smiles were more brilliant. Their happiness was unlike anything I had ever seen before or since. It was being in that house that made them so happy and so beautiful."
Thus, Berthe had grown up with two homes, the slightly shabby lodging they lived in and the luxurious château of her mother's memory. The bills mounted and her mother began to sell off small decorative items before her husband discovered her secret debt. As little by little the house in Yonville grew shabbier, Berthe still had that other more enduring abode of her mother's fantasy. Where there would be no gossip, no suffering the opinion of others, no creditors, no shortage of love, no shortage of beautiful things to buy. And where her mother continued to live in this happy, happy home where no one and nothing could ever hurt her.
Berthe recognized a fairy tale for what it was. She knew her mother had lived much of the time in another world and that her fantasies had created an impenetrable wall around her. On one hand, Berthe deeply resented the stories that separated her mother from their real life. On the other hand, the fairy tales held a magic that was difficult for a little girl to resist.
Her mother's favorite stories came from her beloved ...