Familiar to admirers of Gustave Flaubert as the writer with whom he had a tempestuous affair, Louise Colet has not—until fairly recently—enjoyed a good press. Yet it was to her that Flaubert addressed the now celebrated letters on his art that make the genesis of Madame Bovary one of the best-charted in fiction. Fifty years ago, one leading Flaubert scholar could just bring himself to say of this poet and woman of letters that a novel of hers was “not without talent” and that she herself was “not without genuine grievances.” However, the wave of feminism since the 1970s has swept Louise Colet, known variously to her contemporaries as “the Muse,” “Penserosa,” “Sappho,” along with it. Julian Barnes had her argue her own case persuasively in a chapter of his amusing Flaubert’s Parrot. There have been at least two French biographies of this independent spirit (one by Micheline Bood and Serge Grand, the other by Jean-Paul Clébert) in the last decade. Now a fluent American biography, by Francine du Plessix Gray, is to be welcomed.
Born in Provence in 1810, Louise Révoil was famously endowed with a “southern” temperament, i.e., she was passionate and impetuous. She belonged with the generation of French high Romanticism, with its literature of personal confession and its generous humanitarian sympathies. Studious, ambitious, and totally without means, she married Hippolyte Colet, an equally impecunious (and as it turned out, unsuccessful) musician. By early 1835 they were settled in Paris, her aim being to take the capital by storm. One element in her favor: she was extremely beautiful (and knew it). Still, life was hard, as she made the rounds of indifferent or gross editors, or utilized tenuous contacts forged by unsolicited visits to the great in order to establish her name. A few noncommittal phrases in a reply from the lofty novelist and statesman François-René de Chateaubriand served as the preface to her first collection of verses. A poem on a theme set by the Académie Française carried off the prize and its monetary reward (she was to win the competition four times in all, a considerable feat). The eminent eclectic philosopher and liberal politician Victor Cousin (“Plato”) fell in love with her and became her protector, the leading light of her literary and political salon, and—along with Hippolyte Colet —the putative father of her daughter, Henriette. Louise and her husband would go their separate ways until his death in 1851. Wags had it that Cousin had maneuvered her first success with the Académie Française, though her new biographer shows that this was not the case. All the same, Louise Colet acquired the reputation for being pushy and on the make. Yet she needed money to live: she was an early professional woman writer, following in the wake of George Sand (née Aurore Dupin), who had begun her Parisian journalistic career in 1831. The satirist Alphonse Karr published a scabrous allusion to Louise Colet’s liaison with Victor Cousin. Though pregnant with Henriette, she rushed to Karr’s home to take revenge by stabbing him (to little effect) with her kitchen knife, “in the back” as he liked jokingly to maintain. This act of folly would never be forgotten. By 1846, the year Flaubert met the ravishing Louise Colet in the studio of James Pradier (“Phidias”), where she was posing for the well-known sculptor, she was an established “femme artiste”—that is, a woman writer living a free life like George Sand or Hortense Allart and (as she would insist) not to be confused with a courtesan or a kept woman. She would not be setting up house with any of her numerous literary or political lovers: obscure Polish patriots, radical députés, famous poets such as Alfred de Musset and Alfred de Vigny. The kind of artistic Bohemia she inhabited was distinct from that lowlier version described by Henri Murger (and popularized by Puccini). Flaubert had been advised by Pradier to take a mistress. Tall, good-looking, some eleven years younger than Louise Colet, a native of Normandy and therefore cautious where she was rash, Flaubert had so far published nothing. She would read his manuscripts and, unlike his friend Maxime du Camp, she recognized his genius long before the world did so. Their relationship, which falls into two parts, 1846–48 and 1851–54, with a conclusive break in 1855, has been portrayed as Flaubert’s one serious love affair. Sartre (in an interview in 1979 in L’Arc) would have none of this: all he would concede was that Flaubert “must have rather enjoyed making love to Louise for a short while, but that is all. He greatly preferred writing letters.” From the beginning Flaubert lucidly foresaw the end. True, he swore an oath to be devoted to Louise and her daughter for life—but then, he would not keep it. Rendezvous with Louise in Paris or Mantes were rare once he had his masturbatory souvenirs: the bloodstained handkerchief, the silk slippers that would finally go on the fire with her letters at the end of his life, in the hours of destruction he spent with Maupassant. The present feminist biographer sees this conflagration as yet another typical dastardly act against womankind, although there is scarcely a writer of repute whose literary remains have not suffered some degree of mutilation—see Ian Hamilton’s entertaining Keepers of the Flame.