Flaubert's Revisions

to the opening paragraph of Madame Bovary were, well, quite extensive. Courtesy of the University of Rouen, here are some early drafts, the final draft, the copyedited draft (which Flaubert was apparently still editing, no doubt to his publisher's dismay, at press time), and the published version of 1873, here:

"Nous étions à l'Étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d'un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d'un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre. Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail."

This opening moment -- the arrival of the Proviseur, the studied busyness of the students who greet him, and the stage business with the grand pupitre -- persists mostly unchanged. But in the earliest draft, the new student does not appear immediately; Flaubert seems to want to signal his appearance through the appearance of the desk alone. But when the student finally arrives, the book takes off. He's unnamed, a mystery, and already causing trouble. (Why does he need such a large desk, anyway?) In drafts, Flaubert adds details only to take them away later, summarizing when he needs to pick up the pace. In the copyediting stage, Flaubert cut the first clause, which rather delightfully located the reader precisely in time using the schoolbell, all the way down to the more direct and immediate "We were in class when..."

I can easily imagine the scene: the proofs on the desk, the pen poised over them. He's never really liked the first line but nothing else worked any better. But it's the first line, it has to be good. He should cut it, down to the essentials. Oh, but the schoolbell started everything off so audily... But no, again - it still won't do. All at once he sees a different way in. A breath, another, cut cut cut...