Flaubert's Correspondence (which Gide kept at his bedside for five years in place of the Bible, and which hoisted even Sartre into grudging admiration) is one of the great documents of French literature: so it's surprising how much of it isn't there. The novelist made letter-burning pacts with his two longest-serving male friends, Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet, who with an irritating rectitude kept their side of the bargain: Du Camp burnt all but 24 out of a 'considerable' number of letters, which he had already annotated for posterity, and Bouilhet all but 81; while Flaubert himself, perhaps signalling unease about the agreements, kept 141 of Du Camp's replies in existence, and 498 of Bouilhet's. Ernest Chevalier, who in youth had shared Flaubert's delight in scurrility, but later entered public life and dwindled into a husband, cautiously destroyed many letters in which he thought l'esprit gaulois had been taken too far. Both sides of the correspondence with the intriguing governess Juliet Herbert - friend? mistress? fiancÚe? - have gone missing (though Jean Bruneau, introducing the first PlÚ´ade volume of the Letters in 1973, was still hoping to locate them). And even when the Correspondence gets into its stride, it is sometimes forced to hop: Flaubert's brilliant letters to Louise Colet were carefully preserved, but her replies were deliberately destroyed (by the writer's niece, it seems), thus effectively disenfranchising her.
LRB 23 January 1986 | PDF Download