Detailed examination of Gustave Flaubert’s historical novel Sentimental Education (1869) and how it may have prophesied the “terrible year” of 1871.
At least that is what Flaubert claimed as he walked through the ruins of Paris: the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, collapse of the French Army, defeat of Napoleon III, the Siege of Paris, and civil war could have been prevented had only people read his book. Brooks (Comparative Literature/Princeton Univ.; Enigmas of Identity, 2011, etc.) provides a long summary of Sentimental Education, which he admits might try readers’ patience. His professorial tone and deep diagnosis of Flaubert’s style will reawaken one’s sense of being a student trying to comprehend a profound university teacher, and the book will require some rereading to fully comprehend some of Brooks’ insights. Nonetheless, he keeps the narrative moving. Flaubert’s friendship with George Sand and their correspondence give a good indication of his attempts and intentions to convey the history of his contemporaries in 1848 that he felt was just a dress rehearsal for 1870. The history of France in this period is vital to understanding Flaubert’s work, and Brooks presents a thorough picture of the lessons of the revolution as farce and the significance of class conflict. The terrible year was bad enough with the loss to Prussia and their siege of Paris, but the civil war and the folly of the Paris Commune resulted in horrendous atrocities and devastation. “It was a year of almost unimaginable suffering, defeat, humiliation, hatred, and fratricidal conflict,” writes Brooks, “a year when war and surrender were followed by siege, cold, hunger, then class warfare on a scale never seen before.” Flaubert claimed that Sentimental Education showed how most of the suffering was caused by ignorance and the immense human capacity for self-deception.
Flaubert’s writing is vitally important to anyone seeking to understand the history of the period, and Brooks provides a scholarly but not inaccessible entry point.