Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse
Who burned Louise Colet’s letters to Flaubert? For a century it was taken for granted that the destroyer was Flaubert’s niece Caroline, the inheritor of his literary estate. Caroline, the stiff, correct, high-bourgeois protector, “la dame si bien,” who in publishing her uncle’s correspondence cut out any passages she deemed intimate or indecent, suppressed uncomplimentary opinions, changed his punctuation, and tidied up his phrasing; who wouldn’t allow the expression “tenir le bec hors de l’eau” in a letter to Turgenev, gentrifying it into “tenir la tête hors de l’eau.” Such editorial interventionism was of the period: when negotiating with Louise Colet’s equally proper daughter, Mme. Bissieu, Caroline received permission to publish 138 of Flaubert’s letters to Louise (and none of the more unbuttoned ones) on the condition that she changed tu to vous throughout. What could be likelier, in this suppressive, censoring, cleaning-up ambience, than that Caroline, while adjusting her uncle’s image into something more Pantheonic and less fun, should dispose of the no doubt licentious outpourings of the notoriously pesky Louise?
Hermia Oliver’s fresh-minded Flaubert and an English Governess (1980) quietly but pertinaciously queried this assumption. Caroline may have offered the public a pasteurized version of her uncle, but her tampering had an innate probity to it. She deleted and rewrote, but never touched the manuscripts themselves: everything was done in the transcription (although if you look at a densely orthographed Flaubert letter you will see there is hardly room on the page to alter a comma to a semi-colon). In addition, Caroline’s niece testified that her aunt’s attitude toward the literary estate—manuscripts, notebooks, dossiers, even her uncle’s library—was that “it was absolutely necessary to preserve all of them.” And finally, while there is no specific evidence to finger Caroline as vandal, there is already one documented destroyer of the novelist’s correspondence: Flaubert himself. He was the one who believed in making the life disappear beside the work, who loathed journalistic and biographical intrusiveness; and we savor his glorious letters nowadays almost against his will.
In 1877, warned about what might happen after a writer’s death by the publication of Mérimée’s Lettres à un inconnu, Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp burned most of their youthful letters to each other. The correspondences with Ernest Chevalier, Louis Bouilhet, and Georges Ponchet were drastically thinned for similar reasons. Another burning session took place in May 1879. Flaubert wrote to his friend Edmond Laporte: “Yesterday I spent eight hours sorting and burning letters, a long delayed job, and my hands are shaking from tying up packets.” Hermia Oliver adduces as corroboration a hitherto ignored account by Maupassant in L’Echo de Paris of November 24, 1890, in which he recalls a bonfire night at Croisset “a year before” Flaubert’s death. Maupassant describes “a little silk dancing shoe,” containing a faded rose and a yellowing lace-edged handkerchief, being cast into the flames. This was almost certainly Louise Colet’s slipper, as hymned by Flaubert in a love letter to her of August 1846. “It can surely hardly be doubted,” Hermia Oliver concludes, that among the letters destroyed that night were those of Laporte, Caroline’s English governess Juliet Herbert—and Louise Colet. This conclusion is Francine du Plessix Gray’s beginning:
I believe that those last missives…were the many hundreds of letters written to Flaubert by Louise Colet. That is why I have written this book. To reinstate a colleague into the annals of her time. To do her justice. To resurrect yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men.
Louise Colet was born in Aix-en Provence in 1810 and came to Paris with her music-professor husband Hippolyte in 1835. She swiftly established herself as a poet, a beauty, and a salon-goer. She won the Académie Française’s prize for a poem on a set theme four times, and was awarded a government pension. She found a long-term protector in Victor Cousin, supporters in Béranger and Victor Hugo, lovers in Musset, Vigny, Flaubert, and Champfleury. She posed as Sappho for the sculptor Pradier, and frequented the salon of the ageing Mme. de Récamier. She had, as Gray generously puts it, “a reverence for glory.” This word, which features much in Louise’s life and musings, was the cause of a key disagreement early in her affair with Flaubert, when she carelessly (or blissfully) remarked that she would not exchange her happiness even for “the glory of Corneille.” Flaubert was grimly unflattered, and with high-minded ferocity differentiated between “being Corneille” (a worthy aim) and merely having his glory (unworthy), just as he once sternly rebuked Louise for having “the love of art” but not “the religion of art.”
Still, a reverence for glory and a love of art are certainly enough to get a literary career started. Colet was also a sharp exploiter of opportunity. When she approached Chateaubriand for a puff for her first collection of poetry (which just happened to include two poems in praise of the “Homer of Melancholy” himself), he replied rather cannily that his endorsement would not count for much, since “only poets can announce a poet.” Undeterred, she simply reprinted his letter as a preface (Chateaubriand, to his credit, does not seem to have taken offense). Sainte-Beuve largely resisted her literary charm, though applauding her novel Lui (in which he is given a cameo role as the wise “Sainte-Rive”). A more conspicuous failure was with George Sand, who always kept the younger writer at a distance; if we are to believe an anecdote in Lui, Sand once heard Colet recite her work at a salon and afterward offered the following literary compliment—“Madame, you have the arms and shoulders of a Greek statue.” Still, Louise certainly had supporters enough at the start of her career, and knew how to play the Paris game. Victor Cousin, lover, protector, and high government official, used his influence to have Louise’s pension tripled and Hippolyte’s salary doubled.
Louise was bold and melodramatic, impulsive and self-advertising, admirable yet faintly ridiculous. All these characteristics emerged in her celebrated attack on the satirical journalist Alphonse Karr. In 1840, when Louise was almost nine months pregnant, Karr wrote an article clearly insinuating that Cousin—a regular target of his—had used his official position to get Colet’s pension raised (true), and that Cousin was the father of her child (which, if not necessarily true, certainly seems to have been believed by both parties at the time). The piece was indubitably caddish, and Louise straightforwardly decided that the journalist must die for it. What’s more, it seemed to her self-evident that Hippolyte should be charged with rectifying this insult to her honor.
Hippolyte was a slight and prematurely stooped professor of composition at the Conservatoire; Karr a bulky expert swordsman and one of the best shots in Paris. When Hippolyte “backed off,” as Gray puts it (and who can blame him?), Louise went round to Karr’s lodgings with a kitchen knife: “To arm myself with a more elegant weapon,” she later wrote, “would have been theatrical. I only wished to act with simplicity, as is suitable to any great sorrow.” Heavily pregnant as she was, she stabbed Karr in the back, drawing a little blood. The journalist turned round, disarmed her, offered her his arm, and pretended he was calling her a cab.
Through the intervention of Sainte-Beuve, Karr promised not to sue Louise, and in the next issue of his magazine even applauded her “energy” and “courage bordering on nobility.” But the occasion was too lushly tempting for any journalist to resist. “I certainly would have been gravely harmed,” Karr went on, “if my attacker had struck me with a direct horizontal blow instead of lifting her arm high over her head in a tragedian’s gesture, surely in anticipation of some forthcoming lithograph of the incident.” Both come out of the drama well and badly; though Louise probably had more to lose, and did so. Karr, his posthumous fame bizarrely ensured, later retired to Nice to grow flowers professionally.
Louise Colet was a prolific writer: of fiction, poetry, biography, history, and travel. What still has life? Francine du Plessix Gray recounts a visit to the house—now a golf hotel—in which Colet was brought up. The estate’s present owner, Paul Révoil, Louise’s great-great-grand-nephew, sounds grumpily baffled at being badgered about his scandalous forebear: “You’re the third person who’s come around this year. Never read a word of hers—was she that good?” To which Gray revealingly replies that she is “awfully interesting.” Though her biography is heart-felt and impassioned about the woman, Gray makes no extravagant claims for the work. She seems keener to establish Colet as a pioneer feminist, a “nineteenth-century Erica Jong who splashed her life and loves across her poetry and prose,” than as a writer tout court; and when it comes to literary assessment, is inclined to quantify the percentage of feminism present and leave it at that.
Colet’s novel Lui is probably her most enduring work (as well as her only one currently available in English). It was part of that strange spawning of kiss-and-tell fiction set off by Musset’s death in 1857. The poet had started it himself, of course, with Confession d’un enfant du siècle (1836), in which he described his Italian affair with George Sand. Two decades later she replied with Elle et Lui, Musset’s brother Paul retaliated with Lui et Elle, the waggish Gaston Lavalley joined in with Eux, and Colet completed the job with Lui. This transparent roman à clef stars Louise as the glamorous Stéphanie de Rostan, romantically beset by a pair of unsatisfactory suitors: Léonce, the obscure, cold-hearted novelist toiling away at his supposed masterpiece in Normandy; and Albert, the passionate, impulsive, tippling poet-aristocrat whose heart has been crushed by a painful affair with the famous writer Antonia, and who now seeks consolation and amatory rebirth with Stéphanie.
Most of the book consists of Albert/Musset recalling in great detail his affair with Antonia/Sand. This made commercial sense—few, in 1859, would have been interested in a roman à clef about Flaubert—but it was also strategically risky. Here was Colet, a former mistress of Musset, giving the dead poet a voice to lament his earlier maltreatment by George Sand (who was, of course, still alive). Despite professions of admiration for Sand’s work-rate and reputed kindness, the portrait is decidedly unsisterly, indeed disobliging and envious. In her own voice Stéphanie/Louise pulls sartorial rank (“I think wearing women’s clothing hurt her shape”); while through Albert we discover a woman who is bossy and domineering, insincere in bed, and heartless in dismissing lovers, who tainted the purity of her children by behaving licentiously in front of them, and who betrayed Musset with the very Italian doctor brought in to save him from his deathbed. Not surprisingly, Sand told Flaubert that she thought the novel a “chamber-pot of a book into which she [Colet] excreted her causeless fury.”