Brown’s exhaustive biography of the great French stylist is a natural companion to his smart, significant Zola (1995).
To get to the recalcitrant core of Croisset’s famous hermit, the reader has to toil considerably over the hurdles of Norman history, specifically around Rouen, its famous cathedral, and its hospital at the Hôtel-Dieu, where Flaubert’s father was an attending surgeon. Younger son Gustave, a law student, was ultimately saved from the drudgeries of that bourgeois profession when he fell off his horse in 1844, presumably after an attack of epilepsy. Ensconced in the family retreat at Croisset to quietly study and write, he first embarked on L’Éducation sentimentale, based on his friendship with Maxine Du Camp (and not published for 20 years). He made formative acquaintances with critic Louis Brouilhet (“the audience for whom he wrote his books”) and famous poet and beauty Louise Colet, who would inspire the adulterous Emma Bovary. (“He hardly knew whether their lovemaking had been a climax or an ordeal,” notes Brown.) Ever thorough, the biographer painstakingly guides readers through the intricacies of the Revolution of 1848 and the Franco-Prussian War of 1871; the antics of lusty, young Flaubert and Du Camp as they traveled through Egypt; and the years of excruciating deliberation that produced Madame Bovary. Brown does a particularly effective job of presenting the government’s prosecution of Madame Bovary, after its serialization in La Revue de Paris, as “harmful to public morals” and of analyzing Flaubert’s complex reaction to his acquittal. The biographer seizes on each of his subject’s writings with literary avidity, incorporating a great swath of background and personalities. Brown offers as well generous selections from Flaubert’s work and from the incomparable letters he exchanged in middle age with his maternal friend, George Sand.
A profound look at an important French literary era, told with verve and wisdom.