George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 11
ARTIST AND MORALIST.
On what, in the future, will the fame of George Sand mainly rest? According to some critics, on her gifts of fertile invention and fluent narration alone, which make her novels attractive in spite of the chimerical theories, social, political and religious, everywhere interwoven. According to other judges again, her fictions transcend and are likely to outlive other fictions by virtue of certain eternal philosophic verities which they persistently set forth, and which give them a serious interest the changes in novel-fashions cannot affect.
The conclusion seems inevitable that whilst the artistic strength of George Sand's writings is sufficient to command readers among those most out of harmony with her views, to minds in sympathy with her own these romances, because they express and enforce with earnestness, sincerity, and fire, the sentiments of a poetic soul, a generous heart, and an immense intelligence, on subjects of consequence to humanity, have a higher value than can attach to skilful development of plot and intrigue, mere display of literary cleverness, or of the storings of minute observation.
Her opinions themselves have been widely misapprehended, perhaps because her personality—or rather that imaginary personage, the George Sand of the myths—has caused a confusion in people's minds between her ideal standard and her individual success in keeping up to it. We would not ignore the importance of personal example in one so famous as herself. We may pass by eccentricities not inviting to imitation; for if any of her sex ever thought to raise themselves any nearer to the level of George Sand by smoking or wearing men's clothes, such puerility does not call for notice. Still the influence she strenuously exerted for good as a writer for the public would have worked more clearly had she never seemed to swerve from the high principles she expressed, or been led away by the disturbing forces of a nature calm only on the surface. Nothing is more baffling than the incomplete revelations of a very complex order of mind, with its many-sided sympathies and its apparent contradictions. The self-justification she puts forward for her errors is sometimes sophistical, but not for that insincere. She is not trying to make us her dupes, she is the dupe herself of her dangerous eloquence. But her moral worth so infinitely outweighed the alloy as to leave but little call, or even warrant, for dwelling on the latter. "If I come back to you," said her old literary patron Delatouche into whose disfavour she had fallen awhile, when he came years after to ask for the restitution of the friendship he had slighted, "it is that I cannot help myself, and your qualities surpass your defects."
To pass from herself to her books, no one has made more frank, clear, and unchanging confession of their heart's faith and their head's principles. Her creed was that which has been, and ever will be in some guise, the creed of minds of a certain order. She did not invent it. Poets, moralists, theologians have proclaimed it before her and after her. She found for it a fresh mode of expression, one answering to the needs of the age to which she belonged.
It is in the union of rare artistic genius with an almost as rare and remarkable power of enthusiasm for moral and spiritual truth that lies her distinguishing strength. Most of her novels—all her best novels—share this characteristic of seeming to be prompted by the double and equal inspiration of an artistic and a moral purpose. Wherever one of these preponderates greatly, or is wanting altogether, the novel falls below her usual standard.
For in several qualities reckoned important her work is open to criticism, "Plan, or the want of it," she acknowledges, with a sort of complacency, "has always been my weak point." Thus whilst in many of her compositions, especially the shorter novels, the construction leaves little to be desired, Consuelo is only one among many instances in which all ordinary rules of symmetry and proportion are set at nought. Sometimes the leading idea assumed naturally and easily a perfect form; if simple, as in André and her pastorals, it usually did so; but if complex, she troubled herself little over the task of symmetrical arrangement. M. Maxime Du Camp reports that she said to him, "When I begin a novel I have no plan, it arranges itself whilst I write, and becomes what it may." This fault shocks less in England, where genius is apt to rebel against the restrictions of form and such irregularity has been consecrated, so to speak, by the masterpieces of the greatest among our imaginative writers. And even the more precise criticism of her countrymen has owned that this carelessness works by no means entirely to her disadvantage. In fictions more faultless as literary compositions the reader, whilst struck with admiration for the art with which the whole is put together, is apt to lose something of the illusion—the impression of nature and conviction. The faults of no writer can be more truly defined as the défauts de ses qualités than those of George Sand. Shorn of her spontaneity she would indeed be shorn of her strength. We are carried along by the pleasant, easy stream of her musical eloquence, as by an orator who knows so well how to draw our attention that we forget to find him too long. Her stories may be read rapidly, but to be enjoyed should be read through. Dipped into and their parts taken without reference to the whole, they can afford comparatively but little pleasure.
In translation no novelist loses more than George Sand,—who has so much to lose! The qualities sacrificed, though almost intangible, are essential to the force of her charm. The cement is taken away and the fabric coheres imperfectly; and whilst the beauties of her manner are blurred its blemishes appear increased; the lengthiness, over-emphasis of expression, questionable taste of certain passages, become more marked. Although nevertheless many of her tales remain pleasant reading, they suffer as much as translated poetry, and only a very inadequate impression of her art as a novelist can be arrived at from any rendering of it in a foreign tongue.
Her dialogue has neither brilliancy nor variety. Her characters characterise themselves by the sentiments they express; their manner of expression is somewhat uniform, it is the manner of George Sand; and although pleasant humour and good-natured fun abound in her pages, these owe none of their attractions to witty sayings, being curiously bare of a bon mot or an epigram.
But we find there the rarer merits of a poetic imagination, a vast comprehension of nature, admirable insight into human character and power of clear analysis; a whole science of sentiment, an art of narrative, and a charm of narrative style that soothes the nerves like music.
She has given us a long gallery of portraits of extraordinary variety. It is true that her creations for the most part affect us rather as masterly portraits than as living, walking men and women. This is probably owing to the above-noted sameness of style of dialogue, and the absence generally of the dramatic quality in her novels. On the other hand they are extremely picturesque, in the highest sense, abounding in scenes and figures which, without inviting to the direct illustration they are too vivid to need, are full of suggestions to the artist. The description in Teverino of Madeleine the bird-charmer, kneeling at prayer in the rude mountain chapel, or outside on the rocks, exercising her natural magic over her feathered friends; in Jeanne of the shepherd-girl discovered asleep on the Druidical stones; the noon-day rest of the rustic fishing-party in Valentine—Benedict seated on the felled ash-tree that bridges the stream, Athenaïs gathering field flowers on the banks, Louise flinging leaves into the current, Valentine reclining dreamily among the tall river-reeds—are a few examples taken at random, which it would be easy to multiply ad infinitum.
Any classification of her works in order of time that professes to show a progressive change of style, a period of super-excellence or of distinct decadence, seems to us somewhat fanciful. From Indiana and its immediate successors, denounced by so many as fraught with peril to the morals of her nation, down to Nanon (1872), which might certainly carry off the prize of virtue in a competition in any country, George Sand can never be said to have entirely abandoned one "manner" for another, or for any length of time to have risen above or sunk below a certain level of excellence. André, extolled by her latest critics as "a delicious eclogue of the fields," was contemporary with the bombastic false Byronism of Jacques; the simple narrative of La Mare au Diable with the passion-introspection of Lucrezia Floriani. The ever-popular Consuelo immediately succeeded the feeble Compagnon du Tour de France. La Marquise, written in the first year of her literary life, shows a power of projection out of herself, and of delicate analysis, hardly to be surpassed; but Francia, of forty years later date, is an equally perfect study. From the time of Indiana onwards she continued to produce at the rate of about two novels a year; and at intervals, rare intervals, the product was a failure. But we shall find her when approaching seventy still writing on, without a trace of the weakness of old age.
The charge of "unreality" so commonly brought against her novels it may be well briefly to examine. Such little fantasy pieces in Hoffmann's manner as Le Château des Désertes, Teverino, and others, making no pretence to be exact studies of nature cannot fairly be censured on this head. Like fairy tales they have a place of their own in art. One of the prettiest of these is Les Dames Vertes, in which the fable seems to lead us over the borders of the supernatural; but the secret of the mystification, well kept till the last, is itself so pleasing and original that the reader has no disappointing sense as of having had a hoax played upon his imagination.
In character-drawing no one can, on occasion, be a more uncompromising realist than George Sand. André, Horace, Laurent in Elle et Lui, Pauline, Corilla, Alida in Valvèdre, might be cited as examples. But her theory was unquestionably not the theory which guides the modern school of novel writers. She wrote, she states explicitly, for those "who desire to find in a novel a sort of ideal of life." She made this her aim, but without depreciation of the widely different aims of other authors. "You paint mankind as they are," she said to Balzac; "I, as they ought to be, or might become. You write the comedy of humanity. I should like to write the eclogue, the poem, the romance of humanity." She has been taxed with flattering nature and human nature because her love of beauty—defined by her as the highest expression of truth—dictated her choice of subjects. An artist who paints roses paints from reality as entirely as he who paints mud. Her principle was to choose among realities those which seemed best worth painting.
The amount of idealisation in her peasant sketches was naturally over-estimated by those who, never having studied the class, could not conceive of a peasant except conventionally, as a drunken boor. The very just portrait of Cecilia Boccaferri, the conscientious but obscure artiste in Le Château des Désertes, might seem over-flattered to such as imagine that all opera-singers must be persons of riotous living. The types she prefers to present, if exceptional, are not impossible or non-existent. An absolutely faultless heroine, such as Consuelo, she seldom attempts to bring before us, an ideal hero, never.
Further, even where the idealism is greatest the essence is true. Her most fanciful conceptions, most improbable combinations, seem more natural than do every-day scenes and characters treated by inferior artists. This is only partly due to the inimitable little touches of nature that renew the impression of reality at every page. Her imagination modified her material, but only in order the more vividly to illustrate truths positive and everlasting. So did Shakespeare when he drew Prospero and Miranda, Caliban and Ariel. Art, as regarded by George Sand, is a search for ideal truth rather than a study of positive reality. This principle determined the spirit of her romances. She was the highest in her genre; let the world decide which genre is the highest.
When, after the publication of Indiana, Valentine, Lélia, and Jacques, the moral tendency of her works was so sharply attacked, it was contended on her behalf by some friendly critics that art and social morality have no necessary connection, a line of defence she would have been the last to take up for herself. In the present day her judges complain rather of her incessant moralising, and on the whole with more reason. She indignantly denied that her novels had the evil tendencies imputed to them. Certainly the supposition of the antagonistic spirit of her writings to Christianity and marriage vanishes in proportion to the reader's acquaintance with her works. But against certain doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church which she believed to be pernicious in their influence she from the first declared war, and by her frank audacity made bitter enemies. M. Renan relates that when he was a boy of fifteen his ecclesiastical superiors showed him George Sand, emblematically portrayed for the admonition of the youth under their care, as a woman in black trampling on a cross! Now it is not merely that her own faith was eminently Christian in character, and that the Christian ideal seemed to her the most perfect that has yet presented itself to the mind of man; but if unable to accept for herself the doctrine of revelation as commonly interpreted, she is utterly without the aggressiveness of spirit, the petty flippancy that often betray the intellectual bigot under the banner of free thought. She was too large-minded to incline to ridicule the serious convictions of earnest seekers for truths and she respected all sincerity of belief—all faith that produced beneficence in action.
The alleged hostility of her romances to marriage resumes itself into a declared hostility to the conventional French system of match-making. Much that she was condemned for venturing to put forward we should simply take for granted in England, where—whichever system work the best in practice—to the strictest Philistine's ideas of propriety there is nothing unbecoming in a love match. The aim and end of true love in her stories is always marriage, whether it be the simple attachment of Germain the field-labourer for the rustic maiden of his choice, the romantic predilection of the rich young widow in Pierre qui roule for the handsome actor Laurence, or the worship of Count Albert for the cantatrice Consuelo. Her ideal of marriage was, no doubt, a high one, "the indissoluble attachment of two hearts fired with a like love," a love "great, noble, beautiful, voluntary, eternal." Among French novelists, she should rather be noted for the extremely small proportion of her numerous romances that have domestic infelicity for a theme.
Her remark that their real offence was that they were a great deal too moral for some of their critics, hit home, inasmuch as in her attack on the ordinary marriage system of France she struck directly at the fashionable immorality which is its direct result, and which she saw, both in life and in literature, pass free of censure. It is the selfish intriguer who meets with least mercy in her pages, and who is there held up not only to dislike but to ridicule.
Persons perplexed by the fact that particular novels of hers which, judged by certain theories, ought to be morally hurtful, do yet produce a very different effect, have accounted for it in different ways. One explains it by saying that if there is poison on one page there is always the antidote on the next. Another observes that a certain morality of misfortune is never absent from her fictions. In other words, she nowhere presents us with the spectacle of real happiness reaped at the expense of a violation of conscience. And in the rare cases where the purpose of the novel seems questionable, she defeats her own end. For truth always preponderates over error in her conceptions, and the result is a moral effect.
The want of delicacy that not unfrequently disfigures her pages and offends us, offends also as an artistic fault. As a fact it is taste rather than conscience that she is thus apt to shock. For the almost passing coarseness of expression or thought is nothing more than the overflow, the negligent frankness of a rich and active but healthy nature, not the deliberate obliquity of a corrupt fancy or perverted mind. Such unreserve, unfortunately, has too commonly been the transgression of writers of superabundant energy. But her sins are against outward decorum rather than against the principles upon which the rules of decorum are based. No one was better capable of appreciating and indicating with fine touches, delicacy and niceties of taste and feeling in others. Her sympathy with such sensitiveness is a corrective that should render harmless what might vitiate taste if that qualification were absent. And her stories, though including a very few instances where the subject chosen seems to most English minds too repulsive to admit of possible redemption, and the frequent incidental introduction of situations and frank discussion of topics inadmissible in English fiction of that period—an honourable distinction it seems in some danger of losing in the present—can hardly be censured from the French standpoint, as fair critics now admit. It is inconceivable that a public could be demoralised by Indiana and Valentine, at a time when no subject seemed wicked and morbid enough to satisfy popular taste. The art of George Sand in the main was sound and healthy, and in flat opposition to the excesses both of the ultra-romantic and ultra-realist schools.
Clearer-sighted critics, perceiving that the impression produced by her works is not one to induce men and women to defy the laws of their country, nor likely to undermine their religious faith, have gone more to the heart of the matter. The dangerous tendency is more insidious, they say, and more general. Virtue, and not vice, is made attractive in her books; but it is an easy virtue, attained without self-conquest. All her characters, good and bad, act alike from impulse. Those who seek virtue seek pleasure in so doing, and her philosophy of life seems to be that people should do as they like. The morality she commends to our sympathy and admiration is a morality of instinct and emotion, not of reason and principle. Self-renunciation, immolation of desire in obedience to accepted precept is ignored. Sentiment is supreme. Duty, as a motive power, is set aside.
George Sand, who as a writer from first to last appeared as a crusader against the evil, injustice and vice that darken the world, did undoubtedly choose rather to speak out of her heart to our hearts, than out of her head to our heads, and considered moreover that such was the more effectual way. Her idea of virtue lay not in the curbing of evil instincts, but in their conversion or modification by the evoking of good impulses, that "guiding and intensifying of our emotions by a new ideal" which has been called the great work of Christianity.
It is not,—or not in the first place,—that people should do as they like, but that they should like to do right; and further, that human nature in that ideal life the sentiment of which pervades her works, and in which she saw "no other than the normal life as we are called to know it," does not desire what is hurtful to it.
The goodness that consists in doing right or refraining from doing wrong reluctantly, or in obedience to prescribed rules, or from mechanical habit, had for her no life or charm. The object to be striven for should be nothing less than the "perfect harmony of inward desire and outward obligation."
Virtue should be chosen, though we seem to sacrifice happiness; but that the two are in the beginning identical, that, as expressed by Mr. Herbert Spencer, "whether perfection of nature, virtuousness of action, or rectitude of motive be assigned as the proper aim, the definition of perfection, virtue, rectitude, brings us down to happiness experienced in some form, at some time, by some person as the fundamental idea," is a philosophic truth of which a large aperçu is observable in the works of George Sand. Self-sacrifice should spring from direct desire, altruism be spontaneous—a need—becoming a second and a better nature; not won by painful effort, but through the larger development of the principle of sympathy. Strong in her own immense power of sympathy, she applied herself to the task of awakening and extending such sympathies in others. This she does by the creation of agreeable, interesting, and noble types, such as may put us out of conceit with what is mean and base. Goodness, as understood and portrayed by her, must recommend itself not only to the judgment but to the heart. She worked to popularise high sentiments, and to give shape and reality to vague ideas of human excellence. Her idea of virtue as a motive, not a restraint, not the controlling of low and evil desires, but the precluding of all temptation to yield to these, by the calling out of stronger, higher desires, so far from being a low one, is indeed the very noblest; yet not on that account a chimera to those who hold like her to the conviction that "What now characterises the exceptionally high, may be expected eventually to characterise all. For that which the highest human nature is capable of is within the reach of human nature at large." "We gravitate towards the ideal," she writes, "and this gravitation is infinite, as is the ideal itself." And her place remains among those few great intelligences who can be said to have given humanity an appreciable impulse in the direction of progress.