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BACKGROUND INFORMATION - BIOGRAPHY
Gustave Flaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in Rouen, Normandy. He was the son of a resident physician and chief surgeon of a municipal infirmary. He had a brother, Achille, and a sister, Caroline. Even as a child, Flaubert showed a love for literature and spent his time reading. In his youth he became good friends with Louis Bouilhet (a poet) and Maxime Du Camp (a well-known editor and journalist).
Flaubert took up law at the age of nineteen, but disliked it immensely. He eventually retired into the country after becoming the victim of a peculiar nervous illness related to epilepsy. His father's efforts to treat his son were unsuccessful. As a result, Flaubert grew apprehensive, nervous, depressed, and increasingly pessimistic.
His sickness, however, did not hinder his love affairs. As a youth, he fell in love with a married woman, Elisa Schlessinger, and spent a summer with her in Trouville. Although he never shared a physical relationship with her, Elisa remained his great love throughout his life.
In January 1846, after establishing the family in Le Croisset outside of Rouen, Flaubert's father died of cancer. Three months later his sister Caroline also died. Flaubert was devastated. In a depressed state, he traveled to Paris and frequented Pradier's studio, where he met Louise Colet, a celebrity. She was a married lady in her mid-thirties and mother of a six-year old child. Separated from her husband, Louise was the mistress of the philosopher and academician, Victor Cousin. She, however, became enthralled with Flaubert, and they soon became lovers. Louise turned out to be possessive and jealous, demanding Flaubert's constant attention. When he neglected her, his house was bombarded with letters and later with gifts and remembrances. Gradually their affair terminated.
While he stayed in Paris, Flaubert also begin to write, working hard to develop the rhythm of each prose sentence. This attention to detail accounts for his success as a writer. He spent four long years writing Madame Bovary (1857), his most famous novel that is judged by some to be the best of all French writing. Emma Bovary, the protagonist of the book, is a lover of romanticism and an escapist; when she is forced to face reality, she cannot do so and commits suicide. When asked about her character, Flaubert said simply, "Madame Bovary is me."
Flaubert's next novel, Salammbô (1862), is the story of the First Punic War. Set in ancient Carthage, its hero is Hamilcar, the father of Hannibal. Another novel, Sentimental Education, is centered around three young men (probably based on his own youthful friendships) and a woman modeled on his first love, Elisa Schlessinger. The Temptation of Saint Anthony (1874) was written and rewritten over a span of twenty years and was finally published in 1876. It deals with the frustrations and aspirations of the middle class. In 1880, shortly before his death, he published a collection of beautiful short stories, consisting of 'A Simple Heart,' 'The Legend of Saint Julian, the Hospitaller,' and 'Herodias;' they are all historical romances. His Bouvard and Pécuchet, a satirical farce about two middle-aged clerks, was never completed.
On May 8, 1880, at the age of fifty-nine, Flaubert died as a result of his long illness. After his death, he was judged as one of the pioneers of the modern realistic novel. The vivid and life-like characters in his novels are still studied and loved today.