10 Surprising Facts About Madame Bovary

From The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1069, The Metropolitan Museum of Art
From The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1069, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

French novelist Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) studied law, but he was born to be a novelist. A diagnosis of epilepsy forced him to abandon his legal education, which conveniently gave him the opportunity to pursue a literary career.

His debut novel Madame Bovary, originally serialized in the French literary magazine La Revue de Paris in late 1856, established Flaubert as a master of French realism. Read on to learn more about Flaubert's inspiration for the character of Emma Bovary, his painstaking creative process, and the obscenity trial that threatened the novel's publication.

1. MADAME BOVARY SHOCKED FRANCE WITH ITS EXPLICIT DESCRIPTIONS OF ADULTERY.

Madame Bovary tells the story of Emma, a peasant who marries an older doctor, Charles Bovary, to escape the dullness of rural life. Emma swiftly grows disillusioned with both her husband and their provincial ways, especially after she attends a ball thrown by one of her husband’s aristocratic patients. In pursuit of passionate love and luxurious possessions, Emma engages in extramarital affairs and squanders her husband’s money.

While Emma ultimately gets her comeuppance, Flaubert’s frank descriptions of adultery scandalized French readers and led to an obscenity trial. The trial lasted for just one day, and Flaubert and La Revue de Paris were both acquitted a week later. Following Flaubert's legal battle, Madame Bovary was published as a two-volume novel in 1857.

2. FLAUBERT ATTENDED A REAL-LIFE BALL JUST LIKE THE ONE EMMA BOVARY WENT TO.

One of Madame Bovary’s most memorable chapters might be the one in which Emma attends a ball thrown by one of Charles’s patients, the Marquis d’Andervilliers. Replete with dancing, fine food, and elite guests, the glittering affair whets Emma’s appetite for a life of luxury. The event was actually inspired by a real-life dance that Flaubert attended with his parents in 1836, when he was 14 years old. Held by a local aristocrat, the experience impressed Flaubert so much that he also described elements of it in his early short story "Quidquid Volueris" (1837) and in an 1850 letter to a friend.

3. FLAUBERT'S LOVE LETTERS REVEAL HIS CREATIVE PROCESS WHILE WRITING MADAME BOVARY.

Shortly before Madame Bovary was published, Flaubert ended a years-long affair with the married poet Louise Colet. Flaubert met Colet in 1846, not long after his sister, Caroline, died in childbirth. The author had hired the sculptor James Pradier to create a bust in Caroline’s image, and Colet—who was considered to be a great beauty—was modeling in the artist’s studio when Flaubert arrived with his sister’s death mask.

Flaubert and Colet fell in love, and they exchanged letters throughout the course of their on-and-off-again relationship. Many of Flaubert’s missives described his creative process while writing Madame Bovary, making the genesis of the novel “one of the best-charted in fiction,” according to literary critic Renee Winegarten—the silver lining of an otherwise bitter breakup. (Flaubert’s last letter to Colet, written in 1855, reads, “I’ve been told that you came to my apartment three times to try to talk to me. I wasn’t in, and I shall never be in for you again.”)

4. THE PLOT OF MADAME BOVARY WAS REPORTEDLY INSPIRED BY A REAL-LIFE SCANDAL ...

Madame Bovary’s plot was partly inspired by a sensational news story featuring a French woman named Delphine Delamare. At the age of 17, Delamare left her rural home to marry a health officer who, like Charles Bovary, was also a widower. Delamare cheated on her spouse, spent his money on frivolities, and ultimately incurred so much debt that she killed herself with poison at the age of 27.

5. ... BUT FLAUBERT'S INSPIRATION FOR EMMA MIGHT HAVE BEEN PERSONAL.

When people asked Flaubert how he became inspired to create the character of Emma Bovary, he famously replied, “Madame Bovary is myself.” However, some scholars think that Emma Bovary’s fanciful (if not flighty) personality was also inspired by Flaubert's former lover, Colet. The sculptor James Pradier's wife, an adulterous spendthrift, might have also influenced Flaubert to create Emma.

6. IT TOOK FLAUBERT FIVE YEARS TO WRITE MADAME BOVARY.

The author spent up to 12 hours a day writing at his desk, and would even shout out sentences to gauge their rhythm. It sometimes took him up to a week to finish a single page, and a year's worth of work once yielded only 90 pages.

In contrast, Flaubert spent just 18 months writing the first 500-page draft of The Temptation of Saint Anthony, the 1874 novel he spent most of his adult life drafting. (This early version was so overwrought that Flaubert's best friend, the poet Louis Bouilhet, suggested that he "throw it into the fire and never speak of it again.")

7. AT THE BEGINNING OF MADAME BOVARY, FLAUBERT THANKS HIS LAWYER.

Flaubert dedicated Madame Bovary to Bouilhet and wrote its epigraph to his lawyer, Marie-Antoine-Jules Senard, who successfully defended Flaubert during his 1857 trial. The latter reads:

Dear and illustrious friend,
Allow me to inscribe your name at the head of this book and above its dedication, for it is to you, more than anyone else, that I owe its publication. In passing through your magnificent pleas in court, my work has acquired, in my eyes, a kind of unexpected authority. I therefore ask you to accept here the tribute of my gratitude, which, however great it may be, will never reach the height of your eloquence or your devotion.
– Gustave Flaubert

8. MADAME BOVARY WAS FIRST TRANSLATED INTO ENGLISH BY FLAUBERT'S NIECE'S GOVERNESS.

The first-known English translation of Madame Bovary was completed by Juliet Herbert—the governess for Flaubert’s niece, Caroline—between 1856 and 1857. Scholars don't know too much about Herbert, as her correspondence with Flaubert has been lost, but some have pegged her as the author's mistress.

It's been theorized that either Caroline or Flaubert himself burned their letters, but other documents show that Herbert and Flaubert were at least friends, and that Herbert gave the author English lessons. The duo worked on translating Byron's poem "The Prisoner of Chillon" into French, and somewhere along the way they also decided to tackle Madame Bovary.

Flaubert thought so highly of Herbert's work on the project that in May 1857, he wrote a letter to Michel Lévy, the Paris-based publisher of Madame Bovary, informing him that "an English translation which fully satisfies me is being made under my eyes. If one is going to appear in England, I want it to be this one and not any other one." Later on, he'd refer to the governess's translation as a "masterpiece."

While Herbert's version of Madame Bovary met Flaubert's exacting standards, it never hit the presses. (Historians think that Lévy might have either failed or refused to arrange an English publisher for the governess.) Herbert's translation and importance to Flaubert fell to the wayside until scholar Hermia Oliver argued for her recognition in her book Flaubert and an English Governess in 1980. To this day, neither Herbert's translation nor a picture of her has been found.

9. KARL MARX'S DAUGHTER PUBLISHED AN ENGLISH TRANSLATION IN 1886.

In 1885, London publisher Henry Vizetelly hired Karl Marx's daughter, Eleanor Marx, to produce the first major English translation of Madame Bovary. It was published the following year [PDF].

“The tragedy of Flaubert’s characters,” Marx wrote, “lies ... in the fact that they act as they do because they must. It may be immoral, contrary even to their own personal interests, to act thus or thus; but it must be—it is inevitable.”

10. MADAME BOVARY CONTINUES TO INSPIRE ARTISTS AND WRITERS TODAY.

While created in the 19th century, the character of Emma Bovary—a yearning, unfulfilled woman; "the original Desperate Housewife" in one modern-day critic's words—still resonates with writers and artists alike.

Lena Dunham uses a quote from Madame Bovary as an epigraph in Not That Kind of Girl, her 2014 autobiographical essay collection [PDF]. British illustrator Posy Simmons published a graphic novel, Gemma Bovery, in 1999, that recasts the story with English expatriates in France. Both Rory Gilmore from the TV show Gilmore Girls and Carmela Soprano from The Sopranos have been shown onscreen reading Madame Bovary. The novel has also been adapted for the big screen multiple times (and in multiple countries), the latest being a 2014 version by director Sophie Barthes that stars Mia Wasikowska as Emma and Henry Lloyd-Hughes as Charles.

The Gruesome Medieval Masquerade That Inspired Edgar Allan Poe

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

In March 1849, Edgar Allan Poe published a short story with one of the most macabre dénouements in his entire body of work. Called Hop-Frog, it was the tale of an eponymous court jester who endures repeated humiliations from an abusive king and his ministers before finally exacting his revenge. Like other works of the great horror master, it may have been inspired by historical events—in this case, by a particularly grisly episode from 14th-century France.

In Poe's short story, both Hop-Frog and Trippetta are people with dwarfism stolen from their respective home countries and brought as presents for the king from one of his generals. Hop-Frog is described as having a disability that makes him walk "by a sort of interjectional gait—something between a leap and a wriggle." Forced to be the court's jester, he's the target of the king's practical jokes, and while enduring near-constant humiliations grows close to Trippetta, whose status at the court isn't much better.

One day, the king demands a masquerade, and as the evening draws near, he asks Hop-Frog what to wear. After a scene in which he and Trippetta are abused once again, Hop-Frog sees the perfect chance for revenge. He suggests the monarch and his ministers dress as escaped orangutans chained together, which he calls "a capital diversion—one of my own country frolics—often enacted among us, at our masquerades." The king and his ministers love the idea of scaring their guests, and especially the women. The jester carefully prepares their costumes, saturating tight-fitting fabric with tar and plastering flax on top to resemble the hair of the beasts.

On the evening of the masquerade, the men enter in their special outfits just after midnight. The guests are duly terrified, and amid the hubbub, Hop-Frog attaches the chain that surrounds the group to one hanging from the ceiling that normally holds a chandelier. As the men are drawn upwards, he brings a flame close to their bodies, pretending to the crowd that he's trying to figure out who the disguised men really are. The flax and tar ignite quickly and the noblemen burn to death, suspended above the crowd. "The eight corpses swung in their chains," Poe writes, "a fetid, blackened, hideous, and indistinguishable mass."

Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Bernard Picart, "Bal des Ardents"
Rijksmuseum, Europeana // Public Domain

The gruesome scene was likely inspired by a historical event: the Bal des Ardents (literally, "the Ball of the Burning Ones"). This obscure episode took place during the reign of Charles VI of France (1380-1422), known to posterity as "Charles the Mad." His periods of illness are well-documented by contemporary chroniclers, who tell us that he ran through his castle howling like a wolf, failed to recognize his own wife and children, and forbade anyone to touch him because he believed he was made of glass. After his first bout in 1392, when delirium led him to kill several knights, his physician prescribed "amusements, relaxations, sports, and pastimes."

Meanwhile, the royal council was controlled by his brother Louis d'Orléans and his uncle the Duke of Burgundy—who both had their eyes set on the throne. It was also the middle of the Hundred Years' War, and England was seen as a severe threat to national stability. In spite of the unrest, on January 28, 1393, Charles's wife, Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, held a ball in the royal palace of Saint-Pol to celebrate the third marriage of her lady-in-waiting Catherine de Fastaverin. The plan was also to entertain the king, as the royal physician had prescribed. One of the guests, the knight Sir Hugonin (sometimes Huguet) de Guisay, suggested that a group of nobles dress as "wild men" or "wood savages," mythical creatures associated with nature and pagan beliefs. The king liked the idea so much that he decided to join in as one of the masked dancers.

The six noblemen wore garments made of linen covered in pitch and stuck-on clumps of flax, so they appeared "full of hair from the top of the head to the sole of the foot," according to contemporary historian Jean Froissart. Poe preserved these details in Hop-Frog, though his characters weren't dressed as wild men, but as orangutans—an animal he had also used in The Murders in the Rue Morgue (1841) to great effect.

Unlike his fictional counterpart, Charles VI was aware that the costumes were highly flammable, so he ordered all torch-bearers to keep to one side of the room. As they entered the ballroom, five of the wild men were chained to one another. Only the king was free. The men probably humiliated the newlyweds, howling and dancing; some historians believe the wild dance was a charivari, a folk ritual intended to shame newlyweds at "irregular" marriages. (As a widow getting married for the third time, Lady Catherine would have been a target.)

But there was an important guest missing: the king's brother, Louis d'Orléans. He arrived late, carrying his own torch, and joined the dance. While the exact sequence of events is unclear, before long his torch had set fire to one of the wild men's costumes. The fire spread quickly. Two of the knights burned to death in front of the guests, and two more died in agony days later. Court chronicler Michel Pintoin, known as the Monk of St. Denis, describes the dancers' "flaming genitals dropping to the floor … releasing a stream of blood."

Only two of the wild men survived. One of them, named Nantoiullet, had reacted to the blaze by throwing himself into a barrel of water, which spared him a horrid death. The other was the king. He was saved by the Duchess of Berry, who used her gown to extinguish his costume before it was too late.

The event shook French society. It was seen as the height of courtly decadence, causing outrage and further unrest. That the king had engaged in this extravagant amusement, and that his life had been spared only by chance, was further proof that he was unfit for the throne.

Meanwhile, the part that Louis d'Orléans played in the tragedy was subject to some debate. Most chroniclers blamed his youth and recklessness for the terrible accident; some reportedly suggested it was a prank to "frighten the ladies" that got out of hand.

Although it seems that the Bal des Ardents wasn't a planned crime, the king's brother must have felt responsible for the fatal accident, since he founded a chapel in the convent of the Célestins shortly afterwards, hoping it would buy him a place in heaven. It didn't save him from a violent end, however: In 1407, Louis was assassinated on the orders of his cousin and recently minted political rival the Duke of Burgundy, which triggered a civil war that divided France for decades. The Duke of Burgundy justified the murder by accusing Louis of having used sorcery and occultism to attempt regicide on several occasions—one of them, he claimed, during the Bal des Ardents.

Regardless of the truth behind the matter, the horror of the event filtered down through the centuries to inspire one of Poe's most macabre works. (It's not clear where the author first heard about it, but it may have been in the pages of The Broadway Journal, where he was soon to become editor, and where a writer likened it to the accidental onstage burning death of the dancer Clara Webster in London.) Today, the shocking historical event lives on in Poe's story—and in Hop Frog's memorable final line: "I am simply Hop-Frog, the jester—and this is my last jest."

Additional source: Chronique du Religieux de Saint-Denys

25 of Oscar Wilde's Wittiest Quotes

By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
By Napoleon Sarony - Library of Congress, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

On October 16, 1854, Oscar Fingal O'Flahertie Wills Wilde was born in Dublin, Ireland. He would go on to become one of the world's most prolific writers, dabbling in everything from plays and poetry to essays and fiction. Whatever the medium, his wit shone through.

1. ON GOD

"I think that God, in creating man, somewhat overestimated his ability."

2. ON THE WORLD AS A STAGE

"The world is a stage, but the play is badly cast."

3. ON FORGIVENESS

"Always forgive your enemies; nothing annoys them so much."

4. ON GOOD VERSUS BAD

"It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious."

5. ON GETTING ADVICE

"The only thing to do with good advice is pass it on. It is never any use to oneself."

6. ON HAPPINESS

"Some cause happiness wherever they go; others whenever they go."

7. ON CYNICISM

"What is a cynic? A man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing."

8. ON SINCERITY

"A little sincerity is a dangerous thing, and a great deal of it is absolutely fatal."

9. ON MONEY

"When I was young I thought that money was the most important thing in life; now that I am old I know that it is."

10. ON LIFE'S GREATEST TRAGEDIES

"There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it."

11. ON HARD WORK

"Work is the curse of the drinking classes."

12. ON LIVING WITHIN ONE'S MEANS

"Anyone who lives within their means suffers from a lack of imagination."

13. ON TRUE FRIENDS

"True friends stab you in the front."

14. ON MOTHERS

"All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does. That's his."

15. ON FASHION

"Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months."

16. ON BEING TALKED ABOUT

"There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about."

17. ON GENIUS

"Genius is born—not paid."

18. ON MORALITY

"Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people whom we personally dislike."

19. ON RELATIONSHIPS

"How can a woman be expected to be happy with a man who insists on treating her as if she were a perfectly normal human being?"

20. ON THE DEFINITION OF A "GENTLEMAN"

"A gentleman is one who never hurts anyone’s feelings unintentionally."

21. ON BOREDOM

"My own business always bores me to death; I prefer other people’s."

22. ON AGING

"The old believe everything, the middle-aged suspect everything, the young know everything."

23. ON MEN AND WOMEN

"I like men who have a future and women who have a past."

24. ON POETRY

"There are two ways of disliking poetry; one way is to dislike it, the other is to read Pope."

25. ON WIT

"Quotation is a serviceable substitute for wit."

And one bonus quote about Oscar Wilde! Dorothy Parker said it best in a 1927 issue of Life:

If, with the literate, I am
Impelled to try an epigram,
I never seek to take the credit;
We all assume that Oscar said it.

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