Rage and Fire: A Life of Louise Colet
Pioneer feminist, Literary Star, Flaubert’s Muse.
Francine du Plessix Gray, Simon & Schuster, 1994.
Who was Louise Colet? Close friend, confident and lover of one of France’s greatest novelists — Gustave Flaubert. But long before she met Flaubert, she was a highly productive poet and essayist, a feminist dedicated to fighting for equal rights for women and honored by the Académie Française. She is usually described in the context of her friendship with Gustave Flaubert and billed as his muse. Yet, it is important to remember that when the writers met, she was the celebrated one, a 36 year old self-supporting poet noticed by the Académie, while he was an unpublished 24 year old aspiring novelist.
Louise Colet developed into a scathing political satirist, dedicated to supporting the mid – 19th century drive for liberty and justice. Decades after the American and French Revolutions which certainly jolted the aristocratic land-owning class, representative governance and human legal equality were still a distant dream for most people. The “trickle down” factors of economic equity, universal suffrage and political liberty were still being hammered out in North America and Europe. The idea that human rights and political equality and legal independence applied to women was hardly a view shared by men of the era. In this time period the people of many European countries pushed for democracy, labor and voting rights, legal equity and individual liberty. And so were Americans seeking civil justice, an end to slavery, voting rights for women and poor people who were excluded from participating in elections.
To follow the footsteps of Louise Colet, go to Provence, to Mouriès, the village near Servanes. The Hostellerie de Servanes is the ancestral estate where Louise Révoil grew up. Born in Aix-en-Provence, east of Servanes, Louise’s maternal family were local gentry with generations serving in the Parliament of Provence. Her father, from the merchant class, was head of the local postal system. She learned quite naturally to align herself with the people’s causes and in strictly divided class-conscious Aix, Louise’s aristocrat mother directed her family to walk on the side of the promenade for ordinary people rather than the elite side of the Cours Mirabeau, the “see and be scene” promenade in Aix, even though they were certainly entitled to walk with the local aristocracy. The Fonds Louise Colet, her papers and other archival material from Louise Colet ‘s life and work, is housed in the Médiathèque Ceccano section of the Bibliotheque Municipale d’Avignon.
The Musée Calvet in Avignon preserves Colet memorabilia, according to the acknowledgements in du Plessix Gray’s book, but I was not able to successfully search for items related to Louise Colet using the search function on the museum website. It’s likely material related to Louise Colet would be in a museum archive or library, rather than part of the collection on view digitally.
During her years in Paris, Colet lived in several different apartments, as might be expected for a single mother supporting herself with free-lance writing and literary stipends from the government. Louise Colet lived at 21 rue de Sèvres during the time she hosted her own literary salon, then very much in vogue. This apartment was not far from L’Abbaye aux Bois where Madame Récamier conducted her famous artistic and philosophical discussions until 1849. Colet had a falling out with her friend over the usual miscommunications and misunderstandings. Colet also lived at 21 rue Neuve Fontaine Saint-Georges (rue Fromentin). It was in this lodging in Montmartre where she decided to separate in 1842 after living briefly with her spouse, the musician Hippolyte Colet.
Louise Colet died March 8, 1876 in her daughter’s apartment, rue des Ecoles in Paris, although some books report that she died in a small hotel on that street. During the previous summer in Paris, Colet’s letters of the period were written from the Hotel d’ Angleterre, Rue Jacob and the Hotel du Palais-Royal, Rue de Rivoli. Contrary to her wishes, she was buried with Catholic Church ceremonial pomp that she despised, in daughter Henriette Colet Bissieu’s (her husband)’s family plot in the municipal cemetery in Verneuil, Normandy. The Bissieu family estate was named “Fryleuse” and is located in or near Verneuil. It is likely that the town “Verneuil” refers to Verneuil-sur-Avre which is in Normandy.
Beyond her writing, fired-up feminist rhetoric and long friendship with Gustave Flaubert, Louise Colet took on the Vatican and launched a public relations campaign on behalf of the mid-19th century freedom fighters Garibaldi and Cavour.
During her months in Italy, Louise Colet followed the footsteps of writers she admired, frequenting Caffe Florian in Piazza San Marco, Venice and searching for the exact rooms in the Hotel Nani (later, the Hotel Danieli) where writer George Sand and her lover Alfred Musset lived and worked decades earlier in 1833-1834.
But Colet’s main mission was to shine a light on the efforts of Cavour and Garibaldi to create a unified Italy. Their efforts to unify the fiefdoms and city-states of the Italian peninsula challenged the temporal power of the Vatican. Papal States scattered throughout the peninsula we now call Italy were gradually being brought under the unifying rule of Victor Emanuel; democratic government would follow unification. Colet used her considerable literary fame to seek meetings with key members of the Vatican government.
Francine du Plessix Gray writes:
“In February of 1861, after visits to Sicily that inspired many more pages of art history, Louise Colet left Naples for Rome. Victor Emmanuel had vastly diminished the Papal States the previous autumn when he occupied the Marches and Umbria, as Garibaldi had wished to do. The papal territory was reduced to the city of Rome, where the entrenched conservative factions had grown more bitter. The city was rife with secret police that kept watch on antipapist elements; one of its targets, in the first months of 1861, was Louise Colet. As soon as she had settled at the Hôtel Inghilterra – a lovely hostelry still standing today on the Via Bocca del Leone, two blocks from the Spanish Steps – she was warned by one of her compatriots, a bookstore owner, that she was under police surveillance.
The warning left her undaunted She was determined to remain in Rome = whose antiquities thrilled her as its religious artifacts horrified her = to continue her campaign against the Catholic clergy, which she considered to be the principal enemy of human progress.
Louise’s anticlericalism was fanned by a pope who was one of the more repressive Catholic leaders of the post-Reformation era and whose pontificate was the longest in the history of the papacy (1846 – 1878). Although he had begun as a fairly liberal reformist, Pius IX became an arch conservative in the 1850s, when Cavour attempted to limit his temporal power. He militantly opposed every goal of the Risorgimento, and his reign was defined by two of the most regressive encyclicals of papal history, those that set forth the dogma of the Immaculate Conception and the doctrine of Papal Infallibility.
When she arrived in Rome, Louise immediately set off to visit the Vatican, where she assisted at a Mass officiated by Pius IX in the Sistine Chapel. She describes the obese little Pope, his thick head doddering over a swollen neck, his muddy eyes and weak lips, his blotched red face and powdered hair, the archaic pomp with which his chair is carried into the church by fourteen papal guards. She considered the basilica of Saint Peter a site “of glacial pomp … totally devoid of any mysticism or mystery.” With the exception of the Pietà of Michelangelo, who “would have been a far greater artist if he had fawned less upon illiterate pontiffs,” the basilica’s “overabundance of riches” was a “a monument to hypocrisy … catering to the taste of parvenus and bankers.”
Louise was particularly disgusted with the opulent tomb of Queen Christina of Sweden – “a ruler more pagan in her mores than those of pre-Christian times” – whose recently published letters had revealed her to be “a thief, a violent, insolent and debauched strumpet.” In the middle of Saint Peter’s, Louise shouted, “I protest this sanctification of Christina of Sweden! As a saint,as one of the truly just, I far prefer Garibaldi!” Her outburst terrified a priest, who took to his heels and rushed back into the depths of the basilica.
Later that month, she wrote a burlesque of a Holy Week Mass at Saint Peter’s, which re-created the Last Supper: The Holy Father himself served food to the thirteen beggars who were seated at the table as stand-ins for Christ and his apostles. At the end of the liturgy, a few seconds after the Pope had left the church, a group of fat monks rushed to the altar, chased out the beggars, and stuffed the food and wine into large baskets for their own use (Louise’s description of Rome’s decadent religious mores occasionally strain the imagination).
Visiting the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, Louise was prompted to make her own profession of faith, in which she revels a nonsectarian piety. She was, in fact, a Diest: She believed in a Supreme Being but maintained that the truths of this “Implacable Unknown” could not be incarnated in any temporal sect or power. Her credo was a blend of the ideologies that had influenced her since youth – her maternal grandfather’s Voltarian skepticism, Victor Cousin’s eclectic mysticism, Alfred de Vigny’s Stoicism, Victor Hugo’s catchall pantheism.
“Although I long ago left the Catholic faith [she wrote in the fourth and final volume of L’Italie des Italiens’, I enjoy meditating whenever I can in a great empty basilica. I do not feel as much communion with infinity there as I do when gazing on a beautiful starry night or the immensity of the ocean; but I cannot enter into one of these temples which a succession of religious sects erected to their gods without feeling a sorrowful compassion concerning our finitude.
… In our time the human soul is stifled by Catholicism, an antihuman doctrine whose architects suppressed all air and light … Liberty, Justice, Charity, Science, and Chastity have been no more than ringing words in the mouthpiece of the Church. … and at this very hour, the forces of liberty and justice shout out against the Church through all the voices of the Italian fatherland: “Why do you deny our liberation?” ”
These are the opinions with which Louise assaulted Cardinal Antonelli, Prime Minister of the Papal States, one of the Church’s highest-ranking prelates, when she cornered him at the Vatican in an attempt to obtain an audience with the Pope. It was a few days before her return to France, and Louise had a grand purpose in desiring to talk with the Holy Father. She wished to convert Pius IX to the cause of Italian liberation, to the side of Garibaldi and Cavour!
Sitting so close to her that his frock touched her dress, the cardinal, who wore immense rings of square-cut emeralds, addressed Louise as “cara mia” and heard her out but was not in the least swayed. “The Church,” he told her, “cannot recognize the people’s novel claim to emancipation, which of course is no more than the right to rape and murder. The meaningless concepts of ‘patriotism,’ ‘liberty,’ or ‘universal suffrage’ can only be brought about by violence.” Nor did the prelate rush to get Louise an audience with Pius. She had given him three days to arrange the meeting, and the cardinal explained that the Holy Father did not accept ultimatums. Thus were we deprived of a colorful episode – Louise Colet preaching revolution to the most reactionary Pope of modern times.
Louise left Rome for Paris in the spring of 1861, after a year and eight months in Italy. She would soon grieve over Camillo Cavour, who died suddenly, at fifty-one, a few weeks after she returned to France. But the revolutionary goals Cavour pursued had been fulfilled. All of the Italian peninsula, with the exclusion of Rome, had voted to be annexed to Victor Emmanuel’s kingdom. In March, at a parliamentary session in Turin, Victor Emmanuel II proclaimed the birth of a united kingdom of Italy.
The venom in Louise’s pen, and the biting social satire that Flaubert considered to be her greatest literary talent, increased in her later years. “Please accept the assurance of my most perfect disdain,” she signed letters to some of her antagonists.
Source: Gray, Francine du Plessix. (1994) Rage & Fire : A Life of Louise Colet. New York: Simon & Schuster, pp 307-310