December 12th marked the 192nd birthday of French novelist Gustave Flaubert, best known for his tale of the perpetually unhappy titular housewife, Madame Bovary (1857). Emma Bovary, the sexually repressed and generally unpleasant focal point of the novel, is glumly married to the rather boring local doctor and spends the book longing and scheming for the passion, ecstasy, and luxury she’s experienced only in books. Like any good heroine doomed to go down in flames (paging Anna Karenina), Madame B. has her share of affairs, accumulates substantial debt, before—spoiler alert—ending it all with arsenic, much as Edith Wharton’s Lily Bart would do nearly half a century later in The House of Mirth, albeit with a popular “sleeping aid” made of choral hydrate. But both are still easier to clean up than Anna K.’s railway mess.
Much as the Madame’s death ended the novel, Flaubert’s career faltered and his other novels (can you, without the help of Google or a degree in French literature that for once is coming in useful actually name another Flaubert book?) sold poorly. Perhaps lucky isn’t the best word, but as was the case with many nineteenth century authors, their literary status was elevated after death. Henry James lauded the then-recently deceased Frenchman in his diary as a man “whom I shall always be so glad to have known,” praising Flaubert’s “powerful, serious, melancholy, manly, deeply corrupted, yet not corrupting, nature.”
And now Madame Bovary is considered a seminal work of realism and one of the most influential novels ever written. So, bravo, Gustave, and happy birthday. We hope you’re enjoying loads of sumptuous French pastries somewhere.