The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

In Praise of Classics: Exploded Passions and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

Image It is inevitable in life that affairs which begin with romance and protestations of love eternal cannot all live up to the lofty ambitions that lovers first have for them: most such affairs come to an end. It is sometimes the case that love merely fades away, leaving only a small squeak of protest before the affair fades into silent memory, the romance and passion gone and replaced only with vague indifference. Not much is written of an ending of this kind: when a flame simply goes out, there is not much to tell. I have had affairs of the heart end in this fashion, only to encounter a once-loved one later on the street and let the whole matter pass with a vague hello.

But a romance does not always end so quietly: sometimes, it charges up with the heat of passions fiery and embittered, ending in flame and fury and passion turned upon itself to hate with the same strength as the past love. These are the sort of endings that inspire stories, whether those stories take the form of tabloids speculating on the bitter divorces of celebrities or the form of movies and novels saturated with the creator’s own passions.

When one is young—a state I have perhaps not passed enough to speak about it so impersonally—even the most short-lived of romances can spark up such flames, leaving a trail of broken friendships and angry text messages and mournful posts on Live Journal speaking of unexpected betrayals. Creative writing instructors in high school and college can well attest to how these remembered pains become fuel for stories read aloud with appropriate passion in workshops. I once had a teacher who went out of his way to forbid stories based on what his students might consider “lost love:” that was something, he told us, that we should not be speculating upon until we even knew what love was.

This edict from my teacher bothered me at the time because I felt certain that I did know what love was: I’d devoured novels on a daily basis from first learning how to read, and I’d heard who I considered then to be all the “great authorities” on the subject of love. I’d felt Jane Eyre’s pain and read of the sufferings of Jane Austen’s tortured heroines, and I’d fantasized of the future arrival of my own Mr. Darcy if to no avail. So, told that age alone prevented me from understanding love, I returned again to books in hopes of finding fuel to prove my instructor wrong.

It was in this phase of my life that I returned to a novel that I’d earlier read as a school assignment but hadn’t at the time appreciated: Madame Bovary. To provide a cinematic style recap of the events of the novel, Madame Bovary is the story of Emma Bovary, a woman who marries into an unsatisfying life and in attempting to find love finds only disaster. She eventually commits suicide facing ruin both financial and personal exposure. Madame Bovary was written in 1846 by Gustave Flaubert, a French misanthrope considered one of the great French writers of that or any era.

What most surprised me in revisiting Madame Bovary was the extent to which the novel was convincing as a tale of a woman’s passions. I was surprised by the command Flaubert had of his woman character, and so I began to wonder where she had come from. As I went to research this particular problem I stumbled into a 19th century French soap opera that had gone unremarked upon by my instructors when they’d assigned the book as classroom reading. Emma Bovary did not, it seemed, emerge from thin air in that magical creative process we ascribe to great writers: she had an origin point of her own that mapped her to another writer of the time.

France in the 19th Century was home to a great many writers and artists, all networking and struggling for position in the literary salons and circles of the day. In 1846, Gustave Flaubert was a young would-be writer with no great works yet to his name. He was introduced to a poet of some standing at the time, Louise Colet, a woman who had begun her life as a small town girl aspiring to great things. She’d married a doctor to make her way to Paris and proceeded to find herself both literary lovers and sponsors, living the wild life of a revolutionary woman. Prior to meeting Flaubert, Colet had already won awards and funding from the Academie Francaise with her poetry.

Louise Colet became Flaubert’s lover and then his muse in the usual fashion, neither being put off by the fact Colet already had a husband (this, of course, was a small obstacle for her). The affair proceeded as a series of romantic liasons followed by confrontation, as Colet pressed Flaubert to spend more time with her, and Flaubert made only infrequent visits to Paris and spent most of his time at home with his mother and his work. Flaubert was disturbed by the intensity of her passions, in one letter to her on July 26th in 1851, he wrote most tellingly: "I wish you were in such a state that we could see eachother calmly. I love your company when it is not tempestuous. The storms one so enjoys in youth are tiring in maturity. I am growing very old; every jolt upsets me, and feeling is as repugnant to me as action." Colet was hardly blind to his coldness, writing in her journal in 1851, "I do not feel loved in the way I love him."

Gustave Flaubert profited off of his romance with Colet both in connections to the literary circles of the time, which she had already made her name in and he was just beginning to, and in inspiration for his own work. A letter from Flaubert to Colet on August 3rd of 1846 expounds: "Your little slippers are in front of me as I write… I want to cause you nothing but joy, and to surround you with a calm, endless bliss- to repay you, a little, for the overflowing generosity of the love you have given me."

In the actual work Madame Bovary, Flaubert makes no effort to conceal his source: the parallels between Louise Colet and Emma Bovary begin with mere physical resemblance but progress to include similarities in values and temperament. Flaubert also uses incidents from his romance with Colet as material for the romances of Emma and her lovers.Like her real life counterpart, Emma is a blonde beauty of humble origins, who feeds her vanity on the attention she is given in her small town. Both are fair skinned and elegant in manner. They also share some similarities in style: the "blue merino dress with three flounces" that Emma wears in her first meeting with Charles, her future husband, is nearly identical in description to the blue dress that Colet wore on her first meeting with Flaubert. The two are also in similar family situations, both going from their lower class roots to an unsatisfactory marriage, each with one child- in both cases, a daughter. In the modern era, a woman so depicted in such a work would probably try for a lawsuit.

The similarities are not merely skin deep: the two are also very similar in manner and attitude. The passion and fiery nature of Colet, that had alternately inflamed and infuriated Flaubert, is present unchanged in Emma. Both are also dreamers, using their lovers and husbands as means to achieve their dreams. These dreams are focused almost entirely on escape: escape from the mundane everyday existence of lower class life, escape to far off lands and romantic paradises.

The events that shape Emma and her relationships are also drawn from Colet's own life, namely her relationship with Flaubert. Tokens exchanged between Emma and her lovers mimic those exchanged between Colet and Flaubert. One such token was the silver and agate cigarette case, engraved with the phrase "Amor nel cor," which Colet gave to Flaubert. The token is mimicked by Emma in the form of a silver medallion, engraved with the phrase "Amor nel cor." This bit of spitefulness is particularly cruel, and inspired Louise Colet to publish a poem with a name that echoed this same phrase wherein she despaired of Flaubert’s cruelty and self-involvement.

A woman’s passions, however, are not to be underestimated. Louise Colet was herself a talented writer, and equally capable of taking the events of their affair as fuel for her own literary creation. While the novel at first seems to be a condemnation of Flaubert, Colet set out with a larger theme than just revenge. At its essence, Colet's work can be viewed as an early feminist work fueled by insulted passions. Colet’s frustration with her lover grew to rage at all the men in her life. In the introduction to her novel, she makes such scathing remarks as "men's physical beauty has now become as rare as their moral beauty has always been."

Colet’s novel, however, is not taught as a classic of literature: instead, it infuriated critics and fellow writers at the time who took offense to what they saw as her bitter attack on Flaubert. In a letter to Gustave Flaubert, George Sand called the work "a chamber-pot of a book in which [Colet] excreted her causeless fury."

The characters in Madame Bovary or any book have their own power and reality, but behind that reality are layers upon layers of real lives and emotions considered and stewed upon and vented in fiction for the world to absorb, learn from, or simply marvel at. In this “classic” book the pent up emotions of lovers turned enemies wait to be explored, and I read these works and feel the love and rage within them with the same immediacy as with a work today. Every work of great literature comes from somewhere, and these authors we think of as “old dead white guys” were just as real as we are today: a truth that perhaps should be self-evident but is easily forgotten when we pick up a dusty book or are handed something to read by a teacher and told it is a classic. The power of works like that of Gustave Flaubert and for that matter Louise Colet is in conveying emotions and experiences that are not so distant from us and never get “old.”