Famous French marital scandal of desertion and mistaken identity; The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. 162 pp. $15. The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis. 1941. Athens, Ohio: Swallow Press. Ohio University Press. 109 pp. $4.95
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Davis's careful researches into the economics, social organization, and community customs of this place and time have enabled her to provide this odd, compelling story with a vivid context. Some readers may be unsettled by her occasional awkward shifts between present and past tenses, or her regular interruptions of the narrative to layer in assorted historical information. Yet she extends the story's significance beautifully - especially in her treatment of the ''Arrest Memorable,'' a description of the case by Jean de Coras, one of the judges at the Toulouse parliament. Davis shows how the Protestant de Coras, questioning the propriety of the Roman Catholic-arranged marriage and the failure of the two families to know the truth, refashioned the story into a ''Protestant message.''Skip to next paragraph
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It's interesting to compare Davis's thoughtful consideration of this event with Janet Lewis's celebrated novella ''The Wife of Martin Guerre,'' originally published in 1941 and still in print, available from Swallow Press. Lewis based her version on an English retelling of the story in a volume entitled ''Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence.'' She has said recently that, after she read Jean de Coras, her opinion of the case changed. That presumably means that she now believes Bertrande may have been fooled, at least temporarily, by the imposter. In Lewis's version, the focus is on Bertrande almost exclusively: Her initial surrender to the impostor is explained by her confused emotions and her longing to be reunited with her lost Martin.
Yet quite apart from the question of its historical veracity, Lewis's retelling remains of permanent value for its characterizations, its surpassingly limpid style, and its ingenious narrative inventions. Lewis introduces her story with a snowstorm on the children's wedding night which evokes the rugged Pryenees setting, fixes an image of enclosure, and foreshadows the ensuing escape. Her spare, vivid picturing of the Guerre family emphasizes young Martin's subservience to his father, hinting at buried feelings that may eventually control his destiny. Her intensely visual, almost tactile presentation of the milieu creates a solidly realistic background against which the characters stand forth in brilliant high relief.
At the center, always, is Bertrande - the frightened bride; the abandoned wife who invites travelers into her home, seeking news of her husband; the worried matron, following the ''return,'' troubled by ''the persistent illusions , or suspicion, that this man was not Martin''; and, following her formal accusation of him, the outcast within the Guerre family.
Lewis ends her story with a stunning irony: Bertrande submits to the ''real'' Martin's charges that she has falsely accepted the wrong man. She sees the harsh , judgmental elder Guerre reborn before her - yet knows that, though Martin will indeed be her master, she is finally ''free . . . of both passions and both men.'' It's a dazzling moment - evidence of an essential psychological truthfulness unmatched even in Davis's factually accurate version of the story - and eloquent testimony to the way the story of Martin Guerre has seized on its hearers' imaginations down through the centuries that separate its events from us.