Perfumed Letters : Fragrant Correspondence between Flaubert and Colet

Veralove

A muse but also writer in her own right, Louise Colet inspired Gustav Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary (1856.)  She also left her mark through their beautiful exchange of letters. While the stormy eight-year love affair between Colet and Flaubert ended on a sour note, the letters they exchanged are among the most evocative and poignant of all romantic correspondence I have read. Flaubert noted about his writing that he always looked for just the right word. The letters he wrote to Colet are playful and serious, tender and teasing… Scent plays an important part in how Flaubert saw his beloved, and references to her perfume fill the pages. Below are a few excerpts, which focus on fragrance and perfumed references.

August 6: “I look at your slippers, your handkerchief, your hair, your portrait. I reread your letters and breathe their musky perfume.
August 9: I’ll take another look at your slippers again… I think I love them as much as I do you… I breathe their perfume, they smell of verbena–and of you in a way that makes my heart swell.

August 11: In daydream I live in the folds of your dress, in the fine curls of your hair. I have some of those here: how good they smell! If you knew how I think of your sweet voice–of your shoulders and their fragrance that I love.
August 13: Your mitten is here. It smells sweet, making me feel that I am still breathing the perfume of your shoulder and the sweet warmth of your bare arms.
August 15: Tell me if you use verbena; do you not put it on your handkerchiefs? Put some on your slip. But no–do not use perfume, the best perfume is yourself, your own fragrance.
August 27-28: Thank you for the little orange blossoms. Your whole letter smells pleasantly of it.
August 31: Thank you again for the little orange blossoms. Your letters are perfumed with them.
September 20: A thousand kisses… on those long curl papers; I sometimes breath a little of their odor in the small slipper with the blue slashes, because it is there that I have packed away the lock of hair; the mitten is in the other one, next to the medal and beside the letters.

Source: from Gustav Flaubert’s Selected Letters, quoted in The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination by Alain Corbin, 1986, Harvard University Press. Selected Letters, Letters of Flaubert to Louise Colet, translated by F. Steegmuller (London, 1980.) Available from Amazon.com

Photography by VeraKL

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9 Comments

  • carmencanada: I was reading those bits in Flaubert’s correspondence last summer. Most of the correspondence between them seems to be about her complaining he doesn’t love her, and him answering that he does, immensely, but that she’s got to take him as he is. Classic man-woman stuff, but written by a genius.
    What I found much more interesting is the way he uses his letters to her to explain his aesthetics, and the creative process of Madame Bovary. He also carefully reads her work, and is quite merciless in his criticism.
    The excerpts you quote show how much of a sensualist he was, and you’ve got to imagine him holed up in his country home, researching and slowly, painfully writing his books with no outlet for his desire other than those little fragrant objects she sent him. October 4, 2011 at 4:39am Reply

  • Victoria: I read Selected Letters last summer, but yesterday as I was re-reading Corbin, those excerpts struck a chord, so I decided to post them. Classic man-woman stuff inspired plenty of masterpieces, and these letters worded in Flaubert’s poignant way (whether he is loving or critical) are among my favorites of the epistolary genre.

    I also agree with you that anyone with an interest in Madame Bovary (or literature in general) should read them, as it is fascinating to have a glimpse into the creative process. October 4, 2011 at 8:28am Reply

  • Vishishta: These are some of my favorite readings! Thank you for posting them. I also love his diaries of the time spent in Egypt and his time spent with an Egyptian prostitute. They reveal the great mystery of Egypt, her perfumes, sexuality and beauty. October 4, 2011 at 12:24pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, so true, his diaries are so fascinating! He was certainly very attuned to all the senses, and his writing is permeated with this awareness. Very evocative. October 4, 2011 at 2:02pm Reply

  • Perfume Shop: I like this post very much.I also agree with you that anyone with an interest in Madame Bovary and it is very fascinating..
    Thanks…. October 5, 2011 at 12:07pm Reply

  • Rose D: “Tell me if you use verbena; do you not put it on your handkerchiefs?”
    Now I see where that line in Madame Bovary comes from… As newlyweds, Emma and Charles attend a ball. On their way home, they find in the forest a “porte cigares”. Emma thinks it belongs to the vicount who asked dancing at the ball, so she picks it up and keeps it to herself. It is scented: “melée de verveine et de tabac”. She smells it every times she wans to remember him. October 5, 2011 at 2:58pm Reply

  • Victoria: You are welcome! October 5, 2011 at 3:11pm Reply

  • Victoria: Oh, thank you for connecting the two.

    “Often when Charles was out she took from the cupboard, between the folds of the linen were she had left it, the green silk cigar-case. She looked at it, opened it, and even smelt the odour of the lining-a mixture of verbena and tobacco. Whose was it? The Viscount’s? Perhaps it was a present from his mistress. It had been embroidered on some rosewood frame, a pretty little thing, hidden from all eyes, that had occupied many hours, and over which had fallen the soft curls of the pensive worker. A breath of love had passed over the stitches on the canvas; each prick of the needle had fixed there a hope or a memory, and all those interwoven threads of silk were but the continuity of the same silent passion. And then one morning the Viscount had taken it away with him. Of what had they spoken when it lay upon the wide-mantelled chimneys between flower-vases and Pompadour clocks? She was at Tostes; he was at Paris now, far away? What was this Paris like? What a vague name! She repeated it in a low voice, for the mere pleasure of it; it rang in her ears like a great cathedral bell; it shone before her eyes, even on the labels of her pomade-pots.” October 5, 2011 at 3:15pm Reply

  • Yulya: Victoria, thank you for this wonderful overview and for the reminder! I should re-read them soon. It is such a pleasure October 25, 2011 at 12:25pm Reply

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