The year 2021 is the bicentenary of the birth of Gustave Flaubert. Admired by Emile Zola, Théodore de Banville, literary godfather of Guy de Maupassant, he occupies a unique place in French literature. In this new episode of the Europe 1 Studio podcast "At the Heart of History", Jean des Cars tells the story of this great novelist who marked the 19th century. 

When "Madame Bovary" appeared in 1857, the novel caused a scandal. Flaubert must even go to Correctional on the charge of "contempt of public and religious morals and outrage to good morals" ... In this new episode of the Europe 1 Studio podcast "Au Cœur de l'Histoire", Jean des Cars looks back on the life and works of the novelist Gustave Flaubert. Gustave Flaubert, on his return from a trip to the East, had set out, in September 1851, to writing a novel inspired by an authentic news item. It was his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du camp who had suggested it to him. 

He's a workaholic. Glued to his table, he writes only a few lines a day, endlessly taking up and recomposing his work. Full of doubts, sometimes discouraged, he wants to achieve the right word, the harmonious balance of the sentence. He reads aloud what he has written. This is what he calls "the test of the mouth." It is not a lack of inspiration because from the beginning, the general plan of the novel is imposed on him and he will only make a few alterations. 

The drama from which it is inspired is that of the couple formed by Eugène Delamare and his wife Delphine Couturier.

If the characters of the novel have existed, like their accomplices Rodolphe Boulanger, the lover of Emma Bovary, or the pharmacist Homais from whom Emma will steal the arsenic with which she is going to commit suicide, of this tragic story Flaubert wants to make a work of 'art.

Inspired by his own memories, his affair with Louise Colet, his personal feelings, this is why he was able to say: "Madame Bovary is me!".  

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From September 1851 to April 20, 1856, he was spellbound by his subject.

Reading his correspondence proves it: he really lived five years in the skin of Emma Bovary.

Later, he wrote to the historian and philosopher Hippolyte Taine: "When I wrote the poisoning of Emma Bovary, I had the taste of arsenic in the mouth. My imaginary characters affect me, pursue me, or rather it is I who am them. "

This is undoubtedly the secret of Flaubert's writing, this deep identification with his characters that makes them so right, so close in their daily life as in their dreams, even in their derision. 

The novel is finally finished.

He gives it to the directors of the Revue de Paris.

After reading, they get scared and ask for deletions and modifications.

Finally, "Madame Bovary" appears in the Revue.

Some readers protest and the directors cut a scene that is too licentious.

Flaubert is forced to publish a corrective note, explaining that what we read in the Revue are only fragments of his book and not a whole.

Alerted by all this agitation, Justice will get involved: the prosecutions begin. 

The scandal of "Madame Bovary"

On January 24, 1857, Flaubert went to Corrections under the charge of "insulting public and religious morals and insulting good morals". The trial is resounding. The indictment of the Substitute Pinard is a monument of hypocrisy and bad faith. Flaubert's lawyer, Maître Sénard, pleads skillfully and obtains the novelist's acquittal. But he is nevertheless declared guilty "of not having sufficiently realized that there are limits which even the lightest literature must not exceed". A derisory indictment: qualifying Flaubert's work as "light" is proof that either magistrate Pinard had not read the book, or that he had understood nothing! 

"Madame Bovary" becomes a success but a success due to the scandal, which saddens its author.

The press is laudatory, particularly with an article by Sainte-Beuve in Le Moniteur on May 4 and by Baudelaire in his review L'Artiste.

Monsignor Dupanloup, former bishop of Orleans, member of the French Academy and leader of the liberal Catholic movement, declared to Edmond de Goncourt: "Madame Bovary? A masterpiece, Monsieur. Yes, a masterpiece for those who confessed in the provinces ".

As for Flaubert, he said: "My poor Bovary, at this hour is suffering and weeping in twenty villages in France". 

But who is Gustave Flaubert and why does his "Madame Bovary" cause such a scandal?

A Norman childhood

Gustave Flaubert was born in Rouen on December 21, 1821 into a close-knit family.

Champenois by his father and Norman by his mother, he joins in him his two origins. 

Physically, he is a true Viking.

Very tall, he will always have a lot of will and tenacity as well as a spirit of independence.

He owed his father his scrupulous method of analysis and his scientific precision.

Indeed, Achille Flaubert is a clinical professor and chief surgeon of the Hôtel-Dieu in Rouen. 

Young Gustave grew up in a hospital and played as a child in a small garden under the window of an anatomy amphitheater. He experienced suffering and death from his early years. The traumatic life in the hospital was largely tempered by the sweetness of a close-knit family home, where people loved to laugh. Gustave Flaubert has a penchant for sadness but also a need for frank cheerfulness. He likes pranks, which he will happily practice with his comrades from the lycée in Rouen. Together they make cynical and extravagant remarks intended to frighten "the bourgeois" which they hold in horror. 

Gustave also has a great need for tenderness which will be manifested in his correspondence with his mother. It was in high school that he made his debut in literature by writing in the school newspaper called "Le Colibri" of which he is the sole editor and which already contains most of the themes that he will develop later in his work. 

The holidays are spent in Trouville. Madame Flaubert's family is from the Pays d'Auge. Gustave's grandfather is a doctor at Pont l'Evêque. He had bought a house in Trouville where the whole family gathered every summer, including the paternal grandparents from Champagne. Trouville was still only a small fishing village but the beauty of the site already attracted many artists. And it is there that the young schoolboy will make his first sentimental education, an idyll sketched out with a friend of his sister, a daughter of the English Naval Attaché, Admiral Collier. 

After high school, the Flauberts send their son to Paris to study law.

It was there that in 1842, he met Elisa Schlésinger, wife of a music publisher who became his friend.

Was she his mistress?

It is unlikely that he loved her.

This great passion will no doubt be unsatisfied.

He will bring it back to life later in his book "L'Education Sentimentale". 

In 1846, Gustave lost, three months apart, his father and sister.

These repeated bereavements, and nervous disorders which are related to epilepsy without being epilepsy, darken Gustave and incline him still more to pessimism.

His health forced him to interrupt his law studies, which was rather a relief for him because from the high school benches, he only dreamed of being a writer. 

In 1843, he had already drafted a first "Sentimental Education" which has nothing to do, if not the title, with the masterpiece that he will publish 26 years later. In 1846, the year of all mourning, he met the poet Louise Colet in the studio of the sculptor Pradier. 

Very beautiful, sure of her talent and looking for literary prizes, the young man likes her, and it's mutual!

She becomes his mistress.

They will be lovers for ten years.

It will be a liaison crossed by arguments and momentary ruptures, complicated by the fact that soon Flaubert will settle in Croisset, in his mother's house, near Rouen.

The lovers meet again in Mantes, halfway.

The liaison will continue chugging along until the day when Louise Colet, whom Flaubert calls "the Muse", decides to go to Croisset, no doubt to ask Madame Flaubert to decide her son to marry him.

It will be the break.

Literary beginnings

On the benches of the Law School, Flaubert had bonded with another student, like him the son of a doctor, Maxime Du Camp, also attracted by literature. A lasting friendship although they have extremely different views on life. Du Camp dreams of pushing himself into the world and becoming known. Flaubert replies: "To be known is not my main business. I aim better: to please myself and it is more difficult ... Success seems to me to be a result but not the goal ... I have a way of thinking about it. writing and a kindness of language that I want to achieve. When I believe I have picked the apricot, I do not refuse to sell it, nor that we clap our hands if it is good. Until then, I do not refuse to sell it. do not want to cheat the public, that's all ... Me, I'm not looking for the port, but the high seas. If I get shipwrecked there, I exempt you from mourning. " 

In the spring of 1847, in the company of Maxime Du Camp, Gustave traveled on foot through Touraine, Brittany and Normandy along the coasts, from the estuary of the Loire to that of the Seine.

In April 1848, he had the sorrow of losing one of his close friends, Alfred Le Poittevin.

His sister is Guy de Maupassant's mother.

As if to console himself, Gustave embarked on the writing of a subject matured for a long time, "The temptation of Saint-Antoine".

He also clarifies the notes taken during his trip to Brittany.

They will become "By the fields and by the strikes".

The odd chapters are from Flaubert, the peers from Du Camp. 

Once finished "The temptation of Saint-Antoine", he decides to read it in Croisset for his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp. The operation lasts three days. The two friends tell him that his work is bad and unpublishable. Harsh blow for Flaubert! They advise him to throw his manuscript in the fire and to put his muse "to dry bread" to cure her of her lyricism, the most unbearable fault of the Romantics. 

They then suggest that he describe something more down to earth, to draw inspiration from a news item, for example the story of the health officer Delamare, a former pupil of Flaubert's father and whose wife was committed suicide.

It is from this drama that the idea of ​​"Madame Bovary" was born.

But Gustave Flaubert is tired, his nervous state is getting worse.

His doctors suggested that he stay in hot countries.

The trip to the East

Flaubert sets out for the Orient with Maxime Du Camp on October 29, 1849. They will first visit Egypt by going up the Nile to the second cataract.

It is said that this is where he found the name of his next heroine, Emma Bovary.

Then, the two travelers visit Asia Minor and Greece before returning via Italy.

Flaubert will immerse himself in his oriental journey.

There he stocked up on images and memories that he would use later in "Salammbô" and in the "Herodias" tale. 

Their journey ended in 1851. Gustave then moved to Croisset with his mother and we can say that from this return from the East, his life merges with the history of his books.

Gustave Flaubert and "Madame Bovary"

When he tackles his novel "Madame Bovary", Gustave Flaubert works on terrain, places, characters, intrigues and pettiness which are extremely familiar to him.

The setting is Normandy that he knows well, its landscapes, its farms, its villages, its peasants, the narrow bourgeoisie of its small towns. 

He begins by presenting Charles Bovary who after studying in a provincial high school, established himself as a health officer.

He allows his mother to marry a woman older than himself and who exercises a real tyranny over him.

Having become a widower, he meets a young girl with whom he immediately falls in love. 

Daughter of a wealthy farmer, she was brought up in a convent among the young girls of the world. The education she received makes her dream of a romantic life far from the humble and orderly life offered to her by her husband. It is with extraordinary brio that Flaubert describes the peasant wedding of Charles Bovary and Emma Rouault. It becomes a painting, a true work of art. Immediately, Emma is disappointed: the marriage does not bring her what she expected: "Emma wanted to know what exactly was meant in life by the words of happiness, passion and drunkenness which had appeared to her. so beautiful in books. "

An invitation and a dinner followed by a ball at the Marquis de Vaubyessard's during which she dances with a viscount gives her a glimpse of an enchanting life, the one she has always dreamed of.

From then on, she can no longer endure her humble existence.

We even have to treat her for a nervous disease ... 

Charles, in order for her to have more distractions, moved to a larger town, Yonville-l'Abbaye.

It is there that we meet the pharmacist Homais and the young notary clerk Léon Dupuis, overwhelmed with admiration for Emma.

When she arrived, she was pregnant and soon gave birth to a baby girl.

Leon courts her but he is afraid of compromising her and then leaves for Paris. 

Emma, ​​who had a fondness for him, is distraught.

It was then that she met a young country gentleman, Rodolphe Boulanger.

This elegant seducer embodies everything she dreams of.

She quickly becomes his mistress.

She is in happiness.

As she can no longer bear her husband's mediocrity, she thinks of running away with her lover, but Rodolphe has no desire to do so and immediately abandons her. 

The life of the small village is described in a very lively way by Flaubert, in particular the famous scene of agricultural shows.

Another piece of anthology! 

Rodolphe's cowardice plunges Emma into despair.

She recovers slowly and goes through a crisis of mysticism.

Again to distract her, her brave husband takes her to the theater in Rouen.

There she finds the former clerk of notary Léon Dupuis whom her stay in Paris has pleasantly transformed.

She begins an affair with him which frequently leads her to Rouen but above all involves him in immense clothing expenses and other trivialities. 

She is getting into debt far beyond her possibilities.

It falls into the hands of an old loan shark who lends it without counting the cost before brutally demanding to be paid and threatens to have it seized.

Emma receives the bailiff's deed ordering the reimbursement of the enormous sum of 8,000 francs within twenty-four hours.

She goes around for people who could help her.

Neither Léon nor Rodolphe consented to it. 

The suicide of "Madame Bovary" 

Feeling lost, she steals arsenic from the pharmacist Homais because she knows where he is hiding it and goes home.

In the meantime, her husband returned home, upset by the seizure that took place during her absence.

Emma demands that he does not ask her any questions.

She writes a letter which she asks him to read only the next day.

She goes to bed after taking in the arsenic.

She dies in front of her collapsed husband, who understands nothing.

After the dramatically described scene of Emma's funeral, Charles Bovary concludes it with the only big word he ever said: "It is fatality to blame."

Why has the story of this dissatisfaction, which leads Emma to double adultery, debt and ultimately suicide, provoke such a scandal for the public? Of course, suicide was not well received, but it is above all, no doubt, because the accomplices who surround Emma Bovary are so rigorously observed, ruthlessly fair, that they give the drama an extraordinary depth because of their ordinary lives. . 

Charles Bovary, the husband, a brave man of distressing mediocrity and blindness which drives his wife on her pitiful adventures.

The pharmacist Homais, scientist and atheist convinced, Rodolphe, of an absolute cowardice ... The book is then transformed into an extraordinary indictment against the provincial bourgeois society, the silliness of its conventions, ready-made formulas and tailor-made thoughts, all this succeeds in making Emma an unhappy victim of her dreams and aspirations. 

In the end, Flaubert achieved his goal: he was not condemned for this ruthless painting of the small Norman village and the provincial tragedy that followed.

He, so unmindful, will owe his legal misadventures the honor of being invited by the Empress Eugenie to one of her famous "Compiègne series". 

Flaubert, massive in his fifties, with the mustaches of a Mongolian warrior, his forehead increasingly receding, appears in the evening in an uncomfortable dress: between the order and the fittings, the novelist has gained weight!

One could say, like a character in "La Vie Parisienne" by Offenbach, that "his coat has cracked in the back"!

A tragicomic episode of social life ...

It was Mérimée, very close to the wife of Napoleon III, who had persuaded the Empress that an author could not be accused for having written a novel based on an authentic news item.

After all, Stendhal, another friend of Eugenie, had done the same for "Le Rouge et le Noir" in 1830. 

Gustave Flaubert is reassured: he will be able to tackle another masterpiece but this time, he will undertake, among other things, to resuscitate Carthage.

It will be no less dangerous since it is "Salammbô".

Bibliographic resources:

Jean-Yves Tadié,

Introduction to the literary life of the 19th century

(Bordas, 1970, new edition 1984)


Dictionary of authors

(Robert Laffont, 1952)


Dictionary of works

(Robert Laffont, 1954)

Jean des Cars,

Eugénie, the last Empress

(Grand Prix of the Fondation Napoléon, Perrin, 2000)

Janine Krait,

Memoirs of a Carthaginian


"At the heart of History" is a Europe 1 Studio podcast

Author and presentation: Jean des Cars

Production: Timothée Magot

Director: Matthieu Blaise  

Distribution and editing: Clémence Olivier and Salomé Journo 

Graphic design: Karelle Villais