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.”
Lui is still very diverting, though largely for non-artistic reasons. It is talky, lush, hot-breathed, and written in a manner several decades previous to that of Madame Bovary, which in fact had preceded it by a couple of years. It has both the allure and the weaknesses of the roman à clef. On the one hand, the thrill of being given the inside dope; on the other, a sense of aesthetic concerns being placed in neutral gear. In a roman à clef the reason something happens is generally that it did actually happen, or happened a little bit differently, or might have happened had the author’s wishes been granted by life as opposed to literature. Early on, for example, Albert takes Stéphanie to the zoo. Why the zoo, we might naively wonder, and why are we spending so many pages there? Is some parallel being set up with caged passions, with wild nature restrained behind bars? But no: sometimes a zoo is just a zoo. It features because that’s where Musset used to take Louise; what’s more, he wrote a poem to her about it, which she wants to quote later on in the novel.
And are we getting the inside dope in Lui? Musset is ardent yet ridiculous; Sand a worthy bluestocking; Flaubert a glacial manipulator. But Stéphanie? What still rings out from the book like a hunting horn is the vanity of Colet’s self-depiction. She ups herself socially to a marquise temporarily fallen on hard times; she prefaces the novel with a chapter whose main function is to give a (swiftly vanishing) narrator the chance to praise Stéphanie’s serene wisdom and ravishing beauty. With Léonce the marquise suffers nobly; with Albert, she tries to rekindle his genius while politely but firmly fighting off his attentions and staying true in her heart to Léonce. This is a distinctly glamorized version of events. Musset was clearly unsafe in a cab at any speed, and as Flaubert sardonically reminded Louise, “Convention has it that one doesn’t go for a moonlight drive with a man for the purpose of admiring the moon.” But Louise went for many moonlight drives with the poet. Musset would turn up drunk and imploring on her doorstep, and—such being her reverence for glory—he eventually got into her bed. Lui shows us the relationship ending in the heroic mutual renunciation of two cauterized hearts: “We’ll see each other again, but as friends, never again as lovers in waiting.” Colet’s Mementoes dish the real dope, the clef to the clef. “His one sensation,” she recorded (an entry apparently indicating erection but no orgasm). Other comments include: “Impotent!”; “Oh Gustave, Gustave, what a contrast!”; and “Certain that he is nearly impotent or that he has only very transient painful erections.”
Colet’s chief mode was of romanticizing confessionalism; and she wrote with celebrated haste. In their different ways Béranger, Hugo, and Flaubert all gave her sensible advice: to slow down, to be more realistic, to be less vindictive. But sensible advice, whether personal or literary, was something of which Louise was always splendidly heedless: she had the turning circle of a supertanker. In Flaubert’s case there is something almost comic about the ultimate hopelessness of his counsel: here was the young devotee of form and priest of the impersonal seeking to redirect a poet who was his polar opposite. In a way, they both knew best: he knew she was working in a sluggish, moribund tradition; she knew that you must write as you can and will, not as anyone else thinks you should.
In the mid-1850s Colet planned an ambitious six-poem cycle on the subject of Woman, only half of which she completed. The first, “La Paysanne,” is one of her more surprising works: a touching yet brutal tale of parted lovers, emotional impoverishment, and rural destitution. Flaubert praised it wholeheartedly and spent a good twenty pages of the Pléiade Correspondence close-correcting the poem. One could wish that Francine du Plessix Gray had managed to emulate his attentiveness. Her summary of the poem tells us, for instance, that “its bleak condemnation of aristocratic corruption makes it one of Colet’s more powerful works. The marriage of its starcrossed lovers—the peasant girl Jeanneton and the rural nobleman Jean—is thwarted by Jean’s parents, who arrange to have their son called into the army.” These two simply descriptive sentences contain the following mistakes: 1) Jean isn’t a nobleman, since he is the son of the gardener at the local château; 2) He doesn’t have parents in the plural, since his mother is dead; 3) His “parents,” i.e., father, don’t thwart the marriage since “they” (he) thoroughly approve of it; 4) “They” therefore don’t have Jean called into the army—he is drafted along with many others of the neighborhood; 5) There are no aristocrats in the poem, and therefore no aristocratic corruption; 6) Nor, therefore, is there any bleak authorial condemnation of this non-appearing vice. Gray is, at least, consistent in her summarizing: she ends by telling us that “Jean dies happy, knowing that she [Jeanneton] was true to his memory.” Spot on again, except that Jean is still alive at the end of the poem.
Even though Colet resisted Flaubert’s characteristic urging to be “Shakespearean, hideously truthful and cold” in “La Paysanne,” the poem has a modern toughness to it: Jeanneton shares a distant kinship with Félicité in Flaubert’s much later Un Coeur simple. The second poem in the cycle, “La Servante,” sees Colet self-indulgently regressing (or wisely returning) to her natural mode. If Flaubert, as self-appointed adviser on “La Paysanne,” was like a driving instructor trying to grab the handbrake while his pupil insists on pointing at the view, with “La Servante” Colet threw away the highway code he was pressing on her. He told her to recast the poem, and in particular urged her not to include a transparent attack on Musset; then expanded his objections into forty pages of notes. Rarely among the writings of Flaubert sent to Louise Colet, this last document has completely vanished (and there are probably not many suspects to round up in this particular case).
“La Servante” is the intertwined story of two peasant girls who come to Paris: Mariette, virtuous, lectorally aspirant, inflamed by the notion of love, and Théréson, pragmatic and corruptible about the ways of the world. Both tangle with the debauched Lionel, a poet-aristocrat based on Musset: but while Théréson handles him professionally and survives, Mariette lavishes on him the full dose of doomed Romantic love. After Lionel’s death, Mariette goes mad, and is incarcerated in the Salpêtrière. Du Plessix Gray is oddly peremptory about the poem, limiting herself to a single critical remark: “This text, in its denunciation of men’s perverse impulse to corrupt women, was the most vehemently feminist of her writings so far.”
“La Servante” is more complicated than this, and more interesting. It is a mixture—rather like Louise herself—of the charming, the irritating, the dogmatic, the instinctual, the observant, the egocentric, the heartfelt; it has banality and élan. Calling it “vehemently feminist” and passing on is like matronizingly awarding it stars for good conduct: the twentieth century applauding the past for being on the right side. In fact, for much of its length “La Servante” seems to look a century back rather than forward: it is moralizing, pictorial, and instructive, more Greuze than Greer. Thus the wicked aristo Lionel is ethically counterbalanced by the good miller Julien, who asks Mariette to marry him early on, and later turns up (in one of the poem’s several extravagant coincidences) to save her from drowning. Mariette, in rejecting Julien’s dusty hand and following her awakened heart, is seeking her Gothic-Romantic fate. She is destroyed not by any particular action of the cold-hearted and largely indifferent Lionel (we are not in the land of Sade) as by the exigencies and false expectations of her own heart.
The closing scene, in which Mariette stands, mute, loose-haired, and strait-jacketed among the mad and abandoned inmates of the Salpêtrière, certainly gives us a stern and rebuking image of woman destroyed. But does it make sense to call “La Servante” “vehemently feminist”? It is in places denunciatory, the literary equivalent to Colet’s own cry in her later years of “Que les hommes sont vils.” But one of the poem’s complications is that the women in it who, unlike Mariette, have some control of their lives, some access to money and power, are the women of pleasure, the “actresses” who consort with corrupting figures like Lionel rather than oppose them. And while on the one hand it is Théréson and her kind who most openly denounce men (“L’homme est notre ennemi“), they are in turn denounced by Colet. She presents them as irredeemably vile and vulgar. Modern debauchery, according to her, has lost its former voluptuous glory, and become something cold, neurotic, and drab: “le vice sans grandeur, et le nu sans beauté.”
Is this a rich ambiguity, or an authorial confusion? The palm prints of Louise’s own life are all over “La Servante,” and it seems likely that behind such frosty distaste there lies a personal agenda: a response and a specific rebuke to Flaubert. She was working on her poem in the second half of 1854; in June of that year she had finally persuaded the extremely reluctant Flaubert to show her his travel notebooks from the Orient. This led to one of their more lurid quarrels. For a start, Louise didn’t find sufficient space devoted to herself in the diaries. “I was thinking about you often,” Flaubert plaintively responds, “often, very often.” Worse, she discovered rhapsodic descriptions of his encounters with women of pleasure (and here Flaubert’s defense was pretty jesuitical: since the women with whom I dealt had suffered clitoridectomy, they did not feel anything, and therefore you should not worry). Beyond jealousy, however, there was a fundamental divide of taste, of aesthetic. What Louise found most disgusting—for instance, the bedbugs recorded during Flaubert’s famous night with the dancer Kuchuk Hanem—Flaubert found most enchanting. He was fascinated by prostitution from an early age: he loved it as a complex, bitter, and luxurious point of human intersection; he loved the lack of human contact, the muscular frenzy, and the clink of gold. “Et on est si triste!” he enthused to Louise in a letter of June 1853, “Et on rêve si bien d’amour!”
This last paradox was no doubt especially provoking to Colet. Simon Leys has deftly summarized Flaubert’s erotic bifurcation thus: “While the beloved incarnates the reality of love, and is thus fatally destined to disappoint, the prostitute for her part offers a representation of love, that’s to say an aid to reverie.” During her time with Flaubert, Louise Colet suffered a rare and unenviable pincer movement of jealousy: threatened by both the deeply imagined, in Emma Bovary, and the deeply carnal, in Kuchuk Hanem. Years later, the author of “La Servante” was covering the inauguration of the Suez canal, and on her journey up the Nile she tried to seek out Kuchuk Hanem in Esna. How should we read this: simple curiosity, masochism, an attempted purging, a heroic if belated attempt to confront a rival? Their encounter would have made a fine—indeed, Flaubertian—moment in a novel. But the courtesan’s name meant nothing any more to the locals, and with the lapse of two decades Louise could find no house to match Flaubert’s description in his travel notes.
As she grew older, Louise Colet eschewed mellowness. “Poor Maman,” her daughter, Mme. Bissieu, would later recall, “had a character which made everyone suffer.” She became more difficult, more irascible, expert at squandering old friendships. Infuriating, but often admirable: when Victor Cousin died, she renounced a legacy rather than bargain away the philosopher’s letters. What can seem, in a literary celebrity and salon beauty, mere gilded egotism, grew into a rather splendid doughtiness. She worked, she traveled, she kept her political principles; and she refused to go quietly. As Gray shows, she championed the cause of Italy, helping Mazzini, hymning Garibaldi, covering the independence celebrations. She remained fiercely anticlerical, and got one interview away from giving the Pope a good dressing-down. During the Franco-Prussian war she took to public speaking with sudden success. She unequivocally supported the Commune (odd that famous painters tended to back it much more than famous writers), and remained true to her liberalism in almost all areas except that of sex, where she became increasingly puritanical and moralistic, denouncing Queen Christina of Sweden as a “debauched strumpet.” She judged harshly, and was harshly judged herself: George Sand, who after Lui had no reason to love her, compared Louise’s old age to that of Mme. Flaubert, and found it “even worse, because it has degenerated into malice…She’s mad.”
She was certainly incapable of matching the stoicism of her glamorized alter ego, the Marquise Stéphanie de Rostan. In Lui the marquise reflects sagely from plateau of emotional wisdom upon her “finest hours,” with all their tears and torments, and finds the following exotic comparison: “Doesn’t the navigator propelled by fate into the glaciers of Greenland remember fondly some balmy, blooming beach in Cuba or the Antilles?” Colet herself had few such beach memories, and was always particularly unforgiving toward Flaubert. In 1859 she denounced Madame Bovary in a poem as “a traveling-salesman’s novel whose foul stench makes the heart retch.” Though she praised Salammbô to Mme. Edma Roger des Genettes in 1862, she couldn’t help adding her opinion that its author was “ugly, common and as far as I am concerned profoundly evil.” Mme. Roger des Genettes did not convey all of this to Flaubert, and was rebuked by Louise for her tact: “If you passed on my praise to the author, in all truthfulness you should also let him know the absolute disdain I have for his character and the incredible repulsion I feel for his premature decrepitude.” In 1872, eighteen years after their liaison had ended, Flaubert brought out a posthumous collection of verse by Bouilhet (with whom Louise had also had an affair); she sent him an anonymous verse letter calling him a “charlatan thumping the big drum over the grave of his flat-footed friend.” Flaubert, by contrast, showed “no bitterness, no resentment” toward Colet (according to the Goncourts in 1862); and when she died he displays a melancholy, regretful spirit to Mme. Roger des Genettes—“I have trampled on so many things, in order to stay alive!”
Was he less vindictive because he had the nobler nature, because his heart had been less engaged (or more easily disengaged), because of vivid and lasting relief at his narrow escape? Something of each, no doubt. Is it a paradox that she, the vindictive one, preserved his letters, while he, the magnanimous one, apparently burned hers? Probably not: their different actions are entirely consistent with their respective attitudes to privacy and fame. There is, however, a further possible reason for Louise’s epistolary reverence. A month after Mme. Récamier’s death in 1849, Colet had published Benjamin Constant’s love letters to Récamier; she similarly raised money soon after Musset’s death by selling his occasional verse, and soon after Béranger’s by publishing his letters to her. Perhaps she also hoped to outlive Flaubert.
When she died in 1876, Victor Hugo noted in his diary, “Mme. Louise Colet est morte. C’etait un généreux coeur.” Du Camp composed a disobliging epitaph (“Here lies she who compromised Victor Cousin, ridiculed Alfred de Musset, vilified Gustave Flaubert, and tried to assassinate Alphonse Karr”); he also devoted several unflattering pages to her in his Souvenirs littéraires, which, according to Gray, set off a tradition of “Colet-bashing.” French Flaubertistes, all male, “emulated that mystique of bonding, violently exclusive of women, which had characterized Flaubert’s career,” and in “a uniquely mimetic example of critical whitewashing…until midcentury Flaubert’s reputation would be hygienized by vigorous denials of any genuine affection he may have had for Louise, or by distortions of her character so extreme she lost all credibility as Flaubert’s Muse.” This “male caddishness,” Gray argues, rendered Colet “obscure,” her memory “erased by the caprices of men.”
There certainly was a tradition of Colet-bashing, though one less monolithic than Gray makes it sound. A simpler explanation of any comparative forgetting of Louise was that she had used up her fame in her own lifetime, and wrote no one book which either merit or salability could sustain in print. Her most durable success was Enfances célèbres, an instructive work for younger readers about the childhoods of the famous. Indeed, you could argue that the attention of the Colet-bashers, far from obliterating her, kept her alive. Her memory was preserved—if in a distorted and demonized fashion—by her very association with Flaubert. You could further argue that the self-same moustachioed life raft also kept afloat Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp. They are still vividly with us, even though Bouilhet’s verse is as out of print as Louise’s, and Du Camp’s six-volume work on Paris as hard to find as Colet’s four-decker on Italy. Is not Du Camp also unfairly neglected? He was an energetic and inquisitive writer, for all his careerism and malice—a description which makes him sound uncommonly like Louise Colet.
Gloria Steinem in her book on Marilyn Monroe identified the “rescue fantasy” provoked in many men by the mere thought of the actress. Something of the same feeling often afflicts us when we peer into the past: not him again, we complain, as some Great White Male looms, casting his baneful shadow like a manchineel tree. Still, to call Louise Colet “heretofore obscure,” as Francine du Plessix Gray does, only makes sense if we define that phrase as meaning “not previously biographed in English.” There are times when she seems to have embarked upon a deeply misconceived rescue fantasy: wading heroically into the sea only to discover that Louise is not drowning but waving.
One of the problems of Colet’s case is this: the fact that she was patronized by a generation of male Flaubertistes doesn’t make her a better writer or a less infuriating person. The most useful, and touching, parts of Gray’s book deal with Colet’s later years, when, intrepid, troublesome, and isolated, she carries on working and fighting. But throughout Gray, though resolutely engaged, cannot help noting her “extreme pride,” “frequent rages,” “monumental talent for self-deception”; or calling her “this most demanding of women,” a “one-woman public relations factory” who was “capable of extravagant name-dropping.” You begin to wonder how anyone put up with her for longer than strictly necessary. “She always came too early and stayed too late,” was Gautier’s view. “She wouldn’t have left Flaubert alone with his pedicurist.”
But Gray is committed to her defense and vindication, and this frequently leads her into special pleading. Rescuing Louise seems to necessitate demeaning others (Hippolyte, Mme. Flaubert, Flaubert’s “buddy network,” as Gray terms it). It means accepting the word of this “one-woman public relations factory” far too easily. It means making authoritative statements (such as “He was clearly the first man with whom she enjoyed ecstatic sex”) without the slightest bibliographical backup, and recklessly introducing whole episodes from Lui into the narrative as if they were objectively established fact. Sometimes an inappropriate twentieth-century template is fitted over nineteenth-century life; sometimes Gray regards as exceptional to Colet, or to women, circumstances shared by others. When Louise takes up fashion journalism (at which she seems to have been rather good), Gray feelingly writes that she was “bound to be humiliated by her need to grind out harebrained fashion chronicles.” Perhaps so, but it was a humiliation shared later in the century by a more famous male poet: Mallarmé.
And if Flaubert studies have skewed our understanding of Colet—as they have—this vindication is also skewed in that it observes Flaubert simply from Colet’s point of view. His other relations with women are scarcely mentioned: they were varied, complex, and normally enduring. Louise brought out one side of his amatory nature; she got into his heart and under his skin in a way that no one else ever did. They were, however, severely ill-matched in temperament, sociability, aesthetics, ambitions, and even sexual drive. Flaubert also seems to have been more suited to old love than to new love. In his letters to Louise he often gives the impression of hastening not so much toward further discoveries about the beloved as toward a position of established love—he is looking forward to looking back. Could there ever have been a “happy ending”—and if so what might that have been? Wasn’t it just a case of waiting for when the rapture gave way to the rupture? Certainly Louise’s plan that she and her daughter should transport themselves to Normandy and make some sort of extended rural family seems the ultimate fantasy.
Du Plessix Gray is right to assert the centrality of Colet’s position in the making of Madame Bovary, and the centrality (though not the uniqueness) of her place in Flaubert’s heart. But was she “the first to recognize and encourage his genius”? (What about Alfred Le Poittevin, Du Camp, and Bouilhet?) Was she “the love of his life”? (Yes, but so in their different ways were Le Poittevin and Mme. Schlesinger.) Did she “offer him a unique self-assurance about his vocation”? (Not to judge by the astonishing artistic confidence of his letters.) In her desire to right what she sees as a historical wrong, Gray finds herself making claims which will stagger any Flaubertiste. For instance, Gustave sent Louise his early work—Novembre, the first Tentation, and the first Education sentimentale. According to Gray: “How grateful Flaubert was for Louise’s keen insights into the workings of his talent!” Well: in 1847 Maxime Du Camp wrote to Louise warning her that Gustave had been “profoundly wounded by the extravagant praise” she had lavished on Novembre. In 1852 Flaubert wrote to her about the first Education: “I am astonished, my dear friend, by the excessive enthusiasm you express over certain parts of the Education. They seem to me good, but not very much more so than the other pages you refer to. In any case I don’t agree with your idea of cutting out the whole section about Jules and making something separate of it…Those pages which you were particularly struck by (on Art, etc) seem pretty easily done to me.” If he was marginally less grudging over her response to the Tentation, this was in the context of Bouilhet and Du Camp having previously advised him to throw the work on the fire: “Well, you are enthusiastic about Saint Antoine. At least I’ll have one supporter. Although I don’t accept everything you say, I think my friends don’t appreciate everything that was in it…As for the change you suggest, we’ll talk about it—it is huge.”
Which brings us back to the letters. The way Francine du Plessix Gray tells it, there is no doubt at all over what happened in and around Flaubert’s fireplace on that night in May 1879.
Suddenly, in the middle of a particularly thick packet of letters, he comes across a package tied with a narrow ribbon. He opens it very slowly, takes out a small silken shoe; inside it is a faded rose rolled in a woman’s handkerchief, its lace yellow with age. Flaubert kisses these three relics sorrowfully. Then he throws them into the fireplace along with the thick sheaf of letters that surrounds them, wiping his eyes. Dawn has come [etc].
This makes a poignant, precise, and, to some, enraging scene; but it’s worth checking back to what Maupassant actually wrote. For a start, he quotes Flaubert as outlining the task ahead of them: “Je veux brûler toutes mes vieilles lettres non classées. Je ne veux pas qu’on les lise après ma mort.” Gray renders this as: “I want to burn most of my old letters, things I don’t want anyone to read.” Here “all” has become “most”: Gray is leaning on the translation to make it accord with what subsequently happens. More culpably, she suppresses that little phrase “non classées.” In other words, Flaubert has done a previous triage of his papers, and this is a further sorting-out of the remainder. Since his relationship with Colet had terminated in 1856, and it is now 1879, should we not at least consider the possibility that Flaubert made his decision on Louise’s letters during that earlier classification? He might have a) burnt them then; b) saved them (which points the finger back at Caroline); or even c) saved them then, only to change his mind subsequently and destroy them.
Together, Maupassant and Flaubert then pull out a trunk full of papers. “Je veux en garder une partie, et brûler l’autre,” says Flaubert. Gray again leans on the translation: “I want to keep a small part and burn the rest.” The letters are in chronologically reverse order, later ones on the top, earlier ones underneath: Flaubert therefore embarks on a strange reverse journey through the documents of his life. There are letters from the living and the dead, the famous and the insignificant, from friends and acquaintances; sometimes Flaubert drops a tear, sometimes he barks at the inanities he comes across. Early on, he finds a letter from George Sand, later one from his mother. These are the only two correspondents identified by Flaubert—or, to be exact, remembered by Maupassant as having been identified by Flaubert. The silence here is surely significant. Would Flaubert have burnt several hundred letters from Colet without mentioning the fact? And why should Maupassant not report it if he did? Additionally and alternatively, though the emphasis is on what Flaubert destroyed that night, what about the many papers he saved? After all, in his letter to Laporte he said that the next day his hands were still “shaking from tying up packets.”
Then comes the discovery of the three relics. There is a slight problem here. Maupassant describes “a little silk dancing-shoe,” but as Hermia Oliver comments, “That slipper was not a dancing-shoe; it was Louise Colet’s slipper, or pair of slippers (perhaps Maupassant overlooked one of them).” Perhaps he did; but then it was 4 AM, and they had taken “several glasses of old claret” with dinner. Flaubert casts the slipper, singular or plural, into the flames, together with the rose and the handkerchief. He had discovered this sentimental bundle, “in the middle of a particularly thick packet of letters,” and he now throws the relics onto the fire followed by “the thick sheaf of letters that surround them.” This is what Gray tells us. But this is not what Maupassant tells us, not at all. According to him, Flaubert simply found his souvenirs “au milieu des lettres,” i.e., among the letters in the trunk. There is no “particularly thick packet of letters,” no “thick sheaf,” except in Francine du Plessix Gray’s novelistic head. She does it, no doubt, with the best of intentions: to dramatize the incident, to finger Flaubert, to point up what she believes to be the first step in a campaign to blot out Louise Colet, a male conspiracy which has finally brought Gray riding to the rescue. But as Flaubert once observed, you don’t make art out of good intentions; and you don’t make biography that way either.
May 26, 1994