When Gustave Flaubert and George Sand began their thirteen- year friendship in the early 1860’s, both had acquired controversial reputations in France’s literary and social circles. Sand was born Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin in 1804 to Maurice Dupin, an officer in Napoleon I’s armee d’Italie and Sophie Delaborde, a young proletarian woman; when she and Flaubert first met, she had already acquired the status of an accomplished writer of plays, novels, and articles. Married in 1822 to Casimer Dudevant and renowned for her tumultuous affairs with Alfred de Musset, novelist, playwright, and poet, and the composer Frederic Chopin, Sand played an active role in France’s social and political evolution. She was a frequent contributor to Le Figaro, La Revue de Paris and La Revue des Deux Mondes. After breaking with the latter, whose editor was uncomfortable with her socialistic tendencies, Sand cofounded La Revue Independante in 1841. Her early works, autobiographical in inspiration, evoke a quest for love and happiness. In such lyrical novels as Indiana (1832) and Lélia (1833), Sand recounts the torments experienced by women who must struggle against their passions. In the last twenty-five years of her life, Sand lived tranquilly, and her works written during this time communicate a humanitarian view of existence and her love of nature and of rustic life.
Seventeen years younger than she, Flaubert was born in 1821 to Achille-Cleophas Flaubert, the chief surgeon of Rouen’s municipal hospital, and Caroline Fleuriot, daughter of a physician. Afflicted with a nerve-related illness, Flaubert abandoned his law studies in Paris in 1844 and devoted himself exclusively to his writing. In 1838 he had written his first novel, Memoires d’unfou, an autobiographical piece describing an unfulfilled passion (for Mme. Schlesinger, wife of a music publisher) that would serve later as a preliminary sketch for L’Education sentimentale, to be published in 1869. In 1856, La Revue de Paris published in serial form Madame Bovary, subsequently to appear in its entirety in 1857. The work, which depicts the illicit involvements of Emma Bovary, torn between a life of illusory romance and the reality of her brutish husband, caused an extreme furor among most critics, who condemned vehemently the immorality of the main character. Indeed, the French government undertook unsuccessful legal action against Flaubert in an attempt to halt the publication of the work. Although Sand defended Madame Bovary in an article for Courrier de Paris, she and Flaubert would not establish contact, apart from a brief introduction in 1857 at the Theatre de l’Ode’on in Paris, until 1863, when she wrote to him, mentioning an article she had written on Salammbo, his Carthaginian novel published in 1862. Thus began their friendship, which was characterized by extreme warmth, sharing, and support that would last until Sand’s death in 1876.
It is possible to see this correspondence as one of the most noteworthy of the nineteenth century, for despite distinct differences in the aesthetics and literary attitudes of Flaubert and Sand, it reveals an evolution from a cordial friendship built on respect to a relationship of profound intimacy, intellectual honesty, and mutual support. That two creative temperaments with such opposing literary ideals could be so accepting and at ease with each other is remarkable. Flaubert’s unfailing desire for authorial detachment and impersonal style was in some ways a burden; it led to a certain loss of freedom. A genetic study of Madame Bovary, for example, reveals that during revisions to the manuscript Flaubert conscientiously removed narrative elements that in traditional realistic works are intended to guide the reader, such as in Ronore’ de Balzac’s monumental work La Come’die humaine (1829-1848). Flaubert strove to constrain any authorial lyricism, and endeavored, for the most part, to produce a uniformly sober style devoid of excessively descriptive details. On the other hand, in Consuelo (1842-1843) Sand created a turgid and effusive style, not uncharacteristic of her other works. In a letter to Louise Colet on November 16, 1852, Flaubert assesses Sand’s work: “In 0. Sand, one smells the ’white flowers’: everything oozes, and ideas trickle between words as though between slack thighs.” However divergent their vision of literary creation, Sand and Flaubert shared with each other their commitment to literature, their creative struggles and aspirations.
The initial period of their correspondence, which began in January, 1863, and ended in March, 1864, and which includes only five letters, reveals a tone of respect and admiration, present especially in Flaubert’s letters, which soon develops into a restrained intimacy. Throughout their relationship, there was never any indication of romantic involvement between the two. Their bond was platonic and offered each a confidant as well as a cordial companion. It is evident from the first letter Flaubert wrote to Sand, in which he asked for a portrait of her to hang in his study in the country, that their friendship was to be based on understanding, deep affection, and esteem.
Sand and Flaubert became better acquainted at weekly gatherings of writers and artists at a private dining room of the Restaurant Magny in Paris’s Latin Quarter, organized by such notables as the writer Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the artist Paul Gavarni, and the Goncourt brothers,...
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