The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis
7.5/10, a dry but fascinating tale of family and mistaken identity in 1500s France
This story was published as a way to document the second ever documented case of circumstantial evidence, but Janet Lewis finds a human drama within the case as well. Bertrande de Rols is married to Martin Guerre at the age of eleven, and returns to live with him a few years later. His father, a stern disciplinarian, has rubbed off on Martin to some extent, but also bred in him a rebellious streak. After one particularly daring act of rebellion, fearing reprisals from his father, Martin flees, promising Bertrande and their young son that he will return soon.
Years go by. Martin’s father never forgives him for his transgression, not until he dies. And the year following his death, Martin returns, looking much different and acting more considerate and erudite. Perhaps the years have softened him? Bertrande welcomes him back into her bed; her family welcomes him as head of the farm. But as the years go by, she becomes convinced he is not truly the Martin who left her. She can only convince one old uncle that she is right, but when a soldier appears who seems to back her story, she gains enough credence to bring her returned husband to court to prove his identity.
Lewis hews closely to the facts of the case as they were presented, elaborating on some of the human interactions and the feelings of Bertrande. Bertrande’s sense of justice and propriety may seem a little outdated to us, but they’re important to her sense of honor, and they form the basis of her character. The story is short but clear, and the twists and turns are the more engaging for being real, or at least based in reality.
The story ends somewhat abruptly, but that’s where the reality of the story really takes hold. It would have been nice to have a clean wrap-up and a more emotionally satisfying conclusion, but all the ending does is remind you that these were real events and real people. After the conclusion of the case, there was no need to keep track of the litigants, so there are no records, and Lewis is forced to speculate. Though brief, her thoughts really tie up the narrative.
This was made into a movie, which I haven’t seen, but the premise itself is fascinating. For as long as we’ve been telling stories, we’ve been fascinated by the nature of identity and personality, and this story speaks strongly to those themes.