March 6, 1855—In a letter that could have been sent to his most famous character, Gustave Flaubert, after a volatile eight-year relationship, coldly and definitively cut all ties with his onetime mistress.
“It is my understanding that yesterday evening you took pains, three times, to come to see me,” the French novelist wrote Louise Colet (pictured). “I was not at home. And in fear of the kinds of reactions that such insistence on your part could elicit on my part, the rules of savoir virre constrain me to advise you: I will never be at home for you.”
It sounds like the kind of tone taken by a man tired of a clinging woman. And, indeed, Flaubert was working diligently on just such a novel that, when published two years later, would rock his country with its brutal dissection of the romantic literature and taste for high living that destroyed a bored provincial housewife: Madame Bovary.
The title of one of his later, only slightly less influential works, A Sentimental Education, refers to instruction in feelings. If so, the “education” provided Flaubert by Colet, a poet-novelist 11 years his senior, must be judged inadequate.
Colet may have been one of the few people who approached Flaubert in depth of self-regard. Keenly aware of her effects upon men, she was not averse to touting her physical appearance to her lover, calling her bust and arms “extremely beautiful,” her nose “charming,” and her legs “perfect.” In fact, the two met in 1846 when she was posing in a studio for sculptor James Pradier.
That session was part of Colet’s long-term strategy of self-promotion. In her own time and most of the 20th century, that posture was frequently criticized. But nowadays, greater understanding has developed that this might have been the only possible recourse for a woman coming from an impoverished background who wished to live as a “femme artiste”—much like George Sand, a woman striving to live independently of men by means of her pens, rather than as a courtesan. (Eventually, through one of the other men in her life, philosopher Victor Cousin, Colet was able to secure literary prizes and a pension.)
When they met, Flaubert had still published nothing. His reputation might have eventually far eclipsed hers, but give her credit for this: in the early years of their relationship, before Madame Bovary made him notorious, this conductor of a celebrated Parisian literary and political salon recognized his immense talent.
In the end, it wasn’t enough. Despite hotel assignations that sound, in their telling, less passionate than wildly acrobatic ("You would breathe love into a dead man," the younger man exclaimed early on), Flaubert tired in time of her impetuosity and egotism. “Do not imagine you can exorcise what oppresses you in life by giving vent to it in art,” he wrote scathingly about some verses she had asked him to read. His breakup with her was cold enough that even Flaubert’s own mother thought he had been cruel to his mistress.
In her biography of Colet, Rage and Fire, Francine du Plessix Gray strongly suspects Flaubert of resuming relations with his mistress, in one of their breaks, in order to pump her for details that became part of his portrait of Emma Bovary. In contrast, Colet’s impressions of Flaubert were poured out not passingly in one novel, but in full in two: Une Histoire de soldat (1856) and the bestselling Lui (1859).
Posterity has acclaimed Flaubert the better writer, but in another sense, Colet should be rated far more highly than her former lover: the extent of her sympathy for fellow human beings. While Flaubert felt that the losing rebels in the Paris commune of 1871 should have been forced to sweep the streets with chains round their necks, Colet, with far more liberal political instincts, reacted with vast pity and sympathy as she witnessed the suppression of their revolt.