Flaubert's L'education Sentimentale is full of moral dilemmas, punctuated by fine wines
Flaubert’s L‘Education Sentimentale is less celebrated than Madame Bovary and less notorious than Salammbô. Nevertheless, a good case could be made for valuing it as not only Flaubert’s most subtle and ambitious novel, but even as the most inventive historical novel of the 19th century. Through the central character of Frédéric Moreau and his unconsummated romantic passion for Marie, the wife of the publisher Jacques Arnoux, Flaubert set out to write what he called “the moral history of the men of my generation” — that is to say, the generation who had entered into adulthood at about the time of the 1848 revolution (Flaubert was born in 1821). Moreau glimpses Mme Arnoux on a boat trip down the Seine, and immediately falls in love with her: “It was like an apparition […] he could not see anybody else in the dazzling light which her eyes cast upon him.” For years Moreau nurses his desire, but cannot bring himself to approach Mme Arnoux directly; instead he finds solace with prostitutes. The ending of the story — the “Rat’s tail ending”, as he called it — is as Flaubert planned it in his notebooks: “Final meeting — visit by Madame — she offers herself. But he no longer finds her attractive and he is afraid of the disgust he might feel. Don’t make her ridiculous — he takes pity on her. She leaves — he sees her climbing into the carriage — and it was all over.”
More shaped and precise than the novels of Balzac, and unburdened by the pseudo-science of Zola (both novelists who strove to capture a whole society in fiction, albeit on much larger canvasses), L‘Education Sentimentale is poised between satire and elegy. It traces the path taken by France from the romantic afterlife of the Napoleonic period to the bourgeois ascendancy of the mid-19th century through the lens of the exaltations and dejections of Moreau’s infatuation.
Exaltation and dejection: L‘Education Sentimentale moves between these poles, and wine plays a part in the symbolism of that transit. Some of the information about wine in the novel is exceptionally precise, but even when vague, wine is a constant presence in the pivotal events of L‘Education Sentimentale. The boat trip on which Frédéric first sees Marie begins in a keynote of festivity to which wine naturally ministers: “The novel pleasure of a trip on the river banished any feeling of shyness and reserve. The jokers began to play tricks. A good many began singing. Spirits rose. Glasses were brought out and filled.”
Also, no doubt, emptied. In the middle of the novel, at the lavish dinner party given by the Marquis de Cisy where Frédéric defends Marie’s reputation by throwing his plate in Cisy’s face, Flaubert takes pains to show the part played by wine in the evening: “The silver-gilt centerpiece, loaded with flowers and fruit, occupied the middle of the table, which was covered with silver dishes in the old French style, surrounded by hors-d’oeuvre dishes containing spices and seasoning; at regular intervals there stood pitchers of iced vin rosé; and five glasses of different heights were lined up in front of every plate, together with a variety of ingenious eating utensils whose precise purpose was a mystery. For the first course alone, there was a sturgeon’s head drenched in champagne, a York ham cooked in Tokay, thrushes au gratin, roast quail, a vol-au-vent béchamel, a sauté of red-legged partridges, and, flanking all this, potatoes mixed with truffles.”
A great meal, no doubt. It’s worth remarking the lowly status of vin rosé, as a beverage just a notch above water, and the lavish use of noble wines such as champagne and Tokay as cooking liquids. One can only speculate about the five different wines destined for that graded slope of stemware: champagne, white burgundy, red burgundy, claret, port?
Later in the novel Frédéric has lunch with Arnoux, and again Flaubert takes pains to be precise about what they ate and drank: “[…] he carried him off to lunch at Parly’s in the rue de Chartres; and as he needed to restore his strength, he ordered two meat dishes, a lobster, a rum omelette, a salad, and so on, washing all this down with an 1819 Sauterne and ’42 Romanée, not to mention the champagne at dessert and the liqueurs.”
1842 is not listed as one of the great 19th-century vintages for Burgundy by the legendary Jasper Morris, in his book Inside Burgundy (Berry Bros and Rudd Press, £50). Those vintages were, Jasper says (millionaires take note): 1819, 1822, 1827, 1846, 1858, 1864, 1865, 1869, 1870, 1886 and 1893. It is hard to get any information about 19th-century vintages of Sauternes. But two aspects of this meal at Parly’s stand out. The first is that Frédéric and Arnoux seem to have drunk their wines in what we would think of as the wrong order: they begin with Sauternes, move on to red Burgundy, and then finish with champagne (which probably of course was sweet — and in south-west France today sweet wines are often served as an apéritif). Secondly, they are not concerned about properties and growers — they buy by appellation.
Flaubert may have included this specificity over drink merely to enhance his novel’s documentary thickness. But whatever his intentions, the foregrounding of wine also harmonised with the novel’s great historical theme of Romanticism and its hangover. In L‘Education Sentimentale Flaubert emerges as the laureate of the crapulous, as he depicts the whole French nation staggering groggily out of the intoxication of the Napoleonic era. The emotional keynote of the novel is that of sour awakening to a dejecting truth. It is a note struck repeatedly, perhaps most vividly when Mme Arnoux visits Frédéric to offer herself to him, and without thinking takes off her hat: “The lamp, standing on a console table, lit up her white hair. It was like a blow full in the chest.”
The novel is studded with such realisations of the damage that time can inflict on desire — damage for which wine, which when taken in excess first elates and then dejects, may stand as no bad metonym.
But Flaubert also uses wine to hint at a contrasting truth. Frédéric and his prostitute-mistress, the Marshal, escape from the revolutionary turmoil of Paris to Fontaine-bleau, where they have a simple meal: “They were served a spatchcock chicken, an eel stew in a pipe-clay compote-dish, rough wine, and hard bread. The knives had jagged blades. It all enhanced their pleasure, added to the illusion.”
What might this rough wine have been? 1848 was before the construction of France’s railways, and so only the grandest of wines — and this was clearly not one — would have been transported far. No wine is now made around Fontainebleau. The nearest vineyards today are those of the easternmost Loire. Might this have been a wine from Orléans (today, as Hugh Johnson sharply remarks, “best known for vinegar”), or from the Côteaux du Giennois? It is impossible to say. But we should not overlook the fact that Frédéric relishes it far more than the flight of great vintages he drank at the house of the Marquis de Cisy, and more than the Romanée ’42 he drank with the man he had so often cuckolded in his thoughts.
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