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ClassicsOnline Home » FLAUBERT, G.: Madame Bovary (Abridged)
One of the great novels of nineteenth-century France, Flaubert draws a deeply-felt but sympathetic portrait of a woman who, having warned a country doctor and found herself unhappy with a rural, genteel existence, longs for love and excitement. Her aspirations and her desires lead her into a tragic spiral downwards.
Gustave Flaubert was born in 1821 in Rouen. He was the
younger son of a doctor and at eighteen was sent to study law in Paris. Ill
health forced him to abandon his studies, but Flaubert was not disappointed to
be able to return home to live with his widowed mother at Croisset where he
spent his life writing. He died in 1880.
For Flaubert, writing Madame Bovary was an attempt to
compose a novel more perfect than any other. His aim was to create a style of
prose as ‘unchangeable’ and rhythmic as poetry, in order to express a new level
of psychological truth. Flaubert thus set to revolutionize the form of the
novel, striving, as he put it, ‘to give psychological analysis the rapidity,
clarity and passion of a purely dramatic narration.’
Flaubert began writing Madame Bovary in 1851. He wrote much
of the book in seclusion at his family estate in Croisset. Here he could be
‘alone like a hermit and a tranquil as a god’. His daily routine would consist
of rising at noon, taking meals with his dog, smoking fifteen pipes a day, and
going to bed at four in the morning. Yet even such practices could not hide the
agony of writing. Unable to remain distanced from the situations he was trying
to evoke, Flaubert would often go into strange fits, calling out and shouting
as he wrote. In a letter to his lover Louise Colet, he described how, when
composing the scene of the agricultural fair, he was so engrosse in the action, and was shouting so
loudly, that he feared that he, like his heroine, might suffer an attack of
nerves. Such emotional engagement meant that work was slow, with days spent
over single sentences and weeks over pages.
On October 1, 1856 the first installment of the book was
published in Maxine du Camp’s Revue de Paris. There was immediate uproar, as subscribers
were outraged by Flaubert’s new commitment to truth and stylistic accuracy.
Could such a woman as Emma exist in beautiful France, they demanded. Cuts had
to be made including the scene where Emma and Léon ride around Rouen in a hired
cab indulging in indiscreet passions. Yet despite these cuts, Flaubert was
summoned before an investigating magistrate and informed that he was subject to
indictment for transgressing against morality and religion. The most serious
charge was that he had written a mockery of the holy sacrament by introducing
the raucous song of blind beggar that is heard over the sound of Emma’s last
rites. After an impassioned defense by his lawyer Jules Senard, Flaubert was
eventually acquitted. The court was forced to recognize the book’s seriousness
and the fact that the passages in question were consistent with the individual characters.
The trial, however, made the book notorious across France. When Michael Levy
finally published it in full in 1857, it proved to be a huge commercial
success. The book sold thousands of copies across Europe with the alleged
result that in Hamburg, cabs hired by courting couples were called Bovarys.
The success of Madame Bovary meant that Flaubert had
realized his aim of creating a beautiful and sensitive style that could
encompass a new degree of honesty. ‘Everything one invents is true,’ he wrote
to Louise, ‘my poor Bovary, without a doubt, suffers and weeps in twenty French
villages at the same time, at this very hour.’
She does so still.
Notes by Heather Godwin
Imogen Stubbs has worked extensively on stage in the West
End and across Great Britain, with major roles in A Streetcar Named Desire
opposite Jessica Lange, Uncle Vanya, Othello, Heartbreak House and the title
role in St. Joan. Her major film credits include Viola in Twelfth Night, Sense
and Sensibility and Jack and Sarah.
She has been seen on television in Anna Lee, The Rainbow and The
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FLAUBERT, G.: Madame Bovary (Abridged)