Flaubert and his antique smut

Happy Birthday (a few days late) to Gustave Flaubert, who is best known for his masterpiece Madame Bovary. Flaubert was born 12 December 1821 in Rouen and spent five years writing his book, which was published in 1856.

The narrative follows a provincial doctor’s wife, Emma Bovary, who engages in a series of adulterous affairs and runs up massive debts to bring some exhilaration to her boring life. It ends badly, in true tragic fashion, for practically everyone involved.

In the 1949 movie, legs did not intertwine.

The year after Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert was prosecuted for obscenity, acquitted, and his book became enormously successful, establishing his literary reputation.

The fact that the book is about an adulterous wife, and Flaubert was accused of obscenity for writing it, has cemented Madame Bovary as a naughty book. By today’s standards – with Fifty Shades of Grey a best-seller and teenaged girls using bukkake-esque poses for their Facebook profile pictures – Madame Bovary seems yawningly tame.

That’s not to say Flaubert wasn’t naughty. In the mid-nineteenth century subtleness was the norm.

One of the waltzers, however, who was familiarly called Viscount, and whose low cut waistcoat seemed moulded to his chest, came a second time to ask Madame Bovary to dance, assuring her that he would guide her, and that she would get through it very well.

 

They began slowly, then went more rapidly…

 

Their legs commingled; he looked down at her; she raised her eyes to his. A torpor seized her; she stopped. They started again, and with a more rapid movement; the Viscount, dragging her along disappeared with her to the end of the gallery, where panting, she almost fell, and for a moment rested her head upon his breast. And then, still turning, but more slowly, he guided her back to her seat. She leaned back against the wall and covered her eyes with her hands.

This dance with the Viscount is part of one of my all-time favourite scenes in literature, when Emma is invited to her first ball. Innocent little Emma sees and does all sorts of things: glamour, wealth, a lady boldly dropping a note folded into a triangle into her lover’s hat, dancing. When the night is done Emma and her husband go to their guest bedroom.

Emma threw a shawl over her shoulders, opened the window, and leant out.

 

The night was dark; some drops of rain were falling. She breathed in the damp wind that refreshed her eyelids. The music of the ball was still murmuring in her ears. And she tried to keep herself awake in order to prolong the illusion of this luxurious life that she would soon have to give up.

Madame Bovary is an exquisitely crafted novel, and you get more out of it with every reading. There are hints and symbols on every page; some are subtle, and some are more blatant, like when Emma and her lover Rudolphe are walking together and have to briefly separate to make room for a gravedigger. I wish I could read it in French, because I imagine the word play is masterful.

So happy birthday, Flaubert, and thanks for giving the world such a wonderful novel.

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