France tumbled into the nineteenth century in a romantic furor, racked with wars, glorified in battles and in poetry. By the midcentury, this exotic effervescence had died down, replaced by an earnest public wish for middle-class stability. Even the replacement of Louis Philippe by a republic and the republic by the Second Empire did not seem to shake the complacent middle class. Adventure became interior, and the ultimate voyage an inner one. Gustave Flaubert yearned for the exotic East, for travel and adventure, yet he returned from travel to his mother’s home, from romantic entanglements to the security of his study. He embodied the modern writer, caught before a blank page in search of the right word. His biographers may talk of his travels (Flaubert’s trip to Egypt is notorious) and his romances (Louise Colet, equally notorious, makes excellent copy), but in the context of the writer’s life, these incidents are brief. The most highly colored among them occurred before the main body of his work was written. Several studies of Flaubert are limited to his early years, ending with the furor surrounding his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857; English translation, 1886). In Flaubert: A Biography, Herbert Lottman covers Flaubert’s entire life and painstakingly documents some activities which the author managed to conceal even from his friends. Lottman’s Flaubert is a lusty man, beautiful in youth, ruddy and weathered in maturity, sometimes awkwardly provincial, sometimes a bit of a dandy, but always outsized and warm, full of enthusiasms and devoted to his friends and family.
Lottman’s approach is chronological and traditional. He begins with the Flaubert family background in Champagne and the history of the marriage of Achille and Anne Flaubert. Gustave, born in Rouen in 1821, was the second of three children to survive from a brood of six. His father was chief surgeon of the municipal hospital, a dedicated man, universally respected. His older brother Achille was groomed to succeed their father. A delicate younger sister, Caroline, was Gustave’s playmate. His mother was devoted to her children but often despondent, permanently saddened by the early deaths of her parents and three of her children. The family lived in an apartment at the hospital. Gustave and Caroline would peek in through the dissecting room windows at the corpses on their slabs.
A family story asserts that Flaubert could not read until he was nearly nine. Lottman uses the child’s letters to a friend to show that by that age he was already writing plays to be performed with friends before an audience. School prize records show the author’s early promise. He was expelled before taking his baccalaureate examination and finished his secondary studies at home. Lottman depicts the young Flaubert, yearning after literature and adventure, dutifully studying with the prospect of an eventual law practice. The successful completion of his examination in August, 1840, was celebrated by a trip to southern France and Corsica with friends of his parents, a trip marked by a short, passionate affair with an older woman in Marseilles.
The tone of the early years of Flaubert’s life was set by his family relationships; his later, literary life as well was intimately interwoven with the story of his family, friendships, and romances. An older childhood friend, Alfred le Poittevin, destined for a legal career by his father as Gustave by his, was an early role model as a misunderstood artist. Some of Flaubert’s earliest stories were dedicated to le Poittevin. Lottman discusses the juvenilia in their relationship to this influential friendship, as well as the impact of le Poittevin’s marriage and early death on Flaubert’s mature work. Louis Bouilhet, a former schoolmate, helped Flaubert through the throes of composition; Flaubert helped to get Bouilhet’s plays produced. Maxime Du Camp, an ambitious, active young writer, became Flaubert’s friend during his law studies in Paris. He encouraged Gustave’s literary aspirations and later was the first to publish Bouilhet and Flaubert.
The law career was doomed to disaster; the discipline was uncongenial, the life in Paris bleak compared to home. Flaubert passed his first set of exams in 1842 but failed the second in 1843. In January of 1844, while visiting in Normandy, he suffered a series of seizures which ended his family’s expectations of a practical career for him. Treatment was drastic and his recovery slow; Lottman supplies details of both, noting the role of epilepsy as a rescue from law studies and the gradual...
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