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Flaubert and Madame Bovary

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


If, as I believe, the sort of books an author writes depends on the sort of man he is, and so it is well to know what is relevant in his personal history, this, as will presently appear, in the case of Flaubert is essential. He was a very unusual man. No writer that we know of devoted himself with such a fierce and indomitable industry to the art of literature. It was not with him, as it is with most authors, an activity of paramount importance but one that allows for other activities which rest the mind, refresh the body or enrich experience. He did not think that to live was the object of life; for him the object of life was to write: no monk in his cell more resolutely sacrificed the pleasures of the world to the love of God than Flaubert sacrificed the fullness and variety of life to his ambition to create a work of art. He was at once a romantic and a realist. Now, at the bottom of romanticism, as I said in speaking of Balzac, is a hatred of reality and a passionate desire to escape from it. Like the rest of the romantics, Flaubert sought refuge in the extraordinary and the fantastic, in the Orient and in antiquity; and yet, for all his hatred of reality, for all his loathing for the meanness, the platitude, the imbecility of the bourgeois, he was fascinated by it; for there was something in his nature that horribly attracted him to what he most detested. Human stupidity had a revolting charm for him, and he took a morbid delight in exhibiting it in all its odiousness. It got on his nerves with the force of any obsession; it was like a sore on the body that is pain to touch and that yet you can’t help touching. The realist in him pored over human nature as though it were a pile of garbage, not to find something he could value, but to show to all and sundry how base, for all their outward seeming, were human beings.


Gustave Flaubert was born at Rouen in 1821. His father, a doctor, was head of the hospital and lived there with his wife and children. It was a happy, highly respected and affluent family. Flaubert was brought up like any other French boy of his class; he went to school, made friends with other boys, worked little but read much. He was emotional and imaginative, and, like many another child and boy, was troubled by that sense of inner loneliness which the sensitive carry with them all their lives. ‘I went to school when I was only ten,’ he wrote, ‘and I very soon contracted a profound aversion to the human race.’ This is not just a quip; he meant it. He was a pessimist from his youth up. It is true that then romanticism was in full flower and pessimism the fashion: one of the boys at Flaubert’s school blew his brains out, another hanged himself with his necktie; but one cannot quite see why Flaubert, with a comfortable home, affectionate and indulgent parents, a doting sister and friends to whom he was devoted, should have really found life intolerable and his fellow-creatures hateful. He was well-grown and to all appearance healthy.

When he was fifteen, he fell in love. His family went in summer to Trouville, then a modest village by the sea with one hotel; and there, that year, they found staying Maurice Schlesinger, a music publisher and something of an adventurer, with his wife and child. It is worth while to transcribe the portrait Flaubert drew of her later: ‘She was tall, a brunette with magnificent black hair that fell in tresses to her shoulders; her nose was Greek, her eyes burning, her eyebrows high and admirably arched, her skin was glowing and as if it were misty with gold; she was slender and exquisite, one saw the blue veins meandering on her brown and purple throat. Add to that a fine down that darkened her upper lip and gave her face a masculine and energetic expression such as to throw blonde beauties into the shade. She spoke slowly, her voice was modulated, musical and soft.’ I hesitate to translate pourpré with purple, which does not sound alluring, but that is the translation, and I can only suppose that Flaubert used the word as a synonym for bright-hued.

Elisa Schlesinger, then twenty-six, was nursing her baby. Flaubert was timid, and would never have summoned up the courage even to speak to her if her husband had not been a jovial, hearty fellow with whom it was easy to make friends. Maurice Schlesinger took the boy riding with him and, on one occasion, the three of them went for a sail. Flaubert and Elisa sat side by side, their shoulders touching and her dress against his hand; she spoke in a low, sweet voice, but he was in such a turmoil that he could not remember a word she said. The summer came to an end, the Schlesingers left, the Flauberts went back to Rouen and Gustave to school. He had entered upon the one genuine passion of his life. Two years later, he returned to Trouville and was told that Elisa had been and gone. He was seventeen. It seemed to him then that before he had been too stirred really to love her; he loved her differently now, with a man’s desire, and her absence only exacerbated his passion. When he got home, he took up again a book he had started and abandoned, Les Mémoires d’un Fou, and told the story of the summer when he fell in love with Elisa Schlesinger.

At nineteen, to reward him for having matriculated, his father sent him with a certain Dr. Cloquet on a trip to the Pyrenees and Corsica. He was then full-grown and broad-shouldered. His contemporaries have described him as a giant, and so he called himself, though he was not quite six feet tall, which nowadays is no great height; but the French at that time were a good deal shorter than they are now, and he evidently towered over his fellows. He was thin and graceful; his black lashes veiled enormous, sea-green eyes, and his long fair hair fell to his shoulders. Forty years later, a woman who knew him as a youth said that then he was as beautiful as a Greek God. On the way back from Corsica, the travellers stopped at Marseilles, and one morning, coming in from a bathe, Flaubert noticed a young woman sitting in the courtyard of the hotel. He addressed her, and they got into conversation. She was called Eulalie Foucaud and was waiting till the ship sailed to take her back to her husband, an official, in French Guiana. Flaubert and Eulalie Foucaud passed that night together, a night, according to his own account, of that flaming passion which is as beautiful as the setting of the sun on the snow. He left Marseilles and never saw her again. The experience made a deep impression upon him.

Shortly after this, he went to Paris to study law, not because he wanted to be a lawyer, but because he had to adopt some profession; he was bored there, bored by his law-books, bored by the life of the university; and he despised his fellow-students for their mediocrity, their poses and their bourgeois tastes. While in Paris, he wrote a novelette called Novembre in which he described his adventure with Eulalie Foucaud. But he gave her the high arched eyebrows, the upper lip with its bluish down and the lovely neck of Elisa Schlesinger. He had got in touch with the Schlesingers again by calling on the publisher at his office, and was asked by him to dine with him and his wife. Elisa was as beautiful as ever. When last Flaubert had seen her, he was a hobbledehoy; now he was a man, eager, passionate and handsome. He was soon on intimate terms with the couple, dined with them regularly and went on little trips with them. But he was no less timid than before, and for long he hadn’t the courage to declare his love. When at last he did, Elisa was not angry, as he had feared she might be, but made it plain that she was not prepared to be anything more to him than a good friend. Her story was curious. When first Flaubert met her, in 1836, he thought, as did everyone else, that she was the wife of Maurice Schlesinger; she was not; she was married to a certain Emile Judéa who through dishonesty had got into serious trouble, whereupon Schlesinger had come forward with the offer to provide money sufficient to save him from prosecution on the condition that he left France and gave up his wife. This he did, and Schlesinger and Elisa Judéa lived together, there being at the time no divorce in France, till Judéa’s death in 1840 enabled them to marry. It is said that, notwithstanding his absence and death, it was this abject creature that Elisa continued to love; and it may be that this, and a sense of loyalty to the man who had given her a home and was the father of her child, combined to make her hesitate to accede to Flaubert’s desires. But he was ardent, Schlesinger was flagrantly unfaithful, and perhaps she was touched by Flaubert’s boyish devotion; at length he persuaded her to come one day to his apartment; he awaited her with feverish anxiety; she never came. Such is the story that Flaubert’s biographers have accepted on the strength of what he wrote in L’Education Sentimentale, and since it is plausible, it may well be a faithful account of the facts. What is certain is that Elisa never became his mistress.

Then, in 1844, an event occurred that was to change Flaubert’s life and, as I hope to show later, affect his literary production. One dark night he was driving back to Rouen with his brother from a property of their mother’s which they had been visiting. His brother, nine years older than he, had adopted his father’s profession. Suddenly, without warning, Flaubert ‘felt himself carried away in a torrent of flames and fell like a stone to the floor of the trap’. When he recovered consciousness, he was covered with blood; his brother had carried him into a neighbouring house and bled him. He was taken to Rouen, where his father bled him again; he was dosed with valerian and indigo, and he was forbidden to smoke, drink wine or eat meat. He continued for some time to have fits of great violence. For days after, his shattered nerves were in a state of frantic tension. A great deal of mystery has surrounded this illness, and the doctors have discussed it from various points of view. Some have frankly said it was epilepsy, and that is what his friends thought it was; his niece in her recollections has passed the matter over in silence; M. Réne Dumesnil, himself a doctor and the author of an important work on Flaubert, claims that it was not epilepsy, but what he calls hystero-epilepsy. But whatever it was, the treatment was very much the same; Flaubert for some years was given enormous doses of quinine sulphate, and later, and more or less for the rest of his life, potassium bromide.

It is possible that the attack did not come as a complete surprise to Flaubert’s family. He is reputed to have told Maupassant that he had first had auditory and visual hallucinations when he was twelve. When at the age of nineteen he was sent on a journey, it was with a doctor and, since change of scene was part of the treatment his father afterwards prescribed, it does not seem unlikely that he had already had something in the nature of a fit. The Flauberts, though rich, were provincial, humdrum and thrifty: it is hard to believe that they would have thought of letting their son go on a trip, with a medical man, merely because he had passed the examination which every educated French boy has to undergo. Even as a lad, Flaubert had never felt himself quite like the people with whom he came in contact, and it seems probable that the sombre pessimism of his early youth had its cause in the mysterious disease which, even then, must have been affecting his nervous system. Anyhow, he was faced now with the fact that he was afflicted with a terrifying malady, the attacks of which were unpredictable, and it was necessary to change his mode of life. He decided, willingly enough, it may be supposed, to abandon the law, and made up his mind never to marry.

In 1845 his father died, and two or three months later Caroline, his only sister, whom he adored, after giving birth to a daughter died also. As children they had been inseparable, and till her marriage she was his dearest companion.

Some time before his death, Dr. Flaubert had bought a property, called Croisset, on the banks of the Seine, with a fine stone house two hundred years old, a terrace in front of it and a little pavilion looking over the river. Here the widow settled with her son, Gustave, and the baby daughter of Caroline; her elder son, Achille, was married and succeeded his father at the Rouen hospital. Croisset was to be Flaubert’s home for the rest of his life. He had been writing off and on from a very early age, and now, unable through his illness to live a normal life, he made up his mind to devote himself wholly to literature. He had a large work-room on the ground floor, with windows on the river and the garden. He adopted methodical habits. He got up about ten, read his letters and the papers, lunched lightly at eleven and, till one, lounged about the terrace or sat in the pavilion reading. At one, he set to work and worked till dinner at seven, then he took another stroll in the garden and went back to work till far into the night. He saw nobody but the few friends whom, now and then, he invited to stay with him so that he might discuss his work with them. They were three: Alfred Le Poittevin, older than Flaubert, but a friend of the family; Maxime du Camp, whom he had met when reading law in Paris; and Louis Bouilhet, who earned his meagre living by giving lessons in Latin and French at Rouen. They were all interested in literature, and Bouilhet was a poet. Flaubert had an affectionate disposition and was devoted to his friends, but he was possessive and exacting. When Le Poittevin, who had had a considerable influence over him, married a Mademoiselle de Maupassant he was outraged. ‘It meant to me,’ he said later, ‘what the news of a great scandal caused by a bishop would have meant to a believer.’ Of Maxime du Camp and Louis Bouilhet I shall have something to say presently.

When Caroline died, Flaubert took a cast of her face and hands, and some months later went to Paris to commission Pradier, then a well-known sculptor, to make a bust of her. At Pradier’s studio he met a poetess called Louise Colet. She was one of those writers, far from rare in the world of letters, who suppose that push and pull are an adequate substitute for talent; and, with beauty to help, she had acquired something of a position in literary circles. She had a salon frequented by celebrities, and was known as ‘the Muse.’ Her husband, Hippolite Colet, was a professor of music; her lover, by whom she had a child, was Victor Cousin, philosopher and statesman. She wore her fair hair in ringlets that framed her face, and her voice was passionate and tender. She acknowledged to thirty, but was in fact some years older. Flaubert was twenty-five. Within forty-eight hours, after a slight contretemps owing to his nervousness and excitement, he became her lover, not of course displacing the philosopher, whose attachment, though according to her by then platonic, was official; and three days later, leaving Louise in tears, he returned to Croisset. The same night Flaubert wrote to her the first of as strange a series of love letters as ever lover wrote to his mistress. Many years later, he told Edmond de Goncourt that he had loved Louise Colet ‘furiously’; but he was always prone to exaggeration and the correspondence hardly bears out the statement. I think we may surmise that he was proud to have a mistress who was in the public eye; but he lived a rich life of the imagination and, like many another day-dreamer, found that he loved his mistress more when he was away from her than when he was with her. Somewhat unnecessarily, he told her so. She urged him to come and live in Paris; he told her that he could not leave his mother, broken by the death of her husband and her daughter; then she begged him at least to come more often to Paris; he told her that he could only get away if he had a reasonable excuse, whereupon she answered angrily: ‘Does that mean that you’re watched over like a girl?’ That is, in point of fact, pretty well what it did mean. His epilepti-form fits left him for days weak and depressed, and it was natural that his mother should be anxious. She would not let him swim in the river, which was his delight, nor go in a boat on the Seine, without someone to look after him. He could not ring the bell for a servant to bring him something he wanted without his mother rushing upstairs to see if he was well. He told Louise that his mother would raise no objection if he proposed leaving her for a few days, but he could not bear the distress it would cause her. Louise can hardly have failed to see that, if he loved her as passionately as she loved him, that would not have prevented him from joining her. Even at this time of day, it is easy to think of plausible reasons he could have given that made it essential for him to go to Paris. He was a very young man, and if he consented to see Louise so seldom, it is likely enough that, constantly under the influence of powerful sedatives as he was, his sexual desires were not pressing.

‘Your love isn’t love,’ Louise wrote, ‘in any case it doesn’t mean much in your life.’ To this he replied: ‘You want to know if I love you. Well, yes, as much as I can love; that’s to say, for me love isn’t the first thing in life, but the second.’ Flaubert prided himself on his frankness; it was indeed brutal. His tactlessness was amazing. On one occasion, he asked Louise to find out from a friend of hers who had lived at Cayenne what had happened to Eulalie Foucaud, the object of his adventure at Marseilles, and even asked her to have a letter delivered to her; he was frankly astonished when she accepted the commission with irritation. He even told her of his encounters with prostitutes, for whom he had, according to his own story, an inclination which he frequently gratified. But there is nothing men lie about so much as about their sex life, and it is probable that he was boasting of powers which he did not possess. He certainly treated Louise cavalierly. Once, yielding to her importunity, he suggested a meeting at a hotel at Mantes, where, if she started early from Paris and he from Rouen, they could spend an afternoon together, and he could still get home by nightfall. He was astounded when the proposal excited her indignation. In the two years the affair lasted they met six times and it was apparently she who broke it off.

Meanwhile, Flaubert had been busy writing La Tentation de St. Antoine, a book that he had long had in mind; and it had been settled that as soon as he was through with it, he and Maxime du Camp should go on a jaunt to the Near East. Madame Flaubert’s consent had been obtained because her son, Achille, and Dr. Cloquet, the medical man who had years before accompanied Flaubert to Corsica, agreed that a sojourn in warm countries would benefit his health. When then the book was finished, Flaubert summoned du Camp and Bouilhet to Croisset so that he might read it to them. He read for four days, four hours in the afternoon and four hours at night. It was decided that no opinion should be given till the whole work had been heard. At midnight on the fourth day, Flaubert, having read to the end, banged his fist on the table and said: ‘Well?’ One of them answered: ‘We think you ought to throw it on the fire and not speak of it again.’ It was a shattering blow. They argued for hours, and finally Flaubert accepted their verdict. Then Bouilhet suggested that Flaubert, taking Balzac as his model, should write a realistic novel. By this time it was eight in the morning, and they went to bed. Later in the day, they met again to continue the discussion and, according to Maxime du Camp in his Souvenirs Littéraires, it was then that Bouilhet proposed the story that eventually became Madame Bovary; but since, on the journey on which Flaubert and du Camp soon after set out, Flaubert in his letters home mentioned various subjects for novels that he was considering, but not Madame Bovary, it is pretty certain that du Camp was mistaken. The two friends visited Egypt, Palestine, Syria and Greece. They returned to France in 1851. Flaubert was still undecided about what he should try his hand at, and it is probably then that Bouilhet told him the story of Eugène Delamare. Delamare had been an interne, house surgeon or house physician, at the hospital at Rouen, and he had a practice in a small town nearby. On the death of his first wife, a widow much older than himself, he married the pretty young daughter of a neighbouring farmer. She was pretentious and extravagant. She soon grew bored with her dull husband and took a series of lovers. She spent on clothes money she could not afford and ran hopelessly into debt. Finally she took poison, and eventually Delamare killed himself. As everyone knows, Flaubert followed this mean little story very closely.

Soon after his return to France, he again met Louise Colet. During his absence things had gone badly with her. Her husband had died, Victor Cousin had ceased to assist her financially, and she could get no one to accept a play she had written. She wrote to Flaubert that she was passing through Rouen on her way back from England; they met, and their correspondence was renewed. After a while he went to Paris and again became her lover. One wonders why. She was by now in her forties, a blonde, and blondes don’t wear well, and at the time women with any pretentions to respectability did not make up. Perhaps he was touched by her feeling for him; she was the only woman who had ever been in love with him, and perhaps, sexually uncertain as he seems to have been, he felt at his ease with her on the rare occasions on which they had sexual intercourse. Her letters were destroyed, but his remain. From them you can gather that Louise had learnt nothing: she was as domineering, as exacting and as tiresome as she had been from the first. Her letters seem to have become increasingly acrimonious. She continued to press Flaubert to come to Paris, or to let her come to Croisset; and he continued to find excuses not to do the one nor to let her do the other. His letters are chiefly concerned with literary subjects, and they end with very perfunctory expressions of affection; their chief interest lies in the remarks he makes on the difficult progress of Madame Bovary, which he was by then absorbed in. Every now and then Louise sent him a poem she had written. His criticism was harsh. It was inevitable that the affair should come to an end. Louise brought it about by her own rashness. It appears that, for the sake of their daughter, Victor Cousin had offered to marry her, and she seems to have let Flaubert know that it was on his account that she had refused. She had in point of fact made up her mind to marry Flaubert, and very imprudently told friends that she was going to. When it came to his ears, he was aghast; and after a series of violent scenes, which not only frightened but humiliated him, he told her that he would never see her again. Undeterred, however, she arrived at Croisset one day to make yet another scene; he threw her out so brutally that even his mother was outraged. Notwithstanding the stubborn determination of her sex to believe only what they want to believe, ‘the Muse’ was at last obliged to face the fact that Flaubert was finished with her for good and all. She revenged herself by writing a novel, said to be very poor, in which she drew a vicious portrait of him.


Now I must hark back. When the two friends returned from the East, Maxime du Camp settled in Paris and bought an interest in the Revue de Paris. He came to Croisset to urge Flaubert and Bouilhet to write for him. After Flaubert’s death, du Camp published two stout volumes of reminiscences which he called Souvenirs Littéraires. All who have written about Flaubert have made free use of them, and it seems ungrateful that they should have treated their author with contumely. In this book du Camp wrote: ‘Authors are divided into two classes: those for whom literature is a means, those for whom literature is an end. I belonged, I have always belonged, to the former category; I have never asked from literature more than the right to love it and to cultivate it as best I could.’ The class of literary men to which Maxime du Camp was satisfied to belong has always been a large one. These are the men who have literary inclinations, a love of literature, and often talent, taste, culture and facility; but no gift of creation. In their youth they are apt to write accomplished verse or an indifferent novel, but after a while they settle down to what they find comes more easily to them. They review books, or become editors of literary magazines; write prefaces to the selected works of dead authors, biographies of eminent persons, essays on literary subjects; and in the end, like du Camp, their reminiscences. They perform a useful function in the world of letters, and since they often write with elegance, their productions are generally pleasant to read. There is no reason to regard them with the scorn with which Flaubert came to regard du Camp.

People have said, I think unjustly, that du Camp was jealous of Flaubert. In his reminiscences he wrote: ‘Never has the thought come to me of so exalting myself as to compare myself with Flaubert, and never have I allowed myself to dispute his superiority.’ No man could say fairer than that. As lads in the Latin Quarter, when Flaubert was reading law, they had been intimate; they had eaten in the same inexpensive restaurants, and interminably talked of literary subjects in the same cafés. Later, on their travels in the Near East they had been sea-sick together in the Mediterranean, got drunk together in Cairo and whored together when they had the opportunity. Flaubert was not easy to get on with, for he was impatient of contradiction, irritable and overbearing. For all that, du Camp felt a sincere affection for him and thought highly of him as a writer; but he knew the man too well to be unaware of his weaknesses; it is not in human nature that he should have looked upon the boon-companion of his youth with the veneration with which he was regarded by his fanatical admirers. For this the poor wretch has been unmercifully abused.

Du Camp thought that his old friend made a mistake in burying himself at Croisset; and on one of his numerous visits urged him to settle down in Paris, where he could meet people, and by mixing in the intellectual life of the capital, by exchanging ideas with his fellow writers, widen his mind. On the face of it, there was much to say for the notion. The novelist must live among his raw material. He cannot wait for experience to come to him; he must go in search of it. Flaubert had lived a very narrow life. He knew little of the world. The only women with whom he had been more than casually acquainted were his mother, Elisa Schlesinger and ‘the Muse.’ But he was impetuous and imperious. He resented interference. Du Camp, however, would not let well alone, and in a letter he wrote from Paris went so far as to tell Flaubert that if he continued to lead that constricted life he would soon suffer from softening of the brain. The remark infuriated Flaubert and he never forgot it. It was of course an unfortunate one to make, since he was always afraid that these epileptiform attacks of his would result in something of the sort. In fact, in one of his letters to Louise he said that in four years he might become an idiot. Flaubert replied to du Camp with an angry letter, in which he told him that the life he led was exactly what suited him, and that he had only contempt for the wretched hacks who composed the literary life of Paris. An estrangement ensued, and though later the old friends renewed relations, they were never cordial. Du Camp was an active, energetic man, and he quite frankly wanted to make his way in the literary world of his day; but that he should wish to do this seemed to Flaubert disgusting: ‘he is lost to us,’ he wrote, and for the next three or four years never mentioned his name without contempt. He found his productions despicable, his style abominable and his borrowings from other authors scandalous. Flaubert was glad, all the same, that du Camp should print in his magazine the poem in three thousand lines that Bouilhet had written on a Roman subject, and when Madame Bovary was finished, he accepted du Camp’s offer to serialise it in the Revue de Paris.

Louis Bouilhet remained his only intimate friend. Flaubert, mistakenly it is held now, thought him a great poet and trusted his judgment as he trusted that of no one else. He owed a great deal to him. Except for Bouilhet, Madame Bovary would very likely never have been written, and certainly would not have been the book it is. It was he who after interminable arguments persuaded Flaubert to write a synopsis, which Mr. Francis Steegmuller in his excellent work, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, has printed. Bouilhet found it very promising and at last, in 1851, Flaubert, being then thirty, set to work. With the exception of La Tentation de St. Antoine, the more important of his early works had been strictly personal; they were, in fact, novelisations of his amorous experience: his aim now was to be strictly objective. He determined to tell the truth without bias or prejudice, narrating the facts and exposing the characters of the persons he had to deal with without comment of his own, neither condemning nor praising: if he sympathised with one, not to show it; if the stupidity of another exasperated him, the malice of a third outraged him, not to allow word of his to reveal it. This, on the whole, is what he succeeded in doing, and that is perhaps why many readers have found a certain coldness in the novel. There is nothing heartwarming in this calculated, obstinate detachment. Though it may be a weakness in us, my impression is that, as readers, we find comfort in knowing that the author shares the emotions he has made us feel.

But the attempt at complete impersonality fails with Flaubert, as it fails with every novelist, because complete impersonality is impossible to achieve. It is very well that the writer should let his characters explain themselves and, as far as may be, let their actions be the outcome of their natures, and he may easily make a nuisance of himself when he draws your attention to his heroine’s charm or his villain’s malevolence, when he moralises or irrelevantly digresses, when, in short, he is a personage in the story he is telling; but this is only a matter of method, one that some very good novelists have used and, if it happens to have gone out of fashion at the moment, that is not to say it is a bad one. But the author who avoids it keeps his personality only out of the surface of his novel; he reveals it willy-nilly by his choice of subject, his choice of characters and the point of view from which he describes them. Flaubert eyed the world with gloomy indignation. He was violently intolerant. He had no patience with stupidity. The bourgeois, the commonplace, the ordinary filled him with exasperation. He had no pity. He had no charity. Most of his adult life he was a sick man, oppressed by the humiliation which his distemper caused him to feel. His nerves were in a constant state of perturbation. He was, as I have said, at once a romantic and a realist; and he flung himself into the sordid story of Emma Bovary with the fury of a man revenging himself by wallowing in the gutter because life has not met the demands of his passion for the ideal. We are introduced to many persons in the course of the novel’s five hundred pages, and but for Dr. Larivière, a minor character, they have hardly a redeeming feature. They are base, mean, stupid, trivial and vulgar. A great many people are, but not all; and it is inconceivable that in a town, however small, there should not be found one person at least, if not two or three, who is sensible, kindly and helpful. Flaubert failed to keep his personality out of his novel.

His deliberate intention was to choose a set of characters who were thoroughly commonplace, and devise incidents that would inevitably arise from their nature and their circumstances; but he was well aware of the possibility that no one would be interested in persons so dull, and that the incidents he had to relate would prove tedious. How he proposed to deal with this I will come to later. Before doing so, I want to consider how far he succeeded in his attempt. The characters are drawn with consummate skill. We are persuaded of their truth. We no sooner meet them than we accept them as living creatures, standing on their own feet, in the world we know. We take them for granted, as we take our plumber, our grocer, our doctor. It never occurs to us that they are figures in a novel. Homais, to mention one, is a creature as humorous as Mr. Micawber, and he has become as familiar to the French as Mr. Micawber is to us; and we believe in him as we can never quite believe in Mr. Micawber, for, unlike Mr. Micawber, he is always consistently himself. But Emma Bovary is not by any means the ordinary farmer’s daughter. That there is in her something of every woman and of every man is true. We are all given to extravagant and absurd reveries, in which we see ourselves rich, handsome, successful, the heroes or heroines of romantic adventures; but most of us are too sensible, too timorous or too unadventurous to let our day-dreams seriously affect our behaviour. Emma Bovary was exceptional in that she tried to live her fantasies; she was exceptional in her beauty. As is well known, when the novel was published author and printer were prosecuted on the charge that it was immoral. I have read the speeches of the public prosecutor and of the defending counsel. The prosecutor recited a number of passages which he claimed were pornographic: they make one smile now, they are so restrained in comparison with the descriptions of sexual intercourse to which modern novelists have accustomed us; but one cannot believe that even then (in 1875) the prosecutor was shocked by them. The defending counsel pleaded that the passages were necessary, and that the moral of the novel was good because Emma Bovary suffered for her misconduct. The judges accepted this view, and the defendants were acquitted. It is evident, however, that if Emma came to a bad end, it was not, as the morality of the time demanded, because she had committed adultery, but because she ran up bills that she hadn’t the money to pay, and if she had had the notoriously thrifty instincts of the Norman peasant, there was no reason why she should not have gone from lover to lover without coming to harm.

On publication, Flaubert’s great novel was enthusiastically received by readers and immediately became a bestseller, but the critics were, when not hostile, indifferent. Strange as it may seem, they were more inclined to attach importance to a novel called Fanny by a certain Ernest Feydeau, which was issued about the same time; and it was only the deep impression that Madame Bovary made on the public, and the influence it had on subsequent writers of fiction, that obliged them in the end to take it seriously.

Madame Bovary is a hard-luck story rather than a tragedy. I should say that the difference between the two is that in a hard-luck story the events that occur are brought about by chance, whereas in a tragedy they are the result of the characters of the persons engaged. It was bad luck that, with her good looks and charm, Emma should have married such a dull fool as Charles Bovary. It was bad luck that when she was pregnant and wanted a son to make up for the disillusionment of her marriage, she should have a daughter. It was bad luck that Rodolphe Boulanger, Emma’s first lover, was a selfish, brutal fellow who let her down. It was bad luck that her second was mean, weak and timorous. It was bad luck that when she was desperate, the village priest, to whom she went for help and guidance, should be a callous and fatuous dolt. It was bad luck that when Emma found herself hopelessly in debt and, threatened with proceedings, so far humiliated herself as to ask Rodolphe for money, he couldn’t give it her, though we are told he would have been ready to do so, because he didn’t happen to have any by him. It was bad luck that it never occurred to him that his credit was good and his lawyer would immediately have given him the required sum. The story Flaubert had to tell necessarily ended in Emma’s death, but it must be confessed that the means by which he brought it about strains the reader’s credulity to the breaking-point.

Some have found it a fault that, though Emma is the central character, the novel begins with an account of Bovary’s early youth and his first marriage, and ends with his disintegration and death. I surmise that Flaubert’s idea was to enclose the story of Emma Bovary within that of her husband, as you enclose a painting in a frame. He may have felt that thus he rounded off his narrative and gave it the unity of a work of art. If this was his intention, it would have been more evident if the end were not hurried and arbitrary. Throughout the book, Charles Bovary has been shown to be weak and easily led. Flaubert tells us that after Emma’s death he changed utterly. That is very summary. Broken as he was, it is hard to credit that he should have become quarrelsome, self-willed and obstinate. Though a stupid man, he was conscientious, and it seems strange that he should have neglected his patients. He badly needed their money. He had Emma’s debts to pay and his daughter to provide for. The radical change in Bovary’s character requires a good deal more explanation than Flaubert has given it. Finally he dies. He was a robust man in the prime of life, and the only reason one can give for his death is that Flaubert, after fifty-five months of exhausting labour, wanted to be done with the book. Since we are expressly told that Bovary’s memories of Emma with time grew dim, and so presumably less poignant, one cannot but ask oneself why Flaubert did not let Bovary’s mother arrange a third marriage for him, as she had arranged the first. It would have added one more note of futility to the story of Emma Bovary, and accorded well with Flaubert’s ferocious sense of irony.

A work of fiction is an arrangement of incidents devised to display a number of characters in action and to interest the reader. It is not a copy of life as it is lived. Just as in a novel conversations cannot be reproduced exactly as they take place in real life, but have to be summarised so that only the essential points are given, and then with clearness and concision, so facts have to suffer some deformation in order to accord with the author’s plan and to hold the reader’s attention. Irrelevant incidents must be omitted; repetitions must be avoided – and, heaven knows, life is full of repetitions; isolated occurrences and events that in real life would be separated by a passage of time may often have to be brought into proximity. No novel is entirely free of improbabilities, and to the more usual ones readers have become so accustomed that they accept them as a matter of course. The novelist cannot give a literal transcript of life, he draws a picture for you which, if he is a realist, he tries to make life-like; and if you believe him he has succeeded.

On the whole, Madame Bovary gives an impression of intense reality, and this arises, I think, not only because Flaubert’s characters are eminently lifelike, but because he has described detail with extreme accuracy. The first four years of Emma’s married life were passed in a village called Tostes; she was hideously bored there, but for the balance of the book this period had to be described at the same pace and with the same detail as the rest. Now, it is difficult to describe a boring time without boring the reader; yet you read the long passage with interest. Flaubert has narrated a series of very trivial incidents, and you are not bored because you are reading something fresh all the time; but since each little incident, whether it is something Emma does, feels or sees, is so commonplace, so trivial, you do get a vivid sensation of her boredom. There is a set description of Yonville, the little town in which the Bovarys settled after leaving Tostes, but it is the only one; for the rest, the descriptions of country and town, beautifully done all of them, are interwoven with the narrative and enforce its interest. Flaubert introduces his characters in action, and we learn of their appearance, their mode of living, their setting, in a continuous process; as, in fact, we come to know people in real life.


I remarked a few pages back that Flaubert was aware that in setting out to write a book about commonplace people he ran the risk of writing a dull one. He desired to produce a work of art, and he felt that he could only surmount the difficulties presented by the sordid nature of his subject and the vulgarity of his characters by means of beauty of style. Now, I do not know whether such a creature exists as the natural born stylist; certainly Flaubert was not; his early works, unpublished in his lifetime, are said to be verbose, turgid and rhetorical. It is generally stated that his letters show little sign that he had a feeling for the elegance and distinction of his native tongue. I don’t think that is true. They were, for the most part, written late at night, after a hard day’s work, and sent to their recipients uncorrected. Words are misspelt and the grammar is often faulty; they are slangy and sometimes vulgar; but there are in them brief descriptions of scenery so real, so rhythmical, that they would not have seemed out of place in Madame Bovary; and there are passages, when he was moved to fury, that are so incisive, so direct, that you feel no revision would have served to improve them. You hear the sound of his voice in the short, crisp sentences. But that was not the way in which Flaubert wanted to write a book. He was prejudiced against the conversational style, and was blind to its advantages. He took for his models La Bruyère and Montesquieu. His aim was to write a prose that was logical, precise, swift and various, rhythmical, sonorous, musical as poetry, and yet preserving the qualities of prose. He was of opinion that there were not two ways of saying a thing, but only one, and that the wording must fit the thought as the glove fits the hand. ‘When I find an assonance or a repetition in one of my phrases,’ he said, ‘I know that I am ensnared in something false.’ (As examples of assonance, the Oxford Dictionary gives man and hat, nation and traitor, penitent and reticent.) Flaubert claimed that an assonance must be avoided, even if it took a week to manage it. He would not allow himself to use the same word twice on a page. That does not seem sensible: if it is the right word in each place, it is the right word to use, and a synonym or a periphrase can never be as apt. He was careful not to allow the sense of rhythm which was natural to him, as it is to every writer, to obsess him (as George Moore in his later works was obsessed) and took pains to vary it. He exercised all his ingenuity to combine words and sounds to give an impression of speed or languor, lassitude or intensity; in short, of whatever state he desired to express.

When writing, Flaubert would sketch out roughly what he wished to say, and then work on what he had written, elaborating, cutting, re-writing, till he got the effect he wanted. That done, he would go out on his terrace and shout out the words he had written, convinced that if they did not sound well, there must be something wrong with them. In that case, he would take them back and work over them again till he was satisfied. Théophile Gautier thought that Flaubert attached too great a value to the cadence and harmony with which he sought to enrich his prose; they were, according to him, only evident when Flaubert in his booming voice read them aloud; but a phrase, he added, is made to read to oneself, not to be bellowed. Gautier was inclined to mock at Flaubert’s fastidiousness: ‘You know,’ he said, ‘the poor chap suffers from a remorse that poisons his life. You don’t know what the remorse is; it’s to have put two genitives together in Madame Bovary, one on the top of the other: une couronne de fleurs d’oranger. It tortures him, but however hard he tried, he found it impossible to avoid.’ It is fortunate for us that by means of our English genitive we can escape this difficulty. We can say: ‘Where is the bag of the doctor’s wife’; but in French you would have to say: ‘Where is the bag of the wife of the doctor.’ It must be confessed that it is not pretty.

Louis Bouilhet would come to Croisset of a Sunday; Flaubert read to him what he had written during the week, and Bouilhet criticised. Flaubert stormed and argued, but Bouilhet held his ground, and in the end Flaubert accepted the emendations, the elimination of superfluous incidents and irrelevant metaphors, the correction of false notes, which his friend insisted on. No wonder the novel proceeded at a snail’s pace. In one of his letters Flaubert wrote: ‘The whole of Monday and Tuesday was taken up with the writing of two lines.’ This does not mean that he wrote only two lines in two days, he may well have written a dozen pages; it means that with all his labour he only succeeded in writing two lines to his satisfaction. Flaubert found the strain of composition exhausting. Alphonse Daudet believed that this was attributable to the bromide that his malady obliged him to make constant use of. If there is anything in this, it may account for the effort it evidently was to him to set down on paper in coherent order the huddle of ideas in his mind. We know how laborious a task he found it to write the well-known scene in Madame Bovary of the agricultural show. Emma and Rodolphe are seated at a window of the local inn. A representative of the préfet has come to deliver a speech. What Flaubert wanted to do he told in a letter to Louise Colet: ‘I have to situate together in the same conversation five or six people (who talk), several others (of whom one hears), the spot where this occurs, the feel of the place, while giving physical descriptions of people and things, and to show in the midst of all a man and a woman who begin (by their common sympathies of taste) to feel a little attracted to one another.’ That does not seem a very difficult thing to do, and Flaubert has in fact done it extremely well, but, though it was only twenty-seven pages long, it took him two solid months. Balzac would have written it in his own way no less well in the inside of a week. The great novelists, Balzac, Dickens and Tolstoy, had what we are accustomed to call inspiration. It is only in a scene here and there that you feel that Flaubert had it; for the rest he seems to have depended on sheer hard work, the advice and suggestions of Bouilhet, and his own acuteness of observation. This is not to depreciate Madam Bovary; but it is strange that so great a work should have been produced, not as we feel Le Père Goriot or David Copperfield was produced in the free flow of an exuberant fancy, but by almost pure ratiocination.

It is not unreasonable to ask oneself how near Flaubert came, by taking the immense pains I have described, to achieve the perfect style at which he aimed. Style is a matter of which a foreigner, even though he knows a language pretty well, can be but an uncertain judge: the finer points, the music, the subtlety, the aptness, the rhythm, can hardly fail to escape him. He must accept the opinions of the native born. For a generation after Flaubert’s death his style was highly regarded in France; now it is less admired. The French writers of to-day find in it a lack of spontaneity. He had, as I have before mentioned, a horror of ‘this new maxim that one must write as one speaks’. And of course one must no more write as one speaks than one must speak as one writes; but written language has life and vitality only if it is firmly grounded on current speech. Flaubert was a provincial, and in his prose was apt to use provincialisms which offend the purists; I don’t suppose that a foreigner, unless they were pointed out to him, would be aware of them; nor would he notice the grammatical mistakes of which Flaubert, like nearly every writer who ever wrote, was sometimes guilty. Few Englishmen, though able to read French with ease and pleasure, could point out what is grammatically wrong with the following phrase: ‘Ni moi! reprit vivement M. Homais, quoiqu’il lui faudra suivre les autres au risque de passer pour un Jésuite’; and fewer still could tell how to put it right.

The French language tends to rhetoric, as the English to imagery (thereby marking a profound difference between the two peoples), and the basis of Flaubert’s style is rhetorical. He made abundant, even excessive, use of the triad. This is the sentence of three members which are arranged, as a rule, either in an ascending or descending scale of importance. It is both an easy and a satisfying way of achieving balance, and orators have taken full advantage of it. Here is an example from Burke: ‘Their wishes ought to have great weight with him; their opinion, high respect; their business, unremitted attention.’ The danger of this sort of sentence, and one from which Flaubert did not escape, is that when used too often it is monotonous. Flaubert in one of his letters wrote; ‘I’m devoured with similes as one is with lice, and I spend all my time crushing them, my phrases swarm with them.’ Critics have observed that in his letters the similes are spontaneous, whereas in Madame Bovary they are too studied, too neatly balanced, to be natural. Here is a good example: Charles Bovary’s mother has come to pay Emma and her husband a visit. ‘Elle observait le bonheur de son fils, avec un silence triste, comme quelqu’un de ruiné qui regarde, à travers les carreaux, des gens attablés dans son ancienne maison.’ This is admirably put, but the simile is in itself so striking that it distracts your attention from the mood it is supposed to illustrate; the object of a simile, however, is to add force and importance to a statement, not to weaken it.

The best French writers of to-day, so far as I have been able to discover, deliberately avoid rhetoric. They attempt to say what they have to say simply and naturally. They eschew the effective triad. They avoid similes, as though they were indeed the vermin to which Flaubert likened them. That, I believe, is why they are apt to hold his style in small esteem, at least the style of Madam Bovary, for when he came to write Bouvard et Pécuchet he abandoned every form of ornament and decoration; and that is why they prefer the easy, flowing, animated and natural manner of his letters to the laboured manner of his greater novels. This is, of course, merely a matter of fashion, and justifies us in forming no judgment on the merits of Flaubert’s style. A style may be stark, like Swift’s, flowery, like Jeremy Taylor’s, or grandiloquent, like Burke’s: each is good, and whether you prefer one to another depends merely on your individual taste.


After the publication of Madame Bovary Flaubert wrote Salammbô, which is generally considered a failure, then another version of L’Education Sentimentale, in which he again described his love for Elisa Schlesinger. Many men of letters in France look upon it as his masterpiece. It is confused and hard to read. Frédéric Moreau, the hero, is partly a portrait of Flaubert, as he saw himself, and partly a portrait of Maxime du Camp, as he saw him; but the two men were too different to make a plausible amalgam, and the character remains unconvincing. He is singularly uninteresting. The book, however, begins admirably, and towards the end there is a parting scene between Madam Arnoux (Elisa Schlesinger) and Frédéric (Flaubert) of rare beauty. Then, for the third time, he wrote La Tentation de St. Antoine. Though Flaubert said he had enough ideas for books to last him to the end of his life, they remained vague projects. It is curious that with the exception of Madame Bovary, the story of which was given him ready-made, the only novels he wrote were founded on ideas he had had early in life. He aged prematurely. At thirty he was already bald and potbellied. It may well be, as Maxime du Camp said, that his nerve storms and the depressing sedatives he took to counteract them impaired his power of imaginative creation.

Time passed, and Caroline, his niece, married. Flaubert and his mother were left alone. His mother died. For some years he had had an apartment in Paris, but there he lived almost as solitarily as at Croisset. He had few friends, except the literary men who met once or twice a month to dine together at Magny’s. He was a provincial, and Edmond de Goncourt said that the more he lived in Paris the more provincial he became. When dining at a restaurant, he insisted on a private room, because he could not bear noise or to have people near him; and he could not eat at his ease without taking off his coat and his boots. After the defeat of France in 1870, Caroline’s husband found himself in financial difficulties, and finally, to save him from bankruptcy, Flaubert handed over his entire fortune. He was left with little except his old home. The worry of this brought on again the fits from which for some years he had been free, and when he dined out, Guy de Maupassant went to fetch him to see him safely home. Goncourt describes him at this time as irritable, sarcastic, irascible and quick to take offence at anything or nothing; but, he added in another note in his journal, ‘so long as you give him the principal part and let yourself catch cold because he keeps on opening the windows, he’s an agreeable companion. He has a ponderous gaiety and the laughter of a child, which is contagious, and in the contact of every day life a hearty affectionateness which is not without charm.’ There Goncourt did him no less than justice. Du Camp said of him: ‘This impetuous, imperious giant, exploding at the least contradiction, was the most respectful, the gentlest, the most attentive son that a mother could dream of.’ And you have only to read his charming letters to his niece to see of what tenderness he was capable.

Flaubert’s last years were lonely. He spent most of the year at Croisset. He smoked too much. He ate too much and drank too much. He took no exercise. His means were straitened. Friends eventually got him the offer of a sinecure which would bring him in three thousand francs a year, and though it deeply humiliated him, he was obliged to accept it. He did not live long enough to profit by it.

The last work he published was a volume of three stories, one of which, Un Coeur Simple, is of a rare excellence. He engaged upon a novel called Bouvard et Pécuchet, in which he determined to have still another fling at the stupidity of the human race, and with his usual thoroughness he read fifteen hundred books to provide himself with the material he thought necessary. It was to be in two volumes, and he almost reached the end of the first. On the morning of May 8, 1880, the maid went into the library at eleven to bring him his lunch. She found him lying on the divan, muttering incomprehensible words. She ran for the doctor and brought him back with her. He could do nothing. In less than an hour Gustave Flaubert was dead.

The only woman he sincerely, devotedly and disinterestedly loved in his life was Elisa Schlesinger. One evening at dinner chez Magny, when Théophile Gautier, Taine and Edmond de Goncourt were present, Flaubert made a curious statement: he said that he had never really possessed a woman, that he was virgin, that all the women he had had were never anything but ‘mattresses’ for another woman, the woman of his dreams. Maurice Schlesinger’s speculations had ended in disaster, and he took his wife and children to live in Baden. In 1871 he died. Flaubert, after loving Elisa for thirty-five years, wrote his first love letter to her. Instead of beginning as he had been used to do, ‘Chère Madame,’ he began: ‘My old love, my only loved one.’ She came to Croisset. Both were greatly changed since they had last seen one another. Flaubert was gross and fat, his face red and blotchy; he wore an immense moustache and to cover his baldness a black cap. Elisa had grown thin, her skin had lost its delicate hues and her hair was white. The lovely description in L’Education Sentimentale of the last meeting of Madame Arnoux and Frédéric Moreau probably faithfully describes the meeting of Flaubert and Elisa after so many years. They met once or twice after that, and then, so far as anyone knows, never again.

A year after Flaubert’s death, Maxime du Camp spent the summer at Baden, and one day, when he was out shooting, found himself near the lunatic asylum of Illenau. The gates were opened to allow the female inmates, under the care of keepers, to take their daily walk. They came out two by two. Among them was one who bowed to him. It was Elisa Schlesinger, the woman whom Flaubert so long and so vainly loved.

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