IN September 1851, when the first pages of Madame Bovary were drafted, Flaubert was thirty and had published nothing. He had, however, written a great deal: short stories on more or less exotic subjects, semi-autobiographical narratives, a novel called L'Éducation sentimentale (not to be confused with the novel published in 1869 under that title), and the first draft of La Tentation de Saint Antoine, a grotesque fantasy in dialogue form. All in all, these works reveal a decided preference for the extravagant and the bizarre, although L'Éducation sentimentale is already a notable exception. While travelling in the Near East in 1850, he had had three new projects in mind: Une nuit de Don Juan, Anubis, and a novel about a 'young girl who dies a virgin and mystic after living with her father and mother in a small provincial town' (letter of 14 November 1850).
It was this third subject which was to be taken up. Flaubert preserved the provincial setting and characters, together with something of the interplay between the mystical and the erotic, but invented a new heroine who would make the story, as he put it, more 'entertaining' for the reader. Despite this concession, the writing of Madame Bovary was for Flaubert both an exercise and an experiment. From the outset, his letters speak of the atrocious stylistic difficulties the subject presented, and although there were moments of optimism and enthusiasm, his most characteristic feeling was one of disgust for the sheer banality of his materials. He viewed the whole enterprise as training ('gymnastics') for a later novel which would suit his own tastes and what he believed to be his own talents. The nearest he came to this ideal was Salammbô: a magnificent novel in its own way, but one which would hardly be read except by historians of literature, had Madame Bovary never been written.
The story of Flaubert's fanatical self-mortification during the five years of composition, although a highly readable one, might well seem to be just another of those colourful portraits of the artist which contribute nothing of real value to the understanding of the work itself. Yet it is always instructive to see a writer reaching the height of his powers by denying himself the very resources he feels most tempted to exploit. And in this instance one can go further.