This small book, easily read in an afternoon is the story of a tragic love triangle that will haunt the reader long after the last page. First published in France in 1937, it is set in in the 1930s, near Liège in the French speaking part of Belgium where the author spent her childhood.
Elisa is an unsophisticated, rural housewife whose docile exterior conceals a passionate sensuality, and an inner self that is tormented by an all-consuming love for her husband Gilles.
As she sees it, her identity and her destiny are to be Gilles’ woman. She cannot conceive of any greater happiness than giving him pleasure in their most intimate moments and in the minutiae of their daily life. Elisa loves her children only because they came to her from Gilles’ body and as the story begins she is pregnant with their third child.
Gilles is tall, rugged and still very handsome. He has settled into the routine of work at the foundry, and of evenings spent at home being cherished by Elisa who eagerly awaits his arrival.
Victorine, Elisa’s younger sister, is capricious, flighty, and heartless. She flaunts an insolent sexuality which she uses to trap her prey only to move on once she finds better game.
Elisa’s world is shattered when she discovers that Gilles and her sister have started an affair but she fears that, were she to confront him, Gilles is so obsessed he would leave her and live openly with Victorine. Elisa cannot turn to her mother who is also Victorine’s mother, and she has no friends in whom she can confide, having long ago sacrificed her identity on the altar of her obsession.
In spite of the daily humiliations she must endure, she clings to the hope that Victorine will soon tire of him. Despairing for her survival, she remains in the only role possible for her, that of devoted wife.
This is a story about infidelity and obsession and human frailty and all the damage they can inflict in a relationship.
Whether you feel exasperation or empathy for Elisa’s behavior, keep in mind that in the 1930’s Belgium offered no support whether practical or emotional for women trapped in what is after all an eternal and universal triangle.
Madeleine Bourdouxhe was born in Belgium in 1906. “La Femme de Gilles” was her first novel and was widely praised when it was published in Paris in 1937. Her writing career was interrupted by World War II. “La Femme de Gilles” was reprinted in French, in Belgium in 1985 and translated in English by Faith Evans in 1988. It was made into a movie which was awarded the André Cavens Award for Best Film by the Belgian Film Critics Association in 2004.