All his life Maupassant had a fierce, almost morbid hatred of personal publicity, and even went so far as to quarrel with his publisher when the latter issued an edition of his “Soirees de Medan” containing as a frontispiece an etching of the five authors. After his death, Madame Laure de Maupassant, his mother, saw to it that as much of his correspondence as possible was destroyed, and withheld from the public those intimate records of which biographies are made. His biographers have been obliged to piece together his tragic story as best they could. No volume of his letters was published until 1908, when a selection was included in the first volume of the definitive Conard edition of his works. This meagre collection, supplemented in 1929 by a volume of alleged “unpublished” letters from Maupassant to Flaubert, many of which Conard had previously printed, is all the correspondence of Maupassant which has been formally published.
The letters here translated are amongst the earliest we have from the author, and belong to the period when he was the reluctant “galley-slave,” as he called it, of office routine, leading the life of an underpaid civil servant and gaining the experience of that world which he described in so many stories. In 1878, however, he was still an unknown and struggling author, having published only four very inferior sketches in certain provincial publications.
Paris, January 21, 1878.
My dear Mother, I have delayed somewhat in writing to you because I have been very busy. In order to economize I myself have made two copies of my play, thereby saving 24 francs. I needed them at once, so I could not stop until I had finished them.
But first let us talk about your lace. I was not able to see Monsieur de Lonpellier, so I wrote to him explaining what I wanted. He answered me himself, a very nice letter, in which he said that the matter of the lace had not yet been taken up, that they received many offers of the kind, and that they would let me know what decision had been arrived at. He asks me to give the sample that is here to Monsieur de la Charriere, who goes every day to the Exhibition, so that he may compare it with the others. I shall see him about this. We can hardly refuse his request.
As for my play, Flaubert has read it and thinks it very praiseworthy, but he did not seem to me very enthusiastic. However, he is going to show it to Perrin, although he does not believe the Comedie-Francaise will accept it, as Perrin has had enough of historical plays, which no longer draw the public. Zola, who is dining tomorrow with Sarah Bernhardt, has been kind enough to take her a copy himself. If she liked the part, she might, in turn, talk to Perrin, but Sarah Bernhardt has no voice in the matter and her opinion has no influence with the Committee.
In short, I think the result is doubtful in that quarter. We shall see what happens at the Odeon. On the other hand, Flaubert was most enthusiastic about the plan for a novel, which I read him. His words were: “An, yes. That’s excellent. That’s a real novel, a real idea.” Before starting on it definitely, I am going to work on my plan for a month or six weeks.
Now I need your help in a delicate matter, which has been in my mind for a long time, and about which I did not wish to speak to you yet, so I will explain in great detail what the situation is.
Since my return from Switzerland, my chief treats me like a dog. That holiday at the watering-place has exasperated him against me. He cannot conceive of anybody’s being ill when it is a question of duty. It was only after a violent quarrel with him that I got permission to go and see you on New Year’s Day, and there is every chance of my not having any holiday at Easter. The other day, having a terrible headache, I asked the assistant chief for permission to go home and lie down, which he granted. The next day, the chief sent for me, told me I was making a fool of him, that I was not ill, that there was nothing the matter with me, and that a headache was no excuse for leaving the office, etc., etc. In short, he forbade me to go out during the day on any pretext whatsoever, and especially on that of seeing my doctor. As I have to go to Monsieur de la Charriere’s every fortnight, you can see what a position I am in. This, coupled with the absence of promotion in the department, with the exclusion of civilians, etc., has decided me to ask Flaubert to try and get me an adequate post in the Ministry of Fine Arts, through his friend, Monsieur Bardoux, the minister. He understands my abominable position at the Ministry of Marine, this school for life, and has promised me all his help.
Now, to stir him up a bit, write him a pathetic letter, thanking him for what he has promised to do for me. My position here is far from easy, but make it seem worse, pity me, and so forth, without asking for anything immediate, but thanking him for what he has promised to do and telling him of my great joy at this hope.
At the Ministry of Fine Arts, I should at least have agreeable work, and several practically independent posts are controlled by this department. If I could wangle one, it would be charming for me. Comte d’Osmoy, Flaubert’s friend, refused to become head of this department because he would have had to resign his position as a deputy. If he had accepted it, I should have had a charming post; I wish he had. However, by using the influence of both Monsieur Bardoux and Monsieur d’Osmoy at the same time, I may succeed in finding a place somewhere.
Didn’t you once tell me about the occupation (something disgraceful, as I recall it) of the father of that Madame Desfosses, now the owner of the Maison Bergerand? I can’t remember any more what it was. Please tell me. The other day I saw a man who has met the Bourgeois several times. He knows nothing very definite about them, but he told me that he had never heard anything of any kind to their discredit.
Last Thursday I dined at Zola’s. He gave us an excellent dinner.
Good-bye, my dearest mother, many kisses, and regards to the servants.
Guy de Maupassant.
What about your health? Mine is about the same. My hair has stopped falling out.
The play to which Maupassant refers was “La Trahison de la Comtesse de Rhune,” an historical play in three acts, in verse, the scene of which is laid in Brittany, in 1347. It was not included in the definitive edition of his works, for it adds nothing to his fame, although carefully written and laboriously revised under the tutelage of Flaubert. Its sole interest is that it is an indication of the nature of Maupassant’s literary preoccupation during the last decade of the ‘seventies, before “Boule de Suif” revealed his true metier. It is frequently forgotten that Maupassant’s apprenticeship to Flaubert was that of a poet rather than a story-teller. His first work to be published in book form, it so happens, owed its existence to the play above-mentioned. Despite Flaubert’s recommendation, “La Trahison de la Comtesse de Rhune” was rejected, but the author was informed that a shorter verse play would be acceptable. Whereupon Maupassant disinterred a piece, written in 1874, and many times re-written — always at Flaubert’s suggestion —, entitled “Histoire du Vieux Temps.” This was produced in 1879 at the Theatre Dejazet and was published the same year, being later included in the repertory of the Comedie-Francaise. Another trifle, dating from the same period, “Une Repetition,” was included in a volume of sketches and monologues which appeared in 1880, antedating the publication of Maupassant’s first book, which was “Des Vers,” and not “Boule de Suif,” as is commonly assumed.
Maupassant wrote a number of such playlets, including what he described to his mother as an “absolutely lubricious” piece, known as “La Maison Turque a la Feuille de Rose,” none of which have been published. Although he abandoned such attempts in favor of prose fiction, Maupassant never lost the illusion that he was a playwright. In 1891 “Mu-sotte,” written in collaboration with Jacques Normand, and based on one of his stories, was produced at the Gymnase, with mediocre success. A few months before his death, in 1893, “La Paix du Menage,” with the advantage of a first-rate caste for its three parts, likewise scored a success of esteem at the Comedie-Francaise. A macabre note of dramatic criticism was struck by Sarcey, the great panjandrum of his profession, when he wrote: “If Maupassant had lived, I think he would have established himself in the theatre.” At the time Maupassant was living in Dr. Blanche’s asylum in Passy. His death left unfinished a dramatization of “Yvette.” Some ten years later a version of “Boule de Suif” by Oscar Metenier was staged at the Theatre An-toine. It would seem that the very dramatic power of his stories as such militated against their being effectively translated into terms of the theatre.
In 1872, after his release from military service during the Franco-Prussian War, Maupassant applied for a post at the Ministry of Marine, and the following year he was permanently appointed to the printing and stationery department. The above letter, written after five years of discontent, is one of the many in which he poured out his woes to his mother and to Flaubert. The reference to his return from Switzerland and to his violent headaches is a reminder that even at this early date, before he was thirty, Maupassant was beginning to be affected by the syphilitic malady which finally destroyed his mind and his body. Other records show that in 1877 he was granted two months’ leave of absence to take the waters at Loueche-les-Bains, the well-known resort in the Canton of Valais. At that time, as he complained to Flaubert, his hair was falling out. Now, apparently, that process had been stopped. His life at the Ministry of Marine was not precisely the slavery which he liked to depict. Those were the years of his affectionate apprenticeship to Flaubert, who had introduced him to Tur-genev, Zola, and Edmond de Goncourt, thereby establishing relationships for him with all the rising young authors of the Naturalist school: Huysmans, Hennique, Ceard, his collaborators in the publication of “Les Soirees de Medan.” They were also the years of his boating adventures on the Seine, which inspired so many stories in the style of “Mouche,” but which contributed not a little to the ravages of the disease which was consuming him, as the repeated intellectual and moral exhortations of Flaubert bear witness.
In the Conard edition of “Des Vers” we have the letter which Madame Laure de Maupassant wrote to Flaubert in response to her son’s appeal. It is by no means the “pathetic” letter which he suggested but, like so many of her letters to this old friend, an affectionate reminder of their friendship since childhood, of her joy in his interest in Maupassant, and expresses the confident hope that Flaubert’s “adopted son” will soon “leave his prison,” thanks to his promise to intervene on his behalf. She assumes that Maupassant has acquainted Flaubert with his grievances against the Ministry of Marine—a fact amply proved by their correspondence. Her letter of January 23, 1878, elicited one from him, dated the 31st, and hitherto unpublished:
My dear Laura,
Guy has probably written to you that I introduced him last Sunday to my friend Bardoux, to his Excellency in person. So far we have had nothing but promises, but I promise you that I shall pester the aforesaid minister, and that if our young man is not released from the galleys, it will not be my fault. An, why, my dear old friend, do we not see each other more often? What pleasure we should have, talking of old times! Life is badly arranged. We must submit.
No, I shall not be in Croisset, if you come here in May, and this summer I count on paying you a visit at Etretat. Your son is the delight of our little group. Turgenev is very funny with him. Guy completely dazzles him and demoralizes him, or rather, perverts him. There’s a triumph.
From the published correspondence of Maupassant and Flaubert we know of all the efforts made by both to extract a promise of definite action from Bardoux. But as the following letter shows, Maupassant, within a fortnight, had lost hope and patience.
Paris, February 15, 1878.
My dear Mother,
I saw Sarah Bernhardt and found her very nice, too nice, in fact, because she announced that she would show my play to Perrin, and boasted that she would see that he read it. Now, the next day I discovered that Flaubert had taken the play to this Perrin, and I am afraid that Sarah Bernhardt will be furious with me for having made her expose herself to a refusal from her manager. However, I’ll try to see her again tomorrow and explain the matter. I had no hope that she herself would attempt such a thing, and when she said so, she had read only the first act of my play. And I’m not so sure she had read even that! But whether she knew the play or not, she appeared to be enchanted by it. So it’s a complete enigma and it is impossible to know what will come of it. Is it a stroke of good or bad luck that the play was shown by Flaubert? Well, we’ll see what we see. The aforesaid Flaubert has not been very helpful on my behalf. I might, perhaps, have been appointed assistant librarian at the Ecole des Beaux Arts; the salary would not have been much more than that I now have at the Ministry, but the position is morally much superior. I should have been my own master and had a vacation every year from August 1 to October 1. In spite of what I told him, he thought the thing impossible, and waited and hesitated, until the ground was cut from underneath our feet. As soon as it is a question of practical matters, the dear Master does not know where to begin. His requests are Platonic rather than effective; he does not insist enough, and above all, he never knows when to take the bull by the horns. In brief, they fool him, although he will not admit it. I hope he will be more successful the next time.
I am going to send to your address (carriage paid) by rail, next Wednesday or Thursday, a parcel of my shirts with worn-out fronts, together with some new fronts. Here they ask an exhorbitant price to arrange these shirts which cost me, new, four francs, seventy-five. I want you to have them repaired at my expense by Anastasia, or some one else. The new shirt fronts enclosed in the parcel must have three double button holes.
The collar must be widened by about a centimeter, and be not so tight in front—that is, the new shirt front must not be so high as the old, be looser, in a word. When the work is done, you might return the shirts by rail. I’ll pay you back at Easter.
Monsieur de Lonpellier has notified me that I need no longer look after your lace. The Committee will let me know in writing when it must be submitted for examination. So you need not worry about that.
Madame Brainne, with whom I had a long talk yesterday, drew me a portrait of Madame Commanville, and her summary struck me. She is, she says, incomprehensible: she takes courses in physiology and metaphysics; she is pious and republican; as cold as marble; impervious to most suffering and passions; she spends hours in tete-a-tete with Father Didon, and hours in tete-a-tete with her nude models —she is intolerant, infallible, her reason is supreme. Madame de Maintenon must have been exactly like that. The comparison is extremely accurate. She is Madame de Main-tenon.
I am working hard at my novel and hope to have a good lot of it done before summer. As you know, once this time of year comes round, I do not make much progress. However, granting all delays, I shall certainly have finished by next New Year’s Day. Perhaps I shall have finished before that.
Good-bye, my dearest Mother. Many kisses.
Guy de Maupassant.
Remember me to the servants. If I have anything new to report, I’ll write immediately.
Madame Caroline Commanville was Flaubert’s niece, a painter and engraver of talent, who afterwards dedicated her life to the guardianship of his correspondence and manuscripts and to the promotion of his fame. Maupassant dedicated to her his “Histoire du Vieux Temps”; one entire volume of Flaubert’s correspondence in the Conard edition consists of his letters to her. Madame Brainne was an old Rouen friend of Flaubert and Maupassant. The latter dedicated “Une Vie” to her, and one of his amusements, as reported in his correspondence with Flaubert, was to send her stories which shocked her. In the same correspondence there is ample proof that Maupassant’s impatience over the delay in getting him transferred to the Ministry of Fine Arts was not the fault of his old friend, but of Bardoux, the Minister. Many letters tell of repeated attempts to pin this elusive person down. On being appointed to this post, Bardoux apparently developed the habit of promising things which he could not at once fulfil. He allowed it to be said, for instance, that Zola would certainly get the Cross of the Legion of Honor, and great was the consternation in the Flaubert group when this did not happen.
Maupassant’s chief at the Ministry of Marine appears to have placed such obstacles in the way of this transfer as were possible, and Maupassant’s letters resound with lamentations over the difficulty of getting leave to see Bardoux, over the latter’s dilatoriness, and the fact that on one occasion Bardoux denied ever having seen him before! Consequently, six months later, we find him still writing from the Ministry of Marine:
Paris, October 22, 1878.
My dear Mother,
As I foresaw, it was impossible for me to write to you last week, I was so overwhelmed with work—and even today I have so much to do that I shall probably be obliged to finish this letter at home this evening.
I spent Sunday, as I told you I should, with Flaubert and Monday with Pinchon. I arrived at Croisset on Saturday evening and we spent part of the night talking, the “Master” and myself. The next day we went to see Corneille’s house at Petit-Couronne, It is to the left of the Seine, in a dreary village, a small brick house, the beams of which are covered with a kind of wood scales. The rooms have very low ceilings. The place is sad, but rather restful. An old, muddy pond, with a stone where a bench should be, must have held the gaze and concentrated the thoughts of the old poet, who probably contemplated it for days at a time. The spreading horizon extends from La Bouille to Dieppedalle, outlining the round, wooded curves of the slopes on the other side of the Seine. I like this landscape. It is simple, easily described, and even the very contrast between this setting and the subjects of the plays is curious.
The Commanvilles have not let their Paris apartment. The husband told me that he was very sorry they had not been able to come to Etretat. I replied that we should have better luck next time.
In the evening I dined at Louis’, who is, at the moment, the greatest man in Rouen. His painting has delighted all the citizens. The “Journal de Rouen” and the “Nouvelliste” praise him in the loftiest terms. Strangers greet him in the street. People prophesy a gold medal for him. He is the feted artist and—what is worse—is understood by this lamentable city. Yet, it is the picture refused in Paris which he sent to the city exhibition and which has thus aroused his fellow-townsmen to such ecstasy. Bravo!
At 9:30 I left for Longueville. Pinchon was waiting for me at the station, wearing clogs. First he took me to the Hotel de l’Ecu de France, where he had reserved a room for me, his house not being large enough to hold me.
(I can well believe it!) Then, after crossing two swampy lanes, after stumbling against a stone which came, he said, from the castle of Du Guesclin, Bayard and Dunois, upon which some practical joker, doubtless, cut the date 1241, after having jumped over a woodpile, swum across a pond, and dropped my walking-stick into something which he poetically called mud, we arrived in front of a sort of rabbit hutch, which Pinchon stooped down and entered. I followed him. A fat but tiny woman greeted us inside, while a thin servant smiled in the corner. On a table the size of your hand a diminutive cold chicken was drying, surrounded by three leaves of salad. I looked in vain for a place to hang my hat which, despite my moderate stature, I had crushed against the ceiling. Then I sat down on a tiny chair in front of the tiny chicken and ate it. Then something infinitely small moved in a corner. “Hello!” said I, “a mouse.” But the rickety little animal came leaping and bounding towards me. I gazed upon it. Imagine an abortive little greyhound, with a muzzle sharpened to a pinpoint, two straight little ears, four paws so thin as to bring tears to your eyes, and a long tail like a thread, with no belly whatever, and the large eyes of a consumptive. This was Falaise. I was afraid to stroke her lest she should run away, and the bones of her rump scraped the palms of my hands. She is adored, perhaps because of her smallness, lives in a basket lined with the old clothes of old man Pinchon, and she eats only what pleases her.
The cider of the house being good, I asked for some, but they brought it in such a tiny jug that they had to go back six times during my supper to the little hole which does duty for a cellar.
Afterwards we examined the house. This did not take long. It is a replica of your goat-shed: a short, narrow room, divided in two by a partition. The son sleeps to the right, the mother to the left. You pass through one hut to reach the other. The doors are so narrow that Madame Pinchon can only get through sideways. I never did discover where the maid slept. Perhaps she also has a basket, opposite Falaise’s, in the “kitchen-dining-room-drawing-room.”
There is no kitchen stove in this astonishing structure. On the hearth in the universal room where they eat, they place two little dish-warmers full of coal, and therein they do their microscopical cooking. It needs a magnifying glass to see it.
I slept at the Hotel de l’Ecu de France with a number of spiders and night birds.
The next day, in the early morning, we set out for Miromesnil, and reached the house by the wide avenue from which the sea is visible, above Saint-Aubin-sur-Scie. The front of the house on this side did not recall anything to me. As it was inhabited, and some stupid-looking people were walking in. . . .
This letter, the remainder of which is lost, shows a side of Maupassant of which there is little or no trace in the rest of his available correspondence. The testimony of all his friends at this time shows him a man given to practical joking of a rather elementary sort and suggests that, at least until he became a popular idol, he was a man of good humor, with a sense of humor which later completely deserted him. Robert Pinchon, whose house he so facetiously describes, was one of his bosom companions in his escapades on the Seine and is immortalized under the name of “La Toque” in “Mouche,” that being the nickname by which he was known. He assisted Maupassant in the staging of his early playlets and actually played several parts in “La Maison Turque.”
It is a pity we have not the remainder of this letter in which he speaks of his visit to Miromesnil, the house where his mother claimed he was born, because this imposing chateau satisfied her delusions of grandeur. The exact place of Maupassant’s birth is disputed. His birth-certificate says Miromesnil; his death-certificate, Sotteville, near Yvetot. Contemporary evidence points to Fecamp, where the name of the street where he was born has been changed to Quai Guy de Maupassant, the theory being that his mother, who detested Fecamp, rented the Miromesnil house a few months after his birth.
The Rouen painter, upon whose success in that city Maupassant comments so bitterly, was presumably Louis Le-poittevin, the nephew of Madame Laure de Maupassant. It was Flaubert’s friendship with her brilliant but dissipated brother, Alfred Lepoittevin, which united the Flaubert and Maupassant families so closely. Save for Flaubert’s letters, little definite was known of Alfred Lepoittevin until a volume of his selected writings and correspondence was published by the eminent Flaubertian, Rene Descharmes, under the title of “Une Promenade de Belial,” in 1924. Much light is thrown upon the unhappy heredity of Maupassant by this record of his potentially distinguished uncle. Louis, who was about Maupassant’s age at the time this letter was written, survived until a few years before the war.
The last of this little group of unpublished letters finds Maupassant finally installed in the Ministry of Fine Arts, where he was appointed in December, 1878, after nearly one whole year of waiting upon the whim of Bardoux. Apparently this consummation might have been still delayed but for the fact that the head of the department was a minor poet of the period, Xavier Charmes, who took a sympathetic interest in Maupassant and made up Bardoux’s mind for him. At the Ministry of Fine Arts the young author at once found himself in more congenial surroundings, including such kindred literary spirits as Henry Roujon and Leon Dierx, whom Maupassant had met at “La Republique des Lettres,” the first publication of artistic standing to give him a hearing. His salary was somewhat larger and his liberty was greater at his new post, from which he was allowed to absent himself on an average of three times a week. Consequently, we have, at last, a letter from Maupassant in which there are no complaints.
Paris, August 14, 1879.
My dear Mother,
I have been some days without replying to you because, at the moment, I am terribly busy. Monsieur Charmes has just returned from his vacation, and I am tied down from morning until night. Here is a letter which I have received from Herve. I wrote him as harsh and humiliating a letter as possible. He replied very humbly, so I sent him a severe letter, but in a less highly-strung vein. You must see if you can get the colonel to promise to have him transferred to another corps.
I shall very probably go to Brittany in September, but to make my trip complete and easy, I shall want you to advance me (if that does not inconvenience you in any way) sixty francs until New Year’s Day at the latest. As I shall receive a bonus of at least three hundred francs, I shall have no difficulty in repaying you. My father is paying my travelling-expenses, as in the case of Holland. If this advance inconveniences you at all, tell me frankly, for that will not prevent me from taking the trip. Here is what I propose to do: go straight to Rennes, from there to Nantes, via Redon, then to Auray, Quiberon, Saint-Brieuc, Dinard, Saint-Malo, Avranches, Coutances, Jersey and Guernesey, Cherbourg, Caen. I shall see you at Saint-Jacut in passing. Then about September 15, when you return to Etretat, I shall rejoin you from Caen to Havre. I’ll spend ten days or so there, then I’ll return to Caen to use the return half of my ticket.
Yesterday I went to see the rehearsal of “L’Histoire,” which is going to be performed on August 15 at a charity entertainment given by Louise de Miramont. The players are Madame Richault, an ex-actress of the Odeon, now a teacher of elocution, and Monsieur Georges, of the Vaudeville, I am very much pleased with them and think it will go very well. I have just sold to Tresse, the publisher (at a price as yet to be determined), my play, “Une Repetition,” which I am re-writing for him. lie will include it in the volume which he publishes every year under the title of “Saynetes et Monologues.” I may add that he bought it on trust, without having seen it.
Louise de Miramont writes me a tearful letter. My little play is costing her rather dear, since she has to pay the artists, etc. Now the Casino, which has a contract with the Society of Authors, is demanding “my” author’s rights, to wit, 120 francs. She asks me to surrender half this sum. Although it was a hard struggle, I gave up the whole amount. She was not counting on this difficulty and was really upset at having to pay that in addition. Moreover, I have often consulted Miramont without giving her anything, so 1 can afford to be generous on this occasion.
“My” 120 francs! How that would have helped my trip. However, let us forget it.
Good-bye, my dear Mother. My most affectionate kisses. Let me hear from you.
Guy de Maupassant.
Herve de Maupassant was Guy’s younger brother, and at this time his wild escapades were the subject of great concern to the family circle. In August, 1878, Flaubert wrote: “I am anxious to hear the details of your brother’s escapades, and I pity your poor mother and yourself for the worry which this young man is causing you.” After leaving the army Herve, with Guy’s assistance, set himself up as a horticulturist in the South of France. As a result of what was euphemistically called “sunstroke,” he lost his mind and had to be confined to an asylum. He served largely as the model for “Bel-Ami,” and like the author of that work, he died of general paralysis of the insane, in 1887.
Scarcely a year after this letter was written the fame of “Des Vers” and “Les Soirees de Medan” was so immediate that Maupassant decided to resign from the post he had so eagerly desired. Yet at the last moment his Norman caution caused him to hesitate and to appeal to Xavier Charmes. “My health is bad and the profession of letters is hazardous. If illness or bad luck compelled me, I should like to return to my post and my salary.” Charmes, who had always shown him the most lenient consideration, contrary to Maupassant’s complaints, agreed to place him en disponibilite. There he might have remained indefinitely, as has more than once happened to men of letters in the French civil service, had not some conscientious bureaucrat severed the umbilical cord binding him to the Ministere de l’Instruction Publique et des Beaux Arts. Maupassant never returned. In 1880 he was launched, in his own words, “like a meteor,” into a career from which he departed, some ten years later, “like a thunderbolt.”