Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris

The Story of a Friendship, a Novel, and a Terrible Year


By Peter Brooks

Formats and Prices




$42.00 CAD



  1. Hardcover $32.00 $42.00 CAD
  2. ebook $19.99 $25.99 CAD

This item is a preorder. Your payment method will be charged immediately, and the product is expected to ship on or around April 4, 2017. This date is subject to change due to shipping delays beyond our control.

From a distinguished literary historian, a look at Gustave Flaubert and his correspondence with George Sand during France’s “terrible year” — summer 1870 through spring 1871

From the summer of 1870 through the spring of 1871, France suffered a humiliating defeat in its war against Prussia and witnessed bloody class warfare that culminated in the crushing of the Paris Commune. In Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris, Peter Brooks examines why Flaubert thought his recently published novel, Sentimental Education, was prophetic of the upheavals in France during this “terrible year,” and how Flaubert’s life and that of his compatriots were changed forever.

Brooks uses letters between Flaubert and his novelist friend and confidante George Sand to tell the story of Flaubert and his work, exploring his political commitments and his understanding of war, occupation, insurrection, and bloody political repression. Interweaving history, art history, and literary criticism-from Flaubert’s magnificent novel of historical despair, to the building of the reactionary monument the Sacréoeur on Paris’s highest summit, to the emergence of photography as historical witness-Brooks sheds new light on the pivotal moment when France redefined herself for the modern world.



1 Cannon Park Montmartre, March 1871, photographer unknown

2 Cannon on Montmartre, rue Chevalier de la Barre (formerly rue des Rosiers), photo probably by Bruno Braquehais

3 Barricade, Chausée de Ménilmontant, photographer unknown

4 Barricade, rue de Castiglione, Bruno Braquehais

5 Barricade in front of the Hôtel de Ville, Alphonse Liébert

6 Vendôme Column, with Communards gathered at the base, Bruno Braquehais

7 Vendôme Column rigged for destruction, photo perhaps Bruno Braquehais

8 Fallen column from on high, Jules Andrieu

9 Statue of Napoleon, fallen, Bruno Braquehais

10 Panorama of Paris burning during the night of May 24–25, 1871, lithograph by Michel-Charles Fichot

11 Paris burning: the Préfecture de Police, as seen from the Left Bank, Hippolyte Blancard

12 Hôtel de Ville, façade, after the fire, 1871, Charles Marville

13 Hôtel de Ville, interior, Charles Marville

14 Hôtel de Ville on fire, retouched, Alphonse Liébert

15 Hôtel de Ville, Alphonse Liébert

16 Palais de Justice, Hippolyte Blancard

17 Ministère des Finances, Hippolyte Blancard

18 Théâtre Lyrique, Alphonse Liébert

19 Rue de Rivoli, with ruined Ministère des Finances on the left, photographer unknown (possibly Charles Marville or Hippolyte Blancard)

20 Carrefour de la Croix-Rouge, Alphonse Liébert

21 Palais des Tuileries, Salle des Maréchaux, Alphonse Liébert

22 Grenier d'Abondance, Jules Andrieu

23 Palais des Tuileries, peristyle, Jules Andrieu

24 The Ruins of Tuileries Palace, Ernest Meissonier

25 Communards in their coffins, Eugène Disdéri

26 Guerre Civile, Edouard Manet

27 Mur des Fédérés (Communards' Wall), photo by Luther Bissett

28 Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart), photo by Jimmy Baikovicius

29 Saint-Front de Périgueux, photo by Père Igor

30 Mosaics, "Hommage à la France," Basilica of the Sacred Heart, by Luc-Olivier Merson, photo by Erich Lessing

31 Jeanne d'Arc, statue by Emmanuel Frémiet, Place des Pyramides, photo by Timothy McCarthy

32 Jeanne d'Arc, Jules Bastien-Lepage



December 12: Gustave Flaubert is born in Rouen (Normandy).


February 22–24: Revolution: the government interdiction of a political banquet leads to demonstrations, troops fire on the crowd ("Massacre of the Boulevard des Capucines"); King Louis Philippe abdicates in favor of his grandson and flees, and republicans prevail.

February 24: Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp witness the sacking of the Tuileries Palace.

February 25: Proclamation of the Second Republic, with poet Alphonse de Lamartine as chief executive

June 22–25: "June Days": the ateliers nationaux are disbanded; a workers' revolt is harshly suppressed by the government.

December 10: Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte is elected president of the Republic.


October 29: Flaubert and Du Camp leave for their trip to Egypt and the Near East.


June 16: Flaubert returns to Croisset.

December 2: Coup d'état of Louis-Napoléon Bonaparte


December 2: Louis-Napoléon becomes Emperor Napoléon III, marking the start of the Second Empire.


October 1: The serial publication of Madame Bovary begins in La Revue de Paris.


January 31–February 7: Flaubert and his publishers go on trial for Madame Bovary.

April: Book publication of Madame Bovary


Publication of Salammbô


September 1: Flaubert begins writing Sentimental Education.


February 12: George Sand attends Restaurant Magny dinner, and her close friendship with Flaubert begins.


November 17: Publication of Sentimental Education

December: Flaubert spends Christmas with George Sand at Nohant.


July 19: France declares war on Prussia.

September 2: French are defeated at Sedan; Emperor Napoléon III becomes a prisoner of the Prussians.

September 4: Declaration of Third Republic in Paris

September 19: Siege of Paris begins.

December: Prussians occupy Rouen and take over Flaubert's house in Croisset.


January 28: Capitulation of Paris, negotiation of peace terms

February 12: The new Assembly meets at Bordeaux, with Adolphe Thiers as chief executive.

March 18: Thiers's attempt to seize the National Guard cannon on Montmartre triggers the revolt of Paris; the government flees to Versailles.

March 28: Proclamation of the Commune de Paris

April 1: Flaubert returns home to Croisset.

May 10: Treaty of Frankfurt ends the Franco-Prussian War.

May 21–28: The "Bloody Week": The French Army from Versailles invades Paris and destroys the Commune. Some 20,000 Parisians are killed.

June 5: Flaubert is in Paris.

June 6: Flaubert visits the ruins with Maxime Du Camp.


April 6: Death of Flaubert's mother

August: Flaubert starts his research for Bouvard and Pécuchet.


October: Comte de Chambord renounces attempts to ascend the throne.

May 24: The fall of Thiers; the election of Marshal Mac-Mahon as president of the Republic


February: Publication of Victor Hugo's Ninety-Three

April: Publication of Flaubert's The Temptation of Saint Anthony


January 30: The Wallon Amendment assures the continuation of the Republic.

July: Ernest Commanville's lumberyard fails, setting Flaubert's financial crisis into motion.


June 8: Death of George Sand


April: Publication of Three Tales

May 16: Mac-Mahon attempts to abrogate the parliamentary government; subsequent elections lead to a republican majority.

September 8: Flaubert joins the funeral procession for Thiers.


January 19: Flaubert dines with Léon Gambetta.


January 30: Mac-Mahon resigns.


May 8: Death of Flaubert


The Terrible Year, Two Writers, and a Novel

THIS IS THE STORY OF WHAT THE FRENCH STILL CALL THE Terrible Year, as lived by two great writers who were devoted friends, Gustave Flaubert and George Sand, and of Flaubert's novel that he thought should have kept his compatriots from the catastrophe they were enduring. It was a year of almost unimaginable suffering, defeat, humiliation, hatred, and fratricidal conflict, a year when war and surrender were followed by siege, cold, hunger, then class warfare on a scale never seen before, a national bloodletting that left France traumatized on the threshold of its most enduring experiment with republican government, even as it seemed poised to retreat into monarchy. Out of the ruins left by the Terrible Year and its paroxysm in the Bloody Week of May 1871 modern France emerged.

Flaubert and Sand wrote incessantly to one another as impassioned witnesses to the unfolding of events. They were separated in space, Flaubert in his Norman home, Sand in hers in the Berry, both following the war and its aftermath with all the information they could garner. Though they began seemingly at opposite ends of the political spectrum—Sand a dedicated socialist and reformer, Flaubert a believer in rule by the elite—they would eventually converge in their beliefs. Flaubert would travel the greater distance, eventually avowing himself, to his own bemusement, a republican. They observed, they evaluated, they judged. And they weighed why Flaubert's novel Sentimental Education (L'Education sentimentale), published late in 1869, on the threshold of the Terrible Year, had gone largely misunderstood and unheeded. Surely, Flaubert believed, it was prophetic of what had come to pass.

To give the barest historical sketch of events: Second Empire France under Napoleon III—who became emperor a year after his coup d'état on December 2, 1851, killed off the fragile republic born of revolution in 1848—seemed immensely wealthy and powerful. Paris was the undisputed capital of Europe. But the Empire came to an abrupt and unexpected end in the Franco-Prussian War that began in July 1870. The war was totally unnecessary, the result of diplomatic blunders and the deliberate provocation of German chancellor Otto von Bismarck, who thought that war with France would strengthen his hand in unifying the German states under Prussian hegemony. French confidence in its army and its vaunted new chassepot bolt-action breech-loading rifle was unbounded but misplaced: appallingly commanded and outmaneuvered, the French quickly suffered loss after loss on the battlefield. Whole army corps were made prisoner. And on September 2, so was the emperor himself. His fall quickly led to revolution in Paris and, on September 4, the declaration of a new republic.

But the war was not at all over. The Prussian Army advanced rapidly to Paris, captured outlying forts built to defend the city, and put it under a siege that would last through a long, frigid winter. The Government of National Defense struggled to maintain the war effort and to keep the capital alive. Paris ran out of fuel and food. Trees were chopped down, the Bois de Boulogne razed. Eating became a greater problem with each passing day: the animals in the Paris Zoo were sacrificed, including the beloved elephants Castor and Pollux. They went largely to the tables of the rich. Butchers, having exhausted dogs and cats, began selling rats. Ersatz food was the rule, including coffee ground from acorns. Besides, the Prussians began bombarding the city, making life dangerous as well as precarious. By the end of January 1871, the government had reached an armistice with the Prussians, with the stipulation that a new Assembly would be elected and empowered to make a final peace treaty. Paris finally began to see supplies arrive from the countryside. But national elections led to an ultraconservative Assembly, with the old political pro Adolphe Thiers as chief executive, and then to a peace treaty in February that surrendered Alsace and most of Lorraine to the Germans, levied reparations of 5 billion francs on France, and stipulated a Prussian victory parade down the Champs-Elysées on March 1.

The people of Paris and the National Guard—a kind of citizens' militia whose loyalty to the official government was not secure—became increasingly restive. The terms of the treaty signed at Versailles appeared to be a betrayal of the heroic Parisian resistance. When the new government in March decided to terminate the moratorium on rent payments and commercial loan repayments—and sale of items left at pawnshops—that the wartime government had decreed, there was also a sense of class betrayal. The trigger point was reached on March 18, when Thiers decided he needed to disarm the National Guard by taking away its cannon, many of which had been purchased by public subscription and were affectionately given names ("Victor Hugo," for one). During the night of the 17th and into the morning of the 18th, troops climbed up the Butte Montmartre to the cannon park. They secured the cannon—but horses and limbers to haul them away were slow in arriving. A crowd gathered, largely women at first, to prevent the taking of the cannon. Finally General Claude Lecomte ordered his troops to fire on the crowd. They did not. He ordered again, and again—but his troops began to put their guns butt upward and to desert to the crowd. Lecomte was seized, and later in the day, along with another general, Jacques-Léon Clément Thomas, who happened upon the scene, shot. Thiers and his ministers fled Paris to the safety of Versailles, where the Assembly now sat, which would henceforth be the seat of the official government. In Paris, meanwhile, the Commune took power.

It has never been easy to define the Commune, since it was an ad-hoc creation, born in the midst of crisis, that comprised a disparate cast of leaders of very different political commitments. It marked an attempt at local government taking independent control of the capital and running it as a kind of workers' democracy, though without a single coherent ideology: there were various strains of utopian and pragmatic socialism and anarchism, old Jacobins and new visionaries, as well as more straightforward utilitarian concerns among those chosen to govern. They represented largely the petit bourgeois and artisan classes. During its brief existence, the Commune instituted some remarkable social reforms, including the separation of church and state, the secularization of schooling, and the legal equality of women, while trying to manage defense of the city, which, after the siege by the Prussians, was increasingly threatened by the Versailles government.

The existence of the Commune became more and more precarious. Its military attempts to break out from the city and attack the enemy in Versailles failed miserably. Eventually, Thiers directed the invasion of Paris by the French Army, unleashing the most savage and destructive class warfare Western Europe has ever known. French Army troops, or the Versaillais, as they were known, their ranks bolstered by prisoners of war released by Bismarck to counter the proletarian insurgency, fought their way through Paris and leveled the Communard barricades with a vindictive force that is difficult to fathom. A number of the generals had experience fighting in the French colonies of North Africa and treated the Communards as if they were "natives." Indeed, they were made to seem like they were of another race, degenerate, alcohol fueled, vicious. By the end of the Bloody Week in May, probably some 20,000 Communards had been killed, either in the fighting or in the summary executions carried out by the Versaillais. Much of central Paris was set on fire, first by bombardment, then by the retreating Communards, who sought to put a wall of flame between themselves and the attackers. Paris, when the fighting stopped, presented a grim spectacle of ruin as inhabitants and visitors—including Flaubert—came to view the devastated city.

The Terrible Year found exceptional observers and narrators in Flaubert and George Sand (the self-created name of Aurore Dupin), the woman who was not Flaubert's lover but his closest confidante. The two had spent the Christmas holidays together in 1869 and looked forward to a prosperous 1870. They had vowed to say all to one another, without restraint, and their letters record their absolute devotion and candor. Neither was in Paris: Sand was in her beautiful home in Nohant, south of the Loire River in the Berry, Flaubert in the house in Croisset, on the River Seine just outside the Norman city of Rouen, that his surgeon father had bought and that he shared with his aged mother. But both followed events in the theaters of war, and then in Paris, with acute attention. They found themselves more deeply patriotic in spirit than they imagined they could be—Flaubert even briefly became lieutenant in a local National Guard unit. They were made heartsick by war, defeat, and siege. Sand was a long-standing socialist who had played a public role in the Second Republic born of the Revolution of 1848. Flaubert was an anti-democrat who believed in the rule of a mandarin caste of the enlightened who understood the laws of science. In November 1869 he had published Sentimental Education, a novel claiming to be the history of his own generation, including its experience of the Revolution of 1848 and its aftermath. Neither approved of the Commune, but both hated the reactionaries even more and deplored the actions of the "turd-shaped" Thiers. Their correspondence throughout the Terrible Year offers a rich choral commentary on war, politics, insurrection, violence, ruin, and the ineradicable stupidity of their contemporaries.

Flaubert came to Paris just as soon as the fighting stopped and he could get a train down from Rouen. He toured the still smoking ruins of central Paris, where the seat of government and many public buildings had gone up in flames during the final agony of the Commune. Viewing the ruins, he commented to his friend Maxime Du Camp that if only his contemporaries had understood Sentimental Education, this—the devastating denouement of the Terrible Year—never could have happened. His remark claims an exceptional role for the novel in the writing and understanding of history: the novel as truer to grasping the meaning of historical action than what usually passes as history. Sentimental Education gives a picture of the previous revolution, in 1848, but he convinced himself that it should have been read as prophetic of the ruins he stood among. What did he mean, and how did the Terrible Year as a whole come to be portrayed and understood as the political and cultural crucible of modern France?

The story I have to tell bears witness to the Terrible Year and its bloody climax through the eyes of Flaubert and Sand. As they emerged from its horrors, they confronted an aftermath of warring commemorations of the event, including the improbable building of the Basilique du Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart) on the heights of Montmartre, where the National Guard's cannon park stood, in "expiation" of the sins of secular France during the Terrible Year, and Victor Hugo's novel Ninety-Three (Quatrevingt-treize), an attempt to reconcile the contending forces of the nation that reaches back to the year of the Terror during the first French Revolution to dramatize the clash of ideologies and persons that continued throughout the nineteenth century. Most of all, this story weighs Flaubert's claim to have written the history of his generation—a claim as well to a kind of right of historiography that makes the novel the best access to history. It's not only the history of the Terrible Year that interests me but also the contests about remembering and representing it and the relation of writing to event. The novelization of history, as you might call it, took on various forms, with far-reaching results.

What follows will first briefly trace Flaubert's career prior to the Terrible Year, from the time that his first novel, Madame Bovary, was published through his meeting with Sand and his experience as a lionized writer under the Second Empire, and then move into the Terrible Year itself as witnessed by the two writers. I will then ask what Flaubert meant when he said that an understanding of Sentimental Education would have saved his contemporaries from the folly and misery of the war and the Commune and its repression, as well as how that prescient novel fits with other attempts to claim the history of the Terrible Year in books, statues, and monuments. Along the way come the photographs of what Flaubert saw in early June 1871, as the ruins of Paris called forth a remarkable response in the maturing art of photography. I will talk about the continuing evolution of Flaubert's political views and his last writings, including a story he wrote for Sand that she didn't live to read. Finally, I will say a word about how the novel, including Flaubert's contribution, becomes the key to the understanding of modern history.

I wish, then, to tell a story that includes the catastrophic events experienced by Flaubert and Sand, and the fight over their meaning afterward, and as well a story about Flaubert, Sand, politics, and the novel. When Flaubert claims the force of his novel as predictive of events that unfolded shortly after its publication, he summons us to think about how the novel as genre can shape our understanding of events. Sentimental Education is, among other things, a meditation on the role of human agency in the making of history, and it touches on all the political ideologies and commitments of his time. Above all, it seems to be a reflection on the capacity of human action to inflect event. What can we who live in the midst of unfolding history do about it? How do we even go about cutting through the fog of event and the cacophony of competing voices to understand it?

Flaubert has most often been thought of as a dropout from public affairs who largely embodies conservative bourgeois political ideology despite a lifetime spent skewering the bourgeoisie. Some of his most clear-sighted critics have argued otherwise. In particular, Edmund Wilson, in his essay "Flaubert's Politics" in The Triple Thinkers (first published in 1938, then revised in 1948), sees Flaubert as a judicious figure who understands better than most the political stakes of his time and of the future. Contrasting Flaubert to some other writers of his time, Wilson concluded that "really Flaubert owed his superiority to… his contemporaries… to the seriousness of his concerns with the large question of human destiny." Much more recently, the biography of Flaubert by the French historian Michel Winock argues in its turn that Flaubert's political views evolved greatly in response to the Terrible Year, making this mandarin who expressed contempt for the plebes eventually turn into a republican. That is an important line in my story: how Flaubert the social and political conservative became a republican who feared the threatened restoration of a monarchy in France (it nearly did happen), and who came to understand that the French could live together without slaughtering one another only in a republic. Undoubtedly Sand helped him in this political conversion: if, like him, she deplored the Commune, it was because she saw the Commune as being opposed to the legitimate republican government, however much the latter deserved censure. She remained always faithful to a generous dream of humanitarian reconciliation, with class warfare submerged in a new harmony that would offer the best to human aspiration.

Flaubert's political evolution is closely tied to his writing, but not in any simple way. Sentimental Education offers a version of political and social event with which he will continue to dialogue: his very last, unfinished novel, Bouvard et Pécuchet (Bouvard and Pécuchet) published only after his death, returns to the Revolution of 1848 that stands at the center of Sentimental Education and gives quite a different version of it. His scenarios for an unfinished novel on the era of the Second Empire, Sous Napoléon III (Under Napoleon III), also seem to take an unexpected political stance. The novel for Flaubert is an instrument of testing and discovery. Like history itself, it is never static. The incapacity to move, to change one's mind, and to entertain new possibilities is what the bourgeois are all about, and by the time of Flaubert's last work, he is seeking new ways around the bourgeoisie, using the language that its members think they own in order to unseat them.

Flaubert and Sand were not so much participants in the events of the Terrible Year as impassioned observers and commentators, writers who believed in the power of the word to explain, clarify, critique. They saw that the fate of their nation, perhaps even the future of humanity, was at stake, and that by the same token their own writing was tied to politics in ways they had not foreseen. Their anguished reactions to unfolding events returned again and again to the place that should be given to intelligence and analysis within politics and national culture. If one had to submit to historical events beyond one's control, there was nonetheless the need to recount them and try to understand them. Writing, if exact and honest, could change lives, maybe inflect the course of history. But it needed readers of intelligence and good faith, and where were they to be found?

So most of all I offer a book about politics and the novel. Not politics in any trivial sense, but rather the making of enormously important historical events. And not the novel as a simple mirror of political events or political ideologies, but something much more complex. The novel is in dialogue with political event, attempting to incorporate it, understand it, tell its meaning. The novel itself becomes part of history, read by—so often misunderstood by—one's contemporaries. It participates in a struggle to say who shall write the history of contemporary France. And beyond that, it is part of a longer history, a period that starts with the first French Revolution and the struggle to say to whom France belongs. That's what the historiography of modern France that is so important in Flaubert's time is ultimately about, and so is Flaubert's fictional writing. This novelist who is so often seen as a detached aesthete—and often wants to see himself that way—becomes a political participant through his work.

So "politics and the novel" here is not a concept that will yield a simple meaning. I look on it as an invitation, to myself and to the reader, to take seriously Flaubert's astonishing claim that an understanding of the novel that he published in November 1869 would, if properly understood, have prevented the events of 1870 and 1871. How can a novel teach a nation to avoid war, civil war, and self-immolation?

– chapter one –

From Emma Bovary to the Terrible Year



  • "Deploying his characteristic precision, eloquence, nuance, and wit, Peter Brooks has produced not only a brilliant book about the relationship between history and culture but an oddly prescient and timely map for how contemporary writers might respond--with a useful and intelligently political art--following America's own 'terrible year.'"—David Shields
  • "Challenging and judicious, wide-ranging yet consistently focused, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris is a delight to read. In full control of literary and political history, Peter Brooks makes an unimpeachable case for the importance of Flaubert's Sentimental Education as a prophetic historical novel, and in the process corrects and redeems the conventional image of Flaubert as a political reactionary and aloof resident in an ivory tower."—Victor Brombert, Henry Putnam University Professor at Princeton University and author of Trains of Thought
  • "From one of our finest literary critics, Flaubert in the Ruins of Paris reminds us of the power of great novels in dark times. This story about the entangled relationships of friends, fiction, history, and politics couldn't be more timely, and nobody tells it better than Peter Brooks."—Maya Jasanoff, Coolidge Professor of History, Harvard University

On Sale
Apr 4, 2017
Page Count
288 pages
Basic Books

Peter Brooks

About the Author

Peter Brooks is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University. The author of several award-winning books, Brooks currently teaches at Princeton University and lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

Learn more about this author