The Letters of Gustave Flaubert

by Gustave Flaubert

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The Letters of Gustave Flaubert

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2962

Not all great writers are also great correspondents—witness the preoccupation with trivia by William Butler Yeats and James Joyce, and the pomposity of Thomas Mann as he sends resonant messages to the Muse of Posterity. Gustave Flaubert, however, is a magnificent letter writer—perhaps the finest of that small group of literary men who also excelled as correspondents; only John Keats, Lord Byron, Stendhal, Henry James, and Anton Chekhov belong in his company. This volume is therefore of first-rate importance, particularly since it admits the reader into Flaubert’s creative laboratory during the years, 1851-1856, that he was sweating out the tortured progress of the novel that would forever alter the form of its genre: Madame Bovary.

Francis Steegmuller, the editor-translator, is an old Flaubertian. His translation of Madame Bovary has long been admired; it remains available in a Modern Library edition. In 1939, he published a double biography, Flaubert and Madame Bovary, analyzing both the genesis of the novel and the accompanying course of its creator’s difficult liaison with Louise Colet. In 1953, he edited a selection of Flaubert’s letters for the Great Letters series. And, in 1972, he edited Flaubert in Egypt, a narrative of Flaubert’s travels of 1849-1851 as drawn from both his letters and journals and the writings of this trip companion, Maxime DuCamp.

The present volume is announced as the first of two that will draw from the new Pléiade edition of Jean Bruneau (volume 1, 1973). The previous standard edition, Conard’s of 1902, had been supervised by Flaubert’s niece Caroline, who had brutally bowdlerized a great deal of bawdry from Flaubert’s letters. Moreover, Steegmuller’s 1953 selection includes about one third fewer letters from the 1830-1857 period, and has a far scantier apparatus of summaries, bridging passages, introductions, and footnotes. To be sure, Steegmuller’s edition is still a stringent one compared to its source: it includes 160 letters, while the Pléiade edition, so far published to the year 1851, has 389, plus more than one hundred replies to Flaubert’s correspondence. Since Steegmuller is himself a fine stylist, his new edition reads naturally. It convincingly captures Flaubert’s tone and content.

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen’s municipal hospital, second son of its distinguished chief surgeon. He was slow to learn the alphabet and to write, causing his demanding family premature concern (and Jean-Paul Sartre to title his study of Flaubert L’Idiot de la Famille). Once started, however, the boy became a brilliantly profuse writer, with his early notebooks and letters exhibiting a fine flow of adolescent rhetoric; Steegmuller includes ten precocious letters written between the ages of nine and eighteen.

When he was almost fifteen, Gustave fell into his first infatuation with a married woman of twenty-six, Elise Schlesinger, who gave him the nourishing love his own rigid and frigid mother had denied him. As with other people, he cherished the memory of her over many years, finally portraying her as Mme. Arnoux in A Sentimental Education, published when he was almost fifty. Yet, Flaubert resisted love far oftener than he admitted it to his morose, caustic, pessimistic temperament. From age eighteen on, his erotic preference was for whores and brothels, the seamier and sleazier the better. “For me,” he wrote when he was twenty-five, “love is not and should not be in the foreground of life; it should remain in the back room.”

What consistently did remain in the foreground of Flaubert’s life was his devotion to his dour mother, in whose Croisset house he lived out much of his adulthood, and to several male friends. He wrote effusive letters to a trio of them: Alfred Le Poittevin, Maxime DuCamp, and Louis Bouilhet. These epistles manifest a marked homosexual streak—or, perhaps more precisely, femininity. Le Poittevin played elder brother to Gustave. Their parents were close friends; both became reluctant law students; both cultivated romantic languor, extensive whoring, and pervasive cynicism. In his letters to Alfred, Gustave often opened his heart and pen to intimate declarations of his disgust with ordinary life. Here is a good example, written in 1845:Do as I do. Break with the outside world, live like a bear—a polar bear—let everything else go to hell—everything, yourself included, except your intelligence. There is now such a great gap between me and the rest of the world that I am sometimes surprised to hear people say the most natural and simple things. It’s strange how the most banal utterance sometimes makes me marvel. There are gestures, sounds of people’s voices, that I cannot get over, silly remarks that almost give me vertigo. Have you sometimes listened closely to people speaking a foreign language you didn’t understand?

When Le Poittevin decided to marry in 1846, Flaubert felt betrayed and devastated. He turned for intimacy to Maxime DuCamp, also a law student, whose worldliness and efficiency contrasted with Flaubert’s reclusiveness and aversion to practical affairs. DuCamp lent himself to the office of go-between when Gustave began his liaison with the married Louise Colet, but was jealous of her, soon finding her vapid and exasperating. From 1849 to 1851, Gustave interrupted his affair with Louise and traveled to the Middle East with Maxime. The route included Egypt, Palestine, Greece, and Turkey. Everywhere the two made a triumphal tour of not only aesthetic antiquities and ruins but also verminous brothels catering to both sexes and polymorphous sensations from buggery to bestiality. Flaubert writes here of sexual couplings involving not only whores but transvestites, bardashes, monkeys, donkeys, even ostriches. One day, he proclaims, he “fired five times and sucked three.” What added exotic excitement to this performance, achieved with a locally famous courtesan, was a regiment of bedbugs on the wall which he amused himself killing without changing his position with the woman. When Louise Colet was later to assert her disgust with Flaubert’s description of the bedbugs, he wrote her in 1853:... You tell me that Kuchuk’s bedbugs degrade her in your eyes; for me they were the most enchanting touch of all. Their nauseating odor mingled with the scent of her skin, which was dripping with sandalwood oil. I want a bitter undertaste in everything—always a jeer in the midst of our triumphs, desolation in the very midst of enthusiasm... .

Most of Flaubert’s Oriental correspondence is addressed to Louis Bouilhet (1822-1869), whose friendship with Gustave was to be termed a “liaison” by Louis. The two, Steegmuller informs the reader, “grew to look strikingly alike.” Bouilhet’s affection and admiration for Flaubert consoled him for Le Poittevin’s “defection” to marriage and death of tuberculosis in 1847, but also created an adversarial situation between not only Bouilhet and Louise Colet, but also Bouilhet and DuCamp. Yet, both friends agreed in advising Flaubert not to publish the bloated version of The Temptation of Saint Anthony that he read to them for no less than thirty-two hours in 1849.

Bouilhet became not only Flaubert’s erotic but also chief literary confident, the “midwife” (Flaubert’s word) in the creation of Madame Bovary. Flaubert abandoned several other writing projects when, in July 1851, he heard (either from his mother or Bouilhet, Steegmuller is uncertain):... of the death, during his absence, of a Norman country doctor whom the Flauberts had known, named Eugène Delamare, and that this brought to mind certain country gossip. Delamare had been an impecunious and mediocre medical student under Dr. Flaubert at the Hôtel-Dieu. He never passed all his examinations, and became not an M.D. but an officier de santé—a licensed “health officer,” practising in a small town near Rouen. His second wife, Delphine, who had died before him, had been the subject of scandalous local talk: the details, unknown today, were apparently such as to make both DuCamp and Bouilhet urge Flaubert to make use of them.

Bouilhet was a gifted, discriminating reader, listener, and editor. He and Flaubert had endless (and, of course, unrecorded) conversations about the novel during the five-year course of its creation. Bouilhet would visit Croisset virtually every Saturday or Sunday during those years, hearing Flaubert read what he had fastidiously labored over during the week, suggesting revisions, rendering priceless assistance, comforting his friend in his never-ending struggle with what Gustave often called “the agonies of Art.” When Flaubert’s relationship with Louise reached a particularly dangerous crisis—with her in Paris and him, as usual, in Croisset—he enlisted Bouilhet’s aid as mediator. Steegmuller prints an 1853 letter from Bouilhet which describes in outraged terms Louise’s demands:Do you want me to tell you what I feel? Do you want me to say straight out what she is after, with her visits to your mother, with the comedy in verse, her cries, her tears, her invitations and her dinners? She wants, and expects, to become your wife!

The only sensible comment of this epistle is the editor’s: “Bouilhet, in the present letter, speaks of Louise’s wish to marry Flaubert as though it were a crime, rather than the normal ardor of such a woman to possess the man she loved in her way—as he had possessed her in his.”

Flaubert’s greatest letters during this period—perhaps the greatest letters ever written by an artist—are those nominally addressed to Louise Colet but actually dedicated to his Muse, his Art, whom he adored above all human relationships.

Flaubert first met Louise Colet in 1846 at the salon of a Parisian sculptor. She was a minor poet and actress eleven years his senior, had married a music professor, but had been for years the mistress of the philosopher Victor Cousin—possibly the father of her daughter. When Gustave and Louise met, she had been quarreling with her lover and was plagued with debts; he had long been ill and celibate, and had lost his father, sister, and Le Poittevin’s friendship within the past year. They became lovers at their second meeting, but he left her for Croisset two days later—a pattern he was to repeat for years, to her increasing mortification and frustration.

To be sure, Flaubert did, during the first weeks of the connection, write her passionate love letters—the only rhapsodic celebration of eros in his life. The content of his correspondence, however, soon became primarily literary, a contrapuntal accompaniment to the composition of his great novel. As early as the second week of their affair he felt obliged to warn her of his morbidity, his self-disgust, his bookishness:Ever since we said we loved each other, you have wondered why I have never added the words “for ever.” Why? Because I always sense the future, the antithesis of everything is always before my eyes. I have never seen a child without thinking that it would grow old, nor a cradle without thinking of a grave. The sight of a naked woman makes me imagine her skeleton. As a result, joyful spectacles sadden me and sad ones affect me but little. I do too much inward weeping to shed outward tears—something read in a book moves me more than a real misfortune.

At the start of their relationship Gustave is not yet twenty-five. Yet, his bearing is that of a weary valetudinarian sealing himself up against the world, pursuing the making of perfect sentences:My deplorable mania for analysis exhausts me. I doubt everything, even my doubt. You thought me young, and I am old. I have often spoken with old people about the pleasures of this earth, and I have always been astonished by the brightness that comes into their lackluster eyes; just as they could never get over their amazement at my way of life, and kept saying “At your age! At your age! You! You!” Take away my nervous exaltation, my fantasy of mind, the emotion of the moment, and I have little left. That’s what I am underneath. I was not made to enjoy life. You speak of work. Yes, you must work; love art. Of all lies, art is the least untrue. Try to love it with a love that is exclusive, ardent, devoted. It will not fail you. Only the Idea is eternal and necessary.

Louise, naturally, wanted him to visit her frequently in Paris. Gustave, true to his nature, preferred to live and work in Croisset, increasingly shutting her out of his life with icy determination and self-discipline. Even during the first month of their affair he managed to wait almost three weeks between brief visits to Paris. During the eighteen months of the pre-Oriental phase of their liaison, 1846-1848, he saw her only six times, but wrote her one hundred superb letters. No matter that she would grow increasingly irritated: he would simply reprove her in his condescending, austere fashion.You tell me, my angel, that I have not initiated you into my inner life, into my most secret thoughts. Do you know what is most intimate, most hidden, in my heart, and what is most authentically myself? Two or three modest ideas about art, lovingly brooded over; that is all. The greatest events of my life have been a few thoughts, a few books, certain sunsets on the beach at Trouville, and talks five or six hours long with a friend now married and lost to me. [Alfred Le Poittevin]. I have always seen life differently from others, and the result has been that I’ve always isolated myself (but not sufficiently, alas!) in a state of harsh unsociability, with no exit. I suffered so many humiliations, I so shocked people and made them indignant, that I long ago came to realize that in order to live in peace one must live alone and seal one’s windows lest the air of the world seep in.

Louise suffered during these years. What good did she derive from having Flaubert inform her that “The three finest things God ever made are the sea, Hamlet, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni”; or, that “When two persons love, they can go ten years without seeing each other and without suffering from it”?

Her marginal comment on the last statement was poignant: “What a sentence!”

Flaubert’s Eastern trip interrupted their stormy romance for almost two years, during which her husband died. When Flaubert returned to Paris in June, 1851, he refused to see her in the city—he was in his mother’s company. He left for Rouen; she followed him; she rang the bell of his house; Flaubert appeared at the front gate, denied her admittance, agreed to visit her at her hotel in Rouen, and there told her to marry Victor Cousin. She fled to England. In September of that year, however, Gustave went to Paris and they reconciled for what proved to be three and a half more troubled years.

The second phase of the affair directly coincided with Flaubert’s work on Madame Bovary, although its inevitable dissolution in March, 1855, came at an unfortunate time for literary history: he still had a third of the novel to write, and the travail of that last compositional period remains unrecorded.

The reader of these letters can hardly help forming a strongly disagreeable impression of the man: dogmatic, cold, self-important, cruel, somehow feeling himself too deeply scarred for life’s common joys of love, marriage, and children. In October, 1851, he sadly tells Louise:... I wish there were nothing in my heart that reached out to others, and nothing in the hearts of others that reached out to me. The more one lives, the more one suffers. To make existence bearable, haven’t there been inventions ever since the world began—imaginary worlds, opium, tobacco, strong drink, ether? Blessed be he who invented chloroform. The doctors object that one can die of it. But that is the very point! You lack sufficient hatred of life and of everything connected with it.

Louise had chronic financial difficulties, but Gustave, although in comfortable circumstances, usually managed to ignore them. “Oh woman!” he berates her in September, 1852, “Woman, be less so! Be so only in bed!” When barely thirty-one, he is horrified by the possibility of paternity: “May my flesh perish utterly! May I never transmit to anyone the boredom and the ignominies of existence!” He manages sometimes to mask his disgust with the world (and himself) as disappointed idealism: “Let us always have a vast condom within us to protect the health of our soul amid the filth into which it is plunged.” By early 1855, his sadism to Louise is lashing: “I have always tried (but I think I have always failed) to turn you into a sublime hermaphrodite. I want you to be a man down to the navel; below that, you get in my way, you disturb me—your female element ruins everything.” No wonder that the long, largely nonliaison ended bitterly in March, 1855.

Why bother to read the correspondence of such a repellent man? The answer can only be the obvious one: he was a literary genius, not only in his carefully contrived fiction but also in his carelessly written but supremely revealing letters. They contain many passages that have become sacred texts of modernism. They celebrate the religion of art, the ascetic devotion and devoutness of the artist, the supremacy of style, the autonomy of the artistic view of the world. They ring with dedication, integrity, fervor, and eloquence. They preach the justification of art in a fragmented, materialistic, money-mad, bourgeois society. They sustain and console their author for the pains of his unhappy temperament. They have exerted an incalculable influence on Flaubert’s innumerable disciples, of whom Ivan Turgenev, Henry James, James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Joseph Conrad, Marcel Proust, André Gide, Vladimir Nabokov, Jorge Luis Borges, and Samuel Beckett are but the most illustrious.

The Letters of Gustave Flaubert

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The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880 is the second of two volumes of Gustave Flaubert’s correspondence in a selection drawing on the recently issued Pléiade edition of Jean Bruneau. Francis Steegmuller, who has selected, edited, and translated these letters for the Belknap Press, is the leading American Flaubertian; his previous books include a fine translation of Madame Bovary (revised Modern Library edition, 1982); a double biography, Flaubert and Madame Bovary (1939), analyzing both the genesis of the novel and the accompanying course of its creator’s difficult liaison with Louise Colet; an earlier selection of Flaubert’s letters (1953); Flaubert in Egypt (1972), a narrative of Flaubert’s travels there from 1849 to 1851; and the first volume of the Belknap Press edition of Flaubert’s letters (1980), covering Flaubert’s life up to the age of thirty-six, when the novelist achieved fame at one bound with the publication of Madame Bovary (1857) and his subsequent trial for alleged obscenity.

After the popular and literary success of Madame Bovary, Flaubert continued his cloistered life in his mother’s country house in Croisset, Normandy. He increased the number of his friends, acquaintances, and admirers, yet refused to become a public figure in the conventional way by starring in Parisian literary salons. Although he occasionally spent a week or two in a leased apartment in Paris, he preferred to pursue his unremitting aestheticism in his country retreat, with no guiding stars save for his own judgment and the advice of a few carefully chosen friends.

None of Flaubert’s later works approached the popularity or influence of Madame Bovary, yet his reputation as a writer of enormous integrity and magnificent talent shone steadily. Steegmuller points out that “a curious and growing public sympathy was extended to this uncompromising artist who held himself aloof.” His melancholia and misanthropy—a generalized disgust with what he regarded as humanity’s dominant stupidity and vulgarity—intensified in his later years, encouraged his literary and social seclusion, and led to such splenetic texts as Bouvard et Pécuchet (1881) and Le Dictionnaire des idées reçues (1913; Flaubert’s Dictionary of Accepted Ideas).

Flaubert suffered, sometimes stoically but more often cholerically, a number of severe disappointments and trials. His sparse literary production was often misunderstood; his attempts to write for the stage failed miserably; the deaths of his closest friend, Louis Bouilhet (1869), and of his beloved mother (1872) left him inconsolable; the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 to 1871 and subsequent harsh struggles between radicals and reactionaries embittered him; worst of all, he helped to ruin the life of his beloved niece, Caroline, by pushing her into a loveless marriage with an apparently respectable bourgeois whose business failures cost Flaubert considerable sums. No wonder his letters are replete with such exclamations as, “Everything moves me, everything lacerates and ravages me.”

The main course of this edition is a generous helping from the celebrated correspondence between Flaubert and George Sand, which contrasts in its mellow sensitivity and mutual respect with the sensual turmoil of the Flaubert-Louise Colet letters in the first volume of Steegmuller’s edition. (The entire corpus of Flaubert-Sand letters was published in 1981 in Paris, edited by Alphonse Jacobs, but has not yet been issued in English.)

The friendship between Flaubert and Sand began in February, 1866, at a brilliantly attended dinner where she found him “more sympathetic” than the other guests. It developed rapidly, so that by May, she dedicated her newest novel to him, and in August, he had her visit his Croisset home for several days. From then on, they regularly exchanged letters between her home in Nohant, his in Normandy, and their respective apartments in Paris. His customary salutation to her was “chère maître,” combining the feminine form of the adjective (“dear”) with the masculine noun (“master”)—because, he told her, he admired the man in her.

Interestingly enough, their aesthetic ideals were at considerable variance, and their political and social views were wholly at odds. Yet they respected each other’s devotion to their craft and capacity for hard labor at it. More significantly, they were deeply fond of each other. He admired her candor, directness, and good temper, and the high level of her intelligence: “She has insights that evince very keen good sense, provided she doesn’t get on to her socialist hobby horse.” Additionally, both agreed on the desirability of leading intense, risk-taking lives. Wrote Flaubert in one of his most eloquent passages:Everything has its price! Large natures (and those are the good ones) are above all prodigal, and don’t keep such strict account of how they expend themselves. We must laugh and weep, love, work, enjoy and suffer—vibrate as much as possible, to the whole extent of our being. Thus it is, I believe, to be truly human.

Flaubert complained mildly to Sand that her writing was too confessional and rhapsodic, too infused with her own experiences, ideas, and temperament. A novelist, he admonished her, “hasn’t the right to express his opinion on anything whatsoever. Has God ever expressed his opinion?” Instead, he preached insistently the doctrine of art’s impersonality, of the writer’s need to transport himself inside and into his characters, effacing his own identity.

In 1869, Flaubert’s ambitious novel, L’Éducation sentimentale (1869; A Sentimental Education), received largely negative reviews (although the twenty-nine-year-old Émile Zola praised it highly in a periodical article). “No one is coming to my defense,” Flaubert complained to Sand, and shyly asked her to champion the book. She dashed off an enthusiastic newspaper review within twenty-four hours, then wrote a small stream of supportive letters to him during the next month, ranking him above Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. She also tactfully indicated that young readers, naturally idealistic and optimistic, found his novel too melancholy and depressing for their tastes.

When Sand occasionally encouraged him to overcome his isolation by romantic attachments, Flaubert sounded his insistent note of asceticism for the sake of his art:As for ladies, there are none available here abouts, and even if there were! . . . I have never been able to accommodate Venus with Apollo. For me it has always been the one or the other—being as I am, a creature of excess, given over entirely to whatever I’m engaged in.

Flaubert’s tendency to excess took the form of fiercely apolitical statements when German-French tensions erupted into the Franco-Prussian War of 1870: “Art is our country: a curse on those who have any other.” He favored what he sometimes called a mandarinat; France would be run by men who, after appropriate examinations and competitions, would be recognized as her brightest and therefore best. In his exasperation about the state of society at large, he cried out: “Give me a tyrant of genius who will protect arts and letters and lead us out of the mediocrity we are wallowing in!” His ideal civilization was that of the classic Athenians, who “in the time of Pericles devoted themselves to Art without knowing where their next day’s bread would come from. Let us be Greek!” When he went so far as to launch a tirade against universal suffrage, Sand replied that, instead of encouraging stupidity, it would bethe universal safety of the future. This is a machine gun that must resolve, peacefully, all questions awaiting their answer in days of tumult and terror—let us not forget it! The day it begins to function properly, errors of Power, whatever they may be, will become impossible.

Steegmuller provides illuminating information about the conflicts within the National Assembly during the crisis of 1870 to 1871, leading up to the “Bloody Week” of May, 1871, when perhaps as many as twenty-thousand Left-wing Communards were killed by French soldiers in one of French history’s most tragic chapters. The Prussians had meanwhile dealt the French military a humiliating defeat, leading Flaubert to turn suddenly patriotic and excoriate the conquerers:I didn’t consider myself a believer in progress or a humanitarian. No matter! I did have illusions! What Barbarism! What retrogression! I resent my contemporaries for having inspired me with the feelings of a brute of the twelfth century. I am choking on gall. These officers who smash your mirrors with white-gloved hands, who know Sanskrit and fling themseves on your champagne, who steal your watch and then send you their visiting-card, this war for money, these savages for all their civilization—they horrify me more than Cannibals.

George Sand was saddened by the excesses of cruelty committed by all sides, to the point of exclaiming to Flaubert that she was awakening from her Utopian meliorism “to find a generation divided between idiocy and delirium tremens!” This encouraged Flaubert in his obsessive misanthropy: “Mankind is displaying nothing new. Its irremediable wretchedness has embittered me ever since my youth.” He urges Sand to hate the world instead of seeing it through a golden haze of idealism: “Cry out! Thunder! Take your great lyre and touch the brazen string.”

Sand’s reply to Flaubert’s invitation was a five-thousand-word article, published in a newspaper on October 3, 1871, which Steegmuller reprints as an appendix. This long public response is one of Sand’s most humane and impassioned statements. Its first paragraph represents its tone and content:What! You want me to stop loving? You want me to say that I have been mistaken all my life, that mankind is contemptible, hateful, has always been so and always will be? And you reproach me for my anguish, calling it weakness, childish regret for a lost illusion? You say that the populace has always been savage, the priest always a hypocrite, the bourgeois always craven, the soldier always a brigand, the peasant always stupid? You say you have known all this since youth, and you rejoice in never having doubted it because that has spared you disillusionment in later life. You have never been young, then. Ah! You and I are very different, for I have never stopped being young—if to persist in loving is a sign of youth.

Despite these sharp differences, their tender friendship continued. Again, Sand urged him to seek out women, even to marry: “Isn’t there some woman you love, and who would find joy in loving you? . . . Being alone is odious, it’s deadly.” His answer was a series of explanations why he found her suggestion “fantastic”: he had never enjoyed female company on more than an occasional basis; he lacked the income for a couple; he was too old (fifty-one when he wrote this on October 29, 1872); he had too much decency to inflict his depressed personality on another. “Deep down, there is something of the priest in me that no one senses.”

By the end of 1872, Flaubert was suffering from a problem that was to beset him the remaining eight years of his life: he had to beg his niece Caroline Commanville several times to have her husband send him money for household expenses—money which rightfully belonged to Flaubert, but which he had given to Commanville to “manage” for him. In another appendix, Steegmuller details the involved, sordid tale of Commanville’s misappropriation of money. Flaubert felt responsible for his niece’s mismatch, since he had discouraged her from marrying her true love, a struggling young artist. Despite his inveterate apostleship of the religion of art and detestation of the bourgeoisie, Flaubert wrote Caroline in December, 1863, when she was seventeen:. . . Yes, my darling, I declare I’d rather see you marry a millionaire philistine than an indigent genius. For the genius wouldn’t be merely poor; he would be brutal and tyrannical, and make you suffer to the point of madness or idiocy.

Ernest Commanville’s lumber business suffered badly from the Franco-Prussian War. In 1872, Caroline’s capital came to include the house at Croisset, which Flaubert’s mother had bequeathed to her with the proviso that Gustave be permitted to spend his remaining years in it. Caroline’s husband mismanaged this property as well as his own business, with the result of splitting his wife’s loyalties between her husband and her uncle. She usually sided with Ernest, pleading with Flaubert to obtain more and more credit for the Commanville estate. He remained devoted to Caroline despite her increasing harshness to him, but only a small government pension saved him from penury, while the creditors with whom Ernest Commanville had involved him hounded him to his last days.

The paradox is an excruciating one: Flaubert the aesthete/artist found his final years soured as a result of having, for once, yielded to the bourgeois beneath his skin by having helped bully his impressionable niece into an uncongenial marriage with a merchant who was to prove incompetent at the very activity Flaubert loathed—the making and management of money. A final irony can be found in Flaubert’s story: after her uncle’s death in 1880, Caroline sold the Croisset estate, supervised publication of Flaubert’s general correspondence (being careful to expunge most passages unfavorable to her or her husband), and enjoyed a comfortable income from the worldwide sale of Flaubert’s works.


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The Atlantic. CCL, November, 1982, p. 167.

Library Journal. CVII, September 15, 1982, p. 1756.

National Review. XXXIV, October 1, 1982, p. 1226.

The New York Review of Books. XXIX, December 16, 1982, p. 26.

The New York Times Book Review. LXXXVII, October 17, 1982, p. 3.

The New Yorker. LVIII, November 22, 1982, p. 196.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXII, September 17, 1982, p. 103.

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