1p Book Review: The Wife of Martin Guerre by Janet Lewis


There are countless overlooked books that deserve greater recognition – and many of them can be snapped up for a penny online. Here Nige recommends a classic novella…

Janet Loxley Lewis was the wife of the eminent critic Yvor Winters, and a considerable poet and novelist in her own right. The Wife of Martin Guerre (available for 1p from Amazon) is a novella published in 1941 that reimagines the intriguing case of a 16th-century Frenchman who disappeared for eight years, then reappeared and resumed his life (and his wife) – only this time, apparently, it was not the real Martin Guerre, but an impostor…

It’s the story told in the French film Le Retour de Martin Guerre and the American Civil War movie Sommersby, not to mention several musicals and stage shows. But nobody tells it like Janet Lewis. Her achievement, in a 90-page novella, is to create an entirely convincing medieval world – the world of a relatively wealthy Gascon peasant clan – and an entirely convincing medieval heroine in Martin Guerre’s wife, Bertrande de Rols.

Janet Lewis pulls off the great imaginative feat of making Bertrande at once wholly of her time, thoroughly alien in her medieval (essentially religious) way of thinking – into which no trace of modern sensibility obtrudes – and entirely sympathetic, so that by the time the story comes to its shattering conclusion we feel deeply for her, are fully involved in her impossible dilemma and her sad fate.

This plain tale plainly told in spare, lucid prose – precisely the kind of short fiction that is so easily overlooked and undervalued – works a subtle, special magic on the reader. Or it did on me – I think The Wife of Martin Guerre will haunt me for a long long time.

Would you like to recommend one of the thousands of books that can be bought online for a penny (or a cent)? Email your submission to editorial@thedabbler.co.uk

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About Author Profile: Nige

Cravat-Wearer of the Year Nige, who, like Mr Kenneth Horne, prefers to remain anonymous, is a founder blogger of The Dabbler and has been a co-blogger on the Bryan Appleyard Thought Experiments blog. He is the sole blogger on Nigeness, and (for now) a wholly owned subsidiary of NigeCorp. His principal aim is to share various of life's pleasures.