10 Surprising Facts About Madame Bovary

From The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1069, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1069, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

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.

Flaubert dedicated Madame Bovary to Bouilhet and wrote its epigraph to his lawyer, Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard, who successfully defended Flaubert during his 1857 trial. The latter reads:

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.

Turn Your LEGO Bricks Into a Drone With the Flybrix Drone Kit

Flyxbrix/FatBrain
Flyxbrix/FatBrain

Now more than ever, it’s important to have a good hobby. Of course, a lot of people—maybe even you—have been obsessed with learning TikTok dances and baking sourdough bread for the last few months, but those hobbies can wear out their welcome pretty fast. So if you or someone you love is looking for something that’s a little more intellectually stimulating, you need to check out the Flybrix LEGO drone kit from Fat Brain Toys.

What is a Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit?

The Flybrix drone kit lets you build your own drones out of LEGO bricks and fly them around your house using your smartphone as a remote control (via Bluetooth). The kit itself comes with absolutely everything you need to start flying almost immediately, including a bag of 56-plus LEGO bricks, a LEGO figure pilot, eight quick-connect motors, eight propellers, a propeller wrench, a pre-programmed Flybrix flight board PCB, a USB data cord, a LiPo battery, and a USB LiPo battery charger. All you’ll have to do is download the Flybrix Configuration Software, the Bluetooth Flight Control App, and access online instructions and tutorials.

Experiment with your own designs.

The Flybrix LEGO drone kit is specifically designed to promote exploration and experimentation. All the components are tough and can totally withstand a few crash landings, so you can build and rebuild your own drones until you come up with the perfect design. Then you can do it all again. Try different motor arrangements, add your own LEGO bricks, experiment with different shapes—this kit is a wannabe engineer’s dream.

For the more advanced STEM learners out there, Flybrix lets you experiment with coding and block-based coding. It uses an arduino-based hackable circuit board, and the Flybrix app has advanced features that let you try your hand at software design.

Who is the Flybrix LEGO Drone Kit for?

Flybrix is a really fun way to introduce a number of core STEM concepts, which makes it ideal for kids—and technically, that’s who it was designed for. But because engineering and coding can get a little complicated, the recommended age for independent experimentation is 13 and up. However, kids younger than 13 can certainly work on Flybrix drones with the help of their parents. In fact, it actually makes a fantastic family hobby.

Ready to start building your own LEGO drones? Click here to order your Flybrix kit today for $198.

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7 Pieces of Reading Advice From History’s Greatest Minds

When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
When it came to books, Albert Einstein subscribed to the "oldie but goodie" mentality. He wasn't the only one.
Lucien Aigner/Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

If there’s one thing that unites philosophers, writers, politicians, and scientists across time and distance, it’s the belief that reading can broaden your worldview and strengthen your intellect better than just about any other activity. When it comes to choosing what to read and how to go about it, however, opinions start to diverge. From Virginia Woolf’s affinity for wandering secondhand bookstores to Theodore Roosevelt’s rejection of a definitive “best books” list, here are seven pieces of reading advice to help you build an impressive to-be-read (TBR) pile.

1. Read books from eras past // Albert Einstein

albert einstein at home circa 1925
Albert Einstein poses at home in 1925 with a mix of old and new books.
General Photographic Agency/Getty Images

Keeping up with current events and the latest buzz-worthy book from the bestseller list is no small feat, but Albert Einstein thought it was vital to leave some room for older works, too. Otherwise, you’d be “completely dependent on the prejudices and fashions of [your] times,” he wrote in a 1952 journal article [PDF].

“Somebody who reads only newspapers and at best books of contemporary authors looks to me like an extremely near-sighted person who scorns eyeglasses,” he wrote.

2. Don’t jump too quickly from book to book // Seneca

seneca the younger
Seneca the Younger, ready to turn that unwavering gaze on a new book.
The Print Collector via Getty Images

Seneca the Younger, a first-century Roman Stoic philosopher and trusted advisor of Emperor Nero, believed that reading too wide a variety in too short a time would keep the teachings from leaving a lasting impression on you. “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind,” he wrote in a letter to Roman writer Lucilius.

If you’re wishing there were a good metaphor to illustrate this concept, take your pick from these gems, courtesy of Seneca himself:

“Food does no good and is not assimilated into the body if it leaves the stomach as soon as it is eaten; nothing hinders a cure so much as frequent change of medicine; no wound will heal when one salve is tried after another; a plant which is often moved can never grow strong. There is nothing so efficacious that it can be helpful while it is being shifted about. And in reading of many books is distraction.”

3. Shop at secondhand bookstores // Virginia Woolf

virginia woolf
Virginia Woolf wishing she were in a bookstore.
Culture Club/Getty Images

In her essay “Street Haunting,” Virginia Woolf described the merits of shopping in secondhand bookstores, where the works “have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack.”

According to Woolf, browsing through used books gives you the chance to stumble upon something that wouldn’t have risen to the attention of librarians and booksellers, who are often much more selective in curating their collections than secondhand bookstore owners. To give us an example, she imagined coming across the shabby, self-published account of “a man who set out on horseback over a hundred years ago to explore the woollen market in the Midlands and Wales; an unknown traveller, who stayed at inns, drank his pint, noted pretty girls and serious customs, wrote it all down stiffly, laboriously for sheer love of it.”

“In this random miscellaneous company,” she wrote, “we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.”

4. You can skip outdated scientific works, but not old literature // Edward Bulwer-Lytton

edward bulwer-lytton
An 1831 portrait of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, smug at the thought of people reading his novels for centuries to come.
The Print Collector/Getty Images

Though his novels were immensely popular during his lifetime, 19th-century British novelist and Parliamentarian Edward Bulwer-Lytton is now mainly known for coining the phrase It was a dark and stormy night, the opening line of his 1830 novel Paul Clifford. It’s a little ironic that Bulwer-Lytton’s books aren’t very widely read today, because he himself was a firm believer in the value of reading old literature.

“In science, read, by preference, the newest works; in literature, the oldest,” he wrote in his 1863 essay collection, Caxtoniana. “The classic literature is always modern. New books revive and redecorate old ideas; old books suggest and invigorate new ideas.”

To Bulwer-Lytton, fiction couldn't ever be obsolete, because it contained timeless themes about human nature and society that came back around in contemporary works; in other words, you can’t disprove fiction. You can, however, disprove scientific theories, so Bulwer-Lytton thought it best to stick to the latest works in that field. (That said, since scientists use previous studies to inform their work, you can still learn a ton about certain schools of thought by delving into debunked ideas—plus, it’s often really entertaining to see what people used to believe.) 

5. Check out authors’ reading lists for book recommendations // Mortimer J. Adler

mortimer j. adler in 1983
Mortimer J. Adler in 1983, happy to read the favorite works of his favorite authors.
George Rose/Getty Images

In his 1940 guide How to Read a Book, American philosopher Mortimer J. Adler talked about the importance of choosing books that other authors consider worth reading. “The great authors were great readers,” he explained, “and one way to understand them is to read the books they read.”

Adler went on to clarify that this would probably matter most in the philosophy field, “because philosophers are great readers of each other,” and it’s easier to grasp a concept if you also know what inspired it. While you don’t necessarily have to read everything a novelist has read in order to fully understand their own work, it’s still a good way to get quality book recommendations from a trusted source. If your favorite author mentions a certain novel that really made an impression on them, there’s a pretty good chance you’d enjoy it, too.

6. Reading so-called guilty pleasures is better than reading nothing // Mary Wollstonecraft

mary wollstonecraft in 1797
Mary Wollstonecraft in 1797, apparently demonstrating that a book with blank pages is worth even less than a novel.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

To the 18th-century writer, philosopher, and early feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, just about all novels fell into the category of “guilty pleasures” (though she didn’t call them that). In A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, she disparaged the “stupid novelists, who, knowing little of human nature, work up stale tales, and describe meretricious scenes, all retailed in a sentimental jargon, which equally tend to corrupt the taste and draw the heart aside from its daily duties.”

If her judgment seems unnecessarily harsh, it’s probably because it’s taken out of its historical context. Wollstonecraft definitely wasn’t the only one who considered novels to be low-quality reading material compared to works of history and philosophy, and she was also indirectly criticizing society for preventing women from seeking more intellectual pursuits. If 21st-century women were confined to watching unrealistic, highly edited dating shows and frowned upon for trying to see 2019’s Parasite or the latest Ken Burns documentary, we might sound a little bitter, too.

Regardless, Wollstonecraft still admitted that even guilty pleasures can help expand your worldview. “Any kind of reading I think better than leaving a blank still a blank, because the mind must receive a degree of enlargement, and obtain a little strength by a slight exertion of its thinking powers,” she wrote. In other words, go forth and enjoy your beach read.

7. You get to make the final decision on how, what, and when to read // Theodore Roosevelt

theodore roosevelt in office in 1905
Theodore Roosevelt pauses for a quick photo before getting back to his book in 1905.
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Theodore Roosevelt might have lived his own life in an exceptionally regimented fashion, but his outlook on reading was surprisingly free-spirited. Apart from being a staunch proponent of finding at least a few minutes to read every single day—and starting young—he thought that most of the details should be left up to the individual.

“The reader, the booklover, must meet his own needs without paying too much attention to what his neighbors say those needs should be,” he wrote in his autobiography, and rejected the idea that there’s a definitive “best books” list that everyone should abide by. Instead, Roosevelt recommended choosing books on subjects that interest you and letting your mood guide you to your next great read. He also wasn’t one to roll his eyes at a happy ending, explaining that “there are enough horror and grimness and sordid squalor in real life with which an active man has to grapple.”

In short, Roosevelt would probably advise you to see what Seneca, Albert Einstein, Mary Wollstonecraft, and other great minds had to say about reading, and then make your own decisions in the end.