The Wife of Martin Guerre, Janet Lewis’s most celebrated novel, emerged from the gift of a good book from husband to wife.
Sometime in the 1930s the renowned poet Yvor Winters gave his wife and fellow writer Lewis an old law book, Samuel March Phillips’s Famous Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, thinking that she might find it helpful after she mentioned that she was having trouble with one of her plots.
From that thoughtful, writerly gift grew the three novels of Cases of Circumstantial Evidence, of which The Wife of Martin Guerre is by far the most famous. Already the author of one historical novel, The Invasion, Lewis was drawn to the story of Bertrande de Rols, married at age eleven to the young son of a powerful landowner. “One morning in January, 1539,” Lewis writes, “a wedding was celebrated in the village of Artigues.”
It is no wonder that novels of such enduring mystery could come from a woman with a long and fascinating life of her own.
From that simple opening line Lewis spins a short novel of astonishing depth and resonance, a sharply drawn historical tale that asks contemporary questions about identity and belonging, about men and women, and about an individual’s capacity to act within an inflexible system.
Lewis’s plot closely follows the string of events cited in Phillips’s 1874 legal history. Because of a dispute with his father, ambitious Martin Guerre leaves his wife Bertrande and their young son, intending to return when he can fully claim his inheritance.
He finally returns, eight years later, to a woman who has grown in maturity and in her sense of belonging to the world around her. Or does he? The man who comes walking down the road looks like Martin Guerre, knows things that Martin Guerre would know. But there is something in the way he speaks to his wife, a note of kindness, in fact, that makes Bertrande wonder. Is it Martin Guerre after all?
From this question grows that most unusual of literary forms—a short novel that does its work so efficiently that it feels as substantial as a novel many pages longer. It is no surprise, then, that The Wife of Martin Guerre has drawn comparisons with the greatest short novels in American literature.
The 20th century’s Billy Budd,” the New York Times calls it. Larry McMurtry, no stranger to novels both short and long, writes in the New York Review of Books that Martin Guerre is a “masterpiece… a short novel that can run with Billy Budd, The Spoils of Poynton, Seize the Day, or any other.”
Every few years another writer or critic will weigh in, urging readers to “rediscover” Lewis as she has been rediscovered so many times before.
So what is it that gives The Wife of Martin Guerre such continuing interest? Much of it is rooted in Lewis’s portrait of Bertrande, a woman who grows steadily in confidence as the novel progresses, and who possesses a fierce moral sense that guides her actions even at great personal cost. Lewis’s portrayal of the legal system, while fascinating in its own right, also acts to amplify the moral issues at play. The law operates around questions of evidence, oftentimes incomplete or circumstantial, which nonetheless must be resolved by absolute conclusions of guilt or innocence. At the same time, the law often fails to address what is right, or what a woman like Bertrande knows in her heart to be true.
From the introduction by Kevin Haworth