One of the greatest Western writers, the bearish Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880) is the much-celebrated creator of the scandalous novel Madame Bovary (1857). He wrote fiction and letters in a naturally realistic manner. Flaubert was a man of style, in his love for art, his writing and his attire.
Politically, Flaubert described himself as a “vieille ganache romantique et libérale (romantic and liberal old dunce)”, and a “libéral enrage (enraged liberal)”, a hater of all despotism, and someone who celebrated every protest of the individual against power and monopolies.
In 1849–50 he went on a long journey with his boyfriend Maxime Du Camp to the Middle East, visiting Turkey, Palestine and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis.
Flaubert never married and never had children. His reason for not having children is revealed in a letter where he was opposed to childbirth, saying he would “transmit to no one the aggravations and the disgrace of existence”.
Flaubert was very open about his sexual activities with male and female prostitutes in his writings on his travels. He suspected that a chancre on his penis was from a Turkish boy. He also engaged in intercourse with male prostitutes in Beirut and Egypt; in one of his letters, he describes a “young rascal wearing a white turban”. His letters are scandalously scatological.
Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters about the strenuous nature of his work. Madame Bovary took more than five years to write. After it was published, the French government brought the him to trial on the ground of the novel’s alleged immorality, and he narrowly escaped conviction. The same tribunal found the gay poet Charles Baudelaire guilty on the same charge six months later. Flaubert was blamed for not condemning adultery, and for showing “nature in the raw”. It was, indeed, a dangerous novel.
The 1870s were a difficult time for Flaubert. Prussian soldiers occupied his house during the War of 1870. After his mother died in 1872, he fell into financial frailty.
Flaubert suffered from sexually-transmitted diseases most of his adult life. His health declined, and he died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 1880 at 58-years-old.
Madame Bovary has had 10 film adaptations. The first was Unholy Love, a 1932 American pre-Code film. That version was quickly forgotten when more successful film adaptations were produced, such as Jean Renoir‘s 1934 version and Vincente Minnelli‘s 1949 version starring Jennifer Jones in the title role, with James Mason, Van Heflin, and Louis Jourdan. The latest was a 2014 version directed by Sophie Barthes and starring Mia Wasikowska, Paul Giamatti, and Ezra Miller.