She was the inspiring muse of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary. Journalist and writer, she had relations with the major French writers of the nineteenth century. He made a long trip to Italy writing reports of the war of independence and the Expedition of the Thousand.
Louise Révoil de Servannes was born in Aix-en-Provence on 15 September 1810. Father Antoine was director of the Post Office. Antoine Révoil had lived a few years in Naples. He, married to Henriette Leblanc, had seven children, of whom Louise was the last born. At his untimely death, his wife and children moved to Mouriès where his family owned a castle.
Louise met in this place the well-known musician Hippolite-Raymond Colet. She did not fall in love and did not like him, but this well-known musician was a recognized member of the artistic and literary world to which she, aspiring writer, wanted to be introduced. Therefore Louise married Colet and shortly thereafter moved to Paris, against the wishes of her family.
In Paris, Louise went to the Salon Littéraire where she met the philosopher Victor Cousin. She become a lover of Cousin and succeeded, thanks to his recommendation, to work as a journalist for various Parisian newspapers. Her first literary work was the book of poetry “Fleurs du Midi” published in 1836, which did not have the success that she had hoped for. In 1839 she participated in a literary competition, organized by the Académie Française, with “Le musée de Versailles”. She won the first prize by winning the sum of one thousand francs to her surprise.
In 1840 Louise had a daughter, Henriette. The husband refused to recognize her because of a pamphlet by the journalist Alphonse Karr revealing the secret relationship between Louise and Victor Cousin. Cousin also refused to recognize Henriette as his own daughter. The writer invited journalist Karr to her home for clarification. She attacked him armed with a kitchen knife, lightly injuring his shoulder. Fortunately, Alphonse Karr renounced denouncing her to the judicial authorities. Cousin decided to take over the maintenance of little Henriette, indirectly recognizing his fatherhood, perhaps frightened by the reaction that Louise had had towards Karr,
The birth of the child contributed to the final breakup of the marriage between Louise and Hyppolite Colet. The writer felt free to become the lover of Victor Hugo. This bond allowed her to receive established and novice writers in salon of her new home in the Rue de Sevres. She met Gustave Flaubert, Alfred de Musset and Alfred de Vigny. This was a fruitful period for her writing. She wrote “Charlotte Corday et Madame Roland” and “Le monument de Molière”, two of her most significant works, and then “Les funérailles de Napoléon”, followed by “La jeunesse de Miraneau”.
In 1846 Louise became Flaubert’s lover. The relationship lasted, with ups and downs, a couple of years. Then Flaubert, tired of that relationship, undertook a journey that took him for several months away from France. He visited the Mediterranean countries: Egypt, Palestine, Syria, Constantinople, Greece and Italy. He chose to return to his family villa in Croisset, near Rouen, in northern France, on his return to France.
Meanwhile, Colet cultivated other warm friendships, although the young and beautiful Flaubert was her first choice of love. She had a relationship with Alfred de Mussett, a close friend of Gustave, and with Alfred de Vigny. The Norman writer was himself who pushed her into Mussett’s arms before his long journey, to get rid of that woman with her clingy and oppressive love. Flaubert loved his melancholy solitude. He was a man of Normandy in all respects, with a reticence in the interpersonal relationships typical of the northern person.
In 1851 Louise Colet decided to reach her lover. On June 26th she showed up at the door of the Croisset villa where a maid welcomed her. Flaubert refused to receive her then, with great indifference, he showed up at the door pretending not to know her. After a few words, in front of Louise’s radiant beauty, his heart melted. He gave her an appointment at the Rouen hotel where she was staying. Colet, eleven years older than the young writer, left for Paris after receiving him in her room, sure to have gotten him back. After a few days she received a letter from Gustave and she resumed her ancient love.
The relationship with Flaubert proceeded hand in hand with the writing of Madame Bovary. The writer transferred the feelings he felt for his beautiful and possessive Louise in the scandalous Bovary. The deep part of the Bovary was in the hundreds of letters that Flaubert wrote to his lover at the time. Their meetings were infrequent. In the long intervals of absence, their relationship survived on the words written in burning missives, many of which unfortunately have been lost. While Flaubert spent his nights writing his masterpiece, the Provencal writer spent her nights far from solitude. At that time Mussett was destined not to make Louise suffer from loneliness. The same Flaubert wanted her in the arms of Alfred. Gustave refused to call love his feeling for Louise. That relationship was a literary experiment for the Madame Bovary writer, even though his thoughts were continually turned to her.
During the long gray days of Paris, Louise wrote incessantly. An effluvium of words flowed on the sheet in front of her. Louise was a fruitful writer. She had never suffered the syndrome of the white sheet. She sent her manuscripts to Gustave to read them. But Flaubert was contemptuous of this continued literary production. He sent back her notebooks with fierce criticism. One of his judgments was “Something overflowing from a too full chamber pot”, in reference to the artistic fecundity of the Louise.
Flaubert felt like a prisoner of this woman who was sailing towards middle age but who had captured his youth. The relationship between the two ended when Flaubert finished his novel “Madame Bovary”. The resemblance between Louise and the scandalous protagonist of his novel was too close. When Bovary committed suicide, he managed to break the link that held him bound to Colet. From that moment Louise dedicated herself to Alfred de Mussett who called her “Venus of Milo in hot marble”. She described his two loves in two books: “Une histoire de soldat” of 1856 and “Lui” of 1859.
Towards the end of 1859 she, tired of her life in Paris and in search of new adventures, brushed up her old love for Italy, a land known through the passionate stories that her father had told her when she was a child. She considered herself half Italian because she was born in Provence, not far from the border with Italy, located between Nice and Cannes. Louise was also driven by the desire to know the patriots who were fighting for the unification of Italy. As an indefatigable writer, she wanted to write a book about what was happening in the “Bel Paese”.
On October 15 she arrived in Genoa. In the ancient maritime republic she made contact with the numerous colony of patriots exiled in that city. This was helped by the Neapolitan Giuseppe Ricciardi, who had met in Paris, where he was to escape the Bourbon police. Ricciardi introduced her to the Genoese Risorgimento milieu. Louise also had a brief but intense friendship with the writer Luigi Mercantini.
After a month she reached Turin. Her friend Laura Beatrice Mancini, wife of the Neapolitan patriot Pasquale Stanislao Mancini, had the opportunity to introduce Carlo Poerio to the Colet during a gala at the Carignano theater. In the city of Savoy he met Pier Silvestro Leopardi, an old acquaintance of Paris.
Soon Colet was in Milan where she knew the elderly Alessandro Manzoni, whom she met several times in his house to interview him on the Italian situation. Manzoni expressed his full support for the cause of the unity of Italy and his indignation towards the papacy. He said “Because to confuse the interests of the earth with those of heaven” about Pius IX. The Pope held firm the determination to preserve his earthly power through the Papal State in his ambiguous attitudes towards the Risorgimento, denying Romans the right to escape his authority to build Italy. Manzoni donated to Colet the collection of his works, two books that gallantly supported him accompanying her at the door.
On 18 February 1860 Colet was able to meet Count Cavour in the city of Milan. Cavour expressed his regret for the total absence of the Roman nobility in the Risorgimento events speaking of the unity of Italy, as opposed to other realities, such as Naples, Milan and Venice, where many nobles had taken an active part in the Risorgimento. There was also a brief relationship with Cavour. Friendship broke when Louise Colet engaged in the foundation of the patriotic newspaper “L’annessione”. Cavour, urged by the writer to invest in the newspaper edition, turned a deaf ear. He did not want to put any money in the initiative of the Frenchwoman.
Louise then went and asked for a monetary contribution to her cordial enemy, princess Cristina Trivulzio di Belgiojoso, her ancient acquaintance of Paris. The antipathy between the two women had arisen in the common attendance of Parisian literary circles. Even Cristina had had her own salon in Paris, on Rue d’Anjou near the Faubourg Saint Honoré, frequented by the artistic milieu of the capital. In addition, she was also an intimate friend of Alfred de Mussett, one of Louise’s dearest lovers. Cristina Trivulzio was very suffering because of the serious wounds she had when she was exiled in Turkey. An Italian man, employee of her agricultural colony in Cappadocia, had been reprimanded by Belgiojoso because he beat his girlfriend. This lost his mind and repeatedly hit the princess with a knife. Despite the enmity with the Colet, Princess Belgiojoso participated with a substantial sum to the foundation of the newspaper, but with the clause that the French did not have to belong to the editorial staff.
She went to Florence after a fleeting return to Turin where she was able to make a first acquaintance with Giuseppe Garibaldi during a session of the Savoy parliament. She met Bettino Ricasoli and Gino Capponi in Florence. In the interview that the writer and journalist did to Ricasoli, he expressed all his aversion to the pope: “He will be able to keep a palace and a church in Rome, which he would do better to go and look for in Jerusalem. The unity of Italy is decreed by God himself “. He also expressed all his disappointment towards Napoleon III who pretended to help Italy and then to humiliate its later. While he expressed praise for England which, even without direct intervention, morally supported the Risorgimento and the unification of Italy.
While Louise Colet was a guest of Maria Alessandrina Bonaparte, daughter of Luciano Bonaparte, in her villa in Laviano, a fraction of Castiglione del Lago, she learned of the events related to the Expedition of the Thousand and Garibaldi’s triumphal march to Naples. The desire to reach the Neapolitan city was born in her, mindful of her father’s stories.
Louise Colet arrived in Naples in the first days of September. On the 7th of that month Giuseppe Garibaldi triumphantly entered the city. The day before King Francesco II and Queen Maria Sofia had left with the ship of the Bourbon navy “Messaggero” moving to the fortress of Gaeta. Giuseppe Garibaldi had taken up accommodation at Palazzo Doria d’Angri, in Largo Spirito Santo, owned by the Neapolitan branch of the ancient Genoese Doria family. In that house the general had also established his headquarters.
On September 14, Louise, accompanied by a letter of presentation of Cavour, went to the Palazzo d’Angri. She managed to reach the room of Garibaldi, taking advantage of the general confusion that reigned in the headquarters. At that moment the general was meeting Agostino Bertani, a doctor who acted as general secretary of the Expedition of the Thousand. His faithful lieutenant Luigi Gusmaroli was present, a former priest who had voted for the Garibaldian cause. Louise, despite her 50 years, took the breath away to the audience with her overflowing beauty. She had the same birthplace of Garibaldi, she was a Provencal, Garibaldi was of Nice. The glances between the two were enough to establish an agreement. Soon they were left alone by Bertani and Gusmaroli. Louise, who loved Italy, loved who was building it.
The following day Colet followed the general on the battlefield, between Capua and Caserta. The general entrusted the journalist to Jessie White Mario, the Joan of Arc of the Italian cause, as Mazzini had named her. Together they visited the hospital in Caserta, where the Garibaldians, wounded in the battle that was taking place in those days between Capua and Volturno against the Bourbon army in the last desperate attempt at resistance, were treated. The Englishwoman Jessie was a nurse in that hospital, trying to alleviate the wounds of young patriots in red shirts.
Colet met and also became a friend of the two most talented Garibaldian officers: Nino Bixio and the charming Hungarian Stefano Türr. She was also stalked by Liborio Romano during his stay in the city. Romano had been appointed Minister of the Interior by Garibaldi. During the last period of the Bourbon government he had been minister of the police. In this capacity he had repeated advised the king to leave Naples before Garibaldi arrived. He had secretly taken contact with Cavour and Garibaldi, offering to prepare a good reception for the general. The favor of the Neapolitan people towards the Garibaldian enterprise was not obvious. Especially the humblest sections of the population were followers of the Bourbon monarchy. Liborio Romano relied on the “Camorra”, a criminal association, and its recognized chief Salvatore De Crescenzo, known as “Tore ‘e Crescienzo”, to maintain order in the city. The minister was attracted by the beauty of the French journalist. He accompanied her. He gave her interviews on Neapolitan affairs. In short, he was always present near to Louise. Colet, however, did not like his attentions. She lived them with a certain annoyance. One day she fired him very abruptly to get rid of the minister permanently.
On 7 November she met Garibaldi, who was returning from the last meeting he had in Naples with Vittorio Emanuele. In practice the king had expelled the general, not granting him the appointment as a lieutenant. Garibaldi had decided to go back to his beloved Caprera. The meeting was moving. The few days that the two had spent in Naples had been intense, as their meetings had been intense. On 9 November Garibaldi left Naples on board the “Washington” ship. His son Menotti and some Garibaldians, including the faithful Gusmaroli, accompanied him.
The journalist told in one of his articles about the story of the two Savio brothers of Turin who militated in the Savoy troops. She became a friend of Emilio Savio, whom she had met during those days of exaltation and confusion in Naples. She met him a few days later at the command of his men in Capua. Emilio confessed his sadness at the loss of his brother who had been killed in the siege of Ancona. After a few weeks Louise learned that Emilio Savio also died in battle. She wrote a moving article being particularly suffered by the loss of that young man she had loved. She sent its to her friend Alexander Dumas. The article was published in the newspaper “Indipendente”. The following day everyone in Naples had read that article. She was reached by the Savio’s comrades in arms. Tears of emotion wet the eyes of those hard soldiers.
In February 1861 Louise Colet left Naples and reached Rome, where she had accommodation in the Hotel d’Inghilterra. She wanted to meet the powerful Cardinal Antonelli because she intended to be received by Pope Pius IX. The meeting took place in the study of the cardinal inside the Vatican. Louise Colet introduced herself as a friend of Italy and expressed her desire for a single state. The cardinal replayed courteously he was pleased with the sentiments that the French writer had towards Italy but, he said, love for this country could well cohabit with the existence of the Papal State. The cardinal reserved to inform her as soon as possible as for her desire to meet the Pope. Colet had no more contact with Cardinal Antonelli. She did not receive an invitation for the desired meeting with Pius IX.
During her stay in Rome, the journalist wrote a book, “Les derniers abbés, mœurs religieuses de l’Italie”. The manuscript was seized by the pontifical police for its anti-clerical content. Colet complained about this in a letter addressed to Garibaldi. In response the general, in the regret of the misfortune rushed to his friend, wrote of priests: “gladiators of lies, a true plague of our unfortunate country”.
She left Rome on May 8th. She crossed the Italy shining with sunshine and good weather. When she arrived at her destination, she found a rainy Paris. The fact accentuated her melancholy and her sorrow of having left many sincere friends on the peninsula. In the next three years she devoted herself to rearranging the notes she had gathered during her trip. In 1861 she published “Naples sous Garibaldi” and, in 1864, “L’Italie des italiens”. She described, like a journalist, the patriotic drives that she had had the opportunity to verify in the numerous interviews she made during her stay in the peninsula.
In the following years Louise had continuous contacts with Italian friends. She returned several times to the beautiful country that she loved so much, stopping in the cities she already knew, as well as on the island of Ischia and Capri. In 1869 she wanted to take a trip to Egypt on the occasion of the inauguration of the Suez Canal. She returned from this last trip in poor health due to a rare form of tuberculosis of which she was suffering.
In the last years of her life, despite her illness, she went to Caprera to meet the unforgettable friend and lover of her Neapolitan stay. Giuseppe Garibaldi hosted her in his rustic dwelling taking care of the writer. Louise passed in Sanremo the winter of 1875, together with her last friend, the philosopher Edgar Quinet, who kept her company until the end. On March 8, 1876, she died at her house in Paris. Despite having asked for civil funerals, her daughter Henriette Bissieu-Colet, who then was mistress of the writer Auguste Vacquerie, and her family members allowed the religious rite. The corpse of the writer was buried in the cemetery of Verneuil, near Paris.
Pietro Citati, I segreti d’amore della Bovary sconosciuta, La Repubblica (Articolo del 24/10/2007)
Benedetto Croce, “L’Italie des Italiens” di Luisa Colet, Quaderni della Critica, n. 17-18, Nov. 1950
Francine du Plessix Gray, Rage & Fire a life of louise Colet, Simon & Shuster, New York 1994
Louise Colet, Naples sous Garibaldi, E. Dentu, Parigi 1861
Louise Colet, L’Italie des italiens, E. Dentu, Parigi 1864