Sentimental Education (L’Éducation sentimentale), published in 1869, was Flaubert’s third novel and is possibly his most autobiographical work in that it covers the life of someone of similar age and background as Flaubert himself. He had already written an unpublished novel with that name in 1845 and decided to return to the subject matter in 1863—I’m not sure if the early version has ever been published, in either French or English. The story’s main focus is on the early adult life of Frédéric Moreau in the years leading up to the 1848 revolution and more specifically Frédéric’s unconsummated love affair, or infatuation, with the older Mme (Marie) Arnoux, which is based on Flaubert’s own infatuation with an older married woman, Élisa Schlesinger.
The novel begins with Frédéric returning home by boat to Nogent-sur-Seine from his schooling in Paris. Two months hence he will return to Paris to begin his legal studies at university. On board the boat he strikes up a conversation with an older man, Jacques Arnoux, who runs an art journal/shop in Paris. After taking leave of M. Arnoux he comes across a beautiful woman who turns out to be Mme Arnoux.
What he then saw was like an apparition:
She was seated in the middle of a bench all alone, or, at any rate, he could see no one, dazzled as he was by this vision. At the moment when he was passing, she raised her head; his shoulders bent involuntarily; and, when he had placed himself some distance away, on the same side, he looked at her.
She wore a wide straw hat with pink ribbons which fluttered in the wind, behind her. On either side, her black hair traced the curve of her large eyebrows, descended very low, and seemed amorously to press the oval of her face. Her robe of light muslin spotted with tiny dots spread out in numerous folds. She was in the act of embroidering something; and her straight nose, her chin, her entire person was cut out on the background of the blue sky.
Never had he seen such lustrous dark skin, such a seductive figure, or such delicately shaped fingers as those through which the sunlight gleamed. He stared with amazement at her work-basket, as if it were something extraordinary. What was her name, her place of residence, her life, her past? He longed to become familiar with the furniture of her apartment, all the dresses that she had worn, the peope whom she visited; and the desire of physical possession itself yielded to a deeper yearning, a painful curiosity that knew no bounds.
When Frédéric quickly reacts to prevent Mme Arnoux’s shawl from falling into the sea, she thanks him before she’s whisked away by M. Arnoux. Frédéric is completely smitten.
When Frédéric is back in Paris studying he meets someone who works for M. Arnoux and manages to become an acquaintance of Arnoux’s with the goal of meeting Mme Arnoux. Frédéric discovers that although M. Arnoux has many mistresses Mme Arnoux has no lovers. Frédéric eventually gets an invitation to dinner from M. Arnoux where he can hopefully be introduced to Arnoux’s wife. In order to impress her Frédéric spends money on new and expensive clothes. It turns out that his longtime friend from back home, Deslauriers, plans to arrive in Paris on that same day. Frédéric is so obsessed with meeting Mme Arnoux that he abandons his friend at home without a thought. He has a wonderful time, he manages to talk briefly with Mme Arnoux, and when he returns home in the evening he is surprised to find his friend in his flat as he’d completely forgotten about him during the evening.
Flaubert introduces us to many characters—fellow students of Frédéric, acquaintances of Arnoux, Arnoux’s mistresses and friends from home. They begin to blur together a bit as the narrative flits between them quite briskly. They are all pretty much selfish, bland characters and Flaubert very rarely delves into their lives or their thoughts; instead we discover the characters only through their spoken words and their actions and we are never sure whether they are telling the truth or not. Frédéric is rather feckless, lacks any ambition or focus, is amoral, fickle and is never satisfied. Even his love for Mme Arnoux fades when she is no longer nearby, only to re-awaken when she comes to his notice again. By the end of Part One it is revealed that Frédéric has come into an inheritence, just when he was thinking that his future looked bleak. This then allows him to return to Paris to live the high-life. He squanders money but is not totally reckless with it. He lends money to friends when they ask for it and rarely gets it back. He is offered a job by the wealthy acquaintance, M. Dambreuse, but fails to take him up on it. He seems to have charm but we rarely experience it ourselves. Through the novel he gets involved with one of M. Arnoux’s mistresses, Rosanette, with whom he has a child, Louise Roque a childhood sweetheart who loves Frédéric and asks him to marry her—he equivocates despite the fact that she is attractive, wealthy and eager to marry him. By the end of the novel he has an affair with the wife of the wealthy M. Dambreuse, with whom marriage arrangements are made upon the death of her husband. But as soon as any of these other women are available to him he loses interest in them as he is still infatuated with Mme Arnoux.
I very nearly gave up on this novel early on as not only was the main character maddening but all the others were as well. Frédéric is incredibly self-centred, he lacks any depth whatsoever and yet nearly everything seems to work in his favour in the end. The only thing that Frédéric is focused on is Mme Arnoux but even that we wonder whether it’s just out of habit rather than any true feelings towards her—when he meets her years later he is shocked that her hair is grey and he instantly loses interest in her. Flaubert’s style of writing doesn’t help as at times it just seems like he’s uninterested in the characters and just seems happy to catalogue one event after another with no apparent control over it. I have been reading Frederick Brown’s biography, Flaubert: A Life, alongside my current readings of Flaubert’s works and it’s interesting to hear what Brown says about it.
The novel leads everywhere and nowhere, like a maze of paths all running into culs-de-sac.
A contemporary critic described it as a ‘compendium of descriptions’ and Henry James said: ‘the book is in a single word a dead one’. Even Flaubert himself was unsure of the book. Here’s another quote from Brown:
Flaubert’s correspondence seldom sounded a confident note about L’Éducation sentimentale during the entire four and a half years of its composition. While creating a modern antihero in Frédéric Moreau, he kept berating him for his modernity. How could so ineffectual a character captivate readers?
Although it was a bit of a struggle to read I have found that I have grown to like it more since finishing it. It’s one of those books that stays with you and besides, I keep thinking I must have missed something important, especially as many people have given it glowing reviews. Still, there were some funny and/or interesting episodes in the book; one of my favourites was a duel scene between Frédéric and a character called Marquis de Cisy. Both duellists were cocky to begin with but by the time of the duel both were wishing that it could be cancelled. The duel is abandoned when Cisy faints and grazes his thumb. Blood is drawn. Honour is saved.
My next Flaubert book was going to be Salammbô, which is set in Carthage following the First Punic War, but will now likely be a library book that collects three very early stories by him: Memoirs of a Madman, Bibliomania and November. And there’s the biography to finish as well.