Madame Bovary: Biography

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Gustsave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821 in Rouen in Normandy. He was the second son of a family of medical professionals. His grandfather had been a veterinarian and his father, Achille-Cleophas Flaubert was the director of the city's municipal hospital. Young Gustave spent much of his childhood among the suffering and death of the hospital and this experience informed much of his later pessimism. At the age of fourteen he met Elisa Schlesinger, a married woman 11 years his senior, and the pair carried on a long quasi-platonic relationship that lasted many years and shaped much of Flaubert's emotional development and formed the basis for his Sentimental Education (1869). As a youth, Flaubert was an avid reader of such romantic novelists as Victor Hugo, Lord Byron and Goethe and early in his life he began composing plays and prose. Before graduating from the lycee (high school) two of Flaubert's short stories had been published in the literary magazine Le Colibri and composed a novel Memoires d'un fou. He traveled to Paris and began to study law but took no great interest in the subject.
During his time in the city he composed November and began work on Sentimental Education. In 1844, while in Paris, Flaubert suffered a nervous attack that many now believe was the result of epilepsy. The ailment convinced him to abandon his legal studies and devote himself entirely to writing. His family's wealth meant that he did not need to work and his father purchased a house for him on the Seine between Paris and Rouen where he completed Sentimental Education. In 1846 both his father and sister died and Flaubert returned to Rouen to live with his mother and niece. That summer he met the writer Louise Colet with whom he maintained a romantic relationship until 1854.
In 1849 Flaubert and the writer Maxime du Camp traveled to the Near East, Greece and Italy. The trip made a lasting impression on the author and when he returned to France he began work on Madame Bovary. Flaubert was a perfectionist and would spend weeks working a single page of prose. He sought to create a novel that was above all stylistically beautiful and would shout passages out loud in order to test their rhythm. It took him five years to complete the work and when it was published serially in the Revue de Paris in 1857 both the author and the publisher were charged with "offenses to public morality and religion" by the conservative Restoration Government. Flaubert was acquitted and when the work was published as a novel it was an instant success. Critics were slow to recognize the literary merit of the work but today it is recognized as a classic and an example of perfect composition. Although he would travel in North Africa to research his novel Salammbo (1862) Flaubert spent the rest of his life as a recluse, convinced that most of humanity was stupid and unable to appreciate beauty. His appetite for prostitutes left him riddled with venereal disease and toward the end of his life he suffered financial straits. He died of a stroke in his home in 1880.

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