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Madame bovary, c’est...?

Flaubert’s ageless anti-heroine is back in two new films. Julie Kavanagh sets out to establish who the real Emma Bovary was

Julie Kavanagh | September/October 2014

A soggy autumn day in Normandy. With its mairie, auberge, church on the hill and not a satellite dish in sight, Le Pin-la-Garenne is a village from another time—the reason it’s the location for a new film of “Madame Bovary”. The village hall is billeted as the canteen, and laid out on every trestle table for lunch is a bottle of Bordeaux (a French union rule). Today’s set is an old villa with crumbling plaster and paint flaking off its shutters—the Bovarys’ house. It is unheated, dank and so retro-looking that its real owners must have decided to live in the 19th century. Parisians love the shabby chic of the area, plus the fact that it’s only two hours away. But this is a Monday and the only sign of human life beyond the Bovary house is an elderly woman walking her dog up to the church. I follow her, passing stone walls skirted with limp marigolds and an old potager gone to grass; later, when I’m told that the cast and crew escape to Paris at any opportunity, it comes as no surprise. The tedium of provincial life is exactly what Flaubert was writing about. Seeing the actress Mia Wasikowska on the lawn, in costume as Emma Bovary and killing time between takes by teasing a kitten with gaffer tape, brings home what it would be like for a spirited young woman to be caged in a place like this.

“Madame Bovary” is a classic that refuses to date. To the British novelist Julian Barnes, it’s “a perfect piece of fictional machinery, the pinnacle of realism, the slaughterer of Romanticism, a complex study of failure,” but also “the first great shopping-and-fucking novel”. In America, a recent edition presented Emma as “the original desperate housewife”; in Italy, Vanity Fair says that if Emma were alive today, she’d be reading the “Twilight” novels.

Before Wasikowska’s portrayal reaches the screen, another film will give the tale a 21st-century twist. “Gemma Bovery” [sic]—a French production starring an English actress, Gemma Arterton—is based on Posy Simmonds’s graphic novel, which turns the story into a satire of Francophile Brits. Gemma Bovery, like Emma, is bored by her plodding husband and their Normandy village. Both women are galvanised by the euphoria of infidelity, become enmeshed in debt, and die poignantly young. “Why is Emma Bovary eternal?” says Simmonds. “Because there are always going to be people who are unable to accept the reality of their lives. Emma’s romantic fantasies were fuelled by sentimental novels. Now it’s the media, the celebrity magazines, that feed that discontent. The Emmas of today really believe that a nose job or boob job will change things, or that by moving to the country the pure air and simple goodness will somehow rub off on their own lives.” In France, this discontent is known as le Bovarysme.

Flaubert’s Emma is an anti-heroine. Her gamine charm fades with her illusions, and she becomes narcissistic, deceitful, sexually reckless and cruel. When the American novelist Lydia Davis published a translation in 2010, she sparked a surge of dissent by saying she didn’t like or admire Emma, and Flaubert didn’t either. And yet he did at first. He describes her innate sensuality with such tender relish—sucking away a bead of blood after pricking her finger, or licking with little stabs of her tongue at a film of liqueur in the bottom of her glass—that you see exactly why Charles Bovary becomes enslaved by her. Flaubert’s empathy was so extreme that, when he wrote the first adultery scene, his head spun deliriously and he shared her afterglow, “a kind of rapturous lassitude”. Then, as if sated, Flaubert begins to withdraw his affection. He no longer indulges Emma’s follies, and he shames her with the most explicit and unromantic death in 19th-century fiction.

When “Madame Bovary” first appeared, in serial form, in 1856, Flaubert received a fan letter from a woman in Normandy. “This story isn’t fiction,” she wrote. “This woman has existed.” He replied with the answer he gave every curious reader. “‘Madame Bovary’ has nothing real in it. It is a totally invented story; into it I put none of my own feelings and nothing from my own life.”

This was quite untrue: he ruthlessly plundered his own experience for his novel. It’s the underlying meaning of his famous retort, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” And with his mania for accuracy—whether reproducing the chatter at an agricultural fair, or detailing each horrific stage of arsenic poisoning—it would hardly be surprising if he based his characters on people he knew. Which he did, taking his plotline from an actual Normandy tragedy, and moulding Emma with the quirks and frailties of at least three very different women.

So who were the real Madame Bovarys? And how did they come to infiltrate the novel? I knew of one, his beautiful mistress Louise Colet, a poet whom he called the Muse; the second was someone he’d never met, and I’d never heard of, who took some sleuthing to flesh out; but it was the third—a woman centuries ahead of her time—who came to haunt me.

The first, Louise Colet, was, like Emma, brought up in the provinces, enchanted by romantic literature and the dazzle of Paris. She too married a nonentity and grabbed the chance to take an ardent lover many years her junior—Flaubert. It was a coup de foudre on both sides, although their first tryst was a flop: “what happened to me with you had never happened before,” he told her, blaming nerves and exhaustion. But a subsequent rendezvous, while riding through the Bois de Boulogne, had such sweet memories that he imagined himself buying the carriage as a trophy. In “Madame Bovary” he conflates the two episodes. Emma succumbs to her second lover, Léon, the notary’s clerk, in a curtained hansom cab, and Flaubert mocks his own flagging virility by having the driver hurtle randomly through Rouen for six hours while the young man cries out, “Keep going…Keep going!”

It’s a wonderful comic scene, but to Louise it was one of many betrayals. Her explosive release of bottled-up libido on their rare assignations was transferred to Emma, along with her increasing desperation as the relationship began to sour. Louise at her worst is Emma in the second half of the novel—insatiable, demanding, out of control. She would have recognised herself, but what seems to have stung most was Flaubert’s theft of a love token she’d given him. It was a cigar case inscribed with the motto Amor nel cor (love in my heart)—the very words engraved on the signet ring Emma gives the love-rat aristocrat Rodolphe, and the title of a poem Louise wrote in protest. In the end, though, Louise’s value to Flaubert was not so much as a muse, more a midwife: he needed her as a sounding board, and their lengthy correspondence—one of the great epistolary affairs of all time—is a fascinating account of the tortuous process of writing a masterpiece.

In Flaubert’s lifetime (1821-80), nobody showed that “Madame Bovary” was anything other than “completely 
imagined”. He had not been buried ten days, however, when an article appeared which seemed to rumble him. It told of an evening in 1848 when his friend Louis Bouilhet had arrived carrying a local paper. “Did you know that the wife of Doctor X has just killed herself?…Madame X poisoned herself.”

Flaubert took the paper, read the brief announcement, and remarked that a novel could easily be written around those few lines. “I’m going to do it!” he said. “And it will end in exactly the same way as the end of Madame X.”

A year later, Flaubert’s friend Maxime Du Camp published a much more detailed account in his “Souvenirs Littéraires”, but a letter of his to Flaubert in July 1851 is the first written confirmation that the plot is based on an actual event. “What are you writing”, Du Camp asked him. “…is it the story of Madame Delamarre [sic], which is a good one?”

Delphine Delamare had much in common with Emma Bovary. She was 17 and living on a farm with her father when she met Eugène Delamare, who, like Charles Bovary, was a health officer—a step below qualified doctor—and a widower who had been married to an older woman. Eugène was a kind, tranquil but apathetic man, a keen gardener who silently adored his young wife. A woman who had been at school with Delphine remembered her as moderately bright but pretentious and prone to using fancy words. Tall, coquettish and pretty—“a brunette with disturbing eyes”—she loved dancing, shared Emma’s weakness for sentimental novels, and was seen by village gossips as “quite a lass”.

Not long after the wedding, Delphine gave birth to a daughter—an only child, like Berthe Bovary. Neighbours spoke of her folies de grandeur, her insistence that servants addressed her in the third person, and her expensive tastes: “The blue and silver wallpaper was a marvel!” Delphine is said to have killed herself in 1848. Eugène, like Charles Bovary, died shortly after his wife—in December 1849. This was two months after Flaubert had embarked on a tour of the Orient with Maxime Du Camp, but he would surely have been told of the Delamares’ fate on his return. Eugène had studied medicine under Flaubert’s father, and his mother was a family friend. Flaubert was home by the summer of 1851, and in September he began writing “Madame Bovary”.

It hasn’t been proved that he ever went to the Delamares’ village of Ry, let alone used it as a model for the Bovarys’ Yonville l’Abbaye, but this little market town is still cashing in on its consecration. With a Circuit Emma Bovary to direct the tourists, and a plaque on the church wall memorialising Delphine and Emma as the same person, fact has become permanently welded to fiction.

The only sources scholars take seriously are written ones, so Flaubertistes seized on the discovery, in 1947, of a mysterious 40-page manuscript proving the existence of a third Madame Bovary. It was found by a Flaubert expert and librarian, Gabrielle Leleu, hidden in a batch of Flaubert’s notes and press cuttings at the Bibliothèque Municipale in Rouen. Entitled “Memoirs of Madame Ludovica”, the text is by an unnamed woman who tells the melodramatic but true story of her friendship with a wanton young wife, Madame Ludovica, brought to ruin by adultery and mounting debts. Leleu, certain that marks on the pages were in Flaubert’s hand, named Ludovica as Louise, wife of the sculptor James Pradier, and wrote a groundbreaking essay, “An Unknown Source of ‘Madame Bovary’: the Pradier Document”.

This is the woman who intrigues me. I had come across Louise Pradier while researching the novelist Alexandre Dumas, fils, for my book on Marie Duplessis, the original Lady of the Camellias, aka La Traviata. Like Marie, Louise—a “muddy soul in a marble body”—had been a muse to Dumas, inspiring “Life at Twenty” and “The Clemenceau Affair”. No biography of her exists, but the London Library has three annotated volumes of James Pradier’s letters with some riveting snippets about Louise. They were edited by Douglas Siler, a man I was determined to track down.

A tall, rugged septuagenarian with a nimbus of white hair is waiting for me at the Eurostar terminal in Brussels. An American scholar, Siler knows more than anyone alive about Louise Pradier. In 1973 he published an edited text of the “Memoirs of Madame Ludovica”. Four decades later, Louise is still an obsession: as we walk to his car to join his Danish wife, Lise, he talks about how similar their names are and how they share the same birthday. “I don’t know how she’s tolerated my infidélités with Louise for all this time,” he says, in a soft southern accent tinged with French.

He had planned to write a biography, but in order to do so had to find and compile all the Pradier letters and papers. “I thought this would last a couple of years, but it’s still going on.” It’s a monumental undertaking, and he is close to completing the final two volumes. As the Pradier flamekeeper, Siler helped put together a retrospective held in Geneva in 1985 which went to Paris a year later. His website, Forum Pradier, gives notice of upcoming auctions of individual pieces (often correcting the vendor’s description) and publishes new studies and global exchanges spanning months, even years, its reach stretching as far as Thailand and Baffin Island.

“We thought we’d waste no time introducing you to Pradier,” Siler says as we drive to the suburbs for lunch with friends of his who collect Pradier bronzes. Today, his name is little-known, but anyone who’s been to Paris will have seen Pradier’s work: his “Sappho” is among the first things you come across in the Musée d’Orsay, and he has marble figures in the Arc de Triomphe, the church of the Madeleine, the dome of the Invalides, the place de la Concorde. They now seem like civic statuary, but his blazingly erotic “Satyr and Baccante” caused a sensation at the Salon of 1834.

It was Flaubert who led Siler to the Pradiers. After graduating from Stanford, Siler spent six months in Aix-en-Provence in 1970, working on a dissertation about “Madame Bovary”, and decided to go to Rouen to look at the “Memoirs”. What struck him was their bookishness. “She uses the imperfect subjunctive and the passé simple, which are mainly literary forms. Perhaps aware the narrative would be read by a writer, she must have borrowed her style from novels or memoirs that she knew.”

Later, teaching in Ohio, Siler was sent the “Memoirs” on microfilm, and began the painstaking task of transcribing them by hand. “I’d had virtually no training in working with original manuscripts, but I found it so much more fun than literary criticism or teaching.” He resigned from his post and moved permanently to Europe. In 1976, after ransacking archives in Paris, he was able to identify the anonymous author as Louise Janelle Boyé, a carpenter’s wife. “In my elation, I felt like shouting out my find to the whole room.” References to Boyé in letters proved that Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp both knew her. A year later Siler discovered a scenario Flaubert had written for “Madame Bovary”—pages of notes that had become detached from others in the Rouen library, and escaped the scholars’ attention—entitled “Money Affairs III”. In it, Flaubert cites numerous passages from the “Memoirs”, confirming beyond doubt their influence on Part Three of “Madame Bovary”.

Today, you can find copies of Boyé’s original manuscript, with its sepia age-spots and ornate, sloping handwriting, on Siler’s website, which shows the original with his transcription beside each folio (jamespradier.comclick “Ressources”, then “Liens utiles”). Don’t expect a fun read. With its idiosyncratic spelling and grammar, the text is hard to follow, and Ludovica/Louise Pradier comes across as a shadowy, unfathomable character. At first the main interest is the narrator’s strangely obsessive relationship with the woman she’s writing about; the mystery of why Boyé enslaved herself to her friend for a decade, acting as go-between with creditors and bailiffs “to bring an end to her torments through my devotion”. But it’s when Ludovica’s debts get out of hand that you see the extent to which Flaubert has pillaged the “Memoirs” for his Emma, sometimes word for word.

If I found Boyé’s version of Louise Pradier disappointing after her vibrant portrayal by Dumas, Douglas Siler had a surprise in store. “Hmm…Now where did I put it?” he murmured, opening one immaculate drawer after another. “Aha!” It was his handwritten extract of a manuscript Du Camp never wanted published, “Memoirs of an Old Man of Letters”, which Louise Pradier dominates in glorious detail. The exclusive Bibliothèque de l’Institut de France at first forbade Siler to quote from the original, then grudgingly permitted him a few lines. But as we sat in his study and he read aloud from Du Camp’s unedited recollections of Louise, I had that frisson of excitement felt by every biographer when their dust-covered subject stirs into life.

Louise Pradier was born Louise d’Arcet 200 years ago. She was 18, a lovely redhead, already widowed, when James Pradier began wooing her. Although half his age, she was excited by his celebrity and easily won: Pradier was an amusing, raffish character, a dandy who wore his hair long and curly, with a floppy hat and fantasy clothes of gold-embroidered velvet with frilly jabots. After they were married, his new wife turned herself into “a sort of Medici”, as she told Du Camp—discovering young artists and writers and introducing them to people of influence. The Pradiers became known for their decadent entertaining, particularly their costume balls. Invitations ruled that beauty was de rigueur, bores were never tolerated, and an evening with full orchestra could cost up to 10,000 francs. Louise Pradier herself always made an impact at these events, once provocatively recalling the scandal of her husband’s “Satyr and Baccante” by wearing nothing but a gossamer tunic with vine leaves and bunches of grapes in her hair.

Her first husband had been obsessively jealous, but James Pradier was the opposite, deriving pleasure from other men’s admiration of his luscious young wife. A story goes that they were in bed one morning when a student of his dropped by to show him a preliminary sketch of a nude model. It wasn’t bad, James told him, but the proportions of her bottom weren’t perfect. To prove it, he lifted the blankets covering his sleeping wife and said, “Now there—that’s what you have to aim for!” She was, as a contemporary put it, “a statue made flesh”.

A year after their marriage, Louise gave birth to a child, Charlotte. When she was pregnant again, Pradier sculpted her. The “Memoirs” claim that he was not the father of the child she was carrying, John; nor of Thérèse, born three years later. Pradier was too caught up with his art to notice his wife straying, and, with his eye for a pretty demimondaine, not beyond reproach himself. But he must have grasped the seriousness of Louise’s affair with Thérèse’s father, a painter, as he went to the studio when they were inside and banged on the door with his cane for hours. Louise made her escape by disguising herself in the concierge’s clothes—the first of several such escapades. Adultery was a game she couldn’t resist: “Something indefinable pushed me…” she told Du Camp,“...as if I was carried away on a bolting horse.”

By the early 1840s she was three- and four-timing lovers with madcap insouciance. A favourite was the 18-year-old Dumas, fils. “He was only a child,” Boyé writes, “But [Louise] found him amusing and, crazy as she was, she would latch on impetuously to anything which could distract her.”

In his novella “Life at Twenty”, Dumas writes of Madame d’Harnebey, a sculptor’s wife who bewitches him while dressed as a baccante at a costume ball. She arrives at his student lodgings—“the first time a femme du monde had crossed my threshold”—and the chapter ends with her coming into the room and lifting her veil. In a letter Dumas described what actually happened. Wasting no time in undressing, “la belle Madame Pradier” astounded him with her flawless physique and lack of modesty. As they were making love, she suddenly stopped. A lodger on the floor above was practising the violin. “Va donc en mesure,” Louise whispered, and they carried on in time to the music.

The affair lasted several months. Louise rented an apartment on rue Bourdaloue as a love nest and paid off Dumas’ debts. She received little in return. Dumas writes frankly about his immature contempt for her easy reputation, and the novella is a powerful account of retrospective jealousy. The end comes when he learns that she’s seeing another young man, even though she insists that he is “nothing more than a devoted friend”.

The friend was Flaubert. He had known Louise’s family most of his life, and while studying law in Paris had been urged by his confidant Alfred Le Poittevin to cultivate the Pradiers. “You’ll have much to gain there,” Le Poittevin told him. “Useful friends and a mistress at the very least.” The weekly gathering of important Parisians at the Pradiers’ quai Voltaire apartment could have intimidated a reclusive, provincial 22-year-old, but Flaubert found himself drawn in. “It’s very free and relaxed,” he told his sister Caroline, “definitely my kind of place.” On his first visit, in 1843, he met Victor Hugo, the writer he admired more than any other: “My eyes were glued to his right hand, which had produced so many beautiful things.” Pradier’s studio, behind the church of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, was also a salon of sorts, with visitors coming and going as he and his dusty stone hewers chiselled away. On a July day in 1846 Flaubert first set eyes on the poet Louise Colet, who was there posing for Pradier, her blonde ringlets bobbing on her bare shoulders.

It was Louise Pradier who, a year later, would cause a rupture in their affair, but at this stage Flaubert’s interest in her was purely literary. Without knowing it yet, he had begun storing memories for “Madame Bovary”. Louise Pradier’s wild infatuation with an opera singer prefigures Emma’s fantasies about a tenor; her jealous decision to have her lover followed by a private detective is something that also enters Emma’s mind. With an attitude to casual sex that was more like a man’s, Louise Pradier embodied Flaubert’s ideal, but his main inspiration was her financial excesses—the way her debts ran out of control and drove her to a point of no return.

James Pradier had left his wife in charge of the household affairs, which she managed meti­culously at first, logging every detail in a ledger. She knew that most commercial transactions were paid for with promissory notes, and, Boyé says, within three months there were as many of these circulating from Louise as from a major business. When an attempt to trick her husband into giving her power of attorney backfired, she started tracing his signature on documents. She found a loan shark to provide her with funds until her demand for renewals got out of hand and he threatened her. Everything valuable she owned had been pawned, and the bailiffs set a date for an auction of the rest. As a pack of merchants gathered at the door, a servant ran to fetch James Pradier from his studio. Louise was not at home, and it was hours before she arrived to face his shame and contempt. In desperation, she had gone to see her ex-lovers and beg them for help. “Everywhere I met with refusals,” she told Boyé. “This has been the bitterest day of my life.”

In “Madame Bovary”, Flaubert used the main facts of Louise’s plight almost unchanged. But as you return to the novel after the “Memoirs”, it seems implausible that a simple provincial girl would run up debts so great that suicide is the only way out. Emma might have ordered a cashmere dress from Rouen, or indulged her fancy for luxurious decor, but Louise Pradier was playing with huge stakes. She had even begun fraudulently dealing in diamonds, obtaining them from the big Paris merchants under the pretext of finding buyers, and instead taking them to Mont-de-Piété to pawn. She was an addict, driven as much by the adrenalin rush of rogue trading as by the thrill of amassing lovers. “She was the most gluttonous consumer I’ve ever encountered,” said Maxime Du Camp, noting how she had once ordered six hats and ten pairs of earrings at a time. Emma Bovary’s shopkeeper/broker, the slimy Lheureux, draws up a list of goods she hasn’t paid for amounting to 2,000 francs (roughly €2,000). Louise Pradier had debts of 100,000 francs, and although she thought about throwing herself into the Seine, she didn't go that far.

Flaubert punishes his heroine by killing her off. And Louise? Fearing ruin, disgrace and a bleak future for their children, her husband was determined to stop her. Divorce wasn’t legal at the time, and in order to obtain a separation, he needed proof of her adultery. The servants had turned informers, telling him of three boltholes and the hiding place of his wife’s love letters. These he seized and took to his studio, but Louise found out. When Pradier was asleep, she rushed there by hansom cab and persuaded the concierge to give her the key. Spotting a locked cabinet, she forced it open, found the packet of letters and set fire to them. Once again, she had outwitted Pradier, but soon he had the evidence he needed to incriminate her.

She had begun an affair with a law student described by Du Camp as “a pretty boy—rich, generous and stupid”. They would meet in an attic room Louise had rented in the rue du Dauphin, which her husband knew about as he was having her tailed by a private detective. On a snowy December day, he went to the rue du Dauphin with the police commissioner and two agents and burst in on the couple. They escaped onto the roof and none of the policemen dared give chase because of the icy conditions. The student slid down a gutter to safety, and Louise, seeing a man shaving in his reflection in a next-door window, cried, “Hurry, open up, my husband is following me!” He helped her to climb in and told her to go to the corset merchant downstairs. She persuaded its owner to disguise her and slipped into the street by a service door, wearing a seamstress’s bonnet. After searching the building with the police, Pradier went home to find his wife reading in front of the fire. It was too much. He summoned her mother and the commissioner, and by mixing pleas with threats, got her to admit defeat. Louise agreed to sign a document saying she’d been caught in flagrante delicto—a terrifying indictment, as adultery was a criminal offence in France. When Victor Hugo and his mistress Léonie Biard were discovered in bed together, she was sent to the infamous prostitutes’ prison of Saint-Lazare. Louise, although found guilty and made responsible for her debts, was merely confined to a convent.

A few months later Flaubert went to her cheap temporary lodgings in rue Laffitte. When they last met she had been surrounded by the Louis XV sumptuousness of quai Voltaire; now she was living “in misery”. She’d lost everything, even her children, whom James Pradier had forbidden her to see. She had been crying, having just heard that her lover’s father, intent on ending the affair, had brought in the police, who were trailing her every move. “How deplorable, the baseness of these people baying at the poor woman just because she opened her thighs for a dick other than the one designated by His Eminence the Mayor,” Flaubert told a friend. But this was rich fodder. “Ah what a great study I made there! And what an act I put on!…I approved of her conduct, declared myself the champion of adultery, and may even have astonished her by my indulgence. What is certain is that she found my visit extremely flattering and invited me to lunch on my return.”

Over the next two years, while remaining friends with James Pradier, Flaubert took every opportunity to see his former wife. When Flaubert's mistress Louise Colet learnt of this, she wrote a letter accusing him of an affair—which he contemptuously denied, expecting a fellow writer to understand his motives:

I make sure of being only an analyst when I’m around her…Because if “I had been held in her arms” [Colet’s words], I would not have been able to judge her. I address the artist in you. This woman interests me only as the archetypal female, as an orchestra of female instincts. And to hear the orchestra one should not seat oneself in the pit but at a distance, at the back of the concert hall, observing from far away.

His reply is as specious as it is brilliant, because by June 1847 he and Louise Pradier were lovers. His correspondence with Du Camp confirms it, and also reveals the unpossessive nature of the relationship. Louise Pradier’s wild spirit intrigued both men. “I never saw shamelessness of such extraordinary dimensions,” Du Camp wrote. “She wallowed in vice as if in her natural element.” Code-naming her Ludovica (Latin for Louise), they swapped salacious anecdotes about her, and in one long graphic account Du Camp confesses how close he came to sharing her. It was in 1847, Douglas Siler believes, that either Flaubert or Du Camp commissioned Boyé to write “Memoirs of Madame Ludovica”. “The fact the manuscript was found in Flaubert’s papers is, for me, fair proof that she was writing for one or the other.”

If this was the case—and the letters show they were waiting for something from “la mère Boyer” [sic]—their opportunism was fairly shocking. They would have known how close the two women were, and by asking one to expose the other’s secret life, they show that friendship meant less to them than work. Boyé’s motive for complying seems to have been an unhealthy mix of infatuation and revenge. I feel sure that she was in love with Louise Pradier, and yet also felt betrayed by her. Louise extracted money from her husband, and also from her brother, who was bankrupted as a result. “He fell sick with anxiety…and died, leaving four young children and his poor aged mother in dire straits.”

“We must get used to the idea of seeing nothing but books in the people around us,” Flaubert once said. He almost certainly resumed his affair with Louise Colet in 1851, the year he began “Madame Bovary”, because he needed her for Emma. Shocked by his callousness, Louise took revenge in two autobiographical novels, one of which, “Lui”, portrays a writer working fanatically on a great book as a monster of egotism. It is not known what Flaubert’s other Louise made of his appropriation of her story. She must have seen her downfall retold in “Madame Bovary”, but the discovery that she had been “written up in detail, painted, chiselled” did not dent her fondness for Flaubert. They remained occasional lovers for six years, and friends for the rest of their lives.

For Douglas Siler, the quest continues. “Are there any descendants of Louise Boyé left who might have documents or letters? How did she become so involved with Louise Pradier?” My own quest has ended with the realisation that I’ll never be able to read “Madame Bovary” again without seeing a palimpsest of three muses. Flaubert was wise to keep his sources secret; it is the protean, elusive nature of Emma that has enthralled generations of readers. “Emma isn’t a sympathetic character,” Posy Simmonds says. “She’s extraordinarily selfish—a cruel mother and horrid to her servants—yet you empathise with her. Her tailspin into disaster is just so awful, and by then you’ve come to care for her very much.”

Sophie Barthes, director of the Mia Wasikowska film, has spent three years living with Emma Bovary. “She’ll always be an enigma, intriguing and captivating, but to me she’s a modern tragic heroine. She clings to an unreachable ideal and prefers death to the boredom of reality and bourgeois pettiness. We might blame her for her mistakes, her whims and destructive desires, but we feel for her. Her contradictions make her a complex and vulnerable human being, ingrained in modern psychology. Flaubert said, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi.’ I would add, ‘Madame Bovary, c’est nous’.”

Gemma Bovery opens in France September 10th

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