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.

An irreverent question now arises: what happened to the other shoe? That there were two is attested by Flaubert’s frequent references to them in his letters to Colet. Sartre, for whom literally nothing was sacred, observed that this was proof of Flaubert’s fetishism, that he was satisfied to keep the woman herself at a comfortable distance and the token slippers close at hand. Remember that he was unable to visit her very often, certainly not as often as she expected him to, while he undoubtedly considered her to be a threat to his work. He needed the quiet of Croisset and the company of his mother, a virtuoso of hypochondria, rather more than that of the tempestuous Colet, whose beauty, by that stage at its peak, failed to compensate for what he rightly considered to be her meretricious talent as a poet – ‘You write verses the way a hen lays eggs,’ he told her.

Second question: why did Flaubert need Maupassant as a witness on this most private occasion? We know that Flaubert had a more intimate relationship with his male friends than with all women except George Sand, whom he treated with rare respect. This gives further credence to Sartre’s observation that there was a homoerotic edge to Flaubert’s friendships, although this was true of most of the men in the Goncourt circle, all of whom were given to sharing details of their sexual prowess. Whereas most men delight in an ardent mistress, Flaubert only desired to be ardent himself on the relatively rare occasions permitted by his particular sexual economy. An enthusiastic frequenter of brothels, an equally enthusiastic friend of those friends who shared his tastes, Flaubert, although not a true ascetic, held firmly to the opinion that ejaculation subverted creative energy. More to the point, he knew that the rage he experienced when Colet levelled her reproaches at him might bring on an epileptic fit, and on one occasion did so. She looked after him skilfully, wiped his face, and afterwards assured him that he had not foamed at the mouth, although he had. Small wonder that Flaubert’s genius confined him to what Henry James called the madness of art, since that is exclusive, self-inflicted, entirely wilful and implicit with the grandiosity of the child laying claim to his domain.

Francine du Plessix Gray, in this wildly partisan and thoroughly enjoyable biography of Colet, whom she attempts to reinstate as a female icon and ‘yet another woman whose memory has been erased by the caprices of men’, makes many claims for her subject, who, it has to be said, is only remembered owing to the caprice of one man, Gustave Flaubert. At the end of their affair he wrote her a spectacularly cruel letter, informing her that he no longer wished to see her. The fact that this letter survives may shed some light on Colet’s masochism, a factor which her biographer fails to underline, although the picture that emerges from her enthusiastic account is of a determined but pathetic character who did her best, against considerable odds, to emulate more forceful women, both real and fictitious, who had achieved notoriety and acclaim on strength of character alone. These women were fatally near at hand as role models: Charlotte Corday, Mme de Staël, George Sand, and surely Corinne, the eponymous heroine of de Staël’s novel, beauteous, beloved and a poetess of the highest rank. Louise Colet, too, wrote poetry, but we can perhaps judge its quality from the fact that her unblushing biographer refuses to include it in other than a rather lame English translation, on the grounds that ‘it is not a striking exemplar of French Romantic verse.’ From the translations it appears that the poems are abysmal. Some later poems are given in the original French; unfortunately, they are no good either.

Nevertheless, we are dealing with a woman who had a life both before and after Flaubert, and whose evolution can certainly be seen as a useful example of Romantic endeavour and a confused attempt to claim a destiny which would earn for her the type of glory she craved, and in part achieved. It is a peculiar irony that she achieved this in every area except that of her writing. We remember her as Flaubert’s lover, and we remember her through his letters to her, not hers to him. And Flaubert’s letters to Colet are chiefly memorable as a commentary on the work in progress, and which she obviously dealt with cleverly, as they kept on coming. It takes a particular skill to accommodate statements of the kind which have become famous, such as the claim that the artist should be immanent but invisible in his work, like God in the universe, or the assertion, surely bewildering to one of Colet’s intelligence, that her lover desired to eliminate from his work not only himself but the subject as well, so that the resulting book would be held together by the internal strength of its style. From one point of view the two were obviously ill-matched, but at the time of their liaison, or at least at its beginning, the advantage was Flaubert’s. She was striking, 12 years his senior, and with something of a reputation as a woman of letters. He was the first to see that that reputation was undeserved, but it was his jealous friends, chief among them Maxime du Camp, who missed no opportunity to turn her into an object of ridicule.

Had she not fallen in love with Flaubert, had he not withdrawn from her company, their story might have ended more happily than it did, were it not for one fatal mistake. She told him that she would like to meet his mother. This is a mistake not infrequently made by rather dim women. She went unannounced to Croisset and gave a note to the chambermaid to tell Flaubert of her arrival. Horrified, he joined her, or circumvented her, outside the house, refused to invite her in, and fobbed her off with a promise that he would meet her that evening in Rouen. There he told her that there must be nothing more between them. Yet her value as an ally, as opposed to a mistress, was great enough to impel him to write her over a hundred letters during the composition of Madame Bovary, which he began the following year, in 1851. The correspondence continued until 1855, and ended in a letter which is in itself some kind of masterpiece. ‘Madame: I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in. I have the honour of saluting you. G.F.’

Colet later revealed that she disliked Madame Bovary. To justify her opinion it is necessary to remember that in her own eyes, though not in anybody else’s, she was the pre-eminent literary figure. She may once have even entertained the notion that it was her fame as a woman of letters that had brought Flaubert to her side. In 1846, when they met in the studio of the sculptor Pradier, he was a mere 24 to her 36 and had published nothing, whereas she was the prolific author of occasional prose and verse, and had already won the Académie Française poetry prize twice (she was later to win it a third time). Yet although she was known to a fairly wide circle, she owes her historical survival to the massive irony that she was the recipient of Flaubert’s letters, that she is in fact a footnote in Flaubert’s life, in spite of her very real insistence that she occupy centre stage in her own. It is this injustice that Francine du Plessix Gray attempts to redress, and she makes a handsome job of it. Even to retrieve Colet from that famous correspondence is a heroic enterprise. To confer on her a dignity which survives the undoubted humiliations she was forced to endure is a generous one, and an achievement which owes something, but not everything, to a female solidarity which the reader will salute as touching and endearing.

That Colet had a life of her own is attested not merely by her numerous writings, which few will consult, but by her lonely and forthright demeanour, of a kind that confers a reputation, but not necessarily the esteem to go with it. It should be remembered that in the course of her arduous progress through Parisian society, she had no assets apart from her remarkable looks, a dwindling asset after the age of 40. She was to become stout and sickly in her advancing years, yet the initial impression had been considerable. An artless woman penning artless verses might have been expected to be an object of male indulgence, but Colet had been relatively radicalised by a harsh family and an indifferent husband, and her expectations were high. She had temperament but no money, whereas money would have served her better. Unlike her role models she was extremely poor. When entertaining in the various flats which she painted blue to emphasise the colour of her eyes, she was obliged to save the tea leaves from one reception, dry them on the window-sill, and serve them up again the following week. She was also of an ardent and impulsive nature, an easy convert to liberal causes, and in old age a fearless advocate of Italian nationalism.

Yet for all these qualities, and they were considerable, it is impossible to consider her as a success as a feminist icon, as her biographer does. Rather is she an exponent of Romantic behaviour, fighting an unequal battle for acclaim in a period best known for its masculine accomplishments. She was not so much a Muse, though that was how she was known, as a confidante of great men: Victor Cousin, Hugo, Mussel, Vigny. Yet she lacked a sense of self-preservation; she could have lived with either Cousin or Vigny and been comfortable and cared for. In fact, she was fallible and perhaps less than rational. Perhaps she saw no advantage if her heart were not engaged.

She was born into the provincial nobility at Servanes, in the Alpilles. After her parents died she was effectively disinherited by her brothers and sister and forced to take refuge with her nurse. She married Hippolyte Colet, a music teacher, because he had obtained a post in Paris, and Paris was where she longed to be. She won her first Académie prize in 1839, when she was 27, a heady start to what she hoped would be an outstanding career. She made useful acquaintances by the simple expedient of sending them her poems; their polite letters of acknowledgment opened the way to an admiring correspondence. Poverty forced her to be opportunistic, although she was never averse to publicity. When the critic Alphonse Karr printed a derogatory remark about her in his journal Guêpes, she went to his house and stabbed him in the back, her arm, as he recounted, ‘raised in a tragedian’s gesture’. No harm was done, and he very handsomely went out and called her a cab. She published recklessly and without discrimination: friends, including Flaubert, urged her to be more patient and more severe. Her later years saw her living in Italy, enthralled by the Risorgimento, intercepting Cavour and demanding an audience with the Pope, informing the French ambassador at what hour she would be free to call on him. Through sheer courage she became formidable, and by an interesting turn of the wheel robustly anticlerical. Corpulent and ailing, she climbed to the crater of Vesuvius in a crinoline and high-heeled shoes, the soles of which were burned black by the lava. She died in 1876. Her daughter countermanded her wish for a civic burial and she was interred with the full rites of the Church she so scorned.

Edmond de Goncourt in his Journal, on 19 February 1877: ‘A remark of Louise Colet’s. She said to a friend of a medical student who was her current lover: “So what’s become of your friend? I haven’t seen him in more than a fortnight ... at my age, and with my temperament, do you think that entirely healthy?” ’ This anecdote is not quoted by Francine du Plessix Gray, yet this aspect of Colet’s life and career must have played a considerable part in her reputation. It is the part that does not survive. The uninhibited lover that she must have been explains Flaubert’s attachment. The confidence she gave him to write those letters to her is another matter. Perhaps she was rather great after all.