Gustave Flaubert’s charged, tempestuous affair with poet Louise Colet has been portrayed as Flaubert’s one serious love affair. “It was to [Colet] that Flaubert addressed the now celebrated letters on his art that make the genesis of Madame Bovary one of the best-charted in fiction.”
TO LOUISE COLET
September 28, 1846, Croisset
No! Once again, no! I protest. I swear: others may feel nothing but contempt after possession, but I am not like them, and I glory in not being so. On the contrary, for me possession breeds affection. If I weren’t afraid of shocking you yet again, I’d say—indeed I will say: “Je suis comme les cigars, on ne m’allume qu’en tirant.”
…As for Mme Foucaud, she is certainly the one I knew. Is your cousin sufficiently reliable to be entrusted with a letter? Can I be sure he’ll deliver it? For I feel like writing to Mme Foucaud. She’s an old acquaintance; don’t be jealous of her. You shall read the letter if you like, on condition you don’t tear it up. Your word will be enough. If I thought of you as a commonplace woman I should not tell you this. I thought at first that I would find in you less feminine personality, a more universal conception of life. But no! The heart, the heart! That poor heart, that kind heart, that charming heart with its eternal graces, is always there, even in the noblest and greatest women. As a rule men do everything they can to vex the heart, to make it bleed. They steep themselves with subtle sensuality in all those tears that they themselves don’t shed, in all those little agonies they see as proofs of their strength. If I had a taste for that sort of pleasure it would be easy for me to enjoy it with you.
But no, I should like to make of you something entirely apart—neither friend nor mistress. Each of those categories is too restricted, too exclusive— one doesn’t sufficiently love a friend, and one is too idiotic with a mistress. It is the intermediate term I seek, the essence of those two sentiments combined. What I want, in short, is that, like a new kind of hermaphrodite, you give with your body all the joys of the flesh and with your mind all those of the soul. Will you understand that? I fear it isn’t clear. It’s strange how bad my writing is, in these letters to you; I put no literary vanity into it. One thing conflicts with another. It’s as though I wanted to say three words at a time.
…In writing this to you, I’m inaugurating my new armchair, in which I am destined to spend long years—if I live. What will I write in it? God knows. Will it be good or bad, tender or erotic, sad or gay? A little of each, probably—adding up to nothing. No matter: may this inauguration bless all my future work! Winter has come, the rain is falling, my fire is burning: now comes the season of long hours shut indoors. Soon now the silent, lamp-lit evenings, watching the wood burn and listening to the wind. Adieu, bright moonlight on the green grass, blue nights all spangle with stars. Adieu, my darling: I kiss you with all my soul…
For more on the Flaubert/Colet relationship, click here
For the full text of Francine’s du Plessix Gray’s 1994 biography of Colet, Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, click here.