Biography of Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert's family

Gustave was born on December 12, 1821, in the hospital of Rouen. His father, Achille-Cléophas, was its chief surgeon. Caroline, her mother, née Fleuriot, is from Pont-Audemer. Her brother Achille, the eldest of the siblings, is then eight years old. Three years later, Caroline, his beloved sister, his playmate, was born. Their correspondence testifies to their closeness. Flaubert had great affection for his sister, whom he taught and who practised the arts, drawing and piano. When Gustave was four years old, a nanny, Julie, entered the service of the Flauberts. She remained there for fifty years as a servant. The Flaubert family is housed in the official house of the Hôtel-Dieu, which today houses the Flaubert Museum and History of Medicine.

Achille Cléophas Flaubert
Achille Cléophas Flaubert, his father
Caroline Flaubert, mère
Caroline Flaubert, his mother

In 1839, Achille Flaubert, a brilliant student, successfully completed his medical thesis in Paris. He married Julie Lormier a few months later. Gustave is excluded from the college in December. At eighteen years old, he will have to prepare his baccalaureate alone. A well-known surgeon, Achilles succeeded his father at the Hôtel-Dieu. Relations between the two brothers were always very distant.

In January 1846, Gustave Flaubert’s father died: «I loved only one man as a friend and that another is my father» (Cahiers intimes, 1840-1841). Doctor Larivière de Madame Bovary is often considered as a magnified portrait of the father: The appearance of a god would not have caused more emotion. [...] His gaze, sharper than his bistouris, descended you straight into the soul and disarticulated all falsehood” (III, 8). Admiration and affection no doubt for this father, who leaves a legacy allowing the family to live off his pensions. Flaubert was able to devote himself entirely to literature without ever practising a subsistence profession.

In March 1846, his sister died in turn, not surviving the birth of a little girl, named Caroline as her mother and as her grandmother (there are three generations of Caroline in the family). Flaubert and his mother will take care of his education. Since my father and sister died I have no ambition. ...I don’t even know if I’ll ever get a line printed from me,” he wrote to Louise Colet.

In April 1872 his mother, Justine-Caroline, died. I realized, since 15 days, that my poor mother’s wife was the one I loved most. It is as if I had been torn from my entrails,” he wrote to George Sand. The house of Croisset then returns to his niece Caroline but he continues to live there. His mother was his companion of Croisset, attentive and protective. He dedicates her first novel, Madame Bovary: "To my dear mother. Her old companion. Gustave Flaubert."

The places of Gustave Flaubert

The Hotel Dieu: a playground

Gustave’s room is located on the second floor of the family home, which occupies the end of the south wing of the hospital. The environment is special. Flaubert wrote to Marie-Sophie Leroyer de Chantepie in 1857, “I grew up in the midst of all human misery — from which a wall separated me…. That’s why, perhaps, I have the look of both death and cynicism. I don’t like life and I’m not afraid of death», or even to Louise Colet in 1853: «What strange memories I have of this kind! The amphitheatre of the Hôtel-Dieu overlooked our garden. How many times, with my sister, have we not climbed to the trellis and, suspended between the vines, looked curiously at the bodies spread out! The sun gave on: the same flies flying over us and the flowers were going to fall there, came back, buzzed! [...] I still see my father raising his head from his dissection and telling us to leave. Another corpse too.”

Hôtel Dieu
The Hôtel Dieu in Rouen
Maison de Croiset
The family Home 








Croisset: withdrawal from society and writing

Pavillon de Croisset
Pavillon de Croisset

On May 21, 1844, the Flaubert family bought a house in Croisset, on the banks of the Seine, near Rouen. Gustave has just suffered his first nervous crisis, on the road to Pont-l'Évêque. Interrupting his law studies, he then withdrew to Croisset. This illness has not only disadvantages: «[It] will always have had the advantage that I am left to take care of myself as I see fit», he wrote to Emmanuel Vasse in January 1845; that is to say, to devote himself to literature.

In 1846, after his family bereavement, he settled permanently in Croisset. He wrote to Ernest Chevalier: “I’m wallowing on a green Moroccan couch. I have had my jar decorated as I please, and I live there like an oyster dreamer.”

In 1848, after attending the revolutionary days of February 1848 with his friends Louis Bouilhet and Maxime Du Camp, he began to write La Tentation de saint Antoine (the first version of a work that would have three). This writing exalts him but his two friends, after hearing the exhaustive reading of the work, advise him to «throw it to the fire». It will be very difficult for him to recover from that conviction.

Laison de Croisset
Maison de Croisset en bord de Seine


Until his death in May 1880, he remained faithful to his retirement as a writer. It was there that he wrote the bulk of his work.







Travel in the Orient

In 1840, having obtained his baccalaureate, Flaubert went on a trip to the Pyrenees and Corsica, together with a friend of his father. He takes notes during his journey, and on his return he writes: Today my ideas of a great journey have taken me back more than ever it is the Orient always. I was born to live there.”

In 1845, accompanying his family on his sister’s honeymoon, he visited northern Italy. In 1847, he discovered Brittany in complete freedom with his friend Maxime Du Camp. Their story of a four-handed journey, By the fields and by the strikes, remained unheard of in their lifetime.

From 1849 to 1851, he travelled with Maxime Du Camp to Egypt, Palestine, Rhodes, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Greece... Maxime indulges in his «photographic rages,» and Flaubert takes notes. He thinks of the works to come: the Dictionary of Preconceived Ideas, a Don Juan, Anubis, a Flemish novel: “He is preparing in me something new, a second way perhaps? but I have to give birth some time from now. I look forward to knowing my measure,” he wrote to his mother.

In 1851 he returned to Greece and Italy, where his mother came to join him. “Well, yes, I’ve seen the Orient and I’m no further ahead, because I want to go back,” he writes to his friend Ernest Chevalier.

This journey gives concrete support to his Eastern daydreams. In 1852 he wrote to Louise Colet, “I have lived everywhere [in Greece], probably in some previous life. I am sure I was, under the Roman Empire, the director of some troupe of travelling actors, one of those funny people who went to Sicily to buy women to make actresses, and who were, together, teachers, pimps and artists.”

carte voyage en Orient
Travel in the Orient


The great friendships

Ernest Chevalier and Alfred Le Poittevin

Ernest Chevalier
Ernest Chevalier

In 1829, eight-year-old Gustave became friends with Ernest Chevalier. He shares with him his readings, his games, his love of boards and his young infatuations for literature. Thanks to Ernest’s grandfather, he discovered Don Quixote, a fundamental book that he later declared, in a letter to Louise Colet, “having known it by heart before knowing how to read”.

In 1838, Gustave reads Rabelais and Byron; he speaks of it to Ernest: «the only two who wrote with the intention of harming the human race and laughing in its face». Rabelais remains a great reference for Flaubert. The following year, while Gustave was excluded from the philosophy class for having organized a heckle and refused to make a pensum, he wrote to Ernest: As for writing? I’d bet I’d never get printed or represented. [...] However, if I ever take an active part in the world it will be as a thinker and as a demoralizer.”

In 1850 Gustave reacted badly to the marriage project of his friend Ernest. In a letter to his mother, he thunders: "Magistrate, he is reactionary; married, he will be cuckold." Friendship ends when a friend “leaves” him for a woman!


Alfred Le Poittevin
Assumed portrait of
Alfred Le Poittevin


Alfred Le Poittevin, whom Flaubert has been seeing since childhood because their mothers are childhood friends, is his five-year-old. As a result, he exerted a stronger influence in the formation of Gustave than his other friends. He guided him in his readings, aroused his curiosity for religions, philosophical doctrines, especially skepticism, and aroused his taste for the East. He died young in 1848. But he allowed, posthumously, the rapprochement of Flaubert with Maupassant who was his nephew.




Louis Bouilhet

Louis Bouilhet
Louis Hyacinthe Bouilhet

In 1846, Flaubert returned to Louis Bouilhet: they had met in the fifth year at the Collège Royal de Rouen, without really seeing each other. They then became great friends. A poet, Bouilhet played an important role in advising in the writing of Flaubert’s works. Louis was a good literary judge and Flaubert accepted his criticisms. During the long years of writing of Madame Bovary, each week, Gustave will read to Louis, as he goes, his new pages.

During the winter of 1847, as a recreation, Bouilhet and Flaubert wrote scenarii: dramas, plays... It was alongside Louis that Gustave witnessed the riots of 1848 in Paris. In 1878, Flaubert wrote: "The year 1848 was the most beautiful of my life, I had a proud gaiety, I swear, and a nice temperament!". They met assiduously until Louis left for Paris in 1853. Bouilhet devoted himself mainly to theatre and the two friends collaborated in the fairy tale The Castle of Hearts in 1863. We kept 485 letters of Louis Bouilhet, and only 89 of Flaubert in the other direction because many were destroyed.

When Louis Bouilhet died in 1869, Flaubert lost both a friend and a collaborator: «I buried my literary conscience, my judgment, my compass.». When I lost my poor Bouilhet, I lost my midwife, the one who could see more clearly than myself. His death left me a void that I see more and more every day.” He paid tribute to her in a preface to his collection of posthumous verses, Dernières chansons (1872). For several years, Flaubert fought against the Rouen City Council for a site to erect a monument to his memory. But this monument was inaugurated only after his own death. Shortly after Bouilhet’s death, Sainte-Beuve died. “I had done L’Éducation sentimentale, partly for Sainte-Beuve. He will be dead without knowing a line! Bouilhet did not hear the last two chapters. These are our projects! The year 1869 will have been hard for me! — So I will still walk around the cemeteries!” he wrote to his niece.

Maxime Du Camp

Maxime du Camp
Maxime Du Camp by Nadar


In 1843, Gustave met Maxime Du Camp in Paris during his second year of law school. In the capital, he is bored: I am doing my Law, that is to say that I bought books of Law. [...] But what comes back to me every minute [...] is my old love, it is the same fixed idea: write!” , he told Gourgaud-Dugazon, his professor of Letters. Maxime will be a very close friend in Parisian life, travel and the beginnings of Flaubert’s writing.

In 1847, they undertook a trip to Brittany. In 1848, they attended the events of the Revolution, Flaubert remained a spectator. He began writing The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read this version to his two friends Bouilhet and Du Camp, for 32 hours in September 1849. The verdict is final: "We think we should throw this into the fire and never talk about it again." Flaubert was greatly affected by it: «The story of Saint Anthony dealt me a serious blow, I do not hide it», he wrote to Louis Bouilhet in 1850. According to Maxime Du Camp’s Souvenirs littéraires, Bouilhet then advised him on a more down-to-earth subject, a bourgeois fact.

On October 29, 1849, Flaubert embarked for the Orient with Maxime Du Camp, who reported an important photographic report. This shared experience of the Orient will mean a lot to Flaubert.

In 1852, the relationship between the two friends became difficult. In charge of the Revue de Paris, Du Camp advised his friend to push himself a little. In return, Flaubert wrote to him: "Arrive? — to what? [...] To be known is not my main business. Let me die like a dog rather than hasten by a second my sentence, which is not ripe.” Then, speaking of Maxime, he wrote to Louise Colet in 1853: "I am now incapable of any feeling towards him. […] Ah! men of action! the active! How they tire and tire us to do nothing." Their life and career choices diverge.

George Sand

George Sand
George Sand

In 1863, the friendship between Flaubert and George Sand was born after a complimentary article by the novelist on Salammbo. Despite literary or political differences, their friendship will be constant, as evidenced by their abundant correspondence.

In 1866, George Sand made two stays in Croisset, late August and early November. Gustave then worked on the second part of Sentimental Education. Overcome with doubt, he wrote to his friend: "My novel is going very badly for the quarter of an hour. [...] Ah! I would have known them, the Affres du Style!" The same year he confided to her: I do not know what kind of feeling I carry you. But I feel a special tenderness for you, which I have not felt for anyone until now.”

In 1867, he did a lot of research in books and in the field for L'Éducation sentimentale: the Bourse, the earthenware, the groceries, the menu served in 1847 at the Café Anglais... «What a heavy wagon of rubble to drag!», he writes to George Sand. There will be many correspondence between the two writers during the writing of this novel. She went to Croisset in May 1868, he went to Nohant in December 1869

In 1873, one year after the death of his mother, Flaubert stayed again at Nohant. While he accumulated many readings for Bouvard and Pécuchet, he confided in his friend in 1875: My psychic subsidence must have some hidden cause? I feel old, worn out, sickened by everything. [...] I expect nothing more from life than a series of sheets of paper to smear with black. It seems to me that I am going through an endless solitude, to go I don’t know where, and it is I who am both the desert, the traveler, and the camel!" Flaubert found real moral support with the «good lady of Nohant».

In 1874 George Sand continued to encourage him in literature. About The Temptation of Saint Anthony, she writes to him: Saint Antoine is a masterpiece, a magnificent book. Mock the critics. They are clogged.”

On June 8, 1876, George Sand, the one whom Flaubert calls «Dear Master», passed away: «I had begun Un coeur simple  for her exclusive intention, only to please her. She died, as I was in the midst of my work. This is how we all dream,” he wrote to Maurice, the son of George Sand, in 1877.


A few loves

Élisa Schlesinger

Elisa Schlesinger
Elisa Schlesinger

During the summer holidays of 1836, Gustave met Élisa Schlesinger, «Madame Maurice», in Trouville. Twenty-six years old, he had fifteen. He writes in Les mémoires d'un fou : I was motionless in amazement as if the Venus had descended from her pedestal and had begun to walk. It is that for the first time then I felt my heart, I felt something mystical, strange, like a new meaning. I was bathed in infinite, tender feelings, I was cradled with hazy, vague images, I was bigger and more proud all at once. I loved it.” This first meeting will be in the initial stage of l'Education sentimentale.

In 1846, Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet, while the Schlesingers settled in Baden-Baden: I had only a real passion. I told you before. I was barely 15 years old, it lasted until I was 18. And when I saw that woman again after several years I had trouble recognizing her. — I still see her sometimes but rarely, and I consider her with the astonishment that the emigrants must have had when they returned to their dilapidated castle.” We think then of the last meeting between Frédéric and Madame Arnoux in L'Éducation sentimentale and their platonic love.


On October 5, 1872, Flaubert wrote to Elisa: My old Friend, my old Tenderness, I cannot see your writing without being moved! [...] I would like so much to receive you into my home, to make you sleep in my mother’s room. [...] I am an old man. The future for me no longer has any dreams. But the days of the past are as if bathed in a golden vapor. On this luminous background where dear ghosts reach out to me, the figure that stands out most splendidly is yours!— Yes, yours. O poor Trouville."

Louise Colet

Louise Colet
Louise Colet

In 1846, Flaubert met Louise Colet in Paris, working for the sculptor Pradier. It is the beginning of a passionate and stormy relationship and a correspondence where literary analysis holds more place than love. Louise Colet is a poet already known, she is thirty-six years old, he twenty-five, which does not prevent Gustave to criticize his texts. The letters he exchanged with Louise, of which two hundred and eighty-one have been preserved, are of great interest to Flaubert’s understanding of his aesthetic choices.

In 1848 he broke up with her for the first time. His friend Maxime Du Camp had written to Louise a year earlier, "The day you met him you tried to disturb his life," or "Gustave doesn’t like feeling, he’s tired of it, he’s drunk, as he says."

In 1851 Flaubert reconnected with Louise Colet, shortly before beginning Madame Bovary. The meetings with Louise Colet, in Mantes and in Paris, are subordinate to the deadlines of writing. He is also very concerned about the risks of paternity: The idea of giving birth to someone scares me. I would curse myself if I were a father,” he wrote to his mistress.

In 1854, the second part of Madame Bovary went on: Louise Colet gave Flaubert verses to correct which he commented at length. New breakup: I have always tried (but it seems to me that I am failing) to make you a sublime hermaphrodite. I want you to be a man up to the height of your belly (on the way down). You clutter me up and disturb me and ruin yourself with the female element,” he writes.

In 1855, when the last part of Madame Bovary was well advanced and Flaubert spent the winter in Paris, it was the rupture. He wrote to Louise, in a post-script on a last post: I learned that you had taken the trouble to come, yesterday, in the evening, three times, to my home. I was not there. [...] the savoir-vivre commits me to warn you: that I will never be there». On this note, Louise added, "Allée, March 5, 1855 — coward, coward and scoundrel."

In 1859, while reading Lui, Louise’s novel with keys, he recognized himself under the unflattering features of Léonce: «He lived far away, in the countryside, working as a fanatic at a great book»; "The other, there, far from me, in his laborious pride and eternal analysis of himself, he did not love; love was for him only an essay, only a dead letter!" Flaubert writes to Ernest Feydeau about this novel: You will recognize your friend there arranged in a beautiful way. [...] As for me, I come out white as snow, but like an insensitive, stingy man, in short a dark idiot. This is what it is like to have coitus with Muses!"

In 1876, Flaubert accidentally learned of the death of Louise Colet: This news moves me anyway. You must understand me,” he wrote to Jules Troubat.

A life for literature

The literary beginnings

Lycée Corneille
Lycée Corneille in Rouen, the Collège Royal

On May 15, 1832, Gustave entered the eighth grade at the Collège Royal de Rouen, today the Lycée Corneille. In 1835, with the help of his friend Ernest, he launched a manuscript journal, Art et Progrès, of which he was the copywriter. In the second issue, the only one that has been preserved, there is a «Voyage en enfer», «Une pensée» (d'amour), «Nouvelles» et une rubrique «Théâtres». The third issue does not appear, but may have been deleted by the College authorities. With a great taste for writing, farce and theatre, he invented a grotesque character, the «Boy», with his friends and his sister. He is passionate about history, thanks to his teacher, Adolphe Chéruel, drawing from this discipline the material from his first writings.


In 1838, he wrote a long, largely autobiographical text: Les Mémoires d'un fou. Very quickly, he displayed critical opinions on religion, politics and the surrounding mediocrity. As a teenager, he wrote, «Let us go out with ink, since we miss the nectar of the gods», and will remain faithful to this maxim. In 1845, he completed a long novel entitled L'Éducation sentimentale, very different from the one we know under the same title, published in 1869. In 1848, he began writing La Tentation de saint Antoine, completed in 1849. These works of youth remained unpublished during his lifetime.

The career of a writer

In 1851, on his return from his trip, he began writing for Madame Bovary, of which he completed the first part in July 1852. In 1855, the third and last part was well advanced when Gustave settled in Paris, at 42 boulevard du Temple. He made a habit of spending a few months there each winter. Madame Bovary was completed in April 1856, after four and a half years of work.

Procès Madame Bovary

On January 31, 1857, Madame Bovary is the subject of a trial for contempt of good manners after her pre-publication in serial in the Revue de Paris. However, the first publishers had believed to protect themselves against prosecution by censoring certain passages, in particular the scene of the carriage. The magazine’s manager, the printer, and the young unknown author are in the dock. Imperial lawyer Ernest Pinard was charged with the charge; the defence was provided by Jules Senard, a great name of the bar and politics, and a friend of the Flaubert family. Flaubert was finally acquitted. The book was published in bookstores in April 1857. The author entered literary life with a stroke of brilliance.

From 1858 to 1862, Flaubert immersed himself in Salammbo, a novel that took place at Carthage at the end of the First Punic War, three centuries BC. In 1860, he wrote to Amélie Bosquet, after completing chapters VII to X: I am currently overwhelmed by fatigue! I carry on my shoulders two whole armies, 30 thousand men on one side, eleven thousand on the other, not to mention the elephants with their elephants, the goujats and the luggage!" On November 24, 1862, Salammbo was published. The book sold a thousand copies a day: Carthaginian fashion was launched.

In 1863, after the interlude of the theatrical writing of the Château des Cœur, with his friends Bouilhet and d'Osmoy, he prepared L'Éducation sentimentale. It is a long period that begins, he mixes hard work on his book with stays dedicated to social, social and literary life in Paris. He also travelled to London. In 1866, he was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour.

In 1869 he completed L'Éducation sentimentale, which was published in November. Louis Bouilhet’s death in July greatly affected him.

In 1870, Flaubert began working at La Tentation de saint Antoine. The Franco-German war forced him to take refuge in Rouen with his elderly mother, his house in Croisset being occupied by the Prussians.

In 1871, after the departure of the Prussians, Flaubert found Croisset almost intact and unearthed his notes, buried by caution in a large box. “To stop thinking about public miseries and my own, I plunged myself furiously into Saint Antoine,” he wrote to George Sand on April 30. In March he visited Princess Mathilde in Brussels and went to London. In the following years, he continued writing La Tentation de saint Antoine, a subject that fascinated him all his life.

In March 1874 the performance of his play, Le Candidat, took place, while la Tentation de Saint Antoine, whose reception was mixed, emerged. Immediately after, he began reading and scouting for Bouvard and Pécuchet; the first chapter was completed in October.

Between the summer of 1875 and April 1877, when they were published, he devoted himself to Trois contes. He wrote to Léonie Brainne on February 15, “[I] finished copying [my] 3rd story—and tonight the great Tourguéniev had to start translating it. I will start next week to “make the press moan” […] and on April 16, my little volume can enlighten the world.” The interruption of Bouvard and Pécuchet in chapter III was linked to financial difficulties. In 1877, he resumed writing it and moved to Normandy to complete his documentation. He worked there until the end of his life.

Tombe de Gustave Flaubert
The grave of Gustave Flaubert in Rouen


On 8 May 1880 Flaubert died of a stroke, leaving Bouvard and Pécuchet unfinished. The novel is interrupted in the last chapter of the first volume: education. His novel, in his own words, completes it before it completes it. He thinks he is still six months short of completing the second volume, which is almost exclusively made up of quotations.






  • 9 February 1813: Birth of Achille Flaubert. It is the first child of Achille-Cléophas and Caroline Flaubert (in the Flaubert family, there are three generations of Caroline: the mother, the daughter who marries Émile Hamard and the granddaughter, Caroline Commanville then Franklin Grout.
  • 12 December 1821: Gustave Flaubert is born in Rouen.
  • July 15, 1824: Birth of Caroline, sister of Gustave.
  • May 15, 1832: Admission to the Royal College of Rouen, in the eighth year.
  • Summer 1836: Meeting of Élisa Schlésinger in Trouville.
  • December 1839: Flaubert is dismissed from the Collège Royal de Rouen.
  • August 1840: Flaubert alone passes the baccalaureate which he obtains..
  • August-October 1840: Trip to the Pyrenees and Corsica
  • 1841-1843: Studied law in Paris.
  • January 1844: First nervous attacks, Flaubert gives up law and returns to Rouen.
  • June 1844: Installation of the Flaubert at Croisset.
  • January 15, 1846: Death of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert in Rouen.
  • March 22, 1846: Death of Flaubert’s sister, two months after her birth.
  • 1846-1848: Flaubert’s first affair with the poet Louise Colet.
  • 24 May 1848 -12 September 1849: The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1st version).
  • 1849-1851: Trip to the East with Maxime Du Camp.
  • 1851-1854: Second liaison with Louise Colet.
  • Summer 1851: Beginning of the writing of Madame Bovary.
  • End of 1856: Madame Bovary appears in the Revue de Paris.
  • January-February 1857: Trial of Madame Bovary and acquittal of the author.
  • April 15, 1857: Publication of Madame Bovary with Michel Lévy.
  • 1 September 1857: Beginning of the writing of Salammbo.
  • April-June 1858: Trip to Algeria and Tunisia for Salammbo.
  • 24 November 1862: Publication of Salammbô by Michel Lévy.
  • June 1862-December 1863: Writing of the play Le Château des Cœurs, written in collaboration with Louis Bouilhet and Charles d'Osmoy.
  • September 1, 1864: The writing of L'Éducation sentimentale begins.
  • 2 May 1867: Louis Bouilhet is appointed curator at the Bibliothèque Municipale de Rouen.
  • 18 July 1869: Death of Louis Bouilhet in Rouen.
  • 17 November 1869: Publication of L'Éducation sentimentale by Michel Lévy.
  • Winter 1870-1871: The Prussians occupy Croisset.
  • 17 January 1872: Letter from Gustave Flaubert to the Municipality of Rouen concerning a vote concerning Louis Bouilhet (about his monument).
  • 6 April 1872: Death of Flaubert’s mother.
  • April 1, 1874: Publication of La Tentation de Saint Antoine chez Charpentier.
  • 24 April 1877: Publication of Trois contes chez Charpentier.
  • 1877-1880: Writing of Bouvard and Pécuchet, begun between 1872 and 1874.
  • 8 May 1880: Death of Flaubert at Croisset.
  • March 1881: Posthumous publication of Bouvard and Pécuchet by Lemerre.