Kindness, pathos, simplicity and despair
Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart, published in 1877 as part of a collection ‘Three Tales’, and currently re-issued as a stand-alone, part of Penguin’s ‘Little Black Classics’, must have been quite revolutionary in its subject, at the time.
The central character, possessor of that simple heart, is Félicité, a servant. This was not, is not, the class generally forming major literary focus, especially at that time. Félicité, as would have been common for her class and gender, cannot read. Secondary education was anyway not available to girls until the 1880s in France, and did not become free until the 1920s. The main readers of literary fiction would have been the bourgeoisie, who would also be the more usual subjects of it.
This is a portrait, childhood to death in old age of a humble, loving, loyal and emotionally lion-hearted woman. And the author’s attitude towards her is without sentimental bombast, rhetoric or patronising caricature. There is no attempt to ‘do funny dialogue’ or make a more sophisticated readership feel superior in their social position, wealth or intelligence. Instead, Flaubert accords her with the serious, dispassionate and depth filled observation usually accorded to those higher up within society.
Flaubert does not comment, or obviously use devices to wring our withers or excite out own (presumably) more sophisticated hearts. Instead, his dispassionate observations on the behaviour or others, within Félicité’s story, are left very factual, a recounting of events. Flaubert is a master of showing, not telling his readers, what to feel. In many ways, we are left to examine our own responses, our own moral judgements – was this fair, just, kindly? Who occupies the moral high ground, who should be our role model here?
Félicité, as a young girl, almost starving, repeatedly beaten is grateful to find a position as a servant to a widow with two children, Madame Aubain. A position she keeps for more than 50 years, loyally:
For just one hundred francs a year, she did all the cooking and the housework, she saw to the darning, the washing and the ironing. She could bridle a horse, keep the chickens well fed and churn the butter. What is more she remained faithful to her mistress, who, it must be said, was not the easiest of people to get on with
Madame Aubain is not cruel, but lacks the ability to see outside humanity clearly outside her own class, although, as the inevitable tragedies of life – loss, infirmity, affect her too, she does grow more affectionate towards her ‘servant’, less indifferent to the sufferings of another.
This is, in the end, an immeasurably sad book. Félicité, in the generosity of her ability to care for others and value them is shown to be made of far finer, more heroic qualities than any of her betters. She is vulnerable, tender-hearted, loyal, and also has great resilience. In a sense, she does not have the indulgence of doing other than getting on with life. She lives by being the best she can be – the clarity and simplicity of her heart, truly ‘loving thy neighbour’:
She wept at the story of Christ’s passion. Why had they crucified a man who was so kind to children, fed the hungry, gave sight to the blind, and who had chosen, out of his own gentle nature, to be born amongst the poor and the rough straw of a stable…..all those familiar things mentioned in the gospels had their place in her life too….. Félicité loved lambs all the more because of her love for the Lamb of God, and doves now reminded her of the Holy Spirit….Of church dogma she understood not a word and did not even attempt to understand it
This is a beautiful, un-flamboyant piece of writing, a tale of a life which superficially might seem to be of no account, no importance in the eyes of the wider world. Flaubert’s craft makes the reader reflect on a tale which is rather more than just an account of ‘a good and humble servant’