Madame Bovary, c'est nous

Fay Weldon does Flaubert.

Emma Bovary is a very modern heroine: the original desperate housewife with a serious spending habit, she's a sex and shopping cautionary tale, a one-woman boom and bust in these credit crunchy times. One could imagine her working the charm and the plastic today, though perhaps the social climber might now be transmuted to celeb twitcher, stalking the net for Cheryl's on-trend accessories and new fall directions from Peaches.

Many have rushed to identify with her, from M Flaubert himself ("Madame Bovary, c'est moi!") to Fay Weldon, the writer of Breakfast With Emma, now in production with the Rosemary Branch Theatre. She goes as far as to say that we are all "Emma Bovarys to a woman". Leaving aside the vexing canard that there is a biological link between womanhood and shopping for a moment, she is indeed an Everywoman of sorts in the play, the agent for a proto-feminism, who has to deal with her husband's views on women's "tiny thoughts" and "fleeting passions".

And perhaps some of us have faultily imagined that we're made of finer stuff than our companions who fall asleep at the theatre, as Emma's husband does ("I had worn too many clothes and the plot was complicated!"). There may well be couples in our acquaintance where one's emotional thermostat is set higher (at Keatsian) than the other's (more Keynesian). There are bits of Bovary everywhere.

But equally it is a credit to Weldon's balanced conception, and Helen Millar's performance, that this is not an Emma we can necessarily identify with. There are suggestions of bi-polar disorder, and of a hysterical nature warped by a convent school education. She is a fantasist, and rewrites the past (and present) to suit herself. Her daughter, the only offspring of Bovary's ovaries "isn't a very rewarding child", and she is a mother in fits and starts only, when it suits her narrative of devoted parent.

Millar manages all the raging, seducing, rationalising and downright madness with ease, alternatively hard-faced and positively deliquescing with rapture. She even manages to look alluring in a frock so frumpy that surely fashionista Emma would have crossed the street to avoid it. She is well off-set by James Burton as lumpish cuckold Charles, who becomes less articulate and more klutzy as his wife reveals her affairs (both lovers, incidentally, played by Jason Eddy, who does Gallic smouldering outrageously well), and the titular breakfast wears on and wears thin.

Helen Tennison's production skips along nicely, though one sensed on other nights the experience might be way funnier: the burghers of St Albans seemed to be alive to the tragedy rather than the comedy of it all. Maybe this pensive mood explains why, on this night at least, the consciously quirky use of the furniture at times felt groundless and gratuitous; laughter might have done the job of forgiving filler, that seals the cracks and anchors gesture to text. But as it is, we're not sure why Emma conducts one of her scenes from half way up the bookcase, or why her mother-in-law exits into an ottoman.

Sometimes the visual payoff was good - a breakfast table tilting, dizzily awry - but the machinations to get there really cumbersome. And an odd timorousness set in: once having gone to all the trouble of hoicking the table to a kooky angle, with Chas Bovary squatting like an incubus at one end of it, Emma attempts to lay it, briefly, but really there could have been a maelstrom of cutlery, a storm of teacups. The surreality is stop-start, so it's hard to tell, for example, why our girl acquires a doppelganger as the petit-dejeuner unravels, draped around the stage in various supine attitudes and, frankly, variously in the way. She did look rather like a a Victorian engraving, along the lines of "Virtue Vanquished", so perhaps we were to read some sort of moral commentary in this.

However there are some great set pieces, notably the Agricultural Fair, with uncanny farmyard ventriloquism by the cast, and the night at the opera, where Emma and her lover lip-synch along to an aria while hubby snoozes, and loses. Both show and ensemble are immensely buoyant and likeable, proof that small scale can be big on heart and ambition.

And Emma, too, is likeable; her ruin is not so - well, ruinous in Weldon's version. Flaubert punishes her with death, the death of her husband, and penury for her daughter; here Emma flounces off, perhaps to take arsenic. Perhaps not.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

0800 7318496