The incredible odyssey of Martin Guerre, as an early French version of the story called it, has proved endlessly alluring. It served as the basis of two films, Daniel Vigne’s Retour de Martin Guerre (1983) and Jon Amiel’s Sommersby a decade later, and a musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil in 1996. The Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis wrote a detailed account, under a translation of Vigne’s title (she was credited as the film’s historical adviser), which was published the same year as a kind of appendix.
Publicly at least no one connected with any of these projects singled out Janet Lewis’s novel The Wife of Martin Guerre (San Francisco: Colt Press, 1941) as the obvious forerunner of their efforts. Davis mentions the book in a footnote, dismissing it as “charming,” an epithet reserved for trifles. Lewis’s compact 100-page novel, the first full-length treatment in English of the sixteenth-century French legal case, may be many things, but it is neither charming nor a trifle. On the occasion of Lewis’s death in 1998 at the age of ninety-nine, the New York Times ventured that “there are many who will assure you that when the literary history of the second millennium is written . . . in the category of dazzling American short fiction her Wife of Martin Guerre will be regarded as the 20th century’s Billy Budd and Janet Lewis will be ranked with Herman Melville.” The strangeness of the comparison ought not be allowed to weaken the judgment. The Wife of Martin Guerre is one the last century’s great novels.
In 1539 in the French Pyrenees village of Artigues, two children—a girl of eleven and a boy no older—are wed in a Roman Catholic ceremony, joining two ancient landowning families. The marriage of Bertrande de Rols to Martin Guerre gets off to a rocky start as the young husband seems standoffish, even hostile to his bride. But in time the two become loyal lovers. Or, as Lewis writes, “gradually Bertrande’s affection for her husband became a deep and joyous passion, growing slowly and naturally as her body grew.” Then the peace of their young lives is shattered and the couple is exposed to “the vagaries of a malicious fate.” Martin steals a planting field of grain from his harsh retributive father, and fearing the old man’s anger, flees his native village. He swears to Bertrande that he will be gone but a short time—eight days at most. He is gone for eight years.
The man who returns to Bertrande is much changed. He is now thickset, “broader in the shoulder, developed, mature.” More than that, he is kinder and has acquired wisdom and charm. As the curé at Artigues says later, “His selfishness has become generosity, his impatience has become energy well-directed.” Since the elder Guerre has died in his absence, Martin takes over authority for the family farm. Peace seems to have been restored. By degrees, however, the suspicion grows that this Martin Guerre is not the same as the man who fled eight years before. At length he is accused of being an impostor and clapped in irons. The first trial, at Rieux, the nearest bishopric, ends in a verdict of guilt and a sentence of death. The case is appealed to the parliament at Toulouse, and there the accused man is on the verge of being declared innocent when a peglegged soldier clomps into the courtroom and announces himself as the true Martin Guerre. Martin’s sisters, long supporters of the man who returned to the farm, gasp and switch their allegiance to the newcomer. Bertrande falls weeping before the man and begs his pardon. Seeing how the case has turned against him, the impostor confesses himself to be a wandering rogue by the name of Arnaud du Tilh. He is convicted of “the several crimes of imposture, falsehood, substitution of name and person, adultery, rape, sacrilege, plagiat, which is the detention of a person who properly belongs to another, and of larceny,” and is hanged in front of Martin Guerre’s house in Artigues.
Such is the story. But Janet Lewis tells it very differently from the later filmmakers and musical producers. The most striking difference is the identity of Arnaud du Tilh’s accuser. In the more recent dramatized versions, Martin’s uncle Pierre, angered by his nephew’s demand for a share of the profits earned by the farm during his absence, sets upon the man and has him arrested. In The Wife of Martin Guerre, however, Bertrande is the accuser. Although she has “rejoiced in the presence of this new Martin even more than in that of the old,” she becomes convinced that he is not her true husband. She confronts him, demanding proof of his identity:
Suspicion will not be silenced. The man is not her true husband, and Bertrande comes to know it. Knowing it, how can she do else than to accuse him? She is ruled by beliefs, and furthermore she knows what she believes, for she has been told. To modern readers this is apt to make Bertrande seem like a fool. In an interview in the Southern Review, Lewis acknowledged that “contemporary reactions” to Bertrande “are very amusing.” Most readers “are impatient with her. They say, ‘Why didn’t she take what she had,’ and so forth.” Most readers are disappointed with Bertrande for betraying their own beliefs.
They would seem to be the ideal audience for the films and musical. In these Bertrande is ruled, not by Catholic doctrine, but by the modern conviction of the absolute value of sexual passion. Despite threats and coercion by her uncle, she never turns against the man she knows is not Martin. Even after she has fallen to her knees before her true husband, Bertrande remains faithful in her heart to her false lover. She gives a start and a cry when he is hanged. All very touching—but not particularly true to the values of Renaissance France. Bertrande was not a modern woman, and it is a mistake to assign her modern beliefs.
Lewis does not make this mistake. She is not interested in adding to the literature of passionate love. The Wife of Martin Guerre is a tragedy in which passion is sacrificed to the legal demands of marriage, even if happiness is the victim. As in any tragedy, the incidents in the novel are first astonishing, then fearful in the extreme. The man who claims to be Martin Guerre bears such a close resemblance to the real Martin Guerre—the same two broken teeth, a scar on the same eyebrow, a drop of blood in the same place in the same eye—that it is uncanny. This astonishment raises the fear that the remarkable poseur will be unmasked and put to death. When that in fact happens, fear is converted to pity. The pity is made all the keener by the recognition that it could not have been different. History that is the original of the plot demands du Tilh’s death, regardless of how appealing the rogue is.
A commonplace of modern literary thought is that “the tragic mode is not available,” Lionel Trilling says, “even to the gravest and noblest of our writers.” Perhaps it is not surprising that Lewis, the wife of the reactionary critic Yvor Winters, would have ignored the commonplaces of modern literary thought. But her novel goes further. Published at the end of Auden’s “low dishonest decade,” it has the effect of calling into question the literary values of the age—the self-important difficulty, the grandiose incoherence, the rage at all costs to be New, even if that ends in the pursuit of evil. The Wife of Martin Guerre commits none of these. It is an austere and renunciatory work. It has no clever and yackety “voice.” It is written in a plain, expository style—a style of great suppleness and beauty, but nevertheless a chill style—which does not belong to Lewis but to an older tradition. Although she also wrote other novels of distinction—in particular The Trial of Søren Quist—none rivals The Wife of Martin Guerre. As do few other novels of the twentieth century.
The Wife of Martin Guerre remains in print from Swallow Press, an imprint of Ohio University Press.