George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 3
DÉBUT IN LITERATURE.
In the first days of January 1831, the Rubicon was passed. The step, though momentous in any case to Madame Dudevant, was one whose ultimate consequences were by none less anticipated than by herself, when to town she came, still undecided whether her future destiny were to decorate screens and tea-caddies, or to write books, but resolved to give the literary career a trial.
For actual subsistence she had her small fixed allowance from home; for credentials she was furnished with an introduction or two to literary men from her friends in the country who had some appreciation, more or less vague, of her intellectual powers. Though courageous and determined she was far from self-confident; she asked herself if she might not be mistaking a mere fancy for a faculty, and her first step was to seek the opinion of some experienced authority as to her talent and chances.
M. de Kératry, a popular novelist, to whom she was recommended, spoke his mind to her without restraint. It was to the crushing effect that a woman ought not to write at all. Her sex, Madame Dudevant was informed, can have no proper place in literature whatsoever. M. Delatouche, proprietor of the Figaro, poet and novelist besides, and cousin of her old and intimate friends the Duvernets, of La Châtre, was a shade more encouraging, even so far committing himself as to own that, if she would not let herself be disgusted by the struggles of a beginner, there might be a distant possibility for her of making some sixty pounds a year by her pen. Such specimens of her fiction as she submitted to him he condemned without appeal, but he encouraged her to persevere in trying to improve upon them, and advised her well in advising her to avoid imitation of any school or master, and fearlessly to follow her own bent.
Meantime he took her on to the staff of his paper, then in its infancy and comparative obscurity. Journalism however was the department of literature least suited to her capabilities, and her fellow-contributors, though so much less highly gifted than Madame Dudevant, excelled her easily in the manufacture of leaders and paragraphs to order. To produce an article of a given length, on a given subject, within a given time, was for her the severest of ordeals; here her exuberant facility itself was against her. She would exhaust the space allotted to her, and find herself obliged to break off just at the point when she felt herself "beginning to begin." But she justly valued this apprenticeship as a professional experience, bringing her into direct relations with the literary world she was entering as a perfect stranger. Once able to devote herself entirely to composition and to live for her work, she found her calling begin to assert itself despotically. In a letter to a friend, M. Duteil, at La Châtre, dated about six weeks after her arrival in Paris, she writes:—
If I had foreseen half the difficulties that I find, I should not have undertaken this enterprise. Well, the more I encounter the more I am resolved to proceed. Still, I shall soon be returning home again, perhaps without having succeeded in launching my boat, but with hopes of doing better another time, and with plans of working harder than ever.
Three weeks later we find her writing to her son's tutor, M. Boucoiran, in the same strain:—
I am more than ever determined to follow the literary career. In spite of the disagreeables I often meet with, in spite of days of sloth and fatigue that come and interrupt my work, in spite of the more than humble life I lead here, I feel that henceforward my existence is filled. I have an object, a task, better say it at once, a passion. The profession of a writer is a violent one, and, so to speak, indestructible. Once let it take possession of your wretched head, you cannot stop. I have not been successful, my work was thought too unreal by those whom I asked for advice.
But still she persisted, providing, as best she could, "copy" for the Figaro, at seven francs a column, and trying the experiment of literary collaboration, working at fictions and magazine articles, the joint productions of herself and her friend and fellow-student, Jules Sandeau, who wrote for the Revue de Paris. It was under his name that these compositions appeared, Madame Dudevant, in these first trial-attempts, being undesirous to bring hers before the public.
"I have no time to write home," she pleads, petitioning M. Boucoiran for news from the country, "but I like getting letters from Nohant, it rests my heart and my head."
And alluding to her approaching temporary return thither, in accordance with the terms of her agreement with M. Dudevant, she writes to M. Charles Duvernet:—
I long to get back to Berry, for I love my children more than all besides, and, but for the hope of becoming one of those days more useful to them with the scribe's pen than with the house-keeper's needle, I should not leave them for so long. But in spite of innumerable obstacles I mean to take the first steps in this thorny career.
In her case it was really the first step only that cost dear; whilst against the annoyances with which, as a new comer, she had to contend, there was ample compensation to set in the novel interests of the intellectual, political, and artistic world stirring around her. Country life and peasant life she had had the opportunity of studying from her youth up; of middle-class society she had sufficient experience; she counted relatives and friends among the noblesse, and had moved in those charmed circles; but the republic of art and letters, to which by nature and inclination she emphatically belonged, was a land of promise first opened up to her now. She was eager and impatient to deprovincialize herself.
In the art galleries of the Louvre, at the theatre and the opera, in the daily interchange of ideas on all kinds of topics with her little circle of intelligent acquaintance, her mind grew richer by a thousand new impressions and enjoyments, and rapidly took fresh strength together with fresh knowledge. The heavy practical obstacles that interfere with such self-education on the part of one of her sex were seriously aggravated in her case by her narrow income. How she surmounted them is well known; assuming on occasion a disguise which, imposing on all but the initiated, enabled her everywhere to pass for a collegian of sixteen, and thus to go out on foot in all weathers, at all hours, alone if necessary, unmolested and unobserved, in theatre or restaurant, boulevard or reading-room. In defence of her adoption of this strange measure, she pleads energetically the perishable nature of feminine attire in her day,—a day before double-soles or ulsters formed part of a lady's wardrobe,—its incompatibility with the incessant going to and fro which her busy life required, the exclusion of her sex from the best part of a Paris theatre, and so forth; the ineffable superiority of a costume which, economy and comfort apart, secured her equal independence with her men competitors in the race, and identical advantages as to the rapid extension of her field of observation. The practice, though never carried on by her to such an extent as very commonly asserted, was one to which she did not hesitate to resort now and then in later years, as a mere measure of convenience—a measure the world will only tolerate in the Rosalinds and Violas of the stage. The career of George Sand was, like her nature, entirely exceptional, and any attempt to judge it in any other light lands us in hopeless moral contradictions. She had extraordinary incentives to prompt her to extraordinary actions, which may be condemned or excused, but which there could be no greater mistake than to impute to ordinary vulgar motives. It must also be remembered that fifty years ago, the female art student had no recognised existence. She was shut out from that modicum of freedom and of practical advantages it were arbitrary to deny, and which may now be enjoyed by any earnest art aspirant in almost any great city. However unjustifiable the proceeding resorted to for a time by George Sand and Rosa Bonheur may be held to be, it cannot possibly be said they had no motive for it but a fantastic one.
Writing to her mother from Nohant, whither she had returned in April for a length of time as agreed, Madame Dudevant speaks out characteristically in defence of her love of independence:—
I am far from having that love of pleasure, that need of amusement with which you credit me. Society, sights, finery, are not what I want,—you only are under this mistake about me,—it is liberty. To be all alone in the street and able to say to myself, I shall dine at four or at seven, according to my good pleasure; I shall go to the Tuileries by way of the Luxembourg instead of going by the Champs Elysées; this is what amuses me far more than silly compliments and stiff drawing-room assemblies.
Such audacious self-emancipation, she was well aware, must estrange her from her friends of her own sex in the upper circles of Parisian society, and she anticipated this by making no attempt to renew such connections. For the moment she thought only of taking the shortest, and, as she judged, the only way for a "torpid country wife," like herself, to acquire the freedom of action and the enlightenment she needed. Those most nearly related to her offered no opposition. It was otherwise with her mother-in-law, the baronne Dudevant, with whom she had a passage of arms at the outset on the subject of her literary campaign, here disapproved in toto.
"Is it true," enquired this lady, "that it is your intention to print books?"
"Well, I call that an odd notion!"
"That is all very good and very fine, hut I hope you are not going to put the name that I bear on the covers of printed books?"
"Oh, certainly not, madame, there is no danger."
The liberty to which other considerations were required to give way was certainly complete enough. The beginning of July found her back at work in the capital. On the Quai St. Michel—a portion of the Seine embankment facing the towers of Notre Dame the Sainte Chapelle, and other picturesque monuments of ancient Paris—she had now definitely installed herself in modest lodgings on a fifth story. Accepted and treated as a comrade by a little knot of fellow literati and colleagues on the Figaro, two of whom—Jules Sandeau and Félix Pyat—were from Berry, like herself; and with Delatouche, also a Berrichon, for their head-master, she served thus singularly her brief apprenticeship to literature and experience;—sharing with the rest both their studies and their relaxations, dining with them at cheap restaurants, frequenting clubs, studios, and theatres of every degree; the youthful effervescence of her student-friends venting itself in such collegians' pranks as parading deserted quarters of the town by moonlight, in the small hours, chaunting lugubrious strains to astonish the shopkeepers. The only great celebrity whose acquaintance she had made was Balzac, himself the prince of eccentrics. Although he did not encourage Madame Dudevant's literary ambition, he showed himself kindly disposed towards her and her young friends, and she gives some amusing instances that came under her notice of his oddities. Thus once after a little Bohemian dinner at his lodgings in the Rue Cassini, he insisted on putting on a new and magnificent dressing-gown, of which he was exceedingly vain, to display to his guests, of whom Madame Dudevant was one; and not satisfied therewith, must needs go forth, thus accoutred, to light them on their walk home. All the way he continued to hold forth to them about four Arab horses, which he had not got yet, but meant to get soon, and of which, though he never got them at all, he firmly believed himself to have been possessed for some time. "He would have escorted us thus," says Madame Dudevant, "from one extremity of Paris to another, if we had let him."
Twice again before the end of the year, faithful to her original intentions, we find her returning to her place as mistress of the house at Nohant, occupying herself with her children, and working at the novel Indiana, which was to create her reputation the following year.
Meantime, a novelette, La Prima Donna, the outcome of the literary collaboration with Jules Sandeau, had found its way into a magazine, the Revue de Paris; and was followed by a longer work of fiction, of the same double authorship, entitled Rose et Blanche, published under Sandeau's nom de plume of Jules Sand.
This literary partnership was not to last long, and to-day the novel will be found omitted in the list of the respective works of its authors. Its perusal will hardly repay the curious. The powerful genius of Madame Dudevant, the elegant talent of the author of Mdlle. de la Seiglière, are mostly conspicuous by their absence in Rose et Blanche, or La Comédienne et la Réligieuse, an imitative attempt, and not a happy one, in the style of fiction then in vogue.
Madame Dudevant had stepped into the literary world at the moment of the most ardent activity of the Romantic movement. The new school was on the point of achieving its earliest signal triumphs. Victor Hugo's first poems had just been followed by the dramas Hernani and Marion Delorme. Dumas' Antony was drawing crowded and enthusiastic houses. A few months before the publication of Rose et Blanche appeared Notre Dame de Paris. The passion for innovation which had seized on all the younger school of writers was leading many astray. The strange freaks of Hugo's genius had, to quote Madame Dudevant's own expression, excited a "ferocious appetite" for whatever was most outrageous, and set taste, precedent, and probability most flatly at defiance. From those aberrations into which the great master's imitators had been betrayed Madame Dudevant's fine art-instincts were calculated to preserve her; but she had not yet learnt to trust to them implicitly.
Rose et Blanche, though containing many clever passages—waifs and strays of shrewd observation, description and character analysis,—is in the main ill-conceived, ill-constructed, and unreal. The two authors have sacrificed their individualities in a mistaken effort to follow the fashion's lead, resulting in a most ineffective compound of tameness and sensationalism. Amazing adventures are undergone by each heroine before she is one-and-twenty. Angels of innocence, they are doomed to have their existences crushed out by the heartless conduct of man, Blanche expiring of dismay almost as soon as she is led from the altar, Rose burying herself and her despair in a convent. The then favourite heroes of romance were of the French Byronic type—young men of fortune who have exhausted life before they are five-and-twenty, whose minds are darkened by haunting memories of some terrific crime, but who are none the less capable of all the virtues and great elevation of sentiment on occasion. None of these requisitions are left unfulfilled by the unamiable hero of Rose et Blanche, a work which did little to advance the fortunes of its authors, and whose intrinsic merits offer little warrant for dragging it out of the oblivion into which it has been suffered to drop.
To escape the influences of the literary revolution everywhere then triumphant was of course impossible. To make them serve her individual genius instead of enslaving her individuality was all Madame Dudevant needed to learn. Her friend Balzac had done this for himself, suiting his genius to the period without any sacrifice of originality. Although not yet at the height of his fame he had produced many most successful works, and Madame Dudevant, according to her own account, derived great profit from the study of his method, although with no inclination to follow in his direction. Yet he afterwards observed to her, "Our two roads lead to the same goal."
Rose et Blanche, though little noticed by the public, brought a publisher to the door, one Ernest Dupuy, with an order for another novel by the same authors. Indiana was ready-written, and came in response to the demand. But as Sandeau had had no hand whatever in this composition, the signature had of course to be varied. The publisher wishing to connect the new novel with its predecessor it was decided to alter the prefix only. She fixed on George, as representative of Berry, the land of husbandmen; and George Sand thus became the pseudonym of the author of Indiana, a pseudonym whose origin imaginative critics have sought far afield and some have discovered in her alleged sympathy with Kotzebue's murderer, Karl Sand, and political assassination in general! Its assumption was to inaugurate a new era in her life.
In the last days of April, 1832, appeared Indiana, by George Sand. "I took," says Madame Dudevant, in her account of the transaction, "the 1,200 francs paid me by the publisher, which to me were a little fortune, hoping he would see his money back again." She had recently returned from one of her periodical visits to Nohant, accompanied this time by her little girl, whom the progress already achieved enabled her now to take into her charge, and was living very quietly and studiously in her humble establishment on the Quai St. Michel, when she awoke to find herself famous.
Her success, for which indeed there had been nothing to prepare her—neither flattery of friends, nor vain-glorious ambition within herself—was immediate and conclusive. Whatever differences of opinion might exist about the book, critics agreed in recognising there the revelation of a new writer of extraordinary power. "One of those masters who have been gifted with the enchanter's wand and mirror," wrote Sainte-Beuve, a few months later, when he did not hesitate to compare the young author to Madame de Staël. The novel of sentimental analysis, a style in which George Sand is unsurpassed, was then a fresh and promising field. Indiana, without the aid of marvellous incidents, startling crimes, or iniquitous mysteries, rivetted the attention of its readers as firmly as the most thrilling tales of adventure and horror. It is a "soul's tragedy," and that is all—the love-tragedy vulgarised since by repeated treatment by inferior novelists, of a romantic, sensitive, passionate, high-natured girl, hopelessly ill-mated with a somewhat tyrannical and stupid, yet not entirely ill-disposed old colonel, and exposed to the seductions of a Lovelace—the truth about whose unloveable character, in its profound and heartless egoism, first bursts upon her at the moment when, maddened by brutal insult, she is driven to claim the generous devotion he has proffered a thousand times. Side by side with the ideal of selfishness, Raymon, stands in contrast the ideally chivalrous Ralph, Indiana's despised cousin, who, loving her disinterestedly and in silence, has watched over her as a guardian-friend to the last, and does save her ultimately. The florid descriptions, the high-flown strains of emotion, which now strike as blemishes in the book, were counted beauties fifty years since; and even to-day, when reaction has brought about an extreme distaste for emotional writing, they cannot conceal the superior ability of the novelist. The sentiment, however extravagantly worded, is genuine and spontaneous, and has the true ring of passionate conviction. The characters are vividly, if somewhat coarsely drawn and contrasted, the scenes graphic; every page is coloured by fervid imagination, and despite some violations of probability in the latter portion, out of keeping artistically with the natural character of the rest of the book, the whole has the strength of that unity and completeness of conception which is the distinguishing stamp of a genius of the first order. The entrain of the style is irresistible. It was written, she tells us, tout d'un jet, under the force of a stimulus from within. Ceasing to counterfeit the manner of anyone, or to consult the exigencies of the book-market, she for the first time ventures to be herself, responsible for the inspiration and the mode of expression adopted.
The papers spoke of the new novel in high tones of praise, the public read it with avidity. The authorship, for a time, continued to perplex people. In spite of the masculine pseudonym, certain feminine qualities, niceties of perception and tenderness, were plainly recognised in the work, but the possibility that so vigorous and well-executed a composition could come from a feminine hand was one then reckoned scarcely admissible. Even among those already in the secret were sceptics who questioned the author's power to sustain her success, since nearly everybody, it is said, can produce one good novel.
"The success of Indiana has thrown me into dismay," writes Madame Dudevant, in July 1832, to M. Charles Duvernet, at La Châtre. "Till now, I thought my writing was without consequence, and would not merit the slightest attention. Fate has decreed otherwise. The unmerited admiration of which I have become the object must be justified." And Valentine was already in progress; and its publication, not many months after Indiana, to be a conclusive answer to the challenge.
The season of 1832, in which George Sand made her début in literature, was marked, in Paris, by public events of the most tragic character. In the spring, the cholera made its appearance, and struck panic into the city. Six people died in the house where Madame Dudevant resided, but neither she nor any of her friends were attacked. She was next to be a witness of political disturbances equally terrible. The disappointment felt by the Liberals at the results of the Revolution of 1830, and of the establishment of Louis Philippe's Government, upon which such high hopes had been founded, was already beginning to assert itself in secret agitation, and in sanguinary street insurrections, such as that of June, 1832, sanguinarily repressed. Madame Dudevant at this time had no formulated political creed, and political subjects were those least attractive to her. But though born in the opposite camp she felt all her natural sympathies incline to the Republican side. They were further intensified by the scenes of which she was an eye-witness, and which roused a similar feeling even among anti-revolutionists. Thus Heine, in giving account of the struggle mentioned above, and speaking of the enthusiasts who sacrificed their lives in this desperate demonstration, exclaims, "I am, by God! no Republican. I know that if the Republicans conquer they will cut my throat, and all because I don't admire all they admire; but yet the tears came into my eyes as I trod those places still stained with their blood. I had rather I, and all my fellow-moderates, had died than those Republicans."
Amid such disturbing influences it is not surprising that we find her complaining in the letter last quoted that her work makes no progress; but the lost time was made up for by redoubled industry during her summer visit to Nohant.
In the autumn appeared Valentine. This second novel not only confirmed the triumph won by the first, but was a surer proof of the writer's calibre, as showing what she could do with simpler materials. Here, encouraged by success, she had ventured to take her stand entirely on her own ground—dispensing even with an incidental trip to the tropics, which, in Indiana, strikes as a misplaced concession to the prevalent craze for Oriental colouring—and to lay the scene in her own obscure province of Berry, her first descriptions of which show her rare comprehension of the poetry of landscape. Like Indiana, Valentine is a story of the affections; like Indiana, it is a domestic tragedy, of which the girl-heroine is the victim of a pernicious system that makes of marriage, in the first instance, a mere commercial speculation. Indeed, the extreme painfulness of the story would render the whole too repulsive but for the charm of the setting, which relieves it not a little, and a good deal of humour in the treatment of the minor characters, notably the eighteenth century marquise, and the Lhéry family of peasant-parvenus. The personages are drawn with more finish than those in Indiana; the tone is more natural in its pitch. It is the work of one who finds in every-day observation, as well as in such personal emotions as come but once in a life-time, the inspiration that smaller talents can derive from the latter alone.
In both her consummate art, or rather natural gift of the art of narrative, is the mainstay of the fabric her imagination has reared. That incomparable style of hers is like some magic fairy-ring, that bears the wearer, safe and victorious, through manifold perils—perils these of prolixity, exaggeration, and disdain of careful construction. Both Indiana and Valentine, moreover, contain scenes and passages offensive to English taste, but it is impossible fairly to criticise the fiction of a land where freer expression in speech and in print than with us is habitually recognised and practised, from our own standpoint of literary decorum. It was not for this feature that French criticism had already begun to charge her books with dangerous tendencies (thus contributing largely to noise her fame abroad), as breathing rebellion against the laws of present society; charges which, so far as Indiana and Valentine are concerned, had, as is now generally admitted, but little foundation. Each is the story of an unhappy marriage, but there is no attempt whatever to throw contempt on existing institutions, or to propound any theory, unless it be the idea—no heresy or novelty in England at least—that marriage, concluded without love on either side, is fraught with special dangers to the wife, whose happiness is bound up with her affections. It was the bold and uncompromising manner in which this plain fact was brought forward, the energy of the protest against a real social abuse, which moved some critics to sound a war-cry for which, as yet, no just warrant had been given.
Besides these two novels, containing full proof of her genius, if not of its highest employment, there appeared late in 1832 that remarkable novelette, La Marquise, revealing fresh qualities of subtle penetration and clear analysis. The flexibility of her imagination, the variety in her modes of its application, form an essential characteristic of her work. Not by any single novel, nor, indeed, by half-a-dozen taken at random, can she be adequately represented.
When in the winter of 1832 Madame Sand returned with her little girl to Paris after spending the autumn as usual at Nohant, it was to rather more comfortable quarters, on the Quai Malplaquet. The rapid sale of her books was placing her in comparatively easy circumstances, and giving fresh spur to her activity. But her situation was transforming itself fast; the freedom of obscurity was lost to her for ever from the day when the unknown personage, George Sand, became the object of general curiosity—of curiosity redoubled in Paris by the rumours current there of her exceptional position, eccentric habits, and interesting personality.
The celebrated portrait of her by Eugène Delacroix was painted in the year 1833. It is a three-quarter view, and represents her wearing her quasi masculine redingote, with broad revers and loosely-knotted silk neck-tie. Of somewhat later date is a highly interesting drawing by Calamatta, well-known by engravings; but of George Sand in her first youth no likeness unfortunately has been left to the world. She has been most diversely described by her different contemporaries. But that at this time she possessed real beauty is perfectly evident; for all that she denies it herself, and that, unlike most women, and nearly all French-women, she scorned to enhance it by an elaborated toilette. Heine, though he never professed himself one of her personal adorers, compares the beauty of her head to that of the Venus of Milo, saying, "It bears the stamp of ideality, and recalls the noblest remaining examples of Greek art." Her figure was somewhat too short, but her hands and feet were very small and beautifully shaped. His acquaintance with her dates from the early years of her literary triumphs, and his description is in harmony with Calamatta's presentation. She had dark curling hair, a beauty in itself, falling in profusion to her shoulders, well-formed features, pale olive-tinted complexion, the countenance expressive, the eyes dark and very fine, not sparkling, but mild and full of feeling. The face reminds us of the character of "Still Waters," attributed to the Aurore Dupin of fifteen by the Lady Superior of the English convent. Her voice was soft and muffled, and the simplicity of her manner has been remarked on by those who sought her acquaintance, as a particular charm. Yet, like all reserved natures, she often failed to attract strangers at a first meeting. In general conversation she disappointed people, by not shining. Men and women, immeasurably her inferiors, surpassed her in ready wit and brilliant repartee. Her taciturnity in society has been somewhat ungenerously laid to parti pris. She was one, it was said, who took all and gave nothing. That she was intentionally chary of her passing thoughts and impressions to those around her is however sufficiently disproved by her letters. Here she shows herself lavish of her mind to her correspondents. Conversation and composition necessitate a very different brain action, and her marvellous facility in writing seems really to have been accompanied with no corresponding readiness of speech and reply. Probably it was only, as she herself states, when she had a pen in her hand that her lethargic ideas would arise and flow in order as they should. And the need of self-expression felt by all those who have not the gift of communicating themselves fully and easily in speech or manner, a strong need in her case, from her having so much to express, was the spur that drove her to seek and find the mode of so doing in art.
Her silence in company certainly did not detract from her fascination upon a closer acquaintance. Of those who fell under the spell, the more fortunate came at once to terms of friendship with her, which remained undisturbed for life. Thus of one among this numerous brotherhood, François Rollinat, with whom she would congratulate herself on having realised the perfection of such an alliance of minds, she could write when recording their friendship, then already a quarter of a century old, that it was still young as compared with some that she counted, and that dated from her childhood.
Others fell in love with her, and found her unresponsive. With some of these, jealousies and misunderstandings arose, and led to estrangements, for the most part but temporary. Yet the winner of her heart was scarcely to be envied. She was apt—she has herself thus expressed it—to see people through a prism of enthusiasm, and afterwards to recover her lucidity of judgment. Great, no doubt, was her power of self-illusion; it betrayed her into errors that have been unsparingly judged. For her power of calm and complete disillusion she was perhaps unique among women, and it is no wonder if mankind have found it hard to forgive.