George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 12
When, in 1869, Madame Sand was applied to by M. Louis Ulbach—a literary friend who purposed to write her biography—for some account of her life from that time onwards where her memoirs break off, she replied in a letter now appended to those memoirs, as follows:—
For the last five-and-twenty years there is nothing more that is of interest. It is old age, very quiet and very happy, en famille, crossed by sorrows entirely personal in their nature—deaths, defections and then the general state of affairs in which we have suffered, you and I, from the same causes. My time is spent in amusing the children, doing a little botany, long walks in summer—I am still a first-rate pedestrian—and writing novels, when I can secure two hours in the daytime and two in the evening. I write easily and with pleasure. This is my recreation, for my correspondence is enormous, and there lies work indeed! If one had none but one's friends to write to! But how many requests, some touching, some impertinent! Whenever there is anything I can do, I reply. Those for whom I can do nothing I do not answer. Some deserve that one should try, even with small hope of succeeding. Then one must answer that one will try. All this, with private affairs to which one must really give attention now and then, makes some ten letters a day.
The old age of George Sand, brighter, fuller, and more active than the youth of most men and women, was in itself a most signal proof of the stability and worth of her mental organization. Life, which deteriorates a frail character, told with a perfecting and elevating power upon hers.
Of her earlier personal beauty few traces remained after middle life except a depth of expression in her eyes, the features having become thickened by age. Some among those who, like Dickens, first saw her in her later years and still looked for the semblance of a heroine of romance, failed to find the muse Lélia of their imaginations under the guise of a middle-aged bourgeoise. But such impressions were superficial. Her portrait in black and white by Couture, engraved by Manceau, seems to reconcile these apparent discrepancies. Beauty is not here, but the face is so powerful and comprehensive that we perceive there at once the mirror of a mind capable of embracing both the prose and the poetry of life; and by many this portrait is preferred to the earlier likenesses.
Nor is there anything more remarkable in her correspondence than the extremely interesting series of letters, extending from February 1863 to within three months of her death in 1876, and addressed to Gustave Flaubert, at this period her familiar friend. The intercourse of two minds of so different an intellectual and moral order as those of the authors of Consuelo and of Madame Bovary offers to all a curious study. To the admirers of George Sand these letters are invaluable, both from a literary point of view and as a record of her inner life from that time onwards when, as expressed by herself, she resolutely buried youth, and owned herself the gainer by an increasing calm within. The secret of her future happiness she found in living for her children and her friends. That she retained her zest for intellectual pleasures she ascribed to the very fact that she never allowed herself to be absorbed for long in these and in herself.
"Artists are spoilt children," she writes to Flaubert, "and the best of them are great egoists. You tell me I love them too well; I love them as I love woods and fields, all things, all beings that I know a little and make my constant study. In the midst of it all I pursue my calling; and how I love that calling of mine, and all that nourishes and renovates it!"
We must now take up the thread of outward events again, which we have slightly anticipated.
In the autumn of 1860 Madame Sand had a severe attack of typhoid fever. She was then on the point of beginning her little tale, La Famille de Germandre; "le roman de ma fièvre," she playfully terms it afterwards, when retracing the circumstances in a letter to her old friend François Rollinat:—
The day before that upon which I was suddenly taken very seriously ill, I had felt quite well. I had scribbled the beginning of a novel. I had placed all my personages; I knew them thoroughly; I knew their situations in the world, their characters, tendencies, ideas, relations to each other. I saw their faces. All that remained to be known was what they were going to do, and I did not trouble my head about that, having time to think it over to-morrow.
Struck down on the morrow, she was for many days in a precarious condition; and in the confused fancies of fever found herself wandering with La Famille de Germandre about the country, alighting in ruined castles and encountering the most whimsical adventures in flood and field.
It would have been an easy death, she remarked afterwards, had she died then, as she might, in her dream; but she came to herself to find her son and friends in such anxiety on her account, so overjoyed at her convalescence, that she could not but be glad of the life that was given back to her. Early in 1861 we find her recruiting her forces by a stay at Tamaris, near Toulon, completing the novel interrupted by illness; resuming her long walks and botanic studies, and thoroughly enjoying the sense of returning vital powers.
She stood always in great dread of the idea of possibly losing her activity as she advanced in years. The infirmities of old age, however, she was happily to be spared, preserving her energy and mental faculties, as will be seen, till just before her death. But though she was restored to health and strength, this illness seems to have left its traces on her constitution.
Her son's marriage to Mdlle. Calamatta, spoken of by Madame Sand as a hearth's desire of hers at length fulfilled, took place in 1862, not many months after his return from half a year of travel in Africa and America in the company of Prince Napoleon. The event proved a fresh source of the purest happiness to her, and was not to separate her from her son. The young people settled at Nohant, which remained her head-quarters. There a few years later we find her residing almost exclusively, except when called by matters of business to her pied-à-terre in Paris, where she never lingered long. To the two little grand-daughters, Aurore and Gabrielle, whom she saw spring up in her home, she became passionately devoted. Most of her compositions henceforward are dated from Nohant where, indeed, more than fifty years of her life were spent.
As regards decorum of expression and temperance of sentiments, the later novels of George Sand have earned more praise than censure; but some readers may feel that in fundamental questions of taste, the comparison between them and their forerunners is not always entirely to their advantage. The fervour of youth has a certain purifying power to redeem from offence matter, even though over-frankly treated, which becomes disagreeable in cold analysis, however sober the wording and clear and admirable the moral pointed.
Mademoiselle La Quintinie, which appeared in 1863, was suggested by M. Octave Feuillet's Sibille. The point of M. Feuillet's novel is, that Sibille, an ardent Catholic, stifles her love, and renounces her lover on account of his heterodox opinions. Madame Sand gives us the reverse—a heroine who is reflectively rather than mystically inclined, and whose lover by degrees succeeds in effecting her conversion to his more liberal views. Here, as elsewhere, the author's mind shows a sympathetic comprehension of the standpoint of enlightened Protestantism curiously rare among those who like herself have renounced Romanism for the pursuit of free thought and speculation. But even those who prefer the dénoûment of George Sand's novel to that of M. Feuillet's will not rank Mademoiselle La Quintinie very high among the author's productions. It is colourless, and artistically weak, however controversially strong.
Madame Sand, according to her own reckoning in 1869, had made at least £40,000 by her writings. Out of this she had saved no fortune. She had always preferred to live from day to day on the proceeds of her work, regulating her expenses accordingly, trusting her brain to answer to any emergency and bring her out of the periodical financial crises in which the uncertainty of literary gains and the liberality of her expenditure involved her. She continued fond of travelling, especially of exploring the nooks and corners of France, felt by her to be less well known than they deserve, and fully as picturesque as the spots tourists go far to visit. Here she sought fresh frames for her novels. "If I have only three words to say about a place," she tells us, "I like to be able to refer to it in my memory so as to make as few mistakes as possible,"
In January 1869 we find her writing of herself in a playful strain to her friend Flaubert:—
The individual called George Sand is quite well, enjoying the marvellous winter now reigning in Berry, gathering flowers, taking note of interesting botanic anomalies, stitching at dresses and mantles for her daughter-in-law, costumes for the marionettes, dressing dolls, reading music, but above all, spending hours with little Aurore, who is a wonderful child. There is not a being on earth more tranquil and happier in his home than this old troubadour retired from business, now and then singing his little song to the moon, singing well or ill, he does not particularly care, so long as he gives the motif that is running in his head . . . . . . he is happy, for he is at peace, and can find amusement in everything.
M. Plauchut, another literary friend and a visitor at Nohant during this last decade of her lifetime, gives a picture of the order of her day; it is simplicity itself.
Nine o'clock, in summer and in winter alike, was her hour of waking. Letters and newspapers would then occupy her until noon, when she came down to join the family déjeûner. Afterwards she would stroll for an hour in the garden and the wood, visiting and tending her favourite plants and flowers. At two o'clock she would come indoors to give a lesson to her grand-children in the library, or work there on her own account, undistracted by the romps around her. Dinner at six was followed by a short evening walk, after which she played with the children, or set them dancing in doors. She liked to sit at the piano, playing over to herself bits of music by her favourite Mozart, or old Spanish and Berrichon airs. After a game of dominoes or cards, she would still sit up so late, occupying herself with water-colour painting or otherwise, that sometimes her son was obliged to take away the lights. These long evenings, the same writer bears witness, sometimes afforded rare opportunities of hearing Madame Sand talk of the events and the men of her time. In the absolute quiet of the country, among a small circle of responsive minds, she, so silent otherwise, became expansive. "Those who have never heard George Sand at such hours," he concludes, "have never known her. She spoke well, with great elevation of ideas, charming eloquence, and a spirit of infinite indulgence." When at length she retired, it was to write on until the morning hours according to her old habit, only relinquished when her health made this imperative.
She had allowed her son and her daughter-in-law to take the cares of household management off her hands. This left her free, as she expressed it, to be a child again, to hold aloof from things immediate and transitory, reserving her thoughts and contemplations for what is general and eternal. She found a poet's pleasure in abstracting herself from human life, saying, "There are hours when I escape from myself, when I live in a plant, when I feel myself grass, a bird, a tree top, a cloud, a running stream." Shaking off, as it were, the sense of personality she felt more freely and fully the sense of kinship with the life and soul of the universe.
It was her habit every evening to sum up in a few lines the impressions of the day, and this journal, for the conspicuous absence of incident in its pages, she compares to the log-book of a ship lying at anchor. But one terrible and little anticipated break in its tranquil monotony was yet to come.
George Sand lived to see her country pass through every imaginable political experience. Born before the First Republic had expired, she had witnessed the First Empire, the restored Monarchy, the Revolution of 1830, the reign of Louis Philippe, the convulsions of 1848, the presidency of Louis Bonaparte, and the Second Empire. She was still to see and outlive its fall, the Franco-German War, the Commune, and to die, as she was born, under a republic.
To some of her friends who reproached her with showing too much indulgence for the state of things under Imperial rule, she replied that the only change in her was that she had acquired more patience in proportion as more was required. The régime she condemned,—and amid apparent prosperity had foretold the corrupting influence on the nation of the established ideal of frivolity, and that a crash of some kind must ensue. Her judgment on the Emperor after his fall is worth noting, if only because it is dispassionate. Since his elevation to the Imperial dignity she had lost all old illusions as to his public intentions. With regard to these, on the occasion of her interviews with him at the Élysée, he had completely deceived her, and designedly she had at first thought. Nor had she concealed her disgust.
I left Paris, and did not come to an appointment he had offered me. They did not tell me "The King might have had to wait!" but they wrote "The Emperor waited." However, I continued to write to him, whenever I saw hopes of saving some victim, to ponder his answers, and watch his actions; and I became convinced that he did not intentionally impose upon anyone. He imposed on himself and on everybody else . . . In private life, he had genuine qualities. I happened to see in him a side that was really generous and sincere. His dream of grandeur for France was not that of a sound mind, but neither of an ordinary mind. Really France would have sunk too low if she had submitted for twenty years to the supremacy of a crétin, working only for himself. One would then have to give her up in despair for ever and ever. The truth is that she mistook a meteor for a star, a silent dreamer for a man of depth. Then, seeing him sink under disasters she ought to have foreseen, she took him for a coward.
George Sand's Journal d'un Voyageur pendant la guerre, has a peculiar and a painful interest. It is merely a note-book of passing impressions from September 1870 to January 1871; but its pages give a most striking picture of those effects of war which have no place in military annals.
The army disasters of the autumn were preceded by natural calamities of great severity. The heat of the summer in Berry had been tremendous, and Madame Sand describes the havoc as unprecedented in her experience—the flowers and grass killed, the leaves scorched and yellowed, the baked earth underfoot literally cracking in many places; no water, no hay, no harvest, but destructive cattle-plague, forest-fires driving scared wolves to seek refuge in the courtyard of Nohant itself—the remnant of corn spared by the sun, ruined by hailstorms. She and all her family had suffered from the unhealthiness of the season, thus the political catastrophe found her already weakened by anxiety and fatigue, and feeling greatly the effort to set to work again. Finally, an outbreak of malignant small-pox in the village forced her to take her little grandchildren and their mother from Nohant out of reach of the infection. September and October were passed at or in the neighbourhood of Boussac, a small town some thirty miles off. Sedan was over, and the worst had begun; the protracted suspense, the long agony of hope.
Those suffered most perhaps who, like herself, had to wait in enforced inaction, amid the awful dead calm that reigned in the provinces, yet forbidden to forget their affliction for a moment. The peasant was gone from the land—only the old and infirm were left to look after the flocks, to till and sow the field. Madame Sand notes, and with a kind of envy, the stolid patience and industry, the inextinguishable confidence, of poor old Jacques Bonhomme when things are at the worst. "He knows that in one way or another it is he who will have to pay the expenses of the war; he knows next winter will be a season of misery and want, but he believes in the spring"—in the bounty of nature to repair war's ravages.
During this time of unimaginable trouble some of the strongest minds were unhinged. It is no small honour to George Sand that hers should have preserved its balance. The pages of this journal are distinguished throughout by a wonderful calm of judgment and an equitable tone—not the calm of indifference, but of a broad and penetrating intelligence, no longer to be blinded by the wild excitement and passions of the moment, or exalted by childish hopes one hour to be thrust into the madness of despair the next.
Although tempted now and then to regret that she had recovered from her illness ten years ago, surviving but to witness the abasement of France, she was not, like others, panic-struck at the prospect of invasion as though this meant the end of their country. "It will pass like a squall over a lake," she said.
But it was a time when they could be sure of nothing, except of their distress. The telegraph-wires were cut; rumours of good news they feared to believe would be succeeded by tales of horror they feared to discredit. Tidings would come that three hundred thousand of the enemy had been disposed of in a single engagement and King William taken prisoner; then of fatal catastrophes befallen to private friends—stories which often proved equally unfounded.
She had friends shut up in Paris of whom she knew not whether they were alive or dead. The strain of anxiety and painful excitement made sleep impossible to her except in the last extremity of fatigue. Yet she had her little grandchildren to care for; and when they came round her, clamouring for the fairy-tales she was used to supply, she contented them as well as she could and gave them their lessons as usual, anxious to keep them from realising the sadness the causes of which they were too young to understand.
It was the first time that she had known a distress that forbade her to find a solace in nature. She describes how one day walking out with some friends and following the course of the river Tarde, she had half-abandoned herself to the enjoyment of the scene—the cascade, the dragon-flies skimming the surface, the purple scabious flowers, the goats clambering on the boulders of rock that strewed the borders and bed of the stream—when one of the party remarks, "Here's a retreat pretty well fortified against the Prussians."
And the present, forgotten for an instant in reverie, came back upon her with a shock.
Letters in that district took three or four days to travel thirty miles. Newspapers were rarely to be procured; and when procured, made up of contradictions, wild suggestions, and the pretentious speeches of national leaders, meant to be reassuring, but marked by a vagueness and violence from which Madame Sand rightly augured ill.
The red-letter days were those that brought communications from their friends in Paris by the aerial post. On October 11, two balloons respectively called the "George Sand" and the "Armand Barbès" left the capital. "My name," she remarks, "did not bring great good luck to the first—which suffered injuries and descended with difficulty, yet rescued the Americans who had gone up in it." The "Barbès" had a smoother but a more famous flight; alighting and depositing M. Gambetta safely at Tours.
As the autumn advanced Madame Sand and her family were enabled to return to Nohant. But what a return was that? The enemy were quartered within forty miles, at Issoudun; the fugitives thence were continually seen passing, carrying off their children, their furniture and their merchandise to places of security. Already the enemy's guns were said to have been heard at La Châtre. Madame Sand walked in her garden daily among her marigolds, snapdragon and ranunculus, making curious speculations as to what might be in store for herself and her possessions. She remarks:—
You get accustomed to it, even though you have not the consolation of being able to offer the slightest resistance . . . I look at my garden, I dine, I play with the children, whilst waiting in expectation of seeing the trees felled roots upwards; of getting no more bread to eat, and of having to carry my grandchildren off on my shoulders; for the horses have all been requisitioned. I work, expecting my scrawls to light the pipes of the Prussians.
But the enemy, though so near, never passed the boundaries of the "Black Valley." The department of the Indre remained uninvaded, though compassed on all sides by the foreign army; and George Sand was able to say afterwards that she at least had never seen a Prussian soldier.
A sad Christmas was passed. On the last night of 1870 a meeting of friends at Nohant broke up with the parting words, "All is lost!"
"The execrable year is out," writes Madame Sand, "but to all appearances we are entering upon a worse."
On the 15th of January 1871 her little drama François le Champi, first represented in the troublous months of 1849, was acted in Paris for the benefit of an ambulance. She notes the singular fate of this piece to be reproduced in time of bombardment. A pastoral!
The worst strain of suspense ended January 29, with the capitulation of Paris. Here the Journal d'un Voyageur breaks off. It would be sad indeed had her life, like that of more than one of her compeers, closed then over France in mourning. Although it was impossible but that such an ordeal must have impaired her strength, she outlived the war's ending, and the horrible social crisis which she had foreseen must succeed the political one. Happier than Prosper Mérimée, than Alexandre Dumas, and others, she saw the dawn of a new era of prosperity for her country, whose vital forces, as she had also foretold, were to prevail in the end over successive ills—the enervation of corruption, of military disaster, and the "orgie of pretended renovators" at home that signalized the first months of peace abroad.
In January 1872 we again find her writing cheerily to Flaubert:—
Mustn't be ill, mustn't be cross, my old troubadour. Say that France is mad, humanity stupid, and that we are unfinished animals every one of us, you must love on all the same, yourself, your race, above all, your friends. I have my sad hours. I look at my blossoms, those two little girls smiling as ever, their charming mother, and my good hard-working son, whom the end of the world will find hunting, cataloguing, doing his daily task, and yet as merry as Punch in his rare leisure moments.
In a later letter she writes in a more serious strain:—
I do not say that humanity is on the road to the heights; I believe it in spite of all, but I do not argue about it, which is useless, for everyone judges according to his own eyesight, and the general outlook at the present moment is ugly and poor. Besides, I do not need to be assured of the salvation of our planet and its inhabitants in order to believe in the necessity of the good and the beautiful; if our planet departs from this law it will perish; if its inhabitants discard it they will be destroyed. As for me, I wish to hold firm till my last breath, not with the certainty or the demand to find a "good place" elsewhere, but because my sole pleasure is to maintain myself and mine in the upward way.
The last five years of her life saw her pen in full activity. In the Revue des Deux Mondes, Malgrétout, the novel of 1870, was succeeded by Flamarande and Les Deux Frères—compositions executed with unflagging energy and animation of style—La Tour de Percemont, and a series of graceful fairy-stories entitled, Contes d'une grand'mère. Nanon (1872), a rustic romance of the First Revolution, is a highly remarkable little work, possibly suggested by her recent experiences of the effect of public disturbances on remote country places.
She was also a constant contributor to the newspaper Le Temps. A critical notice by her hand of M. Renan's Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques, reprinted from those columns, bears date May 1876, immediately before she succumbed to the illness which in a few days was to cut short her life.
At the beginning of this year she had written on this subject to Flaubert, in the brave spirit she would fain impart to her weaker brethren:—
Life is perhaps eternal, and work in consequence eternal. If so, let us finish our march bravely. If otherwise, if the individual perish utterly, let us have the honour of having done our task. That is duty, for our only obvious duties are to ourselves and our fellow creatures. What we destroy in ourselves we destroy in them. Our abasement abases them; our falls drag them down; we owe to them to stand fast, to save them from falling. The desire to die early is a weakness, as is the desire to live long.
George Sand, like most persons of an exceptional constitution, had little faith in the efficacy for herself of medical science. She was persuaded that the prescribed remedies did her more harm than good, and on more than one occasion when her health had caused her children uneasiness, they had had to resort to an affectionate ruse to induce her to take advice. Her habit of disregarding physical ailments, fighting against them as a weakness, and working on in their despite, led her to neglect for too long failing health that should have been attended to. During the whole of May 1876 Madame Sand, though suffering from real illness, continued to join in the household routine, and to proceed with her literary work as usual. Not till the last days of the month did she, unable any longer to make light of her danger, at length consent to send for professional advice. It was then too late. She was suffering from internal paralysis. The medical attention which, sought earlier, might, in the opinion of the doctors, have prolonged her life for years, could now do nothing to avert the imminent fatal consequences of her illness. "It is death," she said; "I did not ask for it, but neither do I regret it." For beyond the sorrow of parting it had no peculiar terrors for her, she had viewed and could meet it in another spirit. "Death is no more," she had written; "it is life renewed and purified."
She lingered for a week, in great suffering, but bearing all with fortitude and an unflinching determination not to distress those around her by painful complaining. Up to her last hour she preserved consciousness and lucidity. The words, "Ne touchez pas à la verdure," among the last that fell from her lips, were understood by her children, who knew her wish that the trees should be undisturbed under which in the village cemetery she was soon to find a resting-place—a wish that has been sacredly respected.
Her suffering ceased a short while before death, which came to her so quietly that the transition was almost imperceptible to the watchers by her side. It was on the morning of the 8th of June. She was within a month of completing her seventy-second year. Although her life's work had long since been mainly accomplished, yet the extinction of that great intelligence was felt by many—as fitly expressed by M. Renan—"like a diminution of humanity."
Two days later she was buried in the little cemetery of Nohant, that adjoins her own garden wall. The funeral was conducted with extreme simplicity, in accordance with her taste and spirit. The scene was none the less a memorable one. The rain fell in torrents, but no one seemed to regard it; the country-people flocking in from miles around, old men standing bare-headed for hours heedless of the deluge. The peasant and the prince, Parisian leaders of the world of thought and letters and the humblest and most unlearned of her poorer neighbours, stood together over her grave.
Six peasants carried the bier from the house to the church, a few paces distant. The village priest came, preceded by three chorister-boys and the venerable singing-clerk of the parish, to perform the ceremony. A portion of the little churchyard, railed off from the rest and planted with evergreen-trees, contains the graves of her grandmother, her father, and the two little grandchildren she had lost. A plain granite tomb in their midst now marks the spot where George Sand was laid, literally buried in flowers.
A great spirit was gone from the world; and a good spirit, it will be generally acknowledged; an artist in whose work the genuine desire to leave those she worked for better than she found them is one inspiring motive. Such endeavour may seem to fail, and she affirmed, "A hundred times it does fail in its immediate results. But it helps notwithstanding to preserve that tradition of good desires and of good deeds, without which all would perish."