Madame Bovary

By Gustave Flaubert


Gustave Flaubert was born the son of a surgeon in Rouen in 1821. The influence of a medical background is evident both in the content of Madame Bovary and in his 'scientific' style. In 1844 he suffered a form of epileptic seizure which forced him to give up his hated legal studies in Paris (although they later provided material both for Charles Bovary's student days and for Léon) and allowed him to devote himself to his writing. In 1846 he retired to the quiet Normandy village of Croisset with his mother and young niece. Despite his relative isolation he travelled widely; he witnessed the 1848 uprising in Paris (which he later drew on for A Sentimental Education), toured the Near East with his friend and fellow writer Maxime du Camp and visited North Africa to collect material for the novel Salammbô. Surprisingly for a man famed for his literary misanthropy he also enjoyed the company of a wide variety of friends; he was closest to the writer Louis Bouilhet (Flaubert was devastated by his death in 1869) but he also corresponded with the Goncourt brothers, Sainte-Beuve, George Sand and even Princesse Mathilde, Napoleon III's cousin. He met his mistress and 'muse' Louise Colet in 1846; their relationship lasted until 1857 and their extensive and intimate correspondence has shed much light on the compostion of Madame Bovary.

Madame Bovary was Flaubert's first published novel, although he had been writing since childhood and had already completed the first version of A Sentimental Education and The Temptation of Saint-Antoine. When Flaubert presented The Temptation to Bouilhet and Du Camp in 1849 they are reputed to have advised him to throw such lyrical nonsense on the fire and write a realist novel instead. So began the arduous task of writing Madame Bovary. Flaubert's obsession with style meant that composition dragged on for five years - he compared the process to "a man playing the piano with lead balls attached to his knuckles". The novel was first published in serial form in the "Revue de Paris" in 1856; despite cutting certain scenes (Emma's encounter with Léon in the cab for example) Flaubert and the magazine were charged with irreligion and offending public morality. They were acquitted, the scandal guaranteeing the novel's enormous success. He went on to publish Salammbô to great acclaim in 1862; the second (and entirely separate) version of A Sentimental Education (1869) was less warmly received. Bereavement and financial concerns made the period after 1870 more difficult for Flaubert. Nevertheless, the conclusive version of The Temptation of Saint-Antoine appeared in 1874, Three Tales was published in 1877 and he was still working on Bouvard and Pécuchet when he died in 1880.