‘So Paris swam before her eyes, like a shifting ocean glimmering through a rose-coloured haze … The whole of her immediate environment – dull countryside, imbecile petty bourgeois, life in its ordinariness – seemed a freak, a particular piece of bad luck that had seized on her; while beyond, as far as eye could see, ranged the vast lands of passion and felicity … Was not love like an Indian plant, requiring a prepared soil, a special temperature? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, hands at parting bathed with tears, all the fevers of the flesh and the languid tenderness of love – these could not be separated from the balconies of stately mansions …’
So life seems to Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, of whom he said: ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi!’ And like his most famous creation, Flaubert longed for the exotic and unattainable. He found life in 19th century provincial France utterly banal. As early as the age of 13 the truculent Flaubert decided that literature would be the means by which he’d endure the boredom and vulgarity of life:
‘The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.’
In 1851, following an 18-month tour of the Orient he had long dreamt of, Flaubert returned to his mother’s house on the Seine near Rouen and began work on a novel about the provincial life he so despised. For five years he laboured, his finger drumming out the rhythms of his prose on his writing desk, producing an agonised 500 words a week. These words became Madame Bovary. So slowly did Flaubert work that he wrote to his lover poet Louise Colet that he was ‘like a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles’.
In 1856 Flaubert’s friend Maxime du Camp published the first six instalments of Madame Bovary in his periodical Revue de Paris. The novel sold well but the audacious carnality of Emma Bovary’s behaviour so shocked readers that Flaubert was arrested and tried under the repressive censorship of the regime of Louis Bonaparte, on grounds of defending public morality, religion and decency. Flaubert was lucky to escape conviction. But six months later poet Charles Baudelaire was found guilty of the same charges for Les Fleurs du Mal.
What so shocked contemporary readers of Madame Bovary was Emma’s rebellion against her marriage and her role as the wife of a dutiful provincial doctor. Emma loves words and literature – and she’s married to a man whose conversation is ‘as flat as a street pavement, on which everybody’s ideas trudged past, in their workaday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams’.
So the restless Emma makes her own dreams. She longs ‘to travel – or to go back to the convent. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.’ She buys a guide to Paris to imagine herself in its boulevards, subscribes to women’s papers to immerse herself in the latest fashions and gossip, and loses herself in the romantic novels of Sir Walter Scott, Balzac and George Sand.
Unable – and unwilling – to reconcile herself to her lot, Emma allows herself to be seduced. She remembers ‘the heroines of the books she had read and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her’. Like Don Quixote, Emma has lost herself to romantic literature and attempts to live her life by its conventions. And, like Don Quixote’s friends, Emma’s husband and mother-in-law believe the cure for her malaise is to prevent her from reading novels. (Flaubert was reading Don Quixote while writing Madame Bovary.)
The story of an adulterous wife was suggested to Flaubert by his friend the poet Louis Bouilhet, who’d read Flaubert’s The Temptation of Saint Anthony in 1849 and panned it, urging him instead to write a down-to-earth novel like Balzac’s Parents Pauvres. Bouilhet suggested a novel based on the tragic true story of Eugene Delamare, a country doctor in Normandy who died of grief after being betrayed and ruined by his wife Delphine. This story was one source of Madame Bovary. Flaubert may also have been influenced by the Memoires de Madame Ludovica, the autobiographical adventures of his friend Louise Pradier, the wife of the Swiss sculptor James Pradier at whose studio Flaubert first met his lover Louise Colet in 1846.
Flaubert set Madame Bovary in the 1830s, a decade governed by Louise-Philippe and the rise of the bourgeoisie in France. The July Monarchy of Louis-Philippe was installed after the revolution of 1830 and lasted until the revolution of 1848. He was called ‘Louis-Philippe, King of the French’ rather than ‘Philip VII, King of France’ to denote that he was a (so-called) man of the people. During the 1830s French literature flourished and for the first time novels, including those of Stendhal and Balzac, began to compete with the work of Romantic poets for a mass readership.
Flaubert was the first writer to treat the novel as a work of art, to aspire to lift it to the lofty heights and import of poetry, and Madame Bovary is known for the power of its language, its rhythms, and the precision and compactness of its metaphors, even in translation. As he wrote to Colet, Flaubert wanted his style to be ‘as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science’.
And yet the novel contains one of the most poignant expressions of the inability to express in words our deepest and most intimate feelings. When Emma’s jaded lover mentally dismisses her protestations of love (which she expresses in cliche despite the depths of her feeling) with the thought ‘High flown language concealing tepid affection must be discounted’, the narrator – in a rare intrusion – counters:
‘as though the full heart may not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, his thoughts, or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we strum out tunes to make a bear dance, when we would move the stars to pity’.
Flaubert was born in Rouen, west of Paris, in 1821. His father was the chief surgeon at the Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Rouen, and his mother was a doctor’s daughter. He was destined, like all good bourgeois men of his day, to become a lawyer, but the onset of a nervous illness (probably epilepsy) at the age of 22 forced him to abandon his legal studies in Paris. After his father’s death in 1846, followed by the death of his beloved sister Caroline the following March, Flaubert retired to an estate in Croisset, on the Seine just south of Rouen, with his mother and niece. There he found the perfect conditions for writing:
‘I can imagine nothing in the world preferable to a nice, well-heated room with the books one loves and the leisure one wants.’
Here he spent most of the rest of his life cloistered in his room overlooking the Seine, writing, living by his maxim: ‘Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.’
Flaubert travelled to Paris in February 1848 to witness the ‘beautiful revolution’ – the overthrow of the regime of Louis-Philippe – and, with his friend Maxime Du Camp, was one of the first to tour the liberated Tuileries. And in November 1849 he journeyed with Du Camp through Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Turkey, Italy and Greece. His travels fuelled his imagination (according to Du Camp, Flaubert thought of the name ‘Emma Bovary’ while they were walking above the Nile) and allowed him to indulge his passion for prostitutes male and female.
Flaubert never married, but had an intense affair with Louise Colet from 1846 until their breakup in 1855, conducted mostly by correspondence with the occasional ‘big fuck’, as Flaubert put it, in a railway hotel midway between Croisset and Paris, where Colet lived.
In 1866 Flaubert was awarded the prestigious French medal the Legion of Honour for his novel Salammbo. He celebrated the near completion of that manuscript with a reading and an exotic Oriental dinner for his friends. According to his handwritten menu, the dinner included ‘human flesh, brain of bourgeois and tigress clitorises sautéed in rhinoceros butter’. Flaubert managed to combine his monkish existence outside Paris with a busy social life in the capital, where he was feted in literary circles and had many friends. He had a deep and abiding friendship with George Sand and was like a father to Guy de Maupassant, who saw himself as Flaubert’s disciple. Flaubert died suddenly of an apoplectic stroke in 1880 aged 58, with an unfinished page on his table.
Vladimir Nabokov revered Flaubert for his ‘clinically accurate style’ and objectivity, and included Madame Bovary in his short list of eight to ten great European novels. He believed that ‘Without Flaubert there would have been no Marcel Proust in France, no James Joyce in Ireland, Chekhov in Russia would not have been quite Chekhov.’ Nabokov’s King, Queen, Knave (published in English in 1968) was inspired by Madame Bovary (and Anna Karenina).
Flaubert also influenced Oscar Wilde, TS Eliot and Julian Barnes (Flaubert’s Parrot). Sartre, on the other hand, hated Flaubert – and dedicated just over ten years of his life, from 1960 to 1971, to writing a 4-volume biography damning him, called L’Idiot de la Famille. He never finished it.
Writer Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a book in praise of Madame Bovary – The Perpetual Orgy (1975) – in which he attempts to diagnose its enduring power and modernity:
‘In Madame Bovary we see the first signs of alienation that a century later will take hold of men and women in industrial societies … Emma’s drama is the gap between illusion and reality.’
And the instrument of Emma’s undoing, the magic wand she uses to realise her dreams, however temporarily and ultimately unsatisfactorily, is also eerily modern: financial credit. The shopkeeper Monsieur Lheureux insinuates himself into Emma’s life, teaching her that far from wanting nothing, as she’d believed, her need for trifles and fripperies is without bounds. As is, apparently, the credit he will extend to her.
The continuing resonance of Madame Bovary is reflected in its many screen adaptations, including Vincente Minnelli’s 1949 cinema adaptation starring Jennifer Jones as Emma, Louis Jourdan as Rodolphe Boulanger, and James Mason, who plays Flaubert defending himself against charges of obscenity. In Claude Chabrol’s sumptuous 1991 adaptation Madame Bovary is played by Isabelle Huppert (who’s starring in Jean Genet’s The Maids with Cate Blanchett at the Sydney Theatre Company this winter). The 2000 BBC television adaptation of Madame Bovary starred Australian actress Frances O’Connor as Emma. A new cinema adaptation of Flaubert’s novel is due for release this year, directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Mia Wasikowska as Emma, Paul Giamatti and Ezra Miller.