Flaubert’s Sentimental Education: Paris in the 1840s

Flaubert’s Sentimental Education: Paris in the 1840s
The title of Gustave Flaubert’s weighty final novel, L’Education Sentimentale, meaning “an education of the heart” tells us that the novel will center on the amorous adventures of the main character, Frédéric Moreau. But it is set mainly in Paris, and readers also get to know many areas of the city in the 1840s and meet a whole range of characters from that most turbulent decade. Opening in the reign of King Louis-Philippe, the story is set against the events which led to his abdication in 1848 and the beginning of the Second Empire. This is Paris in exciting times, actually witnessed by Flaubert in his 20s and retold in this novel, written 20 years after they happened. Early in the story, we see the young Frédéric leave the provinces for Paris to study law, just as Flaubert himself had done. A desultory student, Frédéric attends lectures for only a few weeks, abandoning the Civil Code “before they reached Article 3” and turning instead to other interests; the Louvre, the theater, a new dancehall called the Alhambra on the Champs Élysées, where schoolboys smoke cheroots and prostitutes come “hoping to find a protector, a lover, a gold coin.” Unsurprisingly he fails his first exams and descends into a “bottomless pit of lethargy.” A view of the Jardin des Champs-Élysées in the 1860s, by Charles Fichot. Public domain. Frédéric’s amorous adventures are all set against a very Parisian backdrop. In the opening pages, on a boat trip out of Paris to his home town of Nogent-sur-Seine, he first sees the woman on whom his heart will be set for the rest of the novel. Madame Arnoux, wearing a wide straw hat with fluttering pink ribbons, is to him “like an apparition” and neither her elusive quality nor the presence of her husband and children stop him from experiencing a yearning for her and “a painful and infinite curiosity” to find out everything about her. Back in Paris, everywhere he goes makes him think of her. Seeing palm trees in the Jardin des Plantes, he dreams of taking her to “faraway places” and in front of old paintings in the Louvre, “his love reached out into vanished centuries to embrace her.” Jardin des Plantes/ courtesy of MNHN, Jerome Munier But Frédéric must find other women if he is going to have real romantic relationships and again this takes the reader out and about in Paris. With the courtesan Rosanette Frédéric saunters along the Rue du Bac, then lingers on the Pont Royal to admire the towers of  Notre Dame against a blue sky. He hires a horse-drawn carriage to drive her along the Seine to the races on the Champ de Mars. There then follows a detailed description of the event, where smartly dressed spectators watch from rows of tiered seating as the horse racing gets more and more exciting: “The crowd shouted, the wooden stands shook with their stamping.” Flaubert himself was surely at the races on this very spot.

Lead photo credit : Gustave Flaubert par Pierre François Eugène Giraud © Public domain

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Recently retired from teaching Modern Languages (French and German), Marian now has time to develop her interests in travel and European culture and history. She will be in Paris as often as she can, visiting places old and new, finding out their stories and writing it all up as soon as she gets home. Marian also runs the weekly podcast series, City Breaks, offering in-depth coverage of popular city break destinations, with lots of background history and cultural information. She has covered Paris in 22 episodes but looks forward to updating the series every now and then with some Paris Extra episodes.