Anyone who can read French can now become a literary scholar without leaving home. From this week, 4,500 pages of the classic 19th-century French novel, Madame Bovary – not just the 500-odd pages of the published text but thousands of passages which were censored by the publisher or cut or revised by the author – are available online.
After a marathon effort of transcription by 130 volunteers from all over the world, including a cleaning lady, an oil prospector and several teenagers, all the variants of Gustave Flaubert's masterpiece can be consulted on a new website. This is believed to be the first time that the complete process of creation, and publication, of a classic novel has been made available on the internet.
The site – www.bovary.fr – contains not only the published text and images of the barely legible manuscripts but interactive controls which allow the reader to re-instate passages corrected or cut by Flaubert or his publishers.
Madame Bovary tells the tragic story – or, some critics insist, the blackly comic tale – of the social frustrations, love affairs and suicide of the wife of an incompetent provincial doctor in Normandy. The book, now regarded as one of the finest novels in any language, was the Lady Chatterley's Lover of its day.
In 1857, after it appeared in serial form, Flaubert and his publishers were prosecuted by the French state for "outraging public and religious morals". Flaubert won.
Anyone searching the new site for "naughty bits" scissored by the publishers will probably be disappointed. Although Flaubert was furious that his text was altered to try to avoid a trial, the censored passages are hardly more explicit than many of those that remained. For instance, the celebrated sequence in which Emma Bovary and one of her lovers make love in a carriage with the blinds drawn as they trot through the streets of Rouen is barely changed in the various manuscript versions.
The project was launched six years ago as a tool for literary scholars. The municipal library in Rouen, which holds the Flaubert manuscripts, appealed to academics to help transcribe the hand-written texts. It was rapidly decided to open up the transcription process to enthusiastic amateurs and to make the site suitable for the general reader as well as the specialist.
The manuscripts were shared out for transcription between 130 volunteers, aged from 16 to 76, in a dozen countries, including France, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, Colombia, Ivory Coast and New Zealand. "They range from sixth-formers to a cleaning lady and an oil prospector," said Professor Danielle Girard, who co-ordinated the transcription work.
"No one person in a single lifetime could have achieved what they have," said the project leader, Professor Yvan Leclerc of the University of Rouen. "It can take between three and 10 hours to decipher a single page of Flaubert's writing."
Flaubert was an obsessively meticulous writer, to whom style was just as important as content. The processes by which he created his handful of books have always fascinated scholars.
The manuscripts were given to the library in Rouen, Flaubert's home town, by the author's niece in 1914. They range from the final text to rough drafts and an overall plan, to annotations and re-writes.
The site invites readers to challenge any interpretation of the muddled manuscripts with which they disagree. Any objections which are upheld by the organisers will be incorporated in the site.