While writing a biography of a Victorian grande dame, I unearthed an unexpected - and previously unknown - trove of letters between her and Gustave Flaubertby David Waller / July 4, 2009 / Leave a comment
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One afternoon in the spring of 1876, a 56 year old English widow toiled up the stairs of Number 240, rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré, to the apartment of the greatest living French author. She pressed on the doorbell and was told by the maid that the novelist was not at home.
Gertrude Tennant refused to leave her name but was encouraged to come back the following day. On her return, she was ushered into the living room where a man was sitting with his back to the door. Before he could turn round, Gertrude approached, put her hand on his shoulder and said: “Gustave”. Gustave Flaubert started up in astonishment and seized her hand. “Madame Tennant…Gertrude, Gertrude!” he cried, before sinking into stupefaction at this apparition from half a lifetime ago. “Oh mais vous me faïtes du bien, mais du bien!” he eventually exclaimed. “How it does me good to see you, how it does me good.”
The friendship between Gustave Flaubert and Gertrude Tennant—who was by the time of this reunion a prominent London society hostess—has typically been relegated to the footnotes of literary history. But the discovery in a home counties farmhouse of a haul of largely unpublished documents—including 24 letters from Flaubert to Gertrude—casts the relationship in a new and poignant light. Contrary to the received opinion of the great author’s acerbic character, this correspondence displays Flaubert’s tender side, unmistakable though unexpected.
Flaubert could indeed be merciless in his treatment of women, in fiction as in life. “He wields the pen like a scalpel,” noted the critic Sainte-Beuve of the author’s depiction of Emma Bovary. He threw aside his mistress Louise Colet with casual brutality. And yet his friendship with Gertrude Tennant, neé Collier, was a genuine amitié amoureuse, or passionate friendship, that began when he was a young man and was revived towards the end of his life.
They first met in the late summer of 1842 on the beach of Trouville on the coast of Normandy, then a primitive fishing village where Flaubert’s father had a holiday home and the young Gertrude and her family were taking a break from Paris. Flaubert was a dreamy law student of 20 and Gertrude two years older, a young woman of good family but little fortune. Her father was a hopeless Royal Navy Captain on half-pay eking out a raffish existence in the Paris of King Louis-Philippe. “He had the charm of the utter unconsciousness of his physical and mental beauty,” Gertrude recalled of her first encounter with Flaubert. Together with their respective siblings, they frolicked on the empty beaches, read poetry to each other and flirted.
Their very earliest correspondence dates back to the aftermath of that long summer at Trouville, when Flaubert used to come and spend Sunday afternoons with Gertrude and her sister Henrietta at their apartment on the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysées, declaiming the poetry of Victor Hugo. “I would love to prolong indefinitely…the declamation, exaltation, inspiration [of the hours spent with you],” he wrote in 1844, in one letter never previously known to have existed. Flaubert, who never married, deliberated over settling down with one or other of these sisters. Although he remained wedded to literature, Gertrude and Gustave did at least enjoy a passionate kiss at the Paris opera—at least according to a lightly fictionalized novella she wrote years later.
Relations between Flaubert and Gertrude broke down, however, at some point before 1846, when she returned to London in search of a respectable English husband. She duly married Charles Tennant, a former MP and landowner twice her age, and settled down to a quarter of a century of happy married life.
Flaubert did not look her up when he came to London in 1851. Yet, in 1857 he did send her a copy of Madame Bovary, scrawling in it the dedication that this gift was “in homage to an unchanging affection…in memory of the beach at Trouville and our long readings at the Rond-Point of the Champs-Elysées.”
“I will tell you straight that I am astonished,” Gertrude wrote in reply after dipping into the pages of the novel. “[How could] you, with your imagination and admiration for everything that is beautiful…take pleasure in writing something so hideous as this book!” She sent him by return a copy of George Eliot’s Adam Bede, but he ignored her advice to concentrate on morally worthy subjects and wrote the blood-drenched and orgy-filled Salammbô instead. What she felt about that work is not recorded.
The decades passed, and it was only after Gertrude was widowed and wealthy that she re-established contact with him. They saw each other frequently during her stay in Paris in 1876—he invited her to meet Turgenev, Hugo and Maupassant, and to hear him read aloud from his latest works. On her last day he bade her goodbye at her hotel.
What’s perhaps most astonishing, however, is that after Gertrude had returned to London, she received a torrent of wistful letters from the ageing author. “How is it possible for me to tell you how much pleasure your visit gave me,” Flaubert wrote. “In the long years since I have lived without knowing what had come of you, there is perhaps not a single day that has gone by without my thinking of you.” “Do you know what I call you, deep down inside of me, when I think of you (which happens often)? I call you ‘ ma jeunesse. [my youth]'” Amid these tender tributes to their youthful friendship, he also penned a begging letter. Flaubert was on the verge of ruin as a result of his nephew’s speculations and desperately needed money.
If unable to furnish hard cash, it seems Gertrude may at least have provided inspiration. Their reunion had taken place as Flaubert was mid-way through writing Un Coeur Simple, a touching evocation of the Normandy of his youth. Gertrude, perhaps, unlocked glad memories of the past as Flaubert fashioned a work free from the bitter satire of Madame Bovary and Education Sentimentale.
Despite Flaubert’s pleading, they never met again. Flaubert died, aged 59, in May 1880; while Gertrude herself lived on until August 1918, just short of her 99th birthday, having helped Flaubert’s niece bring together a collection of the great man’s correspondence. The more intimate letters were held back, however, and are published in my own book for the first time this year.
This article © David Waller
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