Romancing Flaubert

Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert's Muse

by Francine du Plessix Gray
Simon and Schuster, 432 pp., $27.50

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…

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