On high heels up Vesuvius

Anita Brookner

  • Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet – Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse by Francine du Plessix Gray
    Hamish Hamilton, 432 pp, £20.00, July 1994, ISBN 0 241 13256 8

In October 1879, Flaubert, then aged 57, invited Maupassant to dinner, informing him that there was a purpose behind this invitation. He wanted to burn some letters, and he did not want to do so alone. After a particularly good meal, Flaubert brought a heavy suitcase into his study and began to throw packets of letters into the fire, occasionally reading passages from them in his booming voice. This process went on until 4 a.m., not an unusual hour for Flaubert. (History does not relate whether Maupassant was equally alert.) One particularly thick bundle of letters contained a small package tied with a ribbon. This was seen to consist of a silk shoe, a rose and a woman’s handkerchief, which Flaubert kissed and threw into the fire. It has always been assumed, and it is assumed by the author of this book, that these relics, and in particular the letters, were evidence of his attachment to Louise Colet, his mistress in the late 1840s and early to mid-1850s. His letters to her, now in the Bibliothèque Municipale of Avignon, contain reports on the work in progress, which was to become Madame Bovary, together with remarks and maxims which form the essence of his artistic credo.

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