D.J. Enright

  • Flaubert and an English Governess by Hermia Oliver
    Oxford, 212 pp, £9.50, June 1980, ISBN 0 19 815764 9
  • The Letters of Gustave Flaubert 1830-1857 edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller
    Harvard, 270 pp, £7.50, March 1980, ISBN 0 674 52636 8

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.

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