1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Flaubert, Gustave

FLAUBERT, GUSTAVE (1821–1880), French novelist, was born at Rouen on the 12th of December 1821. His father, of whom many traits are reproduced in Flaubert’s character of Charles Bovary, was a surgeon in practice at Rouen; his mother was connected with some of the oldest Norman families. He was educated in his native city, and did not leave it until 1840, when he came up to Paris to study law. He is said to have been idle at school, but to have been occupied with literature from the age of eleven. Flaubert in his youth “was like a young Greek,” full of vigour of body and a certain shy grace, enthusiastic, intensely individual, and apparently without any species of ambition. He loved the country, and Paris was extremely distasteful to him. He made the acquaintance of Victor Hugo, and towards the close of 1840 he travelled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. Returning to Paris, he wasted his time in sombre dreams, living on his patrimony. In 1846, his mother being left quite alone through the deaths of his father and his sister Caroline, Flaubert gladly abandoned Paris and the study of the law together, to make a home for her at Croisset, close to Rouen. This estate, a house in a pleasant piece of ground which ran down to the Seine, became Flaubert’s home for the remainder of his life. From 1846 to 1854 he carried on relations with the poetess, Mlle Louise Colet; their letters have been preserved, and according to M. Émile Faguet, this was the only sentimental episode of any importance in the life of Flaubert, who never married. His principal friend at this time was Maxime du Camp, with whom he travelled in Brittany in 1846, and through the East in 1849. Greece and Egypt made a profound impression upon the imagination of Flaubert. From this time forth, save for occasional visits to Paris, he did not stir from Croisset.

On returning from the East, in 1850, he set about the composition of Madame Bovary. He had hitherto scarcely written anything, and had published nothing. The famous novel took him six years to prepare, but was at length submitted to the Revue de Paris, where it appeared in serial form in 1857. The government brought an action against the publisher and against the author, on the charge of immorality, but both were acquitted; and when Madame Bovary appeared in book-form it met with a very warm reception. Flaubert paid a visit to Carthage in 1858, and now settled down to the archaeological studies which were required to equip him for Salammbô, which, however, in spite of the author’s ceaseless labours, was not finished until 1862. He then took up again the study of contemporary manners, and, making use of many recollections of his youth and childhood, wrote L’Éducation sentimentale, the composition of which occupied him seven years; it was published in 1869. Up to this time the sequestered and laborious life of Flaubert had been comparatively happy, but misfortunes began to gather around him. He felt the anguish of the war of 1870 so keenly that the break-up of his health has been attributed to it; he began to suffer greatly from a distressing nervous malady. His best friends were taken from him by death or by fatal misunderstanding; in 1872 he lost his mother, and his circumstances became greatly reduced. He was very tenderly guarded by his niece, Mme Commonville; he enjoyed a rare intimacy of friendship with George Sand, with whom he carried on a correspondence of immense artistic interest, and occasionally he saw his Parisian acquaintances, Zola, A. Daudet, Tourgenieff, the Goncourts; but nothing prevented the close of Flaubert’s life from being desolate and melancholy. He did not cease, however, to work with the same intensity and thoroughness. La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, of which fragments had been published as early as 1857, was at length completed and sent to press in 1874. In that year he was subjected to a disappointment by the failure of his drama Le Candidat. In 1877 Flaubert published, in one volume, entitled Trois contes, Un Cœur simple, La Légende de Saint-Julien-l’Hospitalier and Hérodias. After this something of his judgment certainly deserted him; he spent the remainder of his life in the toil of building up a vast satire on the futility of human knowledge and the omnipresence of mediocrity, which he left a fragment. This is the depressing and bewildering Bouvard et Pécuchet (posthumously printed, 1881), which, by a curious irony, he believed to be his masterpiece. Flaubert had rapidly and prematurely aged since 1870, and he was quite an old man when he was carried off by a stroke of apoplexy at the age of only 58, on the 8th of May 1880. He died at Croisset, but was buried in the family vault in the cemetery of Rouen. A beautiful monument to him by Chapu was unveiled at the museum of Rouen in 1890.

The personal character of Flaubert offered various peculiarities. He was shy, and yet extremely sensitive and arrogant; he passed from silence to an indignant and noisy flow of language. The same inconsistencies marked his physical nature; he had the build of a guardsman, with a magnificent Viking head, but his health was uncertain from childhood, and he was neurotic to the last degree. This ruddy giant was secretly gnawn by misanthropy and disgust of life. His hatred of the “bourgeois” began in his childhood, and developed into a kind of monomania. He despised his fellow-men, their habits, their lack of intelligence, their contempt for beauty, with a passionate scorn which has been compared to that of an ascetic monk. Flaubert’s curious modes of composition favoured and were emphasized by these peculiarities. He worked in sullen solitude, sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one page, never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting his brain for the best turn of a phrase, the most absolutely final adjective. It cannot be said that his incessant labours were not rewarded. His private letters show that he was not one of those to whom easy and correct language is naturally given; he gained his extraordinary perfection with the unceasing sweat of his brow. One of the most severe of academic critics admits that “in all his works, and in every page of his works, Flaubert may be considered a model of style.” That he was one of the greatest writers who ever lived in France is now commonly admitted, and his greatness principally depends upon the extraordinary vigour and exactitude of his style. Less perhaps than any other writer, not of France, but of modern Europe, Flaubert yields admission to the inexact, the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression which is the bane of ordinary methods of composition. He never allowed a cliché to pass him, never indulgently or wearily went on, leaving behind him a phrase which “almost” expressed his meaning. Being, as he is, a mixture in almost equal parts of the romanticist and the realist, the marvellous propriety of his style has been helpful to later writers of both schools, of every school. The absolute exactitude with which he adapts his expression to his purpose is seen in all parts of his work, but particularly in the portraits he draws of the figures in his principal romances. The degree and manner in which, since his death, the fame of Flaubert has extended, form an interesting chapter of literary history. The publication of Madame Bovary in 1857 had been followed by more scandal than admiration; it was not understood at first that this novel was the beginning of a new thing, the scrupulously truthful portraiture of life. Gradually this aspect of his genius was accepted, and began to crowd out all others. At the time of his death he was famous as a realist, pure and simple. Under this aspect Flaubert exercised an extraordinary influence over É. de Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet and M. Zola. But even since the decline of the realistic school Flaubert has not lost prestige; other facets of his genius have caught the light. It has been perceived that he was not merely realistic, but real; that his clairvoyance was almost boundless; that he saw certain phenomena more clearly than the best of observers had done. Flaubert is a writer who must always appeal more to other authors than to the world at large, because the art of writing, the indefatigable pursuit of perfect expression, were always before him, and because he hated the lax felicities of improvization as a disloyalty to the most sacred procedures of the literary artist.

His Œuvres complètes (8 vols., 1885) were printed from the original manuscripts, and included, besides the works mentioned already, the two plays, Le Candidat and Le Château des cœurs. Another edition (10 vols.) appeared in 1873–1885. Flaubert’s correspondence with George Sand was published in 1884 with an introduction by Guy de Maupassant. Other posthumous works are Par les champs et par les grèves (1885), the result of a tour in Brittany; and four volumes of Correspondance (1887–1893). See also Paul Bourget, Essais de psychologie contemporaine (1883); Émile Faguet, Flaubert (1899); Henry James, French Poets and Novelists (1878); Émile Zola, Les Romanciers naturalistes (1881); C. A. Sainte-Beuve, Causeries du lundi, vol. xiii., Nouveaux lundis, vol. iv.; and the Souvenirs littéraires (2 vols., 1882–1883) of Maxime du Camp.  (E. G.)