Georgette Leblanc meets Emma Bovary

Georgette Leblanc (1869-1941), singer and actress who met with great success, did not want to be satisfied with being “the sister of”, “the companion of”, “the friend of”: in the order, by Maurice Leblanc, the famous author ofArsène Lupin, from Maurice Maeterlinck, Nobel Prize for Literature in 1911, Colette, which we do not present either. Jacques De Decker, recently deceased, perpetual secretary of the Royal Academy of French language and literature of Belgium, sees her as “A sort of Madonna of her time” !

Norman by birth, cultivated by her own efforts – only her brother, of course, was able to study at the lycée in Rouen – because she could only consider making a “good” marriage – which turned out to be a failure, her husband beating her – aspiring to fame also literary and above all a free woman, Georgette Leblanc had every reason to be interested in the character of Madame Bovary. And to the one who is undoubtedly, in part, the model, Delphine Delamare.

Read A pilgrimage to the land of Madame Bovary on Gallica :

In 1913, she undertook what she called a pilgrimage, in order to find the traces and the memory of the beautiful and young Normande, whose life shattered so early awakened the interest of Gustave Flaubert: “How to enter without emotion in the dilapidated temple of a memory extinct for many years? Alive, she could not defend herself from slander and lies. (What woman, beautiful and smiling, has not felt a cloak of infamy weigh on her shoulders?) “ There is no doubt that, even if Georgette Leblanc may not have had to endure criticism and reproach so much, she did not have to fight to exist as she saw fit.

Choice of artist who knows how to assert himself, to evolve, from opera to theater to the most modernist cinema, a choice of life also for the one who, in 1904, publishes a novel dealing with bisexuality, the choice of life (Fasquelle) as Catherine Gonnard, specialist in the cultural history of women and lesbians, recalls in a chronicle of RetroNews, «Georgette Leblanc, metamorphosis of a muse».

Living room and shade

A pilgrimage to the land of Madame Bovary is typical of what she was able to literally produce: memories, aphorisms, short stories, articles … Her very long love affair with the great Maeterlinck – giant of letters, figurehead of Belgian symbolism, universally known for his Pelléas and Mélisande (1892) and his Blue Bird (1908) – proves to be fascinating because they hold together a large salon allowing them to rub shoulders with everything that matters at the time, Mallarmé, Wilde, Rodin, Saint-Saëns… But it is as if darkened by the shadow cast that the genius and the social weight the great man throw on her and her aspirations.

Photo taken from a collection of artist portraits from 1900-1910. Image collection Georges Sirot. BNF

Extremely brilliant in her career as a singer and soon as an actress, especially in the title role of Monna Vanna, which earned her a tour throughout Europe and soon to the United States, she was nevertheless denied in her role as an inspiration when it came to writing. Maeterlinck goes so far as to assault him, while he sometimes loots his letters, as Catherine Gonnard reminds us: “I took from you, but it would be ridiculous to mention you, you are on stage, a singer, no one would believe me.” It is he, but it is also the whole time that speaks.

Find the previous episodes of the column “Fières de lettres”

Sources of Madame Bovary, there would be a lot to say. The debates are always heated and heat up in puffs. For Emma, ​​only one young model woman? Many ? Many poisoners who hit the headlines of those years? We must read Claudine Gothot-Mersch for her Genesis of Madame Bovary (Corti, 1966, reprint Slatkine, 1980) and follow the more recent research of Gilles Cléroux. Be that as it may, this short text by Georgette Leblanc (which constitutes what Gallica is currently offering us regarding this author, if we except for elements of her correspondence with Massenet) is a sensitive text, a refreshing dive into her native region that she describes with accents à la Colette, her friend: “More than any other one feels him established in the countryside, lying at the bottom of the valley, in the long cradle formed by the wooded hills, his houses do not stop the sources of greenery which flow through his silence; it remains mixed with trees and overgrown with grass. All along the river, gardens bloom and lean willows. “ So she describes Ry, who undoubtedly became Yonville-l’Abbaye with Flaubert.

Same delicacy and tenderness in the long description of her visit to Augustine Ménage, Delphine’s old servant, whose eyes and smile awaken by evoking the beauty and fantasies of her young mistress who has passed away. A whole world is reborn by the words of the old lady of unfailing loyalty to her unhappy mistress who has passed away.

The Grande rue de Ry.  Photograph by Louis Feuquière. The Grand-Rue de Ry. Photograph by Louis Feuquière. Photo Rouen municipal library. BNF

American life

But Georgette Leblanc is not confined to this text, to her French and Belgian life, to the great Maeterlinck, who in this case, in the end, will move away from her and marry a young woman. The bloodletting of 1914-1918 and the immense upheavals in all fields marked a caesura in his existence, as in most of his contemporaries. In 1920, she returned to the United States, where she met Margaret Anderson (1886-1973), soon the great love of her life, journalist, feminist, lesbian and editor, with Jane Heap (1883-1964), from The Little Review (1914-1929). Around Margaret and in the review, all the American, English, Irish and French avant-gardes meet. Thus it is the American who makes discover James Joyce in France, after having risked a lawsuit for the only fact of publishing, in serial, Ulysse !

During her time across the Atlantic, Georgette Leblanc met the extraordinary Helen Keller (1880-1968), deaf, mute and blind, but the first disabled person to obtain a university degree, a striking encounter that she recounts in two works in English: The Girl Who Found the Blue Bird : a Visit to Helen Keller (1914) and Man’s Miracle, the Story of Helen Keller and Her European Sisters (1913). It is also in the United States, where the cinema is more and more essential, that our intrepid begins to think about the project of what will turn out to be a masterpiece of the seventh art: the inhuman by Marcel L’Herbier (1924).

She embodies of course the intractable singer, then touched to the heart. The film is shot in particular at the Champs-Elysées theater, built by Auguste Perret, partly decorated by Antoine Bourdelle and inaugurated in 1913. The contributors are all dazzling with daring modernity: Fernand Léger, Robert Mallet-Stevens, Pierre Mac Orlan, Paul Poiret, Darius Milhaud… The About cinema (1919) by Georgette Leblanc, published in the Mercure from France, show a sharp approach to this new area for her. At the forefront of all aesthetic movements and often of the social advances of her time, Georgette Leblanc was definitely not a star (let us risk this anachronism) of lesser magnitude neither in the world of art nor in that of conducting her work well. life.

Carmen.  Air cards.  Bizet, comp.  Thais.  Love is a rare virtue / Massenet, comp.  ;  Georgette Leblanc-Maeterlinck, S;  with orchestral accompaniment, 1912. Photo National Library of France

Listen to Georgette Leblanc in the “Air des Cartes” by Carmen de Bizet, and 1912:


Monique Calinon for the National Library of France

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