The English governess in question – very much in question – was Juliet Herbert, governess at the Flaubert home in Croisset to Flaubert’s much-loved niece, Caroline, between 1854/5 and 1857. Her acquaintanceship with the novelist lasted till his death in 1880, but the nature of the acquaintanceship is in dispute. The most tender of Flaubert’s affairs? Or a non-affair? Hermia Oliver believes that Juliet was ‘almost certainly’ Flaubert’s mistress: but the present book, a record of indefatigable research and meagre revelations, is stuffed with ‘probably’s’, ‘may’s’, ‘if’s’ and ‘just possible’s’, a case of seeking hopefully rather than arriving.
Born in 1829 as the daughter of a London builder, Juliet came from ‘the artisan rather than the professional classes’. Miss Oliver is faintly surprised that Flaubert should have been devoted (if devoted he was) to so humble a being, ‘It seemed far more probable that the father of a woman who held Flaubert’s interest for so long a period would have been more highly educated, like Mr Brontë.’ This is unfair to governesses! – and, I would say, to Flaubert too. However, all is well, on that front at any rate, for Mr Herbert was a master builder (if a small one) and even, in 1831, enjoyed the professional privilege of bankruptcy. Who could better sympathise with Flaubert than Juliet, Miss Oliver asks, after his niece’s husband’s financial collapse? Though that happened in the mid-1870s.
The sad fact, or the fact, is that there are very few references to Juliet in Flaubert’s letters and no letters at all between the two putative lovers. Three possible reasons are advanced for this: Caroline resented the closeness of the relationship, which she discovered on sorting her uncle’s letters after his death, and so destroyed those from Juliet; she suppressed the letters in order to spare the feelings of Juliet and surviving members of the Herbert family; or, an explanation Miss Oliver favours, Flaubert himself burned the letters in the course of an eight-hour bonfire, at which Maupassant assisted, in the year before his death. (This last being an act which, like any decent biographical writer, Miss Oliver both understands and regrets.) As for the letters written by Flaubert, it is ‘almost certain’ that Juliet, who died in 1909, destroyed them.
It is known that after Juliet left Croisset in 1857 she paid summer visits there in succeeding years, and also that Flaubert came to England in 1865, 1866 and 1871 and met Juliet then. It is possible, too, that the couple met during short holidays which Juliet took in France at intervals between 1872 and 1878. It is the case that during her stint as governess at Croisset Juliet read Macbeth with Flaubert and translated Madame Bovary into English, though the translation was never published – which was probably as well for her reputation. And in 1856 Flaubert wrote in a letter to his friend and confidant Louis Bouilhet that ‘the governess excites me immeasurably; I hold myself back on the stairs so as not to grab her behind’ – which by the standards of his correspondence with this friend is a mild enough confession – although the first mention of Juliet by name occurred only the following year, in a letter from Flaubert to his niece.
In the accounts of Flaubert’s visits to England, instead of amorous encounters the reader must rest content with a listing of the pictures he saw at Bridgewater House, Grosvenor House, the National Gallery (South Kensington) and Hampton Court. Flaubert’s travel diary is otherwise uncommunicative, but on 6 July 1865 he recorded dining at a restaurant and thereafter a ‘retour délicieux’ – to which Miss Oliver appends: ‘possibly in a cab’. If Juliet was with him at the time, the reference ‘can surely only indicate a relationship that was something other than friendship’. Surely? It could merely signify that Flaubert was glad to get back to his lodgings after a hot, stormy day spent touring the Crystal Palace.
Similarly, it may have been Juliet who in 1869 sent the novelist some translated information about the Calves’ Head Club which he wanted for L’Education Sentimentale: whoever it was addressed him in a gloss by the intimate form, tu. ‘If it can indeed be proved that it was Juliet who wrote the covering letter, the use of “tu” is itself highly indicative.’ Well, there are some similarities between the handwriting of the translation and Juliet’s inscription in a copy of Hans Andersen which she gave to Caroline, and ‘it may or may not be considered’ that the resemblances outweigh the differences. But, as Miss Oliver allows, there can be no proof unless the covering letter can be traced: it ‘may be’ still in private ownership ‘if’ it was not lost during World War Two.
‘lt is by now impossible,’ Miss Oliver states, ‘to doubt the emotional nature of their relationship,’ What does that latter phrase mean? We certainly cannot know what Juliet’s feelings for Flaubert were, but ‘that she must have suffered anguish, “the torment of love unsatisfied”, seems undeniable ...’ Miss Oliver continues: ‘We can only hope and suspect that she too received the kind of letter’ – then quoted – ‘that in 1858 he had written to another woman whose beauty moved him.’ Yes, Flaubert was a great letter-writer, and a great admirer (within limits) of women, and the thought is a nice one – but research is now aspiring towards the condition of romantic fiction. Miss Oliver’s intention is a worthy one: she is seeking to do Juliet a posthumous good turn, she would like to prove that this English woman, this mere governess, actually slept with a celebrated foreign novelist ... in somewhat the same spirit in which not so long ago she would have been concerned to prove that Juliet had done no such improper thing. Other times, other pieties ... One must respect the scrupulousness shown in these investigations, for it is not all that common, and the total absence of anything approaching prurience, yet even so one must ask: is all this in a worthwhile cause?
That Flaubert, as a writer and as the kind of writer he was, was born rather than made is plainly indicated by the first few letters in Francis Steegmuller’s excellent new selection, the first of two volumes. The opening item, addressed to a schoolfriend and written on the eve of 1831, when Flaubert was nine, includes this: ‘I’ll also send you some of my comedies. If you’d like us to work together at writing, I’ll write comedies and you can write your dreams, and since there’s a lady who comes to see papa and always says stupid things I’ll write them too.’ At the age of ten, Flaubert signs off, ‘Your dauntless dirty-minded friend till death’. At 13 he is attacking theatre censorship and restrictions on press freedom: the representatives of the people ‘are depriving the man of letters of his conscience, his artist’s conscience’, and what matters more than people, crowns and kings is ‘the god of Art, who is ever-present, wearing his diadem, his divine frenzy merely in abeyance’.
Two years later, writing to the same friend, Flaubert displays a peculiarly sharp recognition of what was more than an adolescent conflict: ‘... for the most beautiful woman is scarcely beautiful on the table of a dissecting-room, with her bowels draped over her nose, one leg minus its skin, and half a burnt-out cigar on her foot. Oh no it’s a sad thing, criticism, study, plumbing the depths of knowledge to find only vanity, analysing the human heart to find only egoism, and understanding the world only to find in it nothing but misery. Oh how much more I love pure poetry, cries from the soul, sudden transports and then deep sighs, the voices of the soul, the thoughts of the heart.’ Ex ungue leonem ...
All Flaubert is in these first five pages of letters, in embryo. Writing to Louise Colet in 1846, he remarked: ‘I am ripe. Early ripe, it’s true, because I have lived in a hothouse.’ His hothouse was very largely him.
The three big items among these letters, which the editor has knit together with an intelligent and succinct narrative-cum-commentary, are the correspondence with Louise Colet (less love letters than love-and-literature or even love-versus-literature), the travelogue or brothelogue addressed to Louis Bouilhet from the Orient, and the letters relating to the trial of Madame Bovary for outrages against ‘public morals and religion’.
Steegmuller’s earlier book, Flaubert in Egypt, has treated us to the distinctly alarming blend of the sumptuous and the squalid, the romantic and the clinical, found in Flaubert’s account of his travels in Egypt and the Middle East with Maxime DuCamp between 1849 and 1851. He wrote from Constantinople towards the end of 1850 that ‘there’s nothing like travel for the health’: this was after his umpteenth venereal chancre. Incidentally, the apparently total frankness (mixed perhaps with a hint of boastfulness) with which he communicated his sexual activities to his male friends makes it seem odd that, if he slept with Juliet Herbert, he should never have mentioned the fact to them. Possibly he held les Anglaises in greater awe than the famous courtesan Kuchuk Hanem and her ilk?
Notwithstanding Flaubert’s contempt for the Establishment, the case against Madame Bovary in early 1857 was dismissed, though without costs. His counsel made effective play with the distinguished medical careers of the accused’s father and his brother Achille, and Achille saw to it that the Ministry of Justice became aware of the importance of the Flaubert family, ‘whom it might be dangerous to attack because of the approaching elections’. It sometimes helps to have bourgeois connections. Not that Flaubert was wholly placated: the trial had ‘deflected attention from the novel’s artistic success,’ he complained, quite genuinely, ‘and I dislike Art to be associated with things alien to it.
Most truly interesting of all are the letters to Louise Colet. Flaubert met Louise in 1846 (she was 11 years older than he) and their increasingly troubled liaison ran out in 1855. Passionate, sensual, even violent, as these letters are, they are marked by chilling references right from the start:
Ever since we said we loved each other, you have wondered why I have never added the words ‘For ever’. Why? Because I always sense the future, the antithesis of everything is always before my eyes. I have never seen a child without thinking it would grow old, nor a cradle without thinking of a grave. The sight of a naked woman makes me imagine her skeleton. As a result, joyful spectacles sadden me and sad ones affect me but little. I do too much inward weeping to shed outward tears – something read in a book moves me more than a real misfortune ... Forgive me, forgive me in the name of all the rapture you have given me. But I have a presentiment of immense unhappiness for you. I fear lest my letters be discovered, that everything become known. I am sick and my sickness is you.
During the first 18 months of their relationship Flaubert wrote some hundred letters to Louise, but saw her only six times. As Steegmuller remarks, we cannot altogether blame her for her growing bitterness and her expostulations. Art, Flaubert told her, was greater than earthly love, he had never sacrificed anything to passion and never would; and the concentration of thoughts about literature and the artist must commend these letters more readily to the later reader than the letters could have commended themselves to the fretful recipient.
In his third letter to Louise Flaubert writes: ‘You speak of work. Yes, you must work; love art.’ (She was a poet, a journalist, in the way so many people are poets, journalists, not in the way that Flaubert was a literary artist.) ‘Of all lies, art is the least untrue. Try to love it with a love that is exclusive, ardent, devoted. It will not fail you.’ A plain enough intimation of priorities, one might think. It was to her that, in 1852, he delivered this fine manifesto: ‘I like clear, sharp sentences, sentences which stand erect, erect while running – almost an impossibility. The ideal of prose has reached an unheard-of degree of difficulty: there must be no more archaisms, cliches; contemporary ideas must be expressed using the appropriate crude terms; everything must be as clear as Voltaire, as abrim with substance as Montaigne, as vigorous as La Bruyere, and always streaming with colour.’
‘If I weren’t so weary, I would develop my ideas at greater length,’ he told her in 1853 after a brisk lecture on Hamlet. ‘It is so easy to chatter about the Beautiful. But it takes more genius to say, in proper style: “close the door,” or “he wanted to sleep,” than to give all the literature courses in the world.’ And, the same year:
The day before yesterday, in the woods near Touques, in a charming spot beside a spring, I found old cigar butts and scraps of paté People had been picnicking. I described such a scene in Novembre, eleven years ago: there it was entirely imagined, and the other day it was experienced. Everything one invents is true, you may be sure. Poetry is as precise as geometry. Induction is as good as deduction; and besides, after reaching a certain point one no longer errs about matters of the soul. My poor Bovary, without a doubt, is suffering and weeping at this very hour in twenty villages of France.
At the same time, the letters to Louise convey passion, tenderness, concern, much gratitude, and indeed riches of most sorts. Including some common earthiness. ‘Blessed be the Redcoats’ – from time to time there is anxiety over the failure of ‘les Anglais’ to disembark, Louise thinks of visiting an abortionist (or ‘faiseur d’anges’, as Steegmuller has it), and as for Flaubert, the idea of bringing someone into the world fills him with horror. Occasionally the personal and professional come together – ‘Then, after ten more pages ... I’ll have finished the first section of my Part Two. My lovers are ready for adultery: soon they will be committing it. (I too, I hope.)’ – though not necessarily in a manner wholly gratifying to Louise. ‘Yes, for me you are a diversion,’ he informs her in 1852, ‘but one of the best, the most complete kind.’ And late the following year:
in fact everything is bound up together, and what distorts your life is also distorting your style. For you continually alloy your concepts with your passions, and this weakens the first and prevents you from enjoying the second ... You are a poet shackled to a woman, just as Hugo is a poet shackled to an orator ... Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art. No. The heart’s dross does not find its way on to paper: all you pour out there is ink, and no sooner do you voice your sorrows than they return to the soul through the ear, louder, reaching deeper than ever. Nothing has been gained ... Only in the Absolute are we well off.
The letter ends thus: ‘Do not be upset. The sweet things I might have written you instead of this would have carried less affection.’ Louise would no doubt have preferred sweeter things. No one likes to take second place, even to Art. No one likes to think that the pleasure he or she can give falls short of the delight the other person knows in writing, in creating, in being both lover and mistress, and the horses on which they ride, and the wind and the sun. Flaubert’s mother must have echoed Louise’s sentiments (and those of the parents, spouses, friends and well-wishers of many another writer) when she told her son: ‘Your mania for sentences has dried up your heart.’ (A remark which he quoted admiringly to Bouilhet, adding that its sublimity was ‘enough to make the Muse hang herself out of jealousy at not having thought of it herself’: ‘the Muse’ being the name they used between themselves for Louise.) But the final remark quoted here should be one of Flaubert’s, for it demonstrates both his utter devotion to his art and also a sense of balance, of proportion, not always allowed him. Madame Bovary first appeared in the Revue de Paris, edited by Flaubert’s friends DuCamp and Laurent-Pichat, who cut the first instalment for (as they saw it) artistic reasons. Flaubert resisted this action strongly, and was aghast to discover that in a later instalment the editors had made a further cut, this time (vainly, as it turned out) for reasons of prudence. He sent a firm, dignified protest to Laurent-Pichat, addressing not his ‘dear friend’ but the Revue de Paris, ‘an abstract personality, whose interests you represent’. ‘You are objecting to details,’ he wrote, ‘whereas actually you should object to the whole ... you cannot change the blood of a book. All you can do is to weaken it.’ And he ended the letter by stating that while he might break with the Revue he would nevertheless remain a friend of its editors. ‘I know how to distinguish between literature and literary business.’