"Twelve hours ago we were still together, and at this very moment yesterday I was holding you in my arms! How long ago it seems! Now the night is soft and warm; I can hear the great tulip-tree under my window rustling in the wind, and when I lift my eyes I see the reflection of the moon in the river. Your little slippers are in front of me as I write... I want to cause you nothing but joy, and to surround you with a calm, endless bliss- to repay you, a little, for he overflowing generosity of the love you have given me."
August 3rd, 1846, Gustave Flaubert to Louise Colet
Gustave Flaubert, best known for his work Madame Bovary, carried on a sometimes passionate, oftimes stormy affair with Louise Colet beginning in 1846. They met in the studio of the sculptor Pradier, who introduced Flaubert to Colet saying, "Here is a young man who is going to make a name for himself in literature; perhaps you can be of use to him" (Steegmuller 69). The words were themselves prophetic, for Colet was to be Flaubert's muse, the inspiration for Emma Bovary, the central character in Madame Bovary. At the time this would have seemed unlikely, for then it was Colet who was the literary celebrity, Flaubert being the younger of the two with no great works yet to his name. In short, "it is as the mistress of Flaubert that Madame Colet is known to posterity. In 1846, however, Flaubert was known to Paris-in so far as he was known at all-as the lover of Madame Colet" (Enfield 49).
At the time of their meeting, Colet was just ending an affair with Victor Cousin, and she was still married to Hippolyte Colet. Flaubert was not concerned at all with Colet's marriage, indeed, he held adultery in high esteem: adultery was "glorious, it was revolt against the most bourgeois and detestable of institutions" (Steegmuller 80). For her part, Colet was opposed to adultery in concept, but content with it in her particular situation.
The affair proceeded as a series of romantic liasons followed by confrontation, as Colet pressed Flaubert to spend more time with her, and Flaubert made only infrequent visits to Paris and spent most of his time at home with his mother and his work. Flaubert was disturbed by the intensity of her passions, in one letter to her on July 26th in 1851, he wrote most tellingly: "I wish you were in such a state that we could see eachother calmly. I love your company when it is not tempestuous. The storms one so enjoys in youth are tiring in maturity. I am growing very old; every jolt upsets me, and feeling is as repugnant to me as action." Colet was hardly blind to his coldness, writing in her journal in 1851, "I do not feel loved in the way I love him."
When Colet's husband died in 1851, Flaubert and Colet's affair hit a major point of contention. Colet sought marriage, while Flaubert would not marry. In the last years of their affair, "Flaubert shows himself as selfish, coldhearted, stingy, as Louise was exacting, sensual, tactless, unreasonable and grossly indecent" (Enfield 68). For two years past Colet's husbands death, Colet continued to be Flaubert's muse and lover. It was during this period that Flaubert completed most of his work on Madame Bovary, confiding in Colet his progress and his frustrations. He even sought Colet's advice, which may account in part for some of the similarities between Colet and Emma Bovary. For a time, their affair was peaceful, to the point where even Colet was satisfied. In her journal, she wrote, "I think he can no longer do without me, as I cannot do without him."
It was Colet who brought this peace to an abrupt end when her own attentions wandered to a poet of the time, Alfred de Musset. Following Musset and Colet's short lived liason, the relationship between Colet and Flaubert began to deteriorate. By 1855, Flaubert had no more interest in his former mistress, and with one final letter he dismissed her completely, saying "I was told that you took the trouble to come here to see me three times last evening. I was not in. And, fearing that your persistence might provoke me to humiliate you, wisdom leads me to warn you that I shall never be in." Soon after, Flaubert published his work Madame Bovary. Colet responded by telling her side of the affair with the publication of Lui and Une histoire de soldat.