Autograph Letter [Signed “A toi”] to Louise Colet. GUSTAVE FLAUBERT.
Autograph Letter [Signed “A toi”] to Louise Colet

Autograph Letter [Signed “A toi”] to Louise Colet

” I am tired of everything that’s being said about art, beauty, ideas and Form. It’s always the same song and what a song! I just keep going on, and I pity all these people and what’s happening now. In truth, I actually spend my mornings with Aristophanes. I find there what is beautiful, brilliant and exuberant. But it is not decent, it is not moral, it’s not even acceptable, it’s simply sublime…

“The panic of the poor artist confronted by Beauty, is powerlessness, it is neither resistance nor skepticism. The sea appears immense seen from the shore. Climb to the summit of the mountain and behold it’s even bigger. Go on board everything disappears: waves, waves… What am I in my little rowboat! ‘Protect me my God, the sea is so big and my boat is so small!’…

A LONG, EARLY, AUTOGRAPH LETTER BY FLAUBERT TO HIS MUSE LOUISE COLET, WITH REVEALING REFLECTIONS ON LIFE AND ART.

On Louise Colet:

“Louise Colet was truly Flaubert’s muse and a midwife for his Emma Bovary. It is to her that the hermit of Croisset chronicled, in over a hundred letters, the progress of his first published novel: It is exclusively to Louise that he wrote his famous reflections about the craft of literature – prophetic passages that would become the most familiar credos of twentieth-century modernism...

“Throughout the phase of their correspondence… Flaubert so often sought Louise’s advice on details that her daughter and literary executor, Henriette Colet Bissieu, would later demand... that her mother’s collaboration in Madame Bovary be officially acknowledged.” (Francine du Plessix Gray, Rage & Fire: A Life of Louise Colet, Pioneer Feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse, pp. 199-201.)

The letter:

Flaubert wrote wonderfully evocative letters and his correspondence as a whole has often been hailed as a literary masterpiece, holding a rightful place alongside his novels. Michael Dirda has noted that “the correspondence of Gustave Flaubert soars above all other works in setting forth the proper ideals and accompanying rigors of art”, Enid Starkie thought that the letters “in the future, [would] become Flaubert's most popular and widely-read book, the one in which he has most fully distilled his personality and wisdom” and André Gide connected with the letters on such a personal level, claiming that “for more than five years his correspondence took the place of the Bible at my bedside. It was my reservoir of energy". (Dirda, Washington Post, “Flaubert on Travel, Sex, and Writing”; Starkie, Flaubert the Master; Gide, in Steegmuller, ed., The Letters of Gustave Flaubert).

This letter embodies the elements that have made Flaubert’s correspondence so inspirational and entertaining to generations of readers and writers: full of frank opinions on art and literature and current events. This is a rare letter from early in their relationship. At the time it was written – September 17, 1847 – Colet and Flaubert has only known each other for a little over a year (they met on July 28, 1846). Colet was a famous published author; Flaubert, however, was little known, still nine years away from the publication of Madame Bovary.

The letter from translated from the original French, reads in full:

Croisset, Friday Evening, 11 pm.

I just now sent to Rouen for the package you addressed to me- it was a good thing you didn’t put a claim check inside the package, it would probably have been opened and read and then… I would have had to endure being teased about it.

I will read Mme de Praslin’s letters. What little I know about them, they seem intriguing. One thing was striking, these letters reminded me at certain places of your style – you are going to laugh, but the resemblance, for whatever reason, strikes me as obviously correct. Although you have to believe that this comparison will go no further and that I will not murder you! But who knows? Anyway, it would be funny.

He was, after all, a man of charm, this M. de Praslin. But he didn’t like fat women.

Tell me, so what were these details that were intentionally omitted in the press on this affair, and what was this liquid spread on the Duchess’s sheets? In the letter addressed to Fougeres you mentioned some curious revelations by the school teacher – what are they?

I browsed through Thoré’s book, what nonsense! I consider myself happy to live far from these “expert” fellows! What misinformation! What a sham! What emptiness! I am tired of everything that’s being said about art, beauty, ideas and Form. It’s always the same song and what a song! I just keep going on, and I pity all these people and what’s happening now. In truth, I actually spend my mornings with Aristophanes. I find there what is beautiful, brilliant and exuberant. But it is not decent, it is not moral, it’s not even acceptable, it’s simply sublime.

From the top of the Arc de Triomphe the Parisians, even those on horseback, don’t seem tall. One is ridiculed for admiring the Classics, yet the Moderns don’t have much stature either. When I reflect on that, I don’t think there is in me a dryness nor resistance to this gradual restriction of my admirations. As I detach myself from the artists I become more enthusiastic about Art.

I will manage on my own account and no longer dare to write a line because day by day I feel more and more small, thin and weak. The muse is a virgin who has a virginity of bronze, and you have to be a bit of a bon vivant to…

The panic of the poor artist confronted by Beauty, is powerlessness, it is neither resistance nor skepticism. The sea appears immense seen from the shore. Climb to the summit of the mountain and behold it’s even bigger. Go on board everything disappears: waves, waves… What am I in my little rowboat! “Protect me my God, the sea is so big and my boat is so small!” A Breton song says that and I also say it thinking about other precipices.

Du Camp did not and could not have gone to your place to take your message. He returned to Paris and immediately left for Vichy from where he must have returned the same evening and I am waiting for him tomorrow at 10pm. We are going to spend a month together writing about our journey that we started on the way.

I am going tomorrow to visit my sick friend I told you about – he is getting worse, that makes me sad. A dying friend is a piece of you dying.

So long my dear friend, I kiss you tenderly

Yours [A toi]

For your nausea you should go to the country, to a good bourgeois home. Take warm baths, take care of yourself and drink chamomile.

Address to Du Camp the letters you write to me.


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Translation by Myriam Smith. Published in: Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance, Paris, Gallimard (Nrf, Bibliothèque de la Pléiade), vol. I, 2008, pp. 470-471.

Additional context:

Flaubert mentions the Praslin murder case. On the night of August 17/18, 1847, Françoise, the Duchess of Praslin was found murdered. Her husband (the Duke) was the primary suspect and committed suicide on August 24, 1847, while awaiting trial. The case caught the imagination of the public and is believed to have contributed to the French Revolution of 1848. Flaubert refers to a book by the art critic Théophile Thoré (Le Salon de 1847), clearly disapproving of his views. Toward the end of the letter he mentions his good friend Maxime Du Camp. Flaubert and Du Camp recently returned from a walking tour through France and the writing about their journey he mentions would not be published until 1886, after Flaubert’s death.

Notes: As is usual in letters from Flaubert to Colet from this period, Flaubert simply signs it “A toi” and does not write his name. The letter is visually beautiful, written in dark ink with Flaubert’s words flowing exuberantly across the pages.

Croisset, France. September 17, 1847. Four pages on one 8.5x11 inch sheet. Usual folds. In outstanding condition. Housed in a custom presentation folder.

A WONDERFUL IMPASSIONED EARLY LETTER WITH IMPORTANT INSIGHTS INTO FLAUBERT'S VIEWS ON ART AND BEAUTY.

Price: $23,000 .

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