Many of us oldsters recall The Return of Marin Guerre, the 1982 film with Gerard Depardieu which details the return of a man to a family he left years earlier. Few of us know that the film (and its later remake, Sommersby, set in the American Civil War) know that the genesis of the film was the novel The Wife of Martin Guerre, by Janet Lewis. It was one of several historical novels of hers set in medieval France and based on court cases of the time. Lewis herself had a distinguished literary career (of which I knew nothing), and she was married to the famous poet, Yvor Winters, and lived in Palo Alto because he was a fixture at Stanford. Thanks to Dan for directing me to this fine work.
Martin was the son of a stern and dominating father, and he chaffed at being controlled. He and his wife, Bertrande, were married at eleven, though not joined in consummate matrimony till three or four years later. They lived in the Guerre household, but Martin longed to be on his own. One day he stole some seed, said he was going to plant it where he could prove to his father that he was capable of succeeding without him. He promised to return before long, after his father’s anger had passed.
The absence lasted seven years. Finally, he returned to his wife and son. However, his wife was suspicious. Especially so after the birth of her second son. Her suspicions trigger the court case on which Lewis bases her novel. Is this man Martin or not?
The difference between the book and the films is that we spend all our story time with Bertrande rather than with Martin. Big difference not only in how the plot goes, but in the suspense and emotion of us readers. And, much as I like Depardieu, all to the better for my money. It’s a great tale, well told, and sadly neglected.