Gustave Flaubert’s A Simple Heart (translated by Robert Baldick in 1995) is the story of Felicite – only fifty pages take us from her youth to her death – most of her life spent as maidservant to Madame Aubain:
“Every day Felicite got up at dawn, so as not to miss Mass, and worked until evening without stopping…Nobody could be more stubborn when it came to haggling over prices, and as for cleanliness, the shine on her sauce-pans was the despair of all the other servants.”
Her brief backstory involves a disappointing love affair which ended when her sweetheart, Theodore, “to make sure of avoiding conscription…married a very rich old woman.” It is after this that she leaves the farm where she has been working for the town and finds herself (rather fortuitously) employed by Mme Aubain. Mme Aubain has lost her husband (and much of her fortune) and has two children, Virginie and Paul, to bring up. The two women, both abandoned, though in different ways, co-exist on companionable though never friendly terms.
Their difference in station (and loyalty to each other) is demonstrated when Mme Aubain worries about having had no news of Virginie, who is, at this point, in a convent, for four days. Seeking to show solidarity, Felicite mentions that she has not heard from her nephew in six months:
“Oh, your nephew!… Who cares about a young, good-for-nothing cabin-boy? Whereas my daughter – why just think!”
Felicite’s love for Paul and Virginie, however, is genuine.
The story, as its title suggests, has echoes of recent bestseller, Robert Seethaler’s A Whole Life. Felicite leads a simple life, one in which she becomes increasingly solitary, yet is never shown to regret it. One difference is that Flaubert’s relationship with the character is clearer (again, as the title indicates) – there is no question that Felicite’s life is limited by her simplicity. Flaubert demonstrates this in her attitude to a parrot she acquires as a pet (and later has stuffed), which she comes to confuse with then Holy Spirit:
“In church she was forever gazing at the Holy Ghost, and one day she noticed it had something of the parrot about it. This resemblance struck her as even more obvious in a colour-print depicting the baptism of our Lord. With its red wings and emerald green body, it was the very image of Loulou.”
The parrot provides the story with its bathetic ending, one which suggests that Flaubert’s sympathy may be with Felicite but he has no wish to imitate her simplicity.