Francine du Plessix Gray   Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet.
Simon & Schuster, 432 pages, $27.50

reviewed by Renee Winegarten

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.

On the male bonding, homoeroticism, and attraction to prostitutes shared by Flaubert and the friends of his youth in Rouen, Francine du Plessix Gray happily does not mince words. Doubtless the same tendencies can also be found in considerable detail in the recreational activities of Stendhal, Prosper Mérimée, and Alfred de Musset (who would behave caddishly to Louise). The best one can say about the attitude of these literary lights toward women is that it was thoroughly confused. A woman with any claims to intellect was “masculine”—at once a compliment and a drawback—in a feminine body: she was hermaphrodite. Louise Colet would not accept Flaubert’s nonsense on this theme, the separation of woman from writer, or flesh from spirit.

For a biographer who adopts a strong feminist stance, though, Francine du Plessix Gray strangely speaks of women who used their minds in study as “bluestockings,” counting oddly among their number in the seventeenth century the Duchesse de Chevreuse, that active conspirator during the civil wars of the Fronde. The term “bluestocking,” applied in England in the eighteenth century to a particular circle of literary and learned women, became current in France as “bas-bleu” in the early nineteenth century. It was used pejoratively, with condescension and even ridicule, to mean “pedantic,” and still carries that pejorative meaning today. Not until more than half way through her book does the author note parenthetically that the word “bluestocking” was an insult in nineteenth-century France. Indeed, Flaubert once told Louise Colet that titles to her poems “smack of the bluestocking, and you aren’t one, thank God.” That must have been a comfort.

It is a pity that some of the background material in this readable biography looks careless. On the French Revolution, for instance, Manon Roland, guillotined in November 1793, could scarcely have been condemned “on the orders” of Marat, assassinated by Charlotte Corday in July 1793. Inaccurate, too, are certain references to Germaine de Staël, here weirdly called the “den mother of the Romantics,” who was deeply admired by Louise Colet for her liberal views and outspoken active opposition to Napoleon Bonaparte. Mme de Staël did not remain on her estate at Coppet during most of the Emperor’s reign (as the author erroneously informs us). On the contrary, on numerous occasions she traveled across Europe, once even as far as Russia at the time of the French invasion, striving for the tyrant’s overthrow. Moreover, Mme de Staël is said to have been “erotically active” in her sixties, although she died at fifty-one. She was not the only model for Ellénore in the subtle psychological novel, Adolphe, written by her onetime lover Benjamin Constant: there are at least four women on whom that unfortunate heroine is thought to be based. We are told that Chateaubriand and his inamorata, Mme Récamier, Louise Colet’s friend, “first met at Mme de Staël’s deathbed.” According to Chateaubriand’s Mémoires d’outre-tombe, they were reunited “at the time of Mme de Staël’s death” in 1817, having met in 1805 and again in 1814.

Admirers of George Sand throughout the world, of whom there are now a great many, will scarcely read the references to the author of Lélia without dismay. We are told of her “first marriage”—in fact her only marriage. Her husband is described with little historical tact as “gun-toting” (he was fond of hunting and once threatened her by making for his gun). Comments on her early lifestyle might have been written before the modern revaluation of George Sand and her works. She “cranked out” her books—this is said of one of the most imaginative, innovative, and influential writers of the nineteenth century.

On their rare encounters, Louise Colet may have tired Flaubert with her tears and recriminations, but he did not treat her well. He broke in a coldly cutting way with a woman who had been generous to him and to his friend Louis Bouilhet. Even his mother, whom he used as a pretext for denying Louise Colet entry into his home at Croisset, thought that he had treated his mistress badly and in a manner insulting to her sex. Mme Flaubert said that his passion for words had “dried up” his heart.

Perhaps Flaubert had purposely renewed relations with Louise Colet in 1851, just as he was beginning Madame Bovary, in order to pick her brains for his deluded heroine. (Ms. Gray is sure of this.) He asked Louise for precise details for Emma Bovary’s dreams as a young girl. The romanticism with which he endowed Emma was that of his own youth, however, as well as being Louise Colet’s enduring outlook on life. Although Flaubert insisted that the novel must be impersonal, thus standing in direct opposition to the despised confessional literature of Louise Colet, Alfred de Musset, et al., he also said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”

Despite his views on impersonality, then, Flaubert was not above using the impoverished Louise’s gift of a seal, inscribed with the words Amor nel cor, by having Emma Bovary give her lover Rodolphe an identical seal with the same inscription. Cynically, Rodolphe seals with Amor nel cor the letter where he breaks with Emma after forming a teardrop with water from a glass. Nor was Flaubert above using the hackney carriage in which he and Louise had their early moving amorous encounter, and transferring it to Emma and Léon in the grotesque register in his novel. Years later he told the Goncourt brothers—who thought him coarse—that while with Louise he had put his head out of the carriage window to conceal his laughter. But then, as most people knew, Flaubert (who had his tender moments) was prone to exaggeration.

Neither party was a model of fidelity, but despite the string of her later lovers, Louise Colet could not forget Flaubert. His years of fame began with Madame Bovary, after he had dismissed her. She took her puny revenge in two novels, Une Histoire de soldat (1856) and the hugely successful Lui (1859). Even when she visited Egypt in 1869 as a journalist for the opening of the Suez Canal, she was haunted by the image of Kuschiuk Hanem, the courtesan who had so entranced Flaubert on the Nile years before. Flaubert did not entirely forget the Muse either, since he gave his heroine Salammbô the pose of Pradier’s second statue of Louise Colet as Sappho, seated with her hands folded around her knee.

Much remains to be written about Louise Colet and politics. She was a progressive liberal in the European sense before her liaison with Victor Cousin. In her youth, she claimed, she had read all the works of Benjamin Constant, in whose political writings she had found “an ardent defender of freedom” and “an enemy of fanaticism.” Mme Récamier entrusted the Muse with a copy of Constant’s intimate letters to herself, to be published after her demise. Their over-hasty publication involved Louise in a costly lawsuit with Mme Récamier’s reactionary adopted daughter and heir. Some of the differences between Louise Colet and George Sand were of a political character. There was a Jacobin period (roughly 1836–48) when George Sand could ardently defend Robespierre and the Terror of 1793–94, and when she put all the blame on the Girondins. Louise Colet had favored the Girondins in her writing on the Girondin-inspired Charlotte Corday and on Manon Roland, their “Egeria.” Indeed, George Sand would maintain her opposition to liberalism of the kind expressed by Louise Colet and others.

After the coup d’état of December 1851 and the advent of Napoleon III, Louise Colet—following in Mme de Staël’s footsteps—proved a consistent opponent of the authoritarian regime of Napoleon’s nephew. Her salon, that of a fervent anticlerical republican, was a center of the liberal opposition. She took risks in distributing the writings of Victor Hugo—the most outspoken opponent of Napoleon the Little— who thundered from his island exile. In order to circumvent police surveillance, she had even persuaded Flaubert to join her in serving as one of the intermediaries for the poet’s correspondence with his political associates. Moreover, she kept Victor Hugo informed of the state of affairs in France, and visited him on Guernsey.

In her later years—after Mme de Staël’s desire for Italian unity—Louise Colet’s enthusiasm for the Italian Risorgimento knew no bounds: she had met Mazzini in London; she interviewed Cavour in Milan and Turin; she hastened to join Garibaldi in Naples. There followed the four volumes of L’Italie des Italiens (1862–64). A few years before her death, she was in Paris during the Commune of 1871, and so witnessed the horrors of its downfall. With Victor Hugo, she proved to be one of the few writers of note to sympathize with the persecuted defeated insurgents. Flaubert thought they should have been condemned to sweep the streets with chains round their necks like galley slaves.

Francine du Plessix Gray offers a vivid account of Louise Colet’s career as one who expressed compassion for the sufferings endured by women, and especially by the humble, peasants and servants. The biographer does not make any high claims for the Muse as a writer. Louise Colet had “good looks, monumental determination, and a modest talent”; her writings were “often sloppy, sometimes powerful.” Still, a number of her distinguished contemporaries thought she was a gifted poet, even if some believed that she put pen to paper much too quickly. Flaubert himself, who took the trouble to correct the style of some of her poems, opined that she had a fine sense of comedy which she neglected in favor of sentimental democratic politics. One wonders whether more might be said for her as a writer, and as a political figure whom some of her contemporaries praised for her readiness to take risks, her sympathy with the oppressed, her indignation at injustice.