George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 4
It was less than two years since she had come up to the capital, to seek her fortunes there in literature. Aurore Dudevant, hereafter to be spoken of as George Sand (for she made her adopted name more her own than that she had borne hitherto, and became George Sand for her private friends as well as for the public), found herself raised to eminence among the eminent. And it was at an exceptionally brilliant epoch in French imaginative literature that the distinction had been won. Such a burst of talent as that which signalised the opening years of Louis Philippe's reign is unexampled in French literary history. With Hugo, Dumas, De Musset, Balzac, not to mention lesser stars, the author of Indiana and Valentine, although a woman, was acknowledged as worthy to rank. The artist in her, a disturbing element in her inner life which had driven her out of the spiritual bondage and destitution of a petty provincial environment to secure for herself freedom and expansion, had justified the audacity of the move by a triumphant artistic success. From this time onward her artistic faculty dominated her life, often, probably, unknown to herself, an invincible force of instinct she obeyed, whilst assigning, in all good faith, other motives for her course of action, and for real or apparent inconsequences, that have been constantly misrepresented and misunderstood.
So sudden and abrupt a change would have turned all heads but the strongest. Publishers competed with one another to secure her next work. Buloz, proprietor of the Revue des Deux Mondes, engaged her to write regularly for his periodical, to which, for the next ten years, she never ceased to be a regular and extensive contributor. Although the scale of remuneration was not then very high she was clearly secure, so long as she allowed nothing to interfere with her literary work, of earning a sufficient income for her own needs. She had learnt the importance of pecuniary independence, and never pretended to despise the reward of her industry. To luxury she was indifferent, but the necessity of strict economy was a burden she was impatient of; she liked to have plenty to give away, and was always excessively liberal to the poor. Her little dwelling on the Quai Malplaquet was no longer the hermitage of an anonymous writer of no account. The great in art and letters, leading critics, such as Sainte-Beuve and Gustave Planche, came eager to seek her acquaintance, and delighting to honour the obscure student of a year ago.
Writing to M. Boucoiran after her return to Paris in December 1832, she describes her altered position:—
All day long I am beset with visitors, who are not all entertaining. It is a calamity of my profession, which I am partly obliged to bear. But in the evening I shut myself up with my pens and my ink, Solange, my piano, and a fire. With all these I pass some right pleasant hours. No noise but the sounds of a harp, coming I know not whence, and of the playing of a fountain under my window. This is highly poetical—pray don’t make game of me!
There was another side to her success. Fame brought trials and annoyances that fell with double severity on her as a woman. Her door was besieged by a troop of professional beggars, impostors, impertinent idlers, and inquisitive newsmongers. Jealousy and ill-will, inevitably attendant on sudden good fortune such as hers, busied themselves with direct calumny and insidious misrepresentation. No statement so unfounded, so wildly improbable about her, but it obtained circulation and credit. Till the end of her life she remained the centre of a cloud of myths, many, to the present day, accepted as gospel. People insisted on identifying her with the heroines of her novels. Incidents, personal descriptions, nay, whole letters extracted from these novels will be found literally transcribed into alleged biographies of herself and her friends, as her own statement of matters of fact. Now, though the spirit of her life is strongly and faithfully represented by her fiction taken as a whole, those who would read in any special novel the literal record of any of the special events of her existence cannot be too much on their guard. Whatever the material under treatment, George Sand must retouch, embellish, transform, artist-fashion, as her genius shall dictate, till often little resemblance is left between the original and the production it has done no more than suggest. Romance and reality are so fused together in these apparent outpourings of spirit that her nearest friends were at a loss how to separate them. As an actress into many a favourite part, so could she throw herself into her favourite characters; but seldom if ever will much warrant be found in actual fact for identifying these creations with their creatress.
How, indeed, could so many-sided a nature as hers be truly represented in a single novel? Her rare physical and mental energies enabled her to combine a life of masculine intellectual activity with the more highly emotional life of a woman, and with vigilance in her maternal cares. Maurice was placed in the spring of 1833 at the College Henri IV., at Paris; thus she had now both son and daughter near her, and watched indefatigably over them, their childish illnesses and childish amusements, their moral and intellectual training absorbing a large share of her time and attention. Heine, a friendly visitor at her house, says:—
I have often been present for hours whilst she gave her children a lesson in French, and it is a pity that the whole of the French Academy could not have been present too, as it is quite certain that they might have derived great profit from it.
Not all the distractions of fame and work, of passionate pleasure or passionate sorrow, ever relaxed her active solicitude for the present and future welfare of her two young children. "They give me the only real joys of my life," she repeats again and again.
Lélia, begun immediately after Valentine, was published in the spring of 1833, and created an immense sensation. Hailed by her admirers as a sign of an accession of power, of power exerted in quite a new direction, it brought down on the writer's head a storm of hostile criticism, as a declared enemy of religion and domestic morality—enhancing her celebrity not a little.
Lélia, a lyrical novel—an outburst of poetical philosophy in prose, stands alone among the numerous productions of George Sand. Here she takes every sort of poetical license, in a work without the restrictions of poetic form which are the true conditions of so much latitude. "Manfred" and "Alastor" are fables not further removed from real life than is Lélia. The personages are like allegorical figures, emblematic of spiritual qualities on a grand scale, the scenes like the paradisiacal gardens that visited the fancy of Aurore Dupin when a child. There is no action. The interest is not in the characters and what they do, but in what they say. The declamatory style, then so popular, is one the taste for which has so completely waned that Lélia will find comparatively few readers in the present day, fewer who will not find its perusal wearisome, none perhaps whose morality, however weak, will be seriously shaken by utterances ever and anon hovering on the perilous confines of the sublime and the ludicrous.
Lélia, a female Faust or Manfred, a mysterious muse-like heroine, who one night sleeps on the heathery mountain side, the next displays the splendour of a queen in palaces and fairy-like villas; her sorely tried and hapless lover Sténio, the poet, who pours forth odes to his own accompaniment on the harp, and lingers the night long among Alpine precipices brooding over the abyss; Trenmor, the returned gentleman convict and Apostle of the Carbonari, whose soul has been refreshed, made young and regenerated at the galleys; and the mad Irish priest Magnus, are impossible personages, inviting to easy ridicule, and neither wisdom nor folly from their lips is likely to beguile the ears of the present generation.
It is no novel, but a poetical essay, fantastically conceived and executed with the sans gêne of an improvisatore. For those who admire the genius of George Sand its interest as a psychological revelation remains unabated. Into Lélia, she owns, she put more of her real self than into any other of her books—of herself, that is, and her state of mind at the dawn of a period of moral disturbance and revolt. All must continue to recognise there an extraordinary exhibition of poetical power and musical style. As a work of art George Sand has herself pronounced it absurd, yet she always cherished for it a special predilection, and, as will be seen, took the trouble to rewrite it some years later, when in a happier and healthier frame of mind than that which inspired this unique and most characteristic composition.
The note of despair struck in Lélia, the depth of bitter feeling, the capacity for mental and moral speculation and suffering it seemed to disclose, astounded many of her familiar acquaintance. "Lélia is a fancy-type," so writes to the author her friend and neighbour in Berry, Jules Néraud, an ardent naturalist, whose botanical and entomological pursuits she had often shared: "it is not like you—you who are merry, dance the bourrée, appreciate lepidoptera, do not despise puns, who are not a bad needle-woman, and make very good preserves. Is it possible you should have thought so much, felt so much, without anyone having any idea of it?"
Lélia was certainly the expression of a new phase in her mind's history, a moral crisis she could not escape, which was all the more severe for her having, as she remarks, reached her thirtieth year without having opened her eyes to the realities of life. Till the time of her coming to Paris, for very dearth of outward impressions she had lived chiefly in dreams, the life of all others most favourable to the prolongation of ignorance and credulity. The liberty and activity she had enjoyed for the last two years were fatal to Utopian theories.
It was not only the bitterness that springs from disenchantment in individuals, the sense of the miserable insufficiency of human love to satisfy her spiritual aspirations producing "that widely concluding unbelief which," as her sister in greatness has said, "we call knowledge of the worlds but which is really disappointment in you and in me." George Sand was one to whom scepticism was intolerable. Pessimistic doctrines were fatal to her mind's equilibrium, and private experience and outward intellectual influences were driving her to distrust all objects of her previous worship, human and divine. The moment was one when the most fundamental social and religious principles were being called in question.
"Nothing in my old beliefs," she writes, "was sufficiently formulated in me, from a social point of view, to help me to struggle against this cataclysm; and in the religious and socialistic theories of the moment I did not find light enough to contend with the darkness." The poet's creed with which her mind had hitherto rested satisfied was shaken, and appeared to prove a false one. She was staggered by the infinity of evil, misery, and injustice, which dwellers in great cities are not allowed to forget, the problem of humanity, the eternal mystery of suffering and wrong predominant in a world on the beneficence of whose Supreme Power all her faiths were founded.
Her mental revolt and suffering found vent in Lélia, which it was an immense relief to her to write. Characteristic as an exhibition of feeling and of mastery of language, it is not in the least typical of her fiction. Yet, but for Lélia, and its successor Jacques, it is impossible to point to a work of hers that would ever have lastingly stamped her, in the public mind, as an expounder of dangerous theories. In Lélia, however, which is strongly imbued with Byronic colouring, she had chosen to pose somewhat as the proud angel in rebellion; and the immediate effect of hostile criticism was to confirm her in the position taken up. Neither Lélia nor Jacques combined the elements of lasting popularity with those of instant success; but they roused a stir and a strife which created an impression of her as a writer systematically inimical to religion and marriage—an impression almost ludicrously at variance with facts, taking her fiction as a whole, but which has only recently begun to give way, in this country, to a juster estimate of its tendencies.
The morality of Lélia, which it is rather difficult to discuss seriously in the present day, both the personages and their environment being too preternatural for any direct application to be drawn from them, as reflecting modern society, found indiscreet champions as determined as its aggressors. Violently denounced by M. Capo de Feuillide, of the Europe littéraire, it was warmly defended by M. Gustave Planche, in the Revue des Deux Mondes. The war of words grew so hot between them that a challenge and encounter were the result—surely unique in the annals of duelling. The swords of the critics fortunately proved more harmless than their words.
From the morbid depression that had tormented her mind and imagination, and has its literary memorial in Lélia, she was to find a timely, though but a temporary rescue, in the charm of a new acquaintance—the delighting society of a poetic mind of an order not inferior to her own.
It was in August 1833, at a dinner given by Buloz to the staff of the Revue des Deux Mondes, that George Sand first made the personal acquaintance of Alfred de Musset, then in his twenty-third year, and already famous through his just published poem, Rolla, and his earlier dramas, Andrea del Sarto and Les Caprices de Marianne. He rapidly became enamoured of the author of Lélia, who for her part felt powerfully the attraction of his many admirable qualities, mutual enchantment leading them so far as to believe they could be the hero and heroine of a happy love tale. In a letter of September 21, addressed to her friend and correspondent, Sainte-Beuve, whom she had made the confidant of her previous depression and strange moods of gloom, she writes of herself as lifted out of such dangers by a happiness beyond any she had imagined, restoring youth to her heart—the happiness accorded her by the poet's society and his preference for her own. De Musset, at this time, would have given the world to have been able to make her his wife.
The story of their short-lived infatuation and of the swift-following mutual disenchantment,—a story which, says Sainte-Beuve, has become part of the romance of the nineteenth century,—is perhaps of less consequence here than in the life of De Musset, in whom the over-sensitiveness of genius was not allied with the extraordinary healthy vitality which enabled George Sand to come out of the most terrible mental experiences unembittered, with the balance of her mind unshaken, and her powers unimpaired. Yet that he acquired an empire over her no other ever acquired there is much to indicate. It took her from France for a while, from her children, her friends—and the breaking of the spell set her at war, not only with him, but for a while with herself, with life, and her fellow creatures.
In the last days of 1833, she and the author of Rolla started on a journey to Italy, where George Sand spent six months, and where she has laid the scene of a number of her novels: the first and best part of Consuelo, La Dernière Aldini, Leone Leoni, La Daniella, and others. The spirit of that land she has caught and reproduced perhaps more successfully than any other of the many novelists who have chosen it for a frame—of Italy as the artist's native country, that is—not the Italy of political history, nor of the Medici, but the Italy that is the second home of painters, poets, and musicians. Can anything be more enjoyable, and at the same time more vividly true, than George Sand's delineations of Venice; and, in the first of the Lettres d'un Voyageur, the pictures given of her wanderings on the shores of the Brenta, of Bassano, the Brenta valley, Oliero, Possagno, Asolo, a delicious land, till quite recently as little tourist-trodden as in 1834? What a contrast to the purely imaginary descriptions in Lélia, written before those beauties had appeared to her except in dreams!
From Genoa the travellers journeyed to Pisa, Florence, and thence to Venice, where first George Sand felt herself really at home in Italy. The architecture, the simplicity of Venetian life and manners, the theatres—from the opera-houses, where Pasta and Donzelli were singing, down to the national drama of Pulcinello—the pictures, the sea, the climate, combined to make of it a place of residence so perfectly to her mind, that again and again in her letters she expresses her wish that she could bring over her children and there fix her abode.
"It is the only town I can love for its own sake," she says of it. "Other cities are like prisons, which you put up with for the sake of your fellow-prisoners." This Italian journey marks a fresh stage in her artistic development, quite apart from the attendant romantic circumstances, the alleged disastrous consequences to a child of genius less wise and fortunate than herself, which have given an otherwise disproportionate notoriety to this brief episode.
George Sand was no doubt fatally in error when she persuaded herself, and even succeeded in persuading the poet's anxious mother, that she had it in her to be his guardian angel, and reform him miraculously in a short space of time; and that because he had fallen in love with her she would know how to make him alter a way of life he had no abiding desire to abandon. Such a task demands a readiness not merely for self-sacrifice, but for self-suppression; and her individuality was far too pronounced to merge itself for long in ministering to another's. She never seems to have possessed the slightest moral ascendancy over him, beyond the power of wounding him very deeply by the change in her sentiments, however much he might feel himself to blame for it.
The history of the separation of the lovers—of De Musset's illness, jealousy, and departure from Venice alone—is a thrice-told tale. Like the subject of "The Ring and the Book," it has been set forth, by various persons, variously interested, with correspondingly various colouring. The story, as told by George Sand in her later novel, Elle et Lui, is substantially the same as one related by De Musset in his Confession d'un Enfant du Siècle, published two years after these events, and in which, if it is to be regarded as reflecting personal idiosyncrasies in the slightest degree, the poet certainly makes himself out as the most insupportable of human companions. None the less did the publication of Elle et Lui, a quarter of a century later, provoke a savage retort from the deceased poet's brother, in Lui et Elle. Finally, in Lui, a third novelist, Madame Colet, presented the world with a separate version of the affair from one who imagined she could have made up to the poet for what he had lost.
But it needs no deep study of human nature, or yet of these novels, to understand the impracticability of two such minds long remaining together in unity. Genius, in private life, is apt to be a torment—its foibles demanding infinite patience, forbearance, nay, affectionate blindness, in those who would minister to its happiness, and mitigate the worst results of those foibles themselves. Certainly George Sand, for a genius, was a wonderfully equable character; her "satanic" moods showed themselves chiefly in pen and ink; her nerves were very strong, the balance of her physical and mental organisation was splendidly even, as one imagines Shakespeare's to have been. But the very vigour of her character, its force of self-assertion, unfitted her to be the complement to any but a very yielding nature. The direct influence a passive, merely receptive spirit would have accepted, and gratefully, was soon felt as an intolerable burden by a mind in many ways different from her own, but with the same imperious instinct of freedom, and as little capable of playing anvil to another mind for long. He rebelled against her ascendancy, but suffered from the spell. She was no Countess Guiccioli, content to adore and be adored, and exercise an indirect power for good on a capricious lover. Her logical mind, energetic and independent, grew impatient of the seeming inconsistencies of her gifted companion; and when at last she began to perceive in them the fatal conditions of those gifts themselves, only compassion survived in her, as she thought, and compassion was cold.
How could De Musset, with such an excellent example of prudence, regular hours, good sense, calm self-possession, and ceaseless literary industry as hers before his eyes, not be stirred up to emulate such admirable qualities? But her reason made him unreasonable; the indefatigability of her pen irritated his nerves, and made him idle out of contradiction; her homilies provoked only fresh imprudences—as though he wanted to make proof of his independence whilst secretly feeling her dominion—a phenomenon with which highly nervous people will sympathise not a little, but which was perfectly inexplicable to George Sand.
His genius was of a more delicate essence than hers; he has struck, at times, a deeper note. But his nature was frailer, his muse not so easily within call, his character as intolerant of restraint as her own, but less self-sufficing; and the morbid taint of thought then prevalent, and which her natural optimism and better balanced faculties enabled her to throw off very shortly, had entered into him ineffaceably. Whether or not she brought a fresh blight on his mind, she certainly failed to cure it.
The spring had hardly begun when De Musset was struck down by fever. George Sand, who had previously been very ill herself, nursed him through his attack with great devotion; and in six weeks' time he was restored to health, if not to happiness. Theirs was at an end, as they recognised, and agreed to part—"for a time, perhaps, or perhaps for ever," she wrote,—with their attachment broken, but not destroyed.
It was early in April that De Musset started on his homeward journey. George Sand saw him on his way as far as Vicenza, and ere returning to Venice, made a little excursion in the Alps, along the course of the Brenta. "I have walked as much as four-and-twenty miles a day," she writes to M. Boucoiran, "and found out that this sort of exercise is very good for me, both morally and physically. Tell Buloz I will write some letters for the Revue, upon my pedestrian tours. I came back into Venice with only seven centimes in my pocket, otherwise I should have gone as far as the Tyrol; but the want of baggage and money obliged me to return. In a few days I shall start again, and cross over the Alps by the gorges of the Piave."
And the spring's delights on the Alpine borders of Lombardy are described by her, con amore, in the promised letters:—
The country was not yet in its full splendour; the fields were of a faint green verging on yellow, and the leaves only coming into bud on the trees. But here and there the almonds and peaches in flower mixed their garlands of pink and white with the dark clumps of cypress. Through the midst of this far-spreading garden the Brenta flowed swiftly and silently over her sandy bed, between two large banks of pebbles, and the rocky débris which she tears out of the heart of the Alps, and with which she furrows the plains in her days of anger. A semi-circle of fertile hills, overspread with those long festoons of twisting vine that suspend themselves from all the trees in Venetia, made a near frame to the picture; and the snowy mountain-heights, sparkling in the first rays of sunshine, formed an immense second border, standing, as if cut out in silver, against the solid blue of the sky.
None of these excursions, however, were ever carried very far. For the next three months she remained almost entirely stationary at Venice, her head-quarters. She had taken apartments for herself in the interior of the city, in a little low-built house, along the narrow, green, and yet limpid canal, close to the Ponte dei Barcaroli. "There," she tells us, "alone all the afternoon, never going out except in the evening for a breath of air, working at night as well, to the song of the tame nightingales that people all Venetian balconies, I wrote André, Jacques, Mattea, and the first Lettres d'un Voyageur."
None can read the latter and suppose that the suffering of the recent parting was all on one side. The poet continued to correspond with her, and the consciousness of the pain she had inflicted she was clearly not sufficiently indifferent herself to support. But neither De Musset nor any other in whom, through the "prism of enthusiasm," she may have seen awhile a hero of romance, was ever a primary influence on her life. These were two. Firstly her children, who although at a distance were seldom absent from her thoughts. Of their well-being at school and at home respectively, she was careful to keep herself informed, down to the minutest particulars, by correspondents in Paris and at Nohant, whence no opposition whatever was raised by its occupier to her prolonged absence abroad. Secondly, her art-vocation. She wrote incessantly; and independently of the pecuniary obligations to do so which she put forward, it is obvious that she had become wedded to this habit of work. "The habit has become a faculty—the faculty a need. I have thus come to working for thirteen hours at a time without making myself ill; seven or eight a day on an average, be the task done better or worse," she writes to M. Châtiron, from Venice, in March. Sometimes, as with Leone Leoni, she would complete a novel in a week; a few weeks later it was in the Revue des Deux Mondes. Such haste she afterwards deprecated and, like all other workers, she aspired to a year's holiday in which to devote herself to the study of the masterpieces of modern literature; but the convenient season for such suspension of her own productive activity never came. And whilst at Venice she found herself literally in want of money to leave it. Buloz had arranged with her that she should contribute thirty-two pages every six weeks to his periodical for a yearly stipend of £160. She had anticipated her salary for the expenses of her Italian journey, and must acquit herself of the arrears due before she could take wing.
Jacques, the longest of the novels written at Venice, afforded fresh grounds to those who taxed her works with hostility to social institutions. Without entering into the vexed question of the right of the artist in search of variety to exercise his power on any theme that may invite to its display, and of the precise bearing of ethical rules on works of imagination, it is permissible to doubt that Jacques, however bitter the sentiments of the author at that time regarding the marriage tie, ever seriously disturbed the felicity of any domestic household in the past or present day. It is too lengthy and too melancholy to attract modern readers, who care little to revel in the luxuries of woe, so relished by those of a former age. We cannot do better than quote the judgment pronounced by Madame Sand herself, thirty years later, on this work of pure sentimentalism—generated by an epoch thrown into commotion by the passionate views of romanticism—the epoch of René, Lara, Childe Harold, Werther, types of desperate men; life-weary, but by no means weary of talking. Jacques, she observes, belonged to this large family of disillusioned thinkers; they had their raison d'être, historical and social. He comes on the scene in the novel, already worn by deceptions; he thought to revive through his love, and he does not revive. Marriage was for him only the drop of bitterness that made the cup overflow. He killed himself to bequeath to others the happiness for which he cared not, and in which he believed not."
Jacques, taken as a plaidoyer against domestic institutions, singularly misses its aim. As critics have remarked, some of the most eloquent pages are those that treat of married bliss. Our sympathies are entirely with the wronged husband against his silly little wife. It is a kindred work to Lélia and its faults are the same; but whilst dealing ostensibly with real life and possible human beings it cannot, like Lélia, be placed apart, and retain interest as a literary curiosity.
André is a very different piece of work and a little masterpiece of its kind. The author, in her preface, tells us how, whilst mechanically listening to the incessant chatter of the Venetian sempstresses in the next room to her own, she was struck by the resemblance between the mode of life and thought their talk betrayed, and that of the same class of girls at La Châtre; and how in the midst of Venice, to the sound of the rippling water stirred by the gondolier's oar, of guitar and serenade, and within sight of the marble palaces, her thoughts flew back to the dark and dirty streets, the dilapidated houses, the wretched moss-grown roofs, the shrill concerts of the cocks, cats, and children of the little French provincial town. She dreamt also of the lovely meadows, the scented hay, the little running streams, and the floral researches she had been fond of. This tenacity of her instincts was a safeguard she may have sometimes rebelled against as a chain; it was with her an essential feature, and, despite all vagaries, gave a great unity to her life.
"Venice," she writes to M. Châtiron in June, "with her marble staircases and her wonderful climate, does not make me forget anything that has been dear to me. Be sure that nothing in me dies. My life has its agitations; destiny pushes me different ways, but my heart does not repudiate the past. Old memories have a power none can ignore, and myself less than another. I love on the contrary to recall them, and we shall soon find ourselves together again in the old nest at Nohant." André she considered the outcome of this feeling of nostalgia. In it she has put together the vulgar elements of inferior society in a common-place country town, and produced a poem, though one of the saddest. If the florist heroine, Genevieve, is a slightly idealised figure, the story and general character-treatment are realistic to a painful degree. There is more power of simple pathos shown here than is common in the works of George Sand. André is a refreshing contrast, in its simplicity and brevity, to the inflation of Lélia and Jacques. It was an initial essay, and a model one, in a style with better claims to enduring popularity.
As the summer advanced, George Sand found herself free to depart, and started on her way back to France, famishing, as she tells us, for the sight of her children. Her grand anxiety was to reach her destination in time for the breaking-up day and distribution of prizes at the College Henri IV. "I shall be at Paris before then," she writes from Milan, to her son, "if I die on the way, and really the heat is such that one might die of it." From Milan she journeyed over the Simplon to the Rhone valley, Martigny, Chamounix, and Geneva, performing great part of the way on foot. She reached Paris in the middle of August, and a few days later started with her boy for Nohant, where Solange had spent the time during her mother's absence, and where they remained together for the holidays. Here too she was in the midst of a numerous circle of friends of both sexes, in whose staunch friendliness she found a solace of which she stood in real need.