George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 2
GIRLHOOD AND MARRIED LIFE.
Aurore Dupin was now fifteen, and so far, though somewhat peculiarly situated, she and her life had presented no very extraordinary features, nor promise of the same. Her energies had flowed into a variety of channels, and manifestly clever and accustomed to take the lead though she might be, no one, least of all herself, seems to have thought of regarding her as a wonder. The Lady Superior of the Couvent des Anglaises, who called her "Still Waters," had perhaps an inkling of something more than met the eye, existent in this pupil. But a dozen years were yet to elapse before the moment came when she was to start life afresh for herself on a footing of independence and literary enterprise, and by her first published attempts raise her name at once above the names of the mass of her fellow-creatures.
Old Madame Dupin, warned by failing health that her end was not far off, would gladly have first assured a husband's protection for her ward, whom she had now succeeded in really dissociating from her natural guardian. The girl's bringing-up, and an almost complete separation for the last five years, had made a gap—in habits of mind and feeling—such as could hardly be quite bridged over, between her mother and herself. But though beginning to be sadly aware of this and of the increasing violence and asperities of poor Madame Maurice Dupin's temper which made peace under one roof with her a matter of difficulty, Aurore hung back from the notion of marriage, and clearly was much too young to be urged into taking so serious a step. So to Nohant she returned from the convent in the spring of 1820. There she continued to strike that judicious compromise between temporal and spiritual duties and pleasures enjoined on her by her clerical adviser. Still bent on choosing a monastic life, when free to choose for herself, she was reconciled in the meantime to take things as they came, and to make herself happy and add to the happiness of her grand-mother in the ordinary way. So we find her enjoying the visit of one of her school friends, getting up little plays to amuse the elders, practising the harp, receiving from her brother Hippolyte—now a noisy hussar—during his brief visits home, her first initiation into the arts of riding—for the future her favourite exercise—and of pistol-shooting; and last, but not least, beginning to suspect that she had learned nothing whatever whilst at school, and setting to work to educate herself, as best she could, by miscellaneous reading.
In the spring of the following year Madame Dupin's health and mental faculties utterly broke down. But she lived on for another ten months. Aurore for the time was placed in a most exceptional position for a French girl of sixteen. She was thrown absolutely on herself and her own resources, uncontrolled and unprotected, between a helpless, half imbecile invalid, and the eccentric, dogmatic pedagogue, Deschartres. Highly susceptible to influences from without, her mind, during their sudden and complete suspension, seemed as it were invited to discover and take its own bent.
Piqued by the charge of dense ignorance flung at her by her ex-tutor, and aware that there was truth in it, she would now sit up all night reading, finding her appetite for the secular knowledge she used to despise grow by what it fed upon. The phase of religious exaltation she had recently passed through still gave the tone to her mind, and it was with the works of famous philosophers, metaphysicians, and Christian mystics that she began her studies. Comparing the "Imitation of Christ" with Chateaubriand's "Spirit of Christianity," and struck here and elsewhere with the wide discrepancies and contradictions of opinion manifest between great minds ranging themselves under one theological banner, she was led on to speculations that alarmed her conscience, and she appealed to her spiritual director, the Abbé Prémord, for advice, fearing lest her faith might be endangered if she read more. He encouraged her to persevere, telling her in no wise to deny herself these intellectual enjoyments. But her rigid Catholicism was doomed from that hour. Hers was that order of mind which can never give ostensible adhesion to a creed whilst morally unconvinced, never accept that refuge of the weak from the torment of doubt, in abdicating the functions of reason and conscience, shifting the onus of responsibility on to others, and agreeing to believe, as it were, by proxy. She had plunged fearlessly and headlong into Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Condillac, Mably, Leibnitz, Bossuet, Pascal, Montaigne, Montesquieu; beginning to call many things in question and, through the darkness and confusion into which she was sometimes thrown, trying honestly and sincerely to feel her way to some more glorious faith and light.
In the convent she had been familiarised with Romanism under its most attractive aspects. The moral refinement, the mystery, seclusion, and picturesque beauties of that abode had a poetic charm that had carried her irresistibly away. But, confronted with the system in its practical working, she was staggered by many of its features. In the country churches around her she saw the peasantry encouraged in their grossest superstitions, and the ritual, carelessly hurried through, degenerate often into mere mockery. The practice of confession, moreover—her ultimate condemnation of which, as an institution whose results for good are scanty, its dangers excessive, will he endorsed by most persons in this country—and the Church's denial of the right of salvation to all outside its pale, revolted her; and she caught at the teaching of those who claimed liberty of conscience. "Reading Leibnitz," she observes, "I became a Protestant without knowing it." That purer and more liberal Christianity she dreamed of had, she discovered, been the ideal of many great men. The step brought her face to face with fresh and grave problems of which, she truly observes, the solutions were beyond her years, and beyond that era. There came to her rare moments of celestial calm and concord, but she owed them to other and indirect sources of inspiration. The study of philosophy, indeed, was not much more congenial to her at sixteen than arithmetic had been at six. In what merely exercised memory and attention she took comparatively but languid interest. Instruction to bring her its full profit must be conveyed through the medium of moral emotion, but the mysterious power of feeling to stimulate intellect was with her immense. She turned now to the poets—to Shakespeare, Byron, Dante, Milton, Virgil, Pope. A poet herself, she discovered that these had more power than controversialists to strengthen her religious convictions, as well as to enlarge her mind. Above all, the writings of the poet-moralist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, helped her towards resolving the question that occupied her, of her true vocation in life, now that her determination to take the veil was not a little shaken.
The midnight student was by turns Amazon and sick-nurse as well. From the fatigue of long watches over her books or by the invalid's bedside, she found a better and more invigorating refreshment than sleep in solitary morning rides across country. Her fearlessness on horseback was madness in the eyes of the neighbours. Riding, then and there, was almost unheard of for ladies, a girl in a riding-habit regarded as simply a Cossack in petticoats, and Mademoiselle Dupin's delight in horse-exercise sufficed to stamp her as eccentric and strong-minded in the opinion of the country gentry and the towns-folk of La Châtre. They had heard of her studies too, and disapproved of them as unlady-like in character. Philosophy was bad enough, but anatomy, which she had been encouraged to take up by Deschartres, himself a proficient in medical science, was worse—sacrilegious, for a person understood to be professedly of a devotional turn of mind. She went game-shooting with the old tutor; he had a mania for the sport, which she humoured though she did not share. But when quails were the object, she owns to having enjoyed her part in the chase, which was to crouch in the furrows among the green corn, imitating the cry of the birds to entice them within gun-shot of the sportsman. Lastly, finding in the feminine costume-fashions of that period a dire impediment to out-door enterprise of the sort, in a region of no roads, or bad roads, of rivers perpetually in flood, turning the lanes into water-courses for three-fourths of the year, of miry fields and marshy heaths, she procured for herself a suit of boy's clothes, donning blouse and gaiters now and then without compunction for these rough country walks and scrambles.
Here, indeed, was more than enough to raise a hue-and-cry at La Châtre, a small provincial town, probably neither better nor worse than the rest of its class, a class never yet noted for charity or liberality of judgment. The strangest stories began to be circulated concerning her, stories for the most part so false and absurd as to inspire her with a sweeping contempt for public opinion. By a very common phenomenon, she was to incur throughout her life far more censure through freaks, audacious as breaches of custom, but intrinsically harmless, nor likely to set the fashion to others, than is often reserved for errors of a graver nature. The conditions of ordinary middle-class society are designed, like ready-made clothes, to fit the vast majority of human beings, who live under them without serious inconvenience. For the future George Sand to confine her activities within the very narrow restrictions laid down by the social code of La Châtre was, it must be owned, hardly to be expected. It was perhaps premature to throw down the gauntlet at sixteen, but her inexperience and isolation were complete. The grandmother in her dotage was no counsellor at all. Deschartres, an oddity himself, cared for none of these things. Those best acquainted with her at La Châtre, families the heads of which had known her father well and whose younger members had fraternised with her from childhood upwards, liked her none the less for her unusual proceedings, and defended her stoutly against her detractors.
"You are losing your best friend," said her dying grandmother to her when the end came, in December 1821. Aurore was, indeed, placed in a difficult and painful situation. She had inherited all the property of the deceased who, in her will, expressed her desire that her own nearest relations by her marriage with M. Dupin, a family of the name of de Villeneuve, well-off and highly connected, should succeed her as guardians to her ward. But it was impossible to dispute the claims of Madame Maurice Dupin to the care of her own daughter if she chose to assert them, which she quickly did, bearing off the girl with her to Paris—Nohant being left under the stewardship of Deschartres—and by her unconciliatory behaviour further alienating the other side of the family from whom Aurore, through no fault of her own, was virtually estranged at the moment when she stood most in need of a friend. Twenty years later they came forward to claim kinship and friendship again: it was then with George Sand, the illustrious writer, become one of the immortals.
Thus her lot was cast for her in her mother's home and plebeian circle of acquaintance. So much the worse, it was supposed, for her prospects, social and matrimonial. This did not distress her, but none the less was the time that followed an unhappy one. The mother whom she had idolised, and of whom she always remained excessively fond, appears to have been something of a termagant in her later years. The heavy troubles of her life had aggravated one of those irascible and uncontrollable tempers that can only be soothed by superior violence. Aurore, saddened, gentle, and submissive, only exasperated her. Her fitful affection and fitful rages combined to make her daughter's life miserable, and to incline the girl unconsciously to look over-favourably on any recognised mode of escape that should present itself.
A long visit to the country-house of some friends near Melun, was hailed as a real relief by both. Here there were young people, and plenty of cheerful society. Aurore became like one of the family, and her mother was persuaded to allow her to prolong her stay indefinitely. Among the new acquaintance she formed whilst on this visit was one that decided her future.
M. Casimir Dudevant was a young man on terms of intimacy with her hosts, the Duplessis family. From the first he was struck by Mdlle. Dupin, who on his further acquaintance was not otherwise than pleased with him. The sequel, before long, came in an offer of marriage on his part, which she accepted with the approval of her friends.
He was seven-and-twenty, had served in the army, and studied for the law; but had expectations which promised an independence. His father. Colonel Dudevant, a landed proprietor in Gascony, whose marriage had proved childless, had acknowledged Casimir, though illegitimate, and made him his heir. It was reckoned not a brilliant parti for the châtelaine of Nohant, but a perfectly eligible one. It was not a mariage de convenance; the young people had chosen freely. Still less was it a love match. Romantic sentiment—counted out of place in such arrangements by the society they belonged to—seems not to have been dreamed of on either side. But they had arranged it for themselves, which to Aurore would naturally seem, as indeed it was, an improvement on the usual mode of procedure, according to which the burden of choice would have rested with her guardians. It was a mariage de raison founded, as she and he believed, on mutual friendliness; in reality on a total and fatal ignorance of each other's characters, and probably, on Aurore's side, of her own as well. She was only just eighteen and had a wretched home.
The match was sanctioned by their parents, respectively. In September 1822, Aurore Dupin became Madame Dudevant, and shortly afterwards she and her husband established themselves at Nohant, there to settle down to quiet country life.
If tranquillity did not bring all the happiness that was expected, it was at least unbroken by such positive trials as those to come, and whatever was lacking to Madame Dudevant's felicity she forgot for a while in her joy over the birth of her son Maurice, in the summer of 1823—a son for whom more than ordinary treasures of maternal affection were in store, and who, when his childhood was past, was to become and remain until the time of her death a sure consolation and compensation to her for the troubles of her life.
The first two years after her marriage were spent almost without interruption in the still monotony of Nohant. "We live here as quietly as possible," she writes to her mother in June 1825, "seeing very few people, and occupying ourselves with rural cares." That absolute dependence on each other's society that might have had its charm for a really well-assorted couple was, however, not calculated to prolong any illusions that might exist as to the perfect harmony of their dispositions. Already in the summer of 1824 the Dudevants had sought a change from seclusion in a long visit to their friends the Duplessis, after which they rented a villa in the environs of Paris for a short while. The spring found them back at Nohant, and the summer of 1825 was marked by a tour to the Pyrenees, undertaken in concert with some old school-fellows of Aurore's, two sisters, who with their father were starting for Cauterets. The pleasure of girlish friendships renewed gave double charm to the trip, and her delight in the mountain scenery knew no bounds.
"I am in such a state of enthusiasm about the Pyrenees," she writes to her mother, "that I shall dream and talk of nothing but mountains and torrents, caves and precipices, all the rest of my life." She joined eagerly in every excursion on foot and horseback, but even moderate feats of mountaineering, such as are now expected of the quietest English lady-tourists by their husbands and brothers, were then deemed startlingly eccentric, and got her into fresh trouble on this head.
Her letters and the fragments of her journal kept during this time, and in which she tried to commit to paper her impressions, whilst fresh and vivid, of the Pyrenees, show the same peculiar descriptive power that distinguished her novels—that art of seizing grand general effects together with picturesque detail and depicting them in a simple and straightforward manner, in which she was an adept. It must be added that the diffuseness which characterises her fiction, also pervades her correspondence. Neither can be adequately represented by extracts. Her composition is like a gossamer web, that must be shown in its entirety, as to split it up is to destroy it.
The ensuing winter and spring were passed agreeably in visits with her husband to his family at Nérac, Gascony, and to friends in the neighbourhood. In the summer of 1826 their wanderings ended. Once more they settled down at Nohant, where Madame Dudevant, except for a few brief absences on visits to friends, or to health resorts in the vicinity, remained stationary for the next four years, during which her after-destiny was unalterably shaping itself.
It is perfectly idle to speculate on what might have happened had her lot in marriage turned out a fortunate one, or had she married for love, or had the moral character of the partner of her life preserved any solid claim on her respect, since the contrary was unhappily the case. Their situation, no doubt, was anomalous. In the young girl of barely eighteen, country-bred and intellectually immature, whom M. Dudevant had chosen to marry, who could have discerned one of the greatest poetical geniuses and most powerful minds of the century? Some commiseration might à priori be felt for the petty squire's son who had taken the hand of the petty country-heiress, promising himself, no doubt, a comfortable jog-trot existence in the ordinary groove, to discover in after years that he was mated with the most remarkable woman that had made herself heard of in the literary world since Sappho! But he remained fatally blind to the nature of the development that was taking place under his eyes, preserving to the last the serenest contempt for his wife's intelligence. Her large mind and enthusiastic temperament sought in vain for moral sympathy from a narrow common spirit, and in proportion as her faculties unfolded, increasing disparity between them brought increasing estrangement. Such a strong artist-nature may require for its expansion an amount of freedom not easily compatible with domestic happiness. But of real domestic happiness she never had a fair chance, and for a time the will to make the best of her lot as it was cast appears not to have been wanting.
The Dudevants, after their return home in 1826, began to mix more freely in such society as La Châtre and the environs afforded, and at certain seasons there was no lack of provincial gaieties. Aurore Dudevant all her life long was quite indifferent to what she has summarily dismissed as "the silly vanities of finery"—"Souffrir pour être belle" was what from her girlhood she declined to do. Regard for the brightness of her eyes, her complexion, the whiteness of her hands, the shape of her foot, never made her sacrifice her midnight study, her walks in the sunshine, or her good country sabots for the rough lanes of Berry, "To live under glass, in order not to get tanned, or chapped, or faded before the time, is what I have always found impossible," she for her part has acknowledged. And she cared very moderately for general society. She writes to her mother in spring 1826: "It is not the thing of all others that reposes, or even that amuses me best; still there are obligations in this life, which one must take as they come." She was not yet two-and-twenty, and carnival-tide with its social "obligations" in the form of balls and receptions was not unwelcome. They snatched her away from her increasing depression. She writes of these diversions to her mother in a lively strain, describing how one ball was kept up till nine o'clock the next day, how every Sunday morning the curé preaches against dancing, but in the evening the dance goes on in despite of him—how this cross curé is not their own parish curé of St. Chartier,—a very old friend and a "character," who, when Madame Dudevant was five-and-thirty, used to say of her, "Aurore is a child I have always been fond of." "As for him, if only he were sixty years younger," she adds, "I would undertake to make him dance himself if I set about it." Then follows an amusing sketch of a rustic bridal, the double marriage of two members of the Nohant establishment:
The wedding-feast came off in our coach-houses—there was dinner in one, dancing in the other. The splendour was such as you may imagine: three tallow candle-ends by way of illumination, lots of home-made wine for refreshment; the orchestra consisting of a bagpipe and a hurdy-gurdy, the noisiest and, therefore, the best appreciated in the country-side. We invited some friends over from La Châtre, and made fools of ourselves in a hundred thousand ways; as, for instance, dressing up as peasants in the evening and disguising ourselves so well as not to recognise each other. Madame Duplessis was charming in a red petticoat; Ursule, in a blue blouse and a big hat, was a most comical fellow; Casimir, got up as a beggar, had some halfpence given him in all good faith; Stephane, whom I think you know, as a spruce peasant, made believe to have been drinking, stumbled against our sous-préfet and accosted him—he is a nice fellow, and was just going to depart when all of a sudden he recognised us. Well, it was a most farcical evening, and would have amused you I will engage. Perhaps you, too, would have been tempted to put on the country-cap, and I will answer for it that there would not have been a pair of black eyes to compete with yours.
In other letters, written in a vein of charming good-humour, her facility and spirit are shown in her treatment of trivial incidents, or sketches of local characters, as this, for example, of an ancient female servant in her employ :
The strangest old woman in the world—active, industrious, clean, and faithful, but an unimaginable grumbler. She grumbles by day, and I think by night, when asleep. She grumbles whilst making the butter, she grumbles when feeding the poultry, she grumbles even at her meals. She grumbles at other people, and when she is alone she grumbles at herself. I never meet her without asking how her grumbling is getting on, and she grumbles away more than ever.
And elsewhere she has her fling at the little squabbles and absurdities of provincial society, the "sets" and petty distinctions, giving a humorous relation of the collapse of her well-meaning efforts, in conjunction with friends at the sous-préfecture, to do away with some of these caste prejudices, of the horror and indignation created in the oligarchy of La Châtre by the apparition of an inoffensive music-master and his wife at the sous-préfet's reception, horror so great that on the next occasion, the salon of the official was unfurnished with guests, except for the said music-master and the Dudevants themselves. She wrote a poetical skit to commemorate the incident, which created great amusement among her friends.
In the autumn, 1828, her daughter Solange was born. The care of her two children, to whom she was devoted, occupied her seriously. Maurice's education was beginning, a fresh inducement to her to study that she might be better able to superintend his instruction. His least indisposition put her into a fever of anxiety. Her own health during all these years had repeatedly given cause for alarm. Symptoms of chest-disease showed themselves, but afterwards disappeared, her constitutional vigour triumphing in the end over complaints which seem to a great extent to have been of a nervous order. Meantime her domestic horizon was becoming overcast at many points.
Her brother Hippolyte Châtiron, now married, came with his family to settle in the neighbourhood, and spent some time at Nohant. He had fallen into the fatal habit of drinking, in which he was joined by M. Dudevant to the degradation of his habits and, it would be charitable to suppose, to the confusion of his intelligence. This grave ill came to make an open break in the household calm, hitherto undisturbed on the surface. Low company and its brutalising influences were tending to bring about a state of things to which the most patient of wives might find it hard to submit. A rôle of complete self-effacement was not one it was in her power long to sustain, and the utter moral solitude into which she was thrown consolidated those forces inclining her to the extreme of self-assertion. For together with trials without came the growing sense of superiority, the ennui and unrest springing from mental faculties with insufficient outlet and, moreover, denied the very shadow of appreciation at home, where she saw the claim to her deference and allegiance co-exist with a repudiation she resented of all idea of the reciprocity of such engagements.
She had voluntarily handed over the management of her property—the revenue of which was hardly proportionate to the necessary expenses and required careful economy—to her husband, an arrangement which left her, even for pocket-money, dependent on him. She now set herself to devise some means of adding to her resources by private industry. The more ambitious project of securing by her own exertions a separate maintenance for herself and her children would at this time have seemed chimerical, but it haunted her as a dream long before it took definite shape.
It was not in literature that she first fancied she saw her way to earning an independent income. She had begun to make amateur essays in novel-writing, but was as dissatisfied with them as with the compositions of her childhood, and with a religious novelette she had produced whilst in the convent, and speedily committed to the flames. Again, alluding to her attempts, in 1825, at descriptions of the Pyrenees, she says: "I was not capable then of satisfying myself by what I wrote, for I finished nothing, and did not even acquire a taste for writing."
But she had dabbled in painting, and remained fond of it. "The finest of the arts," she calls it, writing to her mother in 1830, "and the most pleasant, as a life-occupation, whether taken up for a profession, or for amusement merely. If I had real talent, I should consider such a lot the finest in the world." But neither did the decoration of fans and snuff-boxes nor the production of little water-colour likenesses of her children and friends, beyond which her art did not go, promise anything brilliant in the way of remuneration.
In her circle of friends at La Châtre—old family friends who had known her all her life—were those who had recognised and admired her superior ability. Here, too, she met more than one young spirit with literary aspirations, and one, at least, M. Jules Sandeau, who was afterwards to achieve distinguished literary success. The desire to go and do likewise came and took hold of her, together with the conviction of her capability to make her mark. However discontented with her essays in novel-writing hitherto, she began to be conscious she was on the right track. The Revolution of July 1830 had just been successfully accomplished, and new hopes and ambitions for the world in general, and their own country in particular, lent a stimulus to the intellectual activity of the youth of France—a movement too strong not to make itself felt, even in Berry.
The state of things at Nohant for the last two years had, as we have seen, been tending rather to stifle than to keep alive any hesitation or compunction Madame Dudevant might have felt at breaking openly from her present condition. In a letter, dated October 1830, to her son's private tutor, M. Boucoiran, who had then been a year under their roof in that capacity, she remarks, significantly:
You often wonder at my mobility of temper, my flexible character. What would become of me without this power of self-distraction? You know all in my life, and you ought to understand that but for that happy turn of mind which makes me quickly forget a sorrow, I should be disagreeable and perpetually withdrawn into myself, useless to others, insensible to their affection.
The distance between herself and her husband had, indeed, been widening until now the sole real link between them was their joint love for the children. No pretence of mutual affection existed any longer. Madame Dudevant's feeling seems to have been of indifference merely; M. Dudevant's of dislike, mingled, probably, with a little fear. It appears that he committed to paper his sentiments on the subject, and that this document, ostensibly intended by him not to be opened till after his death, was found and perused by his wife. It was the provocation thus occasioned her, and the certainty thus acquired of her husband's aversion to her society, that brought matters to a climax; so, at least, she asserted in the heat of the moment. But nothing, we imagine, could long have deferred her next step, strange and venturesome though it was. Violent in acting on a determination when taken, after the manner, as she observes, of those whose determinations are slow in forming, she declared her intentions to her husband, and obtained his consent to her plan.
According to this singular arrangement she was to be permitted to spend every alternate three months in Paris, where she proposed to try her fortune with her pen. She looked forward to having her little girl to be there with her as soon as she was comfortably settled, supposing the experiment to succeed. For half the year she would continue to reside, as hitherto, at Nohant, so as not to be long separated from her son, who was old enough to miss her, and to part from whom, on any terms, cost her dear. But he was to be sent to school in two years, and for the meantime she had secured for him the care and services o£ M. Boucoiran, whom she thoroughly trusted.
Her husband was to allow her £120 a year out of her fortune, and on condition that the allowance should not be exceeded, he left her at liberty to get on as she chose, abstaining from further interference.
It seems obvious that this compromise, whilst postponing, could only render more inevitable a future separation on less amicable terms, though neither appears to have realised it at the time. Madame Dudevant can have had no motive to blind her in the matter beyond her desire, in detaching herself from her present position, not to disconnect her life from that of her children. The freedom she demanded it was probably too late to deny. Those about her, her husband and M. Châtiron who, with his family, was temporarily domesticated at Nohant, and who so far supported her as to offer her the loan of rooms held by him in Paris, for the first part of her stay, thought her resolution but a caprice. And viewed by the light of her subsequent success it is hard now to realise the boldness of an undertaking whose consequences, had it failed, must have been humiliating and disastrous. She had no practical knowledge of the world, had received no artistic training, and enjoyed none of the advantages of intellectual society. But she had extraordinary courage, spirit, and energy, springing no doubt from a latent sense of extraordinary powers, almost matured, though as yet but half-manifest. So much she knew of herself, and states modestly: "I had discovered that I could write quickly, easily, and for long at a time without fatigue; that my ideas, torpid in my brain, woke up and linked themselves together deductively in the flow of the pen; that in my life of seclusion, I had observed a good deal, and understood pretty well the characters I had chanced to come across, and that, consequently, I knew human nature well enough to describe it." A most moderate estimate, in which, however, she had yet to to convince people that she was not self-deceived.