I was dumbfounded to see Gustave Flaubert added to one of those lists of famous dyslexics which are so readily publicised these days.
Flaubert, born in 1821, was one of the six children of a Rouen surgeon of whom three survived. Gustave was the middle child of these three. His much elder brother Achille was the favourite son. Having suffered the loss of a daughter Gustave’s birth was a disappointment. According to Henri Troyat (Flaubert, Flammarion 1988) ‘les parents feignent de se réjouir de cette naissance’, the parents feign delight at his birth. Madame Flaubert was a manipulative hypochondriac who, in Francine du Plessix Gray’s words, was ‘exceptionally gifted in the art of maternal blackmail’. Later, after the premature deaths of her husband, eldest son and daughter, Gustave becomes the focus of all her neuroses. He seemed to sense his inferior position and demonstrated a hypersensitivity and lethargy (‘hébetude’) which caused anxiety in the houshold. He was a long term thumb sucker and felt himself isolated in the family. His mother was his first teacher. Troyat tells us ‘Il bute sur ses mots, regimbe à apprendre l’alphabet, et son père se désole devant tant de paresse’. He stumbled over his words, balked at learning the alphabet and his father despaired at such laziness. When we connect this with Flaubert’s later epilepsy, often manifested at times of stress, it becomes apparent that pleasing the parents had become a difficult issue.
A lover of stories (Don Quijote became a favourite), Flaubert attached himself to young friends with similar enthusiasms. By the age of nine he was determined to become a writer. That year he wrote to his friend Ernest Chevalier asking him to share their writing experiments. ‘j’ écrirait des comédie et toi tu écriras tes rȇves’. I will write comedies and you can write of your dreams. The spelling was imperfect but no different from the average schoolboy. At that point he had not yet started school. He did not enter the Collège Royal de Rouen until he was nine and a half. The following year he became a boarder in this strictly traditional establishment where he found the rigidity of the system galling. His impatience to get on with things reminds us of Yeats and the young Thomas Edison, two more alleged dyslexics. Letters written to Ernest Chevalier at the age of eleven and twelve demonstrate a fluency and style which would be rare nowadays. On the occasion of a royal visit to Rouen he wrote ‘Louis-Philippe est maintenant avec sa famille dans la ville qui vit naître Corneille. Que les hommes sont bȇtes, que le peuple est borné.’ Louis- Philippe is now with his family in the town which gave birth to Corneille. How stupid and narrow-minded people are. At the Lycée Corneille he ‘excelled in History and Literature’. He devoured authors ancient and modern and launched a literary review at the age of thirteen. Hardly the activities of a boy who had reading difficulties. The dyslexia myth attaches itself all too easily these days. Einstein, always prominent on the list, had read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason at the age of thirteen (Einstein, the life and times, Ronald W. Clark, Harper 2007).
It is easier to dispense with the dyslexia listing than to absolve Flaubert of the charges laid at his door by Francine du Plessix Gray in Rage and Fire, A Life of Louise Colet – Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse (Hamish Hamilton 1994). Maternal machinations had turned him into a Mammy’s boy. Flaubert never married, living with his mother and niece in Croisset near Rouen and keeping his other life in Paris at some distance from them. Flaubert was no different from others in the misogynistic Parisian literary world. His description, in letters to friends, of his debauched adventures in the brothels of Egypt and schoolboy bragging about his sexual feats make Joyce’s intimate letters to Nora sound positively coy. He shared far too much information on his affairs with his cronies, particularly with the distinctly creepy Maxime Du Camp.
Louise Colet was born Louise Révoil, the youngest of a group of philistine, jealous siblings. During her research Gray visited the Château de Servanes, south of Avignon, the ancestral home of Colet, to find it was now a country guest house run by a descendant with scant information about or interest in his great-great-great aunt. Colet had been her bookish mother’s favourite. Her adolescent heroines were Charlotte Corday, Lady Macbeth and Lucrezia Borgia. She married Hippolyte Colet, a musician, in 1834 in order to escape her family and move to the perceived literary Utopia of Paris. The marriage to Hippolyte did not last but Colet through her own herculanean efforts succeeded in making quite an impact in Paris. The sculptor Pradier used her as his model for the statues representing the cities of Lille and Strasbourg in the Place de la Concorde. She won several poetry prizes at the Académie Française for bombastic verse which might now be considered indifferent at best.The suspicion remains that she shamelessly courted the literary luminaries who had the awarding of prizes in their gift. She wrote plays and fiction and contributed to many journals.
She had a daughter whose paternity was disputed. There were miscarriages and at least one dead child by her numerous lovers. Constantly strapped for cash she nevertheless maintained a literary salon for years in several shabby chic appartments. One cannot but admire her determination in the face of the sneering hostility of critics and fellow writers much of which Gray considers inspired by fear of the growing phenomenon of the female author.
Passionate on issues concerning justice, Colet was by turns argumentative and hysterical. She attempted to kill the ultra- misogynistic critic Alphonse Karr with a kitchen knife. She formed a friendship with the much older Madame Récamier, she of the David chaise longue portrait. She corresponded with George Sand who always declined to meet her. The somewhat bitchy assessment made by Sand of Colet’s verse suggests that she was not going to allow another female to invade her turf. The two women had one other thing in common. Both had affairs with the poet Alfred de Musset. Colet was a well established poet by the 1840s, a considerable achievement for a woman of her time. Gray considers her prose work La Jeunesse de Mirabeau her best work.
Flaubert embarked on an eight year on-again, off-again relationship with Louise Colet in 1846. She was his elder by eleven years. He was a new arrival in Paris and had yet to publish a word. Gray suggests that Flaubert’s motive for the affair was his own literary advancement. From the outset he offers criticism of her work. He criticises hackneyed phrases and outmoded romantic conventions in her verse. Sensual, possessive, confrontational and needy, Colet deeply resented Flaubert’s refusal to invite her to Croisset. On one occasion she arrived uninvited at the house but was sent packing. ‘I love your company when it is not tempestuous’, he wrote.
After the final rupture Flaubert began Madame Bovary. The character of Emma Bovary was based on three different women. The story of the suicide was inspired by the real life story of the wife of a Norman doctor. The characterisation of Emma borrowed heavily from Louise Colet and Ludovica Pradier, a woman who had become quite notorious in Paris. Ludovica was the wife of the sculptor in whose studio Flaubert had first encountered Louise. All hell broke loose when Colet recognised herself as Emma provoking her to retaliate with her own account of the liaison. Her novel Lui was serialised in 1859. Flaubert and friends were characteristically sneery in their reactions. Colet unleashed all her literary frustrations and sense of injustice in this work.
Later in her life Colet was forced to work as a fashion journalist, which she found irksome but, as ever, she was ready to try anything just to live. A woman of immense courage who had none of the educational or professional opportunities of her male counterparts, one cannot but find her awesome. The young Louise was not the kind of girl one would have chosen for a schoolfriend, however.
As for ‘lui’ there is that streak of cruelty which we are distressed to see in so many of our literary heroes. One thinks of Dickens’ treatment of his wife and the vile Virginia Woolf who disdained to ask Leonard’s mother to their wedding as she did not care for Jews. Rosamund Bartlett portrays Tolstoy in a similar vein, ‘highly moral and at the same time unattractive’. By comparison one feels grateful for our own dear Seamus Heaney. Let us hope we are never disabused of this opinion.
Was this the same Flaubert who could write with such feeling of love, devotion and casual cruelty in a story such as ‘Un Coeur Simple’ from Trois Contes? A delayed adolescent, an unlikely dyslexic but a writer sans pareil.
La bru fouilla les tiroirs, choisit des meubles, vendit les autres ….. Le fauteuil de Madame, son guéridon, sa chaufferette, les huit chaises, étaient partis ! La place des gravures se dessinait en carrés jaunes au milieu des cloisons. Ils avaient emporté les deux couchettes, avec leurs matelas, et dans le placard on ne voyait plus rien de toutes les affaires de Virginie ! Félicité remonta les étages, ivre de tristesse.
The daughter-in-law rummaged in the drawers, picked out furniture, sold others…Madame’s armchair, her console table, her foot warmer, the eight chairs, were gone! Yellow square marks revealed where engravings had hung on the walls. They had carried off the two little beds with their mattresses, and in the cupboard nothing remained of Virginie’s things! Félicité went back upstairs, convulsed with sorrow.
Louise Colet died in 1876, Flaubert in 1880.