French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) studied law, but he was born to be a novelist. A diagnosis of epilepsy forced him to abandon his legal education, which conveniently gave him the opportunity to pursue a literary career.
His debut novel Madame Bovary, originally serialized in the French literary magazine La Revue de Paris in late 1856, established Flaubert as a master of French realism. Read on to learn more about Flaubert's inspiration for the character of Emma Bovary, his painstaking creative process, and the obscenity trial that threatened the novel's publication.
1. MADAME BOVARY SHOCKED FRANCE WITH ITS EXPLICIT DESCRIPTIONS OF ADULTERY.
Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma, a peasant who marries an older doctor, Charles Bovary, to escape the dullness of rural life. Emma swiftly grows disillusioned with both her husband and their provincial ways, especially after she attends a ball thrown by one of her husband’s aristocratic patients. In pursuit of passionate love and luxurious possessions, Emma engages in extramarital affairs and squanders her husband’s money.
While Emma ultimately gets her comeuppance, Flaubert’s frank descriptions of adultery scandalized French readers and led to an obscenity trial. The trial lasted for just one day, and Flaubert and La Revue de Paris were both acquitted a week later. Following Flaubert's legal battle, Madame Bovary was published as a two-volume novel in 1857.
2. FLAUBERT ATTENDED A REAL-LIFE BALL JUST LIKE THE ONE EMMA BOVARY WENT TO.
One of Madame Bovary’s most memorable chapters might be the one in which Emma attends a ball thrown by one of Charles’s patients, the Marquis d’Andervilliers. Replete with dancing, fine food, and elite guests, the glittering affair whets Emma’s appetite for a life of luxury. The event was actually inspired by a real-life dance that Flaubert attended with his parents in 1836, when he was 14 years old. Held by a local aristocrat, the experience impressed Flaubert so much that he also described elements of it in his early short story "Quidquid Volueris" (1837) and in an 1850 letter to a friend.
3. FLAUBERT'S LOVE LETTERS REVEAL HIS CREATIVE PROCESS WHILE WRITING MADAME BOVARY.
Shortly before Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert ended a years-long affair with the married poet Louise Colet. Flaubert met Colet in 1846, not long after his sister, Caroline, died in childbirth. The author had hired the sculptor James Pradier to create a bust in Caroline’s image, and Colet—who was considered to be a great beauty—was modeling in the artist’s studio when Flaubert arrived with his sister’s death mask.
Flaubert and Colet fell in love, and they exchanged letters throughout the course of their on-and-off-again relationship. Many of Flaubert’s missives described his creative process while writing Madame Bovary, making the genesis of the novel “one of the best-charted in fiction,” according to literary critic Renee Winegarten—the silver lining of an otherwise bitter breakup. (Flaubert’s last letter to Colet, written in 1855, reads, “I’ve been told that you came to my apartment three times to try to talk to me. I wasn’t in, and I shall never be in for you again.”)
4. THE PLOT OF MADAME BOVARY WAS REPORTEDLY INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE SCANDAL ...
Madame Bovary’s plot was partly inspired by a sensational news story featuring a French woman named Delphine Delamare. At the age of 17, Delamare left her rural home to marry a health officer who, like Charles Bovary, was also a widower. Delamare cheated on her spouse, spent his money on frivolities, and ultimately incurred so much debt that she killed herself with poison at the age of 27.
5. ... BUT FLAUBERT'S INSPIRATION FOR EMMA MIGHT HAVE BEEN PERSONAL.
When people asked Flaubert how he became inspired to create the character of Emma Bovary, he famously replied, “Madame Bovary is myself.” However, some scholars think that Emma Bovary’s fanciful (if not flighty) personality was also inspired by Flaubert's former lover, Colet. The sculptor James Pradier's wife, an adulterous spendthrift, might have also influenced Flaubert to create Emma.
6. IT TOOK FLAUBERT FIVE YEARS TO WRITE MADAME BOVARY.
The author spent up to 12 hours a day writing at his desk, and would even shout out sentences to gauge their rhythm. It sometimes took him up to a week to finish a single page, and a year's worth of work once yielded only 90 pages.
In contrast, Flaubert spent just 18 months writing the first 500-page draft of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the 1874 novel he spent most of his adult life drafting. (This early version was so overwrought that Flaubert's best friend, the poet Louis Bouilhet, suggested that he "throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.")
7. AT THE BEGINNING OF MADAME BOVARY, FLAUBERT THANKS HIS LAWYER.
Dear and illustrious friend, Allow me to inscribe your name at the head of this book and above its dedication, for it is to you, more than anyone else, that I owe its publication. In passing through your magnificent pleas in court, my work has acquired, in my eyes, a kind of unexpected authority. I therefore ask you to accept here the tribute of my gratitude, which, however great it may be, will never reach the height of your eloquence or your devotion. – Gustave Flaubert
8. MADAME BOVARY WAS FIRST TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY FLAUBERT'S NIECE'S GOVERNESS.
The first-known English translation of Madame Bovary was completed by Juliet Herbert—the governess for Flaubert’s niece, Caroline—between 1856 and 1857. Scholars don't know too much about Herbert, as her correspondence with Flaubert has been lost, but some have pegged her as the author's mistress.
It's been theorized that either Caroline or Flaubert himself burned their letters, but other documents show that Herbert and Flaubert were at least friends, and that Herbert gave the author English lessons. The duo worked on translating Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" into French, and somewhere along the way they also decided to tackle Madame Bovary.
Flaubert thought so highly of Herbert's work on the project that in May 1857, he wrote a letter to Michel Lévy, the Paris-based publisher of Madame Bovary, informing him that "an English translation which fully satisfies me is being made under my eyes. If one is going to appear in England, I want it to be this one and not any other one." Later on, he'd refer to the governess's translation as a "masterpiece."
While Herbert's version of Madame Bovary met Flaubert's exacting standards, it never hit the presses. (Historians think that Lévy might have either failed or refused to arrange an English publisher for the governess.) Herbert's translation and importance to Flaubert fell to the wayside until scholar Hermia Oliver argued for her recognition in her book Flaubert and an English Governess in 1980. To this day, neither Herbert's translation nor a picture of her has been found.
9. KARL MARX'S DAUGHTER PUBLISHED AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION IN 1886.
In 1885, London publisher Henry Vizetelly hired Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx, to produce the first major English translation of Madame Bovary. It was published the following year [PDF].
“The tragedy of Flaubert’s characters,” Marx wrote, “lies ... in the fact that they act as they do because they must. It may be immoral, contrary even to their own personal interests, to act thus or thus; but it must be—it is inevitable.”
10. MADAME BOVARY CONTINUES TO INSPIRE ARTISTS AND WRITERS TODAY.
While created in the 19th century, the character of Emma Bovary—a yearning, unfulfilled woman; "the original Desperate Housewife" in one modern-day critic's words—still resonates with writers and artists alike.
Lena Dunham uses a quote from Madame Bovary as an epigraph in Not That Kind of Girl, her 2014 autobiographical essay collection [PDF]. British illustrator Posy Simmons published a graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, in 1999, that recasts the story with English expatriates in France. Both Rory Gilmore from the TV show Gilmore Girls and Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos have been shown onscreen reading Madame Bovary. The novel has also been adapted for the big screen multiple times (and in multiple countries), the latest being a 2014 version by director Sophie Barthes that stars Mia Wasikowska as Emma and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Charles.