Chapter 3 Summary
The narrator encounters another bibliophile in a secondhand bookstore. His new acquaintance, Ed Winterton, is an American working on a biography of the life of Edmund Gosse, an English contemporary of Flaubert. A year later, Winterton sends a note inquiring whether the narrator might be interested in a possible lover of Flaubert named Juliet Herbert. He apparently has come across some material relating to her, and the narrator is more than interested. He compares the moment to that of a fiancée opening the ring box—a moment, which, on reflection, he never discussed with his wife afterward and never can now. Juliet Herbert is a mystery in the much studied life of Flaubert. She was his niece's governess for a few years and then moved on. There is disagreement as to whether the lack of information about her is a conspicuous clue about her secret importance in Flaubert's life or suggestive of nothing at all. Gustave called his dog Julio; he called his niece Loulou; George Sand called her goat Gustave. The narrator is aware that such connections are speculative, but he compares biography to a net: a lot of holes held together with string.
It is when the narrator allows himself dreams of glory as the author of "Juliet Herbert: A Mystery Solved" that the reader finally learns the narrator's name: Geoffrey Braithwaite. He meets with Winterton and listens to his story. While researching Gosse, Winterton had discovered that the poet's elderly descendant was in possession of some letters. They had been left with Herbert's cousin, who took them to Gosse for his opinion whether they were worth anything. Gosse said no, and the old lady gave them to him. They had passed to his descendant who in turn asked Winterton if he thought they were valuable. He said not really, but he gave her fifty pounds for them. Braithwaite is appalled but asks whether Winterton had read the letters. Winterton says they give a detailed account of the Flaubert-Herbert affair, answering many outstanding questions. There were even photographs. Flaubert complains of the London fog and describes the Great Exhibition, though he says nothing of brothels.
Braithwaite breathlessly asks to see the letters, but Winterton confesses that he burned them. After further torturing Braithwaite with the priceless detail contained in the letters, he gives as his reason for destroying them that it had been Flaubert's instruction to Herbert and he felt compelled to carry it out. He adds that Flaubert's last note was a direction to Herbert to lie, if asked, about the contents of the letters or at least to tell inquiring people only what they want to hear.