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September 6, 2015

“The Wife of Martin Guerre”

by Anne Paddock

…when hate and love have together exhausted the soul, the body seldom endures for long.

While scouring the shelves described as “classics” in an independent bookstore (Mac’s Backs-Books on Coventry) in Cleveland Heights, Ohio, I discovered The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis (a poet and writer who lived from 1899-1998). On the back cover of the book were the words:

Set in 16th century France, this compelling story of Bertrande de Rols is the first of the Case of Circumstantial Evidence.

Intrigued, I bought the book and immediately read the 2-page Foreward, which made little sense to me because I had never heard of the book or the author and knew nothing about circumstantial evidence (except what I learned watching Perry Mason years ago) and the English law of evidence (sounds boring but keep reading).  It was only after I read the book that I came to understand the Forward, which discussed a man by the name of Martin Guerre, a French farmer during the 16th century who was at the center of a trial regarding imposture, and the importance of circumstantial evidence in trials.

lWwife-of-martin-guerreThe wife of Martin Guerre is Bertrande de Rols, an 11-year old village girl who is married off to 11-year old Martin Guerre in 1539. Off to a rocky start (the groom attacks the bride during the reception), the bride returns to her family home after the reception to allow the partners to mature. Three years later, Bertrande goes to live with her husband’s family where they live together under the authoritative hand of Martin’s father, in accordance with the patriarchal laws of the times.

Eight years after their marriage, Bertrande gives birth to a son while Martin starts to chafe at being under his father’s thumb and craves the power and authority he won’t obtain until his father’s death.  Martin confides in Bertrande that he is going to leave for a few days but promises to return. At this point in the book, the story starts to unfold and because so many people don’t know what happens (and I didn’t when I read the book), the outcome won’t be revealed here. Trust to say that Bertrande is faced with making some very difficult decisions with regards to her moral code of right and wrong.

A 109-page book told from the perspective of Bertrand, The Wife of Martin Guerre is a book that stays with you long after the last page has been turned. The undertones in the story – perspectives, different opinions, patriarchy, madness, deceit, duty, faith, and love – all come together in this fictional tale based on a true story.

It is true only for you.

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