George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 5
The period immediately following George Sand's return from Italy in August 1834, was a time of transition, both in her outer and inner life. If undistinguished by the production of any novel calculated to create a fresh sensation, it shows no abatement of literary activity. This, as we have seen, had become to her a necessity of nature. Neither vicissitudes without nor commotions within, though they might direct or stimulate, seem to have acted as a check on the flow of her pen.
During the first twelvemonth she continued to reside alternately at Nohant, whither she came with her son and daughter for their holidays—Solange being now placed in a children's school kept by some English ladies at Paris,—and her "poet's garret," as she styled her third floor appartement on the Quai Malplaquet.
This winter saw the ending for herself and De Musset of their hapless romance. An approach to complete reconciliation—for the existing partial estrangement had been discovered to be more unbearable than all besides—led to stormy scenes and violent discord, and resulted before very long in mutual avoidance, which was to be final. It is said that forgiveness is the property of the injured, and it should be remembered that whenever De Musset's name is mentioned by George Sand it is with the admiring respect of one to whom his genius made that name sacred, and who refused to the end of his life to use the easy weapon offered her by his notorious frailties for vindicating herself at his expense. And, however pernicious the much-talked of effect on De Musset's mind, it is but fair to the poet to recollect that it is no less true of him than of George Sand that his best work, that with which his fame has come chiefly to associate itself, was accomplished after this painful experience.
Into her own mental state—possibly at this time the least enviable of the two—we get some glimpses in the Lettres d'un Voyageur of the autumn 1834, and winter 1834–35. Here, again, we should be content with gathering a general impression, and not ingenuously read literal facts in all the self-accusations and recorded experiences of the voyageur—a semi-fictitious personage whose improvisations were, after all, only a fresh exercise which George Sand had invented for her imagination—taking herself and reality for a starting-point merely, a suggestive theme.
But the despair and disgust of life, to which both these and her private letters give such uncompromising and eloquent expression, indubitably reflect her feelings at this moral crisis—the feelings of one who having openly braved the laws of society, to become henceforward a law unto herself, recognises that she has only found her way to fresh sources of misery. Never yet had she had such grave and deep causes of individual mental torment to blacken her views of existence, and incline her to abhor it as a curse. "Your instinct will save you, bring you back to your children," wrote a friend who knew her well. But her maternal love and solicitude themselves were becoming a source of added distress and apprehension.
The extraordinary arrangement she and M. Dudevant had entered into four years before with regard to each other, was clearly one impossible to last. It will be recollected that she at that time had relinquished her patrimony to those who had thought it no dishonour to continue to enjoy it; and the terms of that agreement had since been nominally undisturbed. But besides that the control of the children remained a constant subject of dissension, M. Dudevant was beginning to get into pecuniary difficulties in the management of his wife's estate. Sometimes he contemplated resigning it to her, and retiring to Gascony to live with his widowed stepmother on the property which at her death would revert to him. But unfortunately he could not make up his mind to this course. No sooner had he drawn up an agreement consenting to a division of property, than he seemed to regret the sacrifice; upon which she ceased to press it.
Meantime Madame Dudevant, whose position at Nohant was that of a visitor merely, and becoming untenable, felt her hold on her cherished home and her children becoming more precarious day by day.
Some of her friends had strongly advised her to travel for a length of time, both as offering a moral remedy, and as a temporary escape from the practical perplexities of the moment. Her rescue, however, was to be otherwise effected, and a number of new intellectual interests that sprang up for her at this time all tended to retain her in her own country.
It was in the course of this spring that she made the acquaintance of M. de Lamennais, introduced to her by their common friend, the composer Franz Liszt. The famous author of the Paroles d'un Croyant had virtually severed himself from the Church of Rome by his recent publication of this little volume, pronounced by the Pope, "small in size, immense in perversity!" The eloquence of the poet-priest, and the doctrines of the anti-Catholic and humanitarian Christianity of which he came forward as the expounder, could not fail powerfully to impress her intelligence. Here seemed the harbour of refuge her half-wrecked faiths were seeking, and what the abbé’s antagonists denounced as the "diabolical gospel of social science," came to her as the teachings of an angel of light. Christianity as preached by him was a sort of realisation of the ideal religion of Aurore Dupin—faith divorced from superstition and the doctrine of Romish infallibility. Complete identity of sentiments between herself and the abbé was out of the question. But his was the right mind coming to her mind at the right moment, and exercised a healing influence over her troubled spirits. For Le Monde, a journal founded by him shortly after this time, she wrote the Lettres à Marcie, an unfinished series, treating of moral and spiritual problems and trials. Finally the position M. de Lamennais had taken up as the apostle of the people further enlisted her sympathies in his cause, which made religious one with social reform, and amalgamated the protest against moral enslavement with the liberation-schemes then fermenting in young and generous minds all over Europe.
The belief in the possibility of their speedy realisation was then wide-spread—a conviction that, as Heine puts it, some grand recipe for freedom and equality, invented, well drawn up, and inserted in the Moniteur, was all that was needed to secure those benefits for the world at large. If George Sand, led afterwards into searching for this empirical remedy for the wrongs and sufferings of the masses, believed the elixir to have been found in the establishment of popular sovereignty by universal suffrage, it was through the persuasive arguments of the leaders of the movement, with whom at this period she was first brought into personal relations. Her own unbiassed judgment, to which she reverted long years after, when she had seen these illusions perish sadly, was less sanguine in its prognostications for the immediate future, as appears in her own reflections in a letter of this time:—
What I see in the midst of the divergencies of all these reforming sects is a waste of generous sentiments and of noble thoughts, a tendency towards social amelioration, but an impossibility for the time to bring forth through the want of a head to that great body with a hundred hands, that tears itself to pieces, for not knowing what to attack. So far the struggles make only dust and noise. We have not yet come to the era that will construct new societies, and people them with perfected men.
She had recently been introduced to a political and legal celebrity of his day, the famous advocate Michel, of Bourges. He was then at the height of his reputation, which, won by his eloquent and successful defence of political prisoners on various occasions, was considerable. Madame Sand had been advised to consult him professionally about her business affairs, and for this purpose went over one day with some of her Berrichon friends to see him at Bourges. But the man of law had, it appears, been reading Lélia, and instead of talking of business with his distinguished client, dashed at once into politics, philosophy, and social science, overpowering his listeners with the strength of his oratory. His sentiments were those of extreme radicalism, and he carried on a little private propaganda in the country around. The force of his character seems to have spent itself in oratorical effort. He could preach revolution but not suggest reform, denounce existing abuses, but do nothing towards the remodelling of social institutions, and in after years he failed, as so many leading men in his profession have failed, to make any impression as a speaker in Parliament. The author of Lélia was overwhelmed, if not all at once converted, by the tremendous rhetorical power of this singular man. She was a proselyte worth the trouble of making, and Michel was bent on drawing her more closely into active politics, with which hitherto she had occupied herself very little. He began a correspondence, writing her long epistles, the sum of which, she says, may thus be resumed:—"Your scepticism springs from personal unhappiness. Love is selfish. Extend this solicitude for a single individual to the whole human race." He certainly succeeded in inspiring her with a strong desire to share his passion for politics, his faith, his revivifying hopes of a speedy social renovation, his ambition to be one of its apostles. To Michel, under the sobriquet of "Everard," are addressed several of the Lettres d'un Voyageur of the spring and summer of 1835, letters which she defines as "a rapid analysis of a rapid conversion."
But Michel's work was a work of demolition only; and when his earnest disciple wanted new theories in place of the old forms so ruthlessly destroyed, he had none to offer. There were others, however, who could. She was soon to be put into communication with a number of the active workers for the republican cause throughout the country. They counted many of the best hearts and not the worst heads in France, and were naturally eager to enlist her energies on their side.
Foremost, by right of the influence exercised over her awhile by his writings, was the philosopher Pierre Leroux, with whom her acquaintance dates from this same year. In spite of the wide divergence between her pre-eminently artistic spirit and a mind of the rougher stamp of this born iconoclast, he was to indoctrinate her with many new opinions. His disinterested character won her admiration; he was a practical philanthropist as well as a critical thinker, one whose life and fighting power were devoted to promoting the good of the working classes to whom he belonged, having been brought up as a printer. He was regarded as the apostle of communism, as then understood, or rather not understood—for the form under which it suggested itself to the social reformers of the period in question was entirely indefinite.
Meantime the novelist's pen was far from idle. One or two pleasant glimpses she has given us into her manner of working belong to this year. In the summer, the heat in her "poet's garret" becoming intolerable, she took refuge in a congenial solitude offered by the ground-floor apartments of the house, then in course of reconstruction, dismantled and untenanted. The works had been temporarily suspended, and Madame Sand took possession of the field abandoned by the builders and carpenters. The windows and doors opening into the garden had been taken away, and the place thus turned into an airy, cool retreat. Out of the apparatus of the workmen, left behind, she constructed her writing-establishment, and here, secure from interruption, denying herself to all visitors, never going out except to visit her children at their respective schools, she completed her novel, with no companions but the spiders crawling over the planks, the mice running in and out of the corners, and the blackbirds hopping in from the garden; the deep sense of solitude enhanced by the roar of the city in the very heart of which she had thus voluntarily isolated herself.
As an artistic experience she found it refreshing, and repeated it more than once. Soon after, a friend offered her the loan of an empty house at Bourges, a town that had been suggested to her as a desirable place of residence, should the circumstances at Nohant ever force her to abandon it entirely. As a home she saw and disapproved of Bourges, but she thoroughly enjoyed a brief retreat spent there in an absolutely deserted, vine-covered dwelling, standing in a garden enclosed by stone walls. Her meals were handed in through a wicket. A few friends came to see her in the evenings. The days, and often the nights, she passed in study and meditation, shut up in the library reading Lavater, expatiating on her impressions of his theories in a letter addressed to Franz Liszt (inserted among the Lettres d'un Voyageur), or strolling in the flower garden—"forgotten," she tells us, "by the whole world, and plunged into oblivion of the actualities of my own existence."
Of her numerous letters of advice to her boy at school, we quote one written during this summer of 1835, when their future relations to each other were in painful uncertainty:—
Work, be strong and proud; despise the little troubles supposed to belong to your age. Reserve your strength of resistance for deeds and facts that are worth the effort. If I am here no longer, think of me who worked and suffered cheerfully. We are like each other in mind and in countenance. I know already from this day what your intellectual life will be. I fear for you many and deep sorrows. I hope for you the purest of joys. Guard within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness. Know how to replace in your heart, by the happiness of those you love, the happiness that may be wanting to yourself. Keep the hope of another life. It is there that mothers meet their sons again. Love all God's creatures. Forgive those who are ill-conditioned, resist those who are unjust, and devote yourself to those who are great through their virtue. Love me. I will teach you many, many things if we live together. If that blessing (the greatest that can befall me, the only one that makes me wish for a long life) is not to be, you must pray for me, and from the grave itself, if anything remains of me in the universe, the spirit of your mother will watch over you.'
In the autumn, 1835, Madame Dudevant, under legal advice, and supported by the approval of friends of both parties, determined to apply to the courts for a judicial separation from her husband, on the plea of ill-treatment. She had sufficient grounds to allege for her claim, and had then every reason to hope that her demand would not even be contested by M. Dudevant, who, on former occasions, had voluntarily signed but afterwards revoked the agreement she hereby only desired to make valid and permanent, and which, ensuring to him a certain proportion of her income, gave her Nohant for a place of habitation, and established the children under her care.
Pending the issue of this suit, which, unexpectedly protracted, dragged on till the summer of the next year, she availed herself of the hospitality of a family at La Châtre, friends of old standing, and from under whose roof she awaited, as from a neutral ground, the decision of her judges. During this year she saw little of Paris, and less of Nohant, except for a brief visit which, profiting by a moment when its walls were absolutely deserted by every other human being, she paid to her house—not knowing then whether she would ever, so to speak, inhabit it again in her own right.
On the result of the legal proceedings depended her future home and the best part of her happiness. Sooner than be parted from her children she contemplated the idea, in case of the decision going against her, of escaping with them to America! Yet in the midst of all this suspense, we find her industrious as ever, joining in the day-time in the family life of the household with which she was domesticated, helping to amuse the children among them, retiring to her room at ten at night, to work on at her desk till seven in the morning according to her wont. A more cheerful tone begins to pervade her effusions. The clouds were slowly breaking on all sides at once, and a variety of circumstances combining to restore to her mind its natural tone—faith, hope, and charity to her heart, and harmony to her existence. She began to perceive what she was enabled afterwards more fully to acknowledge as follows:—
As to my religion, the ground of it has never varied. The forms of the past have vanished, for me as for my century, before the light of study and reflection. But the eternal doctrine of believers, of God and His goodness, the immortal soul and the hopes of another life, this is what, in myself, has been proof against all examination, all discussion, and even intervals of despairing doubt."
It is significant that during these months, spent for the most part at La Châtre, we find her rewriting Lélia, trying, as she expressed her intention, "to transform this work of anger into a work of gentleness." Engelwald, a novel of some length on which she was engaged, was destined never to see the light.
To the Comtesse d'Agoult, better known by her nom de plume of Daniel Stern, whose acquaintance she had recently made in Paris, she writes in May 1836:—
I am still at La Châtre, staying with my friends, who spoil me like a child of five years old. I inhabit a suburb, built in terraces against the rock—at my feet lies a wonderfully pretty valley. A garden thirty feet square and full of roses, and a terrace extensive enough for you to walk along it in ten steps, are my drawing-room, my study, and gallery. My bed-room is rather large—it is decorated with a red cotton curtained bed—a real peasant's bed, hard and flat, two straw chairs, and a white wooden table. My window is situated six feet above the terrace. By the trellised trees on the wall I can get out and in, and stroll at night among my thirty feet of flowers without having to open a door or awake anyone.
Sometimes I go out riding alone, at dusk. I come in towards midnight. My cloak, my rough hat, and the melancholy trot of my nag, make me pass in the darkness for a commercial traveller, or a farm-boy.
One of my grand amusements is to watch the transition from night to day; it effects itself in a thousand different manners. This revolution, apparently so uniform, has every day a character of its own.
The summer that had set in was unusually hot and sultry. Writing to Madame d'Agoult, July 10, 1836, she thus describes her enjoyment of a season that allowed of some of the pleasures of primitive existence:—
I start on foot at three in the morning, fully intending to be back by eight o'clock; but I lose myself in the lanes; I forget myself on the banks of the river; I run after butterflies; and I get home at midday in a state of torrefaction impossible to describe.
Another time the sight of the cooling stream is more than she can resist, and she walks into the Indre fully dressed; but a few minutes more and the sun has dried her garments, and she proceeds on her walk of ten or twelve miles—"Never a cockchafer passes but I run after it."
You have no idea of all the dreams I dream during my walks in the sun. I fancy myself in the golden days of Greece. In this happy country where I live you may often go for six miles without meeting a human creature. The flocks are left by themselves in pastures well enclosed by fine hedges; so the illusion can last for some time. One of my chief amusements when I have got out to some distance, where I don't know the paths, is to fancy I am wandering over some other country with which I discover some resemblance. I recollect having strolled in the Alps, and fancied myself for hours in America. Now I picture to myself an Arcadia in Berry. Not a meadow, not a cluster of trees which, under so fine a sun, does not appear to me quite Arcadian.
We give these passages because they seem to us very forcibly to portray one side, and that the strongest and most permanent, of the character of George Sand: the admixture of a child's simplicity of tastes, a poet's fondness for reverie, and that instinctive independence of habits—an instinct stronger than the restraints of custom—which her individuality seemed to demand.
In the letter last quoted to Madame d'Agoult, the new ideal which was arising out of these contemplations is thus resumed:—
To throw yourself into the lap of mother nature: to take her really for mother and sister; stoically and religiously to cut off from your life what is mere gratified vanity; obstinately to resist the proud and the wicked; to make yourself humble with the unfortunate, to weep with the misery of the poor; nor desire another consolation than the putting down of the rich; to acknowledge no other God than Him who ordains justice and equality upon men; to venerate what is good, to judge severely what is only strong, to live on very little, to give away nearly all, in order to re-establish primitive equality and bring back to life again the Divine institution: that is the religion I shall proclaim in a little corner of my own and that I aspire to preach to my twelve apostles under the lime-trees in my garden.
The judgment of the court, first pronounced in February 1836, and given in her favour by default, no opposition having been raised to her claims to the proposed partition of property by the defendant, placed her in legal possession of her house and her children. Appeal was made, however, prolonging and complicating the case, but without affecting its termination. In the war of mutual accusations thus stirred up, M. Dudevant's rôle as accuser, yet objecting in the same breath to the separation, had an appearance of insincerity that could not fail to withdraw sympathy from his side, irrespective of any judgment that might be held on the conduct of the wife, whose absence and complete independence he had authorised or acquiesced in. Before the actual conclusion of the law-suit his appeal was withdrawn. As a result, the previous judgment in favour of Madame Dudevant was virtually confirmed, and the details were settled by private agreement.
It is almost impossible to overrate the importance to George Sand of a conclusion that gave her back her old home of Nohant, and secured to her the permanent companionship of her children. The present pecuniary arrangement left M. Dudevant some hold over Maurice and his education, concerning which his parents had long disagreed, and which for another year remained a source of contention.
The affair thus concluded, Madame Sand entered formally into possession of Nohant; and early in September she started with her two children for Switzerland, where they spent the autumn holidays in a long-contemplated visit to her friend the Comtesse d'Agoult, then at Geneva. This tour is fancifully sketched in a closing number of the Lettres d'un Voyageur, a volume which stands as a sort of literary memorial of two years of unsettled, precarious existence, material and spiritual—a time of trial now happily at an end.
Simon, a tale dedicated to Madame d'Agoult, and published in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 1836—a graceful story, of no high pretensions—is noticeable as marking the commencement of a decided and agreeable change in the tone of George Sand's fiction. Hitherto the predominant note struck had been most often one of melancholy, if not despair—the more hopelessly painful the subject, the more fervent, apparently, the inspiration to the writer. In Indiana she had portrayed the double victim of tyranny and treachery; in Valentine, a helpless girl sacrificed to family ambition and social prejudice; in Lélia and Jacques, the incurable Weltschmerz, heroism unvalued and wasted; in Leone Leoni, the infatuation of a weak-minded woman for a phenomenal scoundrel; in André, the wretchedness which a timid selfish character, however amiable, may bring down on itself and on all connected with it. Henceforward she prefers themes of a pleasanter nature. In Simon she paints the triumph of true and patient love over social prejudice and strong opposition. In Mauprat, written in 1837, at Nohant, she exerts all the force of her imagination and language to bring before us vividly the gradual redemption of a noble but degraded nature, through the influence of an exclusive, passionate and indestructible affection. The natural optimism of her temperament, not her incidental misfortunes, began and continued to colour her compositions.
From Switzerland she returned for part of the winter to Paris. She had given up her "poet's garret," and occupied for a while a suite of rooms in the Hôtel de France, where resided also Madame d'Agoult. The salon of the latter was a favourite rendez-vous of cosmopolitan artistic celebrities, whose general rendez-vous just then was Paris. A very Pantheon must have been an intimate circle that included, among others, George Sand, Daniel Stern, Heine, the Polish poet Mickiewicz, Eugène Delacroix, Meyerbeer, Liszt, Hiller, and Frédéric Chopin.
The delicate health of her son forced Madame Sand to leave with him shortly for Berry, where he soon became convalescent. Later in the season, some of the same party of friends that had met in Paris met again at Nohant. It was during this summer that George Sand wrote for her child the well-known little tale, Les Maîtres Mosaïstes, in which the adventures of the Venetian mosaic-workers are woven into so charming a picture. "I do not know why, but it is seldom that I have written anything with so much pleasure," she tells us. "It was in the country, in summer weather, as hot as the Italian climate I had lately left. I have never seen so many birds and flowers in my garden. Liszt was playing the piano on the ground floor, and the nightingales, intoxicated with music and sunshine, were singing madly in the lilac-trees around."
The party was abruptly dispersed upon the intelligence that reached Madame Sand of her mother's sudden, and, as it proved, fatal illness. She hurried to Paris, and remained with Madame Maurice Dupin during her last days. The old fond affection between them, though fitful in its manifestations on the part of the mother, had never been impaired, and the breaking of this old link with the past was very deeply felt by Madame Sand.
Before returning to Nohant, she spent a few weeks at Fontainebleau with her son, from whom she never liked to separate. They passed their days in exploring the forest, then larger and wilder than now, botanising and butterfly-hunting. At night she sat up writing, when all was quiet in the inn. Just as, whilst at Venice, her fancy flew back to the scenes and characters of French provincial life, and André was the result, so here, amid the forest landscapes of her own land, her imagination rushed off to Venice and the shores of the Brenta, and produced La Dernière Aldini.
This constant industry, which had now become her habit of life, was more of a practical necessity than ever. Nohant, as already mentioned, barely repaid the owner the expenses of keeping it up. Madame Sand, who desired to be liberal besides, to travel occasionally, to gratify little artistic fancies as they arose, must look to her literary work to furnish the means.
"Sometimes," she writes from Nohant, in October 1837, to Madame d'Agoult, then in Italy, "I am tempted to realise my capital, and come and join you; but out there I should do no work, and the galley-slave is chained up. If Buloz lets him go for a walk it is on parole, and parole is the cannon-ball the convict drags on his foot."
Nor was it for herself only that she worked in future, but for her children, the whole responsibility of providing for both of whose education she was now about definitely to take on her own shoulders. The power of interference left to M. Dudevant by the recent legal decision had been exercised in a manner leading to fresh vexatious contention, and continual alarm on Madame Sand's part lest the boy should be taken by force from her side. These skirmishes included the actual abduction of Solange from Nohant by M. Dudevant during her mother's absence at Fontainebleau; a foolish and purposeless trick, by which nothing was to be gained, except annoyance and trouble to Madame Sand, whose right to the control of her daughter had never been contested. A final settlement entered into between the parties, in 1838, placed these matters henceforward on a footing of peace, fortunately permanent. By this agreement Madame Sand received back from M. Dudevant—who had lately succeeded to his father's estate—some house property that formed part of her patrimony, and paid down to him the sum of £2,000; he ceding to her the remnant of his paternal rights; she freeing him from all charges for Maurice's education, her authority over which, in future, was recognised as complete.