My favourite scene in Flaubert’s Sentimental Education

…is the final chapter, where our hero, Frédéric, and his lifelong best friend / occasional enemy Deslauriers, middle-aged and disillusioned now, sit in Frédéric’s parlour recollecting their youthful misadventures.

My second-favourite scene comes midway through the novel. Frédéric, after a lot of fumbling, misdirected effort, and scrupulous hesitations, has finally taken a lover – the beautiful and impetuous Rosanette, former mistress to various wealthy older men including his friend Arnoux. Frédéric carefully avoids wondering where Rosanette gets her money and who she sees when he’s not around. One morning, emerging from Rosanette’s flat after spending the night, he meets someone coming up the stairs:

Where was he going? Frédéric waited. The man kept on climbing, with his head slightly bowed. He looked up. It was Arnoux. The situation was obvious. They both blushed at the same time, feeling the same embarrassment.

Arnoux was the first to find a way out.

“She’s getting better, isn’t she?” he said, as if Rosanette were ill and he had come to ask how she was.

Frédéric took advantage of this opening.

“Yes, indeed! At least, that’s what her maid told me,” he replied, in order to give the impression that he had not been admitted.

Then they stood there, face to face, both irresolute, watching one another. Which of the two was going to stay? Once again, Arnoux solved the problem.

“Oh, well, I’ll come back another time! Where were you going? I’ll come along with you.”

And the two friends wander out into the Paris streets, each fully aware of what the other is up to with their shared mistress, but unwilling to make a scene about it.

Flaubert wrote Sentimental Education between 1864 and ’69. It’s helpful to be reminded that, in the world outside Queen Victoria’s England, popular novelists could openly discuss extramarital sex, childbirth, and illegitimacy without the evasions and circumlocutions necessary to their British counterparts. One strains to imagine Pip or David Copperfield knocking up his mistress as Frédéric does Rosanette; and even if such a plot twist were introduced, imagine Dickens revealing it in the middle of a vicious lover’s spat like this:

“That was a nice thing you did just now, and no mistake!”

She planted herself proudly in front of him.

“Well, and what of it? Where’s the harm in it?”

“What! You were spying on me, weren’t you?”

“Is that my fault? Why should you go and amuse yourself with respectable women?”

“That’s beside the point. I won’t have you insulting them.”

“How did I insult her?”

He could not think of a reply; and with a spiteful edge to his voice, he said:

“But that other time, at the Champ de Mars…”

“Oh, I’m sick and tired of your old flames!”

“You bitch!”

He raised his fist.

“Don’t kill me! I’m pregnant!”

Aside from the fact that they were near-contemporaries, the comparison with Dickens isn’t really apt: Flaubert is very unlike him in his unfancy style, his uncolourful dialogue, and his unschmaltzy temperament. The lack of schmaltz is appreciated; when Flaubert kills off an infant boy, he dispatches the kid in a few matter-of-fact lines, rather than making us sit through a protracted deathbed tear-soaking like those for which Dickens is justly reviled. But when Frédéric fights a duel with a flighty aristocrat, or attends a ludicruous meeting of a radical political club, or serves an evening on duty with the National Guard, one wishes for a bit of Dickens’ comic expansiveness, his eagerness to digress, his concern to endow every character, no matter how minor, with a quirk or a verbal tic or, at the very least, a funny name. The fleas that harass Frédéric while he huddles in the guardhouse would have been good for a couple paragraphs in Dickens; Flaubert mentions them and moves on. The setpieces in Flaubert, though fascinating, tend to rush by in a page or two, and too quickly we find ourselves back in some sitting-room or boudoir or café where our characters are obsessing over their hapless love affairs or, depressingly, their finances.

So I’ll take Dickens, thanks. But that final chapter – in which Frédéric and Deslauriers recall a particularly humiliating hijink from their schoolboy days and agree that it was “the best time of their lives” – really is beautiful.

M.

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