The Wife of Martin Guerre is a short novel (or novella) that is based on the strange but true footnotes of history. A man named Arnaud du Tilh was tried in the 16th century for impersonating another man. The key component here is that Janet Lewis wrote a novel that is based on that actual historical event. The details and context that have lent this story such lasting resonance and made it extremely tempting for those wanting to adapt it into other media are the invention the artist who is the author of the story.
First published in 1941, The Wife of Martin Guerre should not be immediately confused with Natalie Zemon Davis’s non-fiction account of the historical details of the case bearing the more familiar title The Return of Martin Guerre. The creative interpretation of what took place in France in the 1500’s was declared by a review in the Atlantic Monthly to be to the world of 20th century American literature what Herman Melville’s Billy Budd was to the world of 19th century American literature. That comparison covers not only the quality of the text, but also the manner in which both works were critically ignored for too long by too many who should have known better.
The story of the return of a man who may or may not be Martin Guerre may simply have been a tale waiting for its time. Although a masterful film version covering the story was produced in France in the early 1980s with a commanding performance by Gerard Depardieu in the title role (and a weaker but still compelling American remake retitled Sommersby starred celebrities of the stature of Richard Gere and Jodie Foster shortly thereafter) the thematic centerpiece of the narrative is far more attuned to 21st century sense and sensibilities.
Boiled down to its essentials, The Wife of Martin Guerre is story one hears about all too often in the world of smartphones and internet hacking: a tale of what may—or may not—be a case of identity theft. Such is the resonant quality of the notion of identity and postmodern loosening of restrictive conventions of ownership of even one’s name that in addition to the two aforementioned films, the slim volume into which Lewis inserts a much more expansive consideration of ideas has also been the genesis behind a stage musical. This version situates the question of who is the real Mr. Guerre within yet another entirely different means of presentation.