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 But the discovery in a home counties farmhouse of a haul of largely unpublished documents—including 24 letters from Flaubert to Gertrude—casts the relationship in a new and poignant light.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…