Letters reveal Flaubert's English 'amitié amoureuse'

Gustave Flaubert

A trove of letters from Gustave Flaubert discovered in the attic of a Home Counties farmhouse reveals a softer side to the famously cynical author of Madame Bovary.

The letters, written to English society hostess Gertrude Tennant, were discovered by author and biographer David Waller after he was invited to look at two chests of family papers in a house off the A3. "They hadn't been opened for the last 50 years," he said. "It was quite an amazing experience. I delved in and found a package labelled 'letters from distinguished persons: do not throw away'."

The package contained correspondence from Oscar Wilde, Henry James, Gladstone and Victor Hugo, as well as a bundle of 24 letters from Flaubert, including around a dozen which had never before been seen.

Tennant, then Gertrude Collier, met Flaubert as a 22-year-old on holiday with her family in 1842 in Trouville. "He had the charm of the utter unconsciousness of his physical and mental beauty," wrote Tennant of their first encounter. They stayed in touch when her family returned to their home as ex-pats in Paris; Flaubert was unhappily studying law, and would come to their flat to talk and read poetry and romantic novels. "I would love to prolong indefinitely … the declamation, exaltation, inspiration [of the hours spent with you]," he wrote in 1844 in a letter never previously known to have existed.

Tennant, in a lightly fictionalised story, reveals the two also shared a passionate kiss at the Paris opera during the period, although their friendship was, said Waller, more of an "amitié amoureuse", or passionate friendship. "It doesn't appear that they had an affair but it was deeper than a usual friendship," said Waller. "Flaubert was sex mad – he was writing a book about a prostitute when they met. Gertrude was a very respectable English girl who went on to become a real grande dame – she would never have had an affair."

They fell out of touch when she went to London to marry Charles Tennant, with their correspondence picking up again in 1857 when Flaubert sent her a copy of Madame Bovary. He wrote in the book that he was sending it to her "in homage to an unchanging affection … in memory of the beach at Trouville and our long readings at the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysées". Tennant, however, was unimpressed.

"I will tell you straight that I am astonished," she wrote in reply. "[How could] you, with your imagination and admiration for everything that is beautiful … take pleasure in writing something so hideous as this book!" Thinking to influence him positively, she posted him a copy of George Eliot's Adam Bede suggesting he model his style on Eliot's, but Flaubert was uninterested in Victorian morality, and instead penned Salammbô, chock-full of orgies and blood.

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