By Susan Hiner, Guest Contributor
Bonjour! It’s me, Emma B.
Looking for a good book? … well, your search is over! Just in time for your beach vacation on the Normandy coast (or, if you’re lucky, off to the Hamptons with your lover), or maybe to while away the hours of your “staycation” at home with the kids on those sweltering days in the burbs (my most likely scenario, alas), or possibly for those weekly commutes into the city for your “piano lessons”—for any time really when you have a few moments to yourself to fall into a book, as they say, I offer you my summer reading list!
If you’re feeling nostalgic for more innocent days (lord knows, I do), when the world was pure and nature was your playground, why not pick up Paul et Virginie? Try to find an illustrated copy so that the flora and fauna of the exotic jungles of Mauritius, the adventures on land and sea, and the sweet children’s bamboo hut will come alive for you. I recommend the 1839 edition (fig. 1).
It’s a beautiful, passionate story of true love, even if it’s tragically sad at the end, but I won’t spoil the ending…you’ll have to read it for yourself. I’m only going to mention one poem, but it truly is the best, Lamartine’s “Le Lac,” even if it is so long it’s practically a novel! When I read it, I feel like I’m floating away on a beautiful lake, hearing the words “they loved” wistfully echoing over the waves. Poetry’s not for everyone, but this one is so romantic, and so tragic—give it a read.
Speaking of tragic romances, you really should try George Sand’s Lélia. It features a poet (be still my beating heart!) in love with a mysterious, older woman (lol!). Some of you might not realize this, but “George” Sand is actually a woman! Or maybe you’re more into worldly, contemporary novels. I’ve lately become hooked on Balzac—any of his Scènes de la vie parisienne will do quite nicely to take you straight into the drawing rooms, balls, and private restaurant rooms of the most fabulous city in the universe…Paris! And the dresses, the gowns, the hats! That Balzac really is a master at describing them very realistically, so illustration is much less important here. I’ve also been enjoying Eugène Sue’s Les Mystères de Paris, just recently translated into English for my Anglophone readers. I admit, it’s quite a long slog but with lots of adventure and derring-do, and its hero is super-dashing (… if only Charles were even half as hot). You can read it in weekly installments at a good price, so I think it’s well worth it, especially if you’re home-decorating, too, by the way,—great ideas for furniture (think pinterest).
Now, what if you’re interested in something with a bit more historical flavor? I’m partial to women’s history, myself, so I recommend diving into some light historical fiction on our wonderful French heroines—mademoiselle de la Vallière comes to mind, or Joan of Arc—they’re so popular you can find their likenesses everywhere, even on plates! I’d hate to eat off them, but I have!! It doesn’t have to be French history either—Marie Stuart is all the rage now (she was practically French, you know), and Sir Walter Scott’s The Abbot offers a deep dive into the poor queen’s imprisonment. Just as an aside, my favorite work of Walter Scott is definitely Lucy of Lammermoor, although I felt that the operatic production in Rouen fell apart at the end. Maybe history isn’t your thing, and you’re feeling contemplative. You might consider some spiritual reading—always good for the beach. Chateaubriand’s Génie du Christianisme is great for dipping in and out for a little mystical pick-me-up, but you could also just turn to an illustrated Bible—those little stories are so much more touching when you can picture (literally!) poor Jesus with his pierced heart, stumbling under the weight of a splintery cross. Who knows, you might even lose a little weight if you’re inspired to fast! (Vinegar water helps too, btw.)
Let’s be honest: everyone feels a little naughty sometimes and wants to read something a tad bit steamy. When I was a girl at school, I used to love to borrow the old laundress’s romance novels—so thrilling with damsels in distress, gorgeous heroes yearning to die for you, driving their horses at maximum speed rushing to your rescue! If only I could remember a single title. Unfortunately, wedded life to a country doctor and motherhood to a daughter…sigh… not a son… have exiled those exhilarating fantasies most of the time. But I’m sure you could find one of those romances at a used bookseller’s—they’re simply wonderful for escaping the dreadful routine of chores, or your mother-in-law’s constant droning, and … well, conjugal life, if you know what I mean. I’m quite sure that’s why the old laundress was reading them all the time. Her life was so dreary.
If you like pictures as much as I do, you really should splash out and treat yourself to a keepsake–these lovely albums contain songs, stories, and pictures that send you dreaming! (fig. 3) Unlike the cads of Yonville, “keepsake” men are always kind, always handsome, and they never break your heart…
You should also consider subscribing to some magazines. Nothing is more relaxing, whether poolside or just lounging on the sofa while dinner is cooking, a glass of rosé in hand, than the latest from the press. I often leaf through l’Illustration. Since we don’t yet have television or the internet out here in the Styx, I find that it fleshes out those news, society, and political stories that would otherwise be just too hard and tedious to follow. Everything becomes a fait divers!
It’s a great conversation starter too—there’s always a story to talk about, and it’s nice to linger over the pictures with a friend (or a handsome stranger… 😉) and ponder world events and even impress him with your knowledge of the world.
I would be remiss if I didn’t say something about my favorite “ladies’” magazines. It’s not just for their elegantly colored fashion prints (although I do love them!) that can help you figure out what to wear and how to style yourself if you happen to be invited to a ball…but there’s also all kinds of other information. Information about openings, parties, races and, of course, all the names and addresses of the best shops to buy whatever you need to create a delicious toilette! You can always find the money… somewhere. And brilliant advice about all the little details of a fine lady’s comportment—what to do with your gloves at a fancy dinner, for example…
Whether you’re out visiting, walking, shopping, horse-riding, or preparing for a fabulous evening out, you want to look your best, and these magazines can help you not just know how to dress for any occasion, but also how to find the right fabrics and embellishments, and which seamstress or modiste to make you the belle of the ball! My favorite magazines right now are La Corbeille for its illustrations and Le Sylphe des salons, for all the great society gossip. They’ll mail them right to your doorstep if you are unlucky enough (like me 😦) not to live in Paris…these magazines are next best thing!
Before I leave you with my list of suggested reading, I want to let you in on a little secret. I’m writing my own book! It’s going to be a novel, well, a fictionalized version of my own story, which is really quite interesting if you think about it, even if I’m still not sure how to end it. I’m taking suggestions—please send ideas to me, Emma B., care of M. HOMAIS, pharmacien, Yonville 76116 Normandie FRANCE. And keep your eyes open for news about this exciting development! Happy reading and happy summer!
 Emma B. is the penname of the fictional character, Emma Bovary, née Rouault, invented by Gustave Flaubert as the heroine of his serialized novel Madame Bovary: mœurs de province, published first in serial form in 1856 in the Revue de Paris and then as a volume in 1857. For an encyclopedic website and amazing resource devoted to the novel, please visit http://www.bovary.fr/.
 Carol Rifelj, “’Ces tableaux du monde’: Keepsakes in Madame Bovary,” Nineteenth-Century French Studies, Vol. 25, No. 3/4 (Spring—Summer 1997), pp. 360-385
 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%27Illustration; http://www.lillustration.com/
Figure 1. Paul et Virginie, Frontispiece, Flaubert’s personal copy, Paris: Masson fils, 1839
Figure 3, Charles Motte, et al., “Autrefois,” Keepsake lyrique : recueil de 12 romances, chansonnettes et cavatines […] orné de douze dessins lithographiés par les meilleurs maîtres, 1834. http://catalogue.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/cb40362040z
Figure 4 (cover). Masthead for L’Illustration: Journal universel,” founded by Edouard Charton and published in Paris from 1843 to 1944.
Figure 5. Fashion Plate, Jules David. Le Moniteur de la Mode, July 1846.
Figures 6 & 7, original and recent book covers of Madame Bovary
Susan Hiner is Professor of French at Vassar College. The author of Accessories to Modernity: Fashion and the Feminine in 19th-C France (Penn Press, 2010), she is currently working on a new book entitled “Behind the Seams: Fashion, Women, and Work in 19th-Century France.”