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Madame Bovary’s Wedding Cake

 

2021 was the bicentenary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert, one of my favourite French authors. That was however – to be honest – just an excuse. In fact, during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown, when many more sensible people took to baking banana bread, I came up with a rather eccentric plan. For years I have loved Oxford's old Covered Market, where among other things you can look through the window of the Cake Shop and see the design team creating unique, individual cakes. And for even longer I have been obsessed with Flaubert's most famous novel, Madame Bovary. So… what if I could get the Cake Shop to make, in real life (or at least in real cake) the absurd, magnificent, ridiculous cake that caused so many 'Ooohs' and 'Aaahs' at the Bovarys' wedding? Somewhat to my surprise, my Cake Project was supported by TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), and the Cake Shop produced a real-life, 3-dimensional, edible version of the cake, following my design but in the end far more sumptuous than I had imagined.

Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary (1857) follows the story of Emma, a country girl who reads Romantic novels. She would have liked to be married at midnight, by the light of flaming torches, but instead she has a rustic wedding in which the only highlight is a grand, tiered cake. The cake combines her dreams of classical elegance (the base level is in the form of a blue neo-classical temple, with statues in niches, spangled with gold stars), Romantic cod-medievalism (the second tier is a fortress decorated with almonds and orange quarters), the picturesque (the top tier is a meadow with a jam lake, rocks, and little boats made out of hazelnut shells) and, of course, love (the cake is crowned with a chocolate cupid in a swing, with real rosebuds). Plot spoiler: married life is not going to fulfil Emma's vague but passionate aspirations.

The cake has been described as an 'impossible object', but I may have proven that to be untrue. In my view it is an example of Flaubert's interest in worn-out or hackneyed ideas, which is mostly focused on verbal clichés: he called them 'idées reçues' and collected them in a Dictionnaire des idées reçues. He extended this to the visual, collecting mental snapshots of things he had seen around him – illustrated mass-market books, pretentious architecture, cheap engravings – that correspond to what we would now call 'kitsch'. He was, I believe, the first great writer to reflect on the era of kitsch. He doesn't tell us that this is what he is doing with the wedding cake (Flaubert believed that the author should not tell the reader what to think): instead, he sets up a clash between different artistic modes, which we might be tempted to buy into if we saw them individually, but which we can clearly see are absurd when they are put together and (to aggravate the situation) made of cake. Some of my research on Flaubert and kitsch will be presented at the Musée d'Orsay as part of a day-long symposium on 'Flaubert et les arts visuels' (March 2022). I think that Flaubert loved the absurdity of it all (sometimes I can almost hear his deep, belly-laugh echoing across the centuries), but he also understood poor Emma's fantasies because he too had dreamt of living a life that was not the one he ended up with.

The Cake was displayed in the window of the Cake Shop after a launch by the Deputy Lord Mayor of Oxford, fellow Flaubertian Steve Goddard, in the presence of the Lord Mayor of Oxford and the visiting Mayor of Grenoble. Some Oxford students studying Flaubert, along with some visiting researchers, then helped with the Eating Madame Bovary's Wedding Cake event at the Maison Française.  You can find out more about the Making Madame Bovary's Wedding Cake Project from my blog series. There are other photos, dramatic readings of the text by students, a glimpse of the cake in a film version of Madame Bovary, and some artists' attempts at the cake.

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Emma's cake by Dr Stephen Goddard

You can wear two hats (or mortar boards) as a lecturer in French and a deputy mayor as this speech at the unveiling of Emma's cake shows

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Cake unveiling with Lord Mayor of Oxford, the maire adjoint of Grenoble and his aide, and Dr Stephen Goddard

Bienvenue à tous et à toutes – et surtout à nos aimables hôtes de Grenoble :  M. le maire adjoint, le fait que votre députation soit présente à Oxford aujourd'hui constitue une belle coïncidence et un bon augure pour cette cérémonie – même s'il est dommage que ce soit Flaubert et non pas Stendhal que nous sommes venus fêter !

I'd like to start by briefly quoting a couple of appropriate lines from a book I hope most people here know:

Pourquoi ces festons, ces fleurs, ces guirlandes ? Où courait cette foule, comme les flots d'une mer en furie, sous les torrents d'un soleil tropical qui répandait sa chaleur sur nos guérets ?

Roughly translated, 'Why these festoons, these flowers, these garlands? Where was this crowd rushing, like the billows of a stormy sea, beneath the torrents of a tropical sun pouring its heat onto our humble fields?'.

That of course is Flaubert's comically monstrous anti-hero, Homais, the Yonville pharmacist, from Madame Bovary indulging in his side-line as a reporter for a local newspaper. He's here treating his readers to typically florid prose (complete with rhetorical questions, shameless hyperbole and obscure lexis – I had to check the meaning of guéret before coming here today); and he's describing not today's ceremony, but the comices agricoles, a local agricultural festival whose description by Flaubert in the same chapter makes it pretty clear is a fairly shabby, uninspiring affair.

Shabby and uninspiring it may be, but it's a very good example of something Flaubert loved, and loved to poke fun at: in some ways like Emma's wedding cake, described much earlier in the book, it's a great example of pretension – in this case, official pretentiousness. Flaubert takes great glee in this chapter in presenting the pompous speech of one M. Lieuvain – even his name means something like 'empty commonplace', Flaubert indulging in a Dickens-like piece of nominal wordplay. Lieuvain is described as a conseiller, so a councillor – I like to think of him as not quite as grand as a Deputy Lord Mayor, or a maire adjoint, and certainly not as splendidly decked out – and his speech abounds in the same sort of thing as Flaubert makes Homais write – exaggerated rhetorical flourishes, none-too-subtle tributes to the king, notre souverain, ce roi bien-aimé, and to the political establishment, and attempts at clever metaphors which end up hopelessly mixed and muddled.

Brilliantly, Flaubert juxtaposes this speech (and a subsequent one by one Derozerays, Président du Jury) with something seemingly different but strangely similar: another anti-hero, the local squire, Rodolphe Boulanger, embarking on his seduction of our heroine, Emma, with all sorts of well-honed clichés about kindred spirits, dreams, presentiments and the like. Well-chosen they are – because Rodolphe's cynical deployment of them is successful, and before long Emma will be succumbing to his blandishments, arguably taking the first step which leads to her downfall. So the scene is of crucial importance in the novel's plot, and has rightly attracted great critical attention: it's in many ways typical Flaubert in its irony and its stylistic precision – and in another way, too.

There can't, to my mind, be very much doubt that Flaubert in writing this passage – despite his frequent complaints in the Correspondance about the agonies literary composition put him through – had a smile on his face. To be sure, it's in some ways quite a serious passage as we've seen: but an author who juxtaposes an ardent protestation like 'Cent fois même j'ai voulu partir, et je vous ai suivie, je suis resté' ('A hundred times I intended to leave, but I had to follow you, I stayed instead') with the single word Fumiers (which I'll abstain from translating literally, but which is an eloquent comment on the sincerity of Rodolphe's rhetoric) – an author who makes that sort of juxtaposition is an author with a sense of humour: who is having a laugh, and wants his readers to do so as well.

And I think that is what I'd like to emphasise today, in this ceremony to mark Flaubert's bicentenaire. His reputation perhaps is that of a rather depressing writer, dismissive of humanity, cynical in his irony; but within his writing are great reserves of humour. And he'd have loved the idea of this event – the more pompous the officials' outfits, the more he'd have laughed; and Jenny's utterly brilliant notion of recreating Emma's wedding cake I am certain would have tickled him pink. So thank you to all for coming: it's an honour, for want of a better phrase, to declare this cake open!