George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 6
SOLITUDE, SOCIETY, AND SOCIALISM.
The charge of both children now resting entirely in her hands, Madame Sand was enabled to fulfil her desire of permanently removing her boy, now fourteen years of age, from the College Henri IV. Not only was she opposed to the general régime and educational system pursued in French public schools of this type, she felt persuaded of its special unsuitability to her son, whose tastes and temperament were artistic, like her own, and whose classical studies had been repeatedly interrupted by illness. His delicate health determined her to spend the winter of 1838–9 abroad, with her family. Having heard the climate and scenery of Majorca highly praised, she selected the island for their resort; tempted herself by the prospect of a few months absolute quiet, where, with neither letters to answer nor newspapers to read, she would enjoy some rare leisure, which she proposed to spend in studying history and teaching French to her children.
Just at this time her friend and ardent admirer, Frédéric Chopin, was recovering from a chest attack, the first presage of the illness that caused his early death. The eminent pianist and composer had also been recommended to winter in the South, and greatly needed repose and change of air to recruit him from the fatigues of the Parisian season. It was arranged that the convalescent should make one of the expedition to Majorca. He joined Madame Sand and her children at Perpignan, and they embarked for Barcelona, whence the sea-voyage to the island was safely accomplished, the party reaching Palma, the capital, in magnificent November weather, and never suspecting how soon they would have cause to repent their choice of a retreat.
But their practical information about the island proved lamentably insufficient. With the scenery, indeed, they were enraptured. "We found," says Madame Sand in her little volume, Un Hiver à Majorque, published the following year, "a green Switzerland, under a Calabrian sky, with all the solemnity and stillness of the East." But though a painter's Elysium, Majorca was wanting in the commonest comforts of civilised life. Inns were nonexistent, foreigners viewed and treated with suspicion. The party thought themselves fortunate in securing a villa some miles from Palma, furnished, though scantily. "The country, nature, trees, sky, sea, and mountains surpass all my dreams," she writes in the first days, "it is the promised land; and as we have succeeded in housing ourselves pretty well, we are delighted."
The delight was of brief duration. That Madame Sand's manuscripts took a month to reach the editor of the Revue des Deux Mondes; that the piano ordered from Paris for Chopin took two months to get to Majorca, were the least among their troubles. A rainy season of exceptional severity set in, and the villa quickly became uninhabitable. It was not weather-proof. Chopin fell alarmingly ill. Good food and medical attendance were hardly to be procured for him; and finally the villa proprietor, having heard that his tenant was suffering from consumption—an illness believed to be infectious by the Majorcans—gave the whole party notice to quit. The invalid improving somewhat, though still too weak to attempt the return journey to France, Madame Sand transported her ambulance, as she styled it, to some more tolerable quarters she had already discovered in the deserted Carthusian monastery of Valdemosa—"a poetical name and a poetical abode," she writes; "an admirable landscape, grand and wild, with the sea at both ends of the horizon, formidable peaks around us, eagles pursuing their prey even down to the orange-trees in our garden, a cypress walk winding from the top of our mountain to the bottom of the gorge, torrents overgrown with myrtles, palm-trees below our feet, nothing could be more magnificent than this spot."
Parts of the old monastic buildings were dilapidated; the rest were in good order, being frequented as a summer retreat by the inhabitants of Palma. Now, in December, the Chartreuse was entirely abandoned, except by a housekeeper, a sacristan and a lone monk, the last offshoot of the community—a kind of apothecary, whose stock-in-trade was limited to guimauve and dog-grass.
The rooms into which the travellers moved had just been vacated by a Spanish family of political refugees, departing for France. These lodgings were at least provided with doors, window-panes, and decent furniture; but the luxury of chimneys was unknown, and a stove, which had to be manufactured at an enormous price on purpose for the party, is described as "a sort of iron cauldron, that made our heads ache and dried up our throats." Continuous stormy weather having suspended steam traffic with the mainland, the visitors had no choice but to remain prisoners some two months more, during which the deluge went on with little intermission.
Still, to young and romantic imaginations the island and life in the ex-monastery offered considerable charm. Madame Sand and her children were delighted with the unfamiliar vegetation, the palms, aloes, olives, almond and orange trees, the Arab architecture, and picturesque costumes. Valdemosa itself was splendidly situated among the mountains, in a stone-walled garden surrounded with cypress trees and planted with palms and olives. In the morning Madame Sand gave lessons to the children; in the afternoon they ran wild out of doors whilst she wrote—when the invalid musician was well enough to be left. In the evenings she and the young people went wandering by moonlight through the cloisters, exploring the monkish cells and chapels. Maurice had fortunately recovered his health completely, but poor Chopin's state, aggravated by the damp weather and privations—for the difficulties in obtaining a regular supply of provisions were immense—remained throughout their stay a constant and terrible cause of anxiety and responsibility to Madame Sand. From the islanders no sort of help or even sympathy was forthcoming, and thievish servants and extortionate traders were not the least of the annoyances with which the strangers had to contend. In a letter to François Rollinat she gives a graphic account of their misfortunes:—
It has rightly been laid down as a principle that where nature is beautiful and generous, men are had and avaricious. We had all the trouble in the world to procure the commonest articles of food, such as the island produces in abundance; thanks to the signal dishonesty, the plundering spirit of the peasants, who made us pay for everything three times what it was worth, so that we were at their mercy under the penalty of dying of hunger. We could get no one to serve us, because we were not Christians [the travellers passed for being "sold to the Devil" because they did not go to Mass], and, besides, nobody would attend on a consumptive invalid. However, for better for worse, we were established. . . . The place was incomparably poetical; we did not see a living soul, nothing disturbed our work; after waiting two months, and paying three hundred francs extra, Chopin had at last received his piano, and delighted the vaults of his cell with his melodies. Health and strength were visibly returning to Maurice; as for me, I worked as tutor seven hours a day; I sat up working on my own account half the night; Chopin composed masterpieces, and we hoped to put up with the remainder of our discomforts by the aid of these compensations.
It was in the cells of Valdemosa that Madame Sand completed her novel of monastic life, Spiridion, then publishing in the Revue des Deux Mondes. "For heaven's sake not so much mysticism!" prayed the editor of her now and then, and assuredly those readers for whom George Sand was simply a purveyor of passionate romances, those critics who set her down in their minds as exclusively a glorifier of mutinous emotion and the apologist of lawless love, must have been taken aback by these pages, in which she had devoted her most fervent energies to tracing the spiritual history, peu récréatif, as she dryly observes, of a monk who, in the days of the decadence of the monastic orders, retained earnestness and sincerity; whose mind, revolted by the hypocrisy and worldliness around him, passes through the successive stages of heresy and philosophic doubt, and to whom is finally revealed an eternal gospel, which lies at the core of his old religion, but which later growths have stifled, and which outlasts all shocks and changes, and is to generate the religion of the future.
The compositions of Chopin above alluded to include the finest of his well-known Preludes, which may easily be conceived of as suggested by the strange mingling of contrasting impressions in the Chartreuse. "Several of these Preludes," writes Madame Sand, "represent the visions that haunted him of deceased monks, the sounds of funeral chaunts; others are soft and melancholy; these came to him in his hours of sunshine and health, at the sound of the children's laughter beneath the window, the distant thrum of guitars and the song of the birds under the damp foliage; at the sight of the pale little roses in bloom among the snow."
The loneliness and melancholy beauty of the spot, however congenial to the romance writer or inspiring to the composer, were not the right tonics for the nerves of the over-sensitive, imaginative invalid. The care and nursing of Madame Sand made amends for much, and by her good sense she saved him from being doctored to death by local practitioners. But his fortitude, which bore up heroically against his personal danger, was not proof against the dreary influences of Valdemosa in bad weather, the fogs, the sound of the hurricane sweeping through the valley, and bringing down portions of the dilapidated building, the noise of the torrents, the cries of the scared sea-birds and the roar of the sea.
The elevation of the Chartreuse made the climate peculiarly disagreeable at this season. She writes on:—
We lived in the midst of clouds, and for fifty days were unable to get down into the plains; the roads were changed to torrents, and we saw nothing more of the sun.
I should have thought it all beautiful if poor Chopin could only have got on. Maurice was none the worse. The wind and the sea sung sublimely as they beat against the rocks. The vast and empty cloisters cracked over our heads. If I had been there when I wrote the portion of Lélia that takes place in the convent, I should have made it finer and truer. But my poor friend's chest got worse and worse. The fine weather did not return . . . A maid I had brought over from France, and who so far had resigned herself, on condition of enormous wages, to cook and do the housework, began to refuse attendance as too hard. The moment was coming when after having wielded the broom and managed the pot au feu, I was ready to drop with fatigue—for besides my work as tutor, besides my literary labour, besides the continual attention necessitated by the condition of my invalid, I had rheumatism in every limb.
The return of spring was hailed as offering a tardy release from their island. The steamers were running again, and the party determined to leave at all risks; for though Chopin's state was more precarious than ever, nothing could be worse for him than to remain. They departed feelings she admits, as though they were escaping from the tender mercies of Polynesian savages, and once safely on board a French vessel at Barcelona, they thankfully welcomed the day that restored them to comfort and civilisation, and saw the end of an expedition that had turned out in most respects so disastrous a fiasco.
They remained throughout April at Marseilles, where Chopin in the hands of a good doctor became convalescent. From Marseilles they made a short tour in Italy, visiting Genoa and the neighbourhood, and returning to France in May, Chopin apparently on the high road to complete recovery. It was in the following year that his illness returned in a graver form, and unmistakable symptoms of consumption showed themselves. The life of a fashionable pianist in Paris, the constant excitement, late hours, and heavy strain of nervous exertion, were fatal to his future chances of preserving his health; but it was a life to which he had now become wedded, and which he never willingly left, except for his long annual visits to Nohant.
Madame Sand repeatedly contemplated settling herself entirely in the country. She had no love for Paris. "Parisian life strains our nerves and kills us in the long run," she writes from Nohant to one of her correspondents; "Ah, how I hate it, that centre of light! I would never set foot in it again, if the people I like would make the same resolution." And again speaking of her "Black Valley, so good and so stupid," she adds, "Here I am always more myself than at Paris, where I am always ill, in body and in spirit."
Paris, however, afforded greater facilities for her children's education. She had a strong desire to see her son an artist, and he was already studying painting in Delacroix's studio. Also her income at this moment did not suffice to enable her to live continuously at Nohant where, she frankly confessed, she had not yet found out how to live economically, expected as she was to keep open house, regarded as grudging and unneighbourly if she did not maintain her establishment on a scale to which her resources as yet were unequal. Her expenses in the country she calculated as double those in Paris where, as she writes to M. Chatiron,—
Everyone's independence is admirable. You invite whom you like, and when you don't wish to receive anyone you let the porter know you are not at home. Yet I hate Paris in all other respects. There I grow stout, and my mind grows thin. You know how quiet and retired my life there is, and I do not understand why you tell me, as they say in the provinces, that glory keeps me there. I have no glory, I have never sought for it, and I don't care a cigarette for it. I want to breathe fresh air and live in peace. I am succeeding, but you see and you know on what conditions.
Her Paris residence, a few seasons later, she fixed in the Cour d'Orléans Rue St. Lazare, in a block of buildings one-third of which was occupied by herself and her family; another belonged to her friend, Madame Marliani, wife of the Spanish Consul, the third to Frédéric Chopin.
With respect to Chopin's long and deep attachment to Madame Sand, and its requital, concerning which so much has been written, there can surely be no greater misstatement than to speak of her as having blighted his life. This last part of his life was indeed blighted, but by ill-health and consequent nervous irritability and suffering; but such mitigation as was possible he found for eight years in the womanly devotion and genial society of Madame Sand—real benefits to one whose strange and delicate individuality it was not easy to befriend—and which the breach that took place between them shortly before his death should not allow us to forget.
"Chopin," observes Eugène Delacroix, "belongs to the small number of those whom one can both esteem and love." Madame Sand joined a sympathetic appreciation of the refinement of his nature, and an enthusiastic admiration of his genius—feelings she shared with his numberless female worshippers—to a strength of character that lent the support no other could perhaps so fully have given, or that he would accept from no other, to the fragile, nervous, suffering tone-poet. Her sentiments towards him seem to resolve themselves into a great tenderness rather than a passionate fervour—a placid affection for himself, and an adoration for his music.
All the time their existences, so far from having been united, flowed in different, nay divergent channels. Chopin, the idol of Paris society, moved constantly in the aristocratic and fashionable world, from which Madame Sand lived aloof. She for her part had heavy domestic cares and anxieties that did not touch him, and with the political party which was absorbing more and more of her energies he had no sympathy whatever. Whether the cause were the false start she had made at the outset by her marriage, forbidding her the realization of a woman's ideal, the non-separation of the gift of her heart from that of her whole life, or whether that her masculine strength of intellect created for her serious public interests and occupations, beside which personal pleasures and pains are apt to become of secondary moment, certain it appears that with George Sand, as with many an eminent artist of the opposite sex, such affaires de cœur were but ripples on the sea of a large and active existence.
The year after her return from Majorca was marked by her first appearance before the public as a dramatic author. Although it was a line in which she afterwards obtained successes, as will be seen in a future chapter, the result of this initial effort, Cosima, a five-act drama, was not encouraging. It was acted at the Théâtre Français in the spring of 1840, and proved a failure. It betrays no insufficient sense of dramatic effect, nor lack of the means for producing it, but decided clumsiness in the adaptation of these means to that end. The plot and personages recall those of Indiana, with the important differences that the beau rôle of the piece falls to the husband, and that the scene is transported back to Florence in the Middle Ages—an undoubted error, as giving to a play essentially modern and French in its complexities of sentiment and motive a strong local colouring of a past time and another people, making the whole seem unreal. It has a psychological subject which Émile Augier or Dumas fils would know how to handle dramatically; but as treated by George Sand, we are perpetually being led to anticipate too much in the way of action, to have our expectations dissipated the next moment. A wet blanket of disappointment on this head damps any other satisfaction that the merits of the play might otherwise afford.
Hitherto she had continued to write regularly for the Revue des Deux Mondes. As her revolutionary opinions became more pronounced they began to find utterance in her romances. Her conversion by Michel had not only been complete, but the disciple had outstripped the master. The study of the communistic theories of Pierre Leroux had familiarized her with the speculations in social science of those who at this time were devoting their attention to criticising the existing social organization and seeking, and sometimes imagining they had found, the secret of creating a better. George Sand's strong admiration for the writings of Leroux, always praised by her in the highest terms, strikes us now as extravagant, but was shared to some extent by not a few leading men of the time, such as Sainte-Beuve and Lamartine. Her intellect had eagerly followed this bold and earnest pioneer in new discovered worlds of thought; "I do not say it is the last word of humanity, but, so far, it is its most advanced expression," she states of his philosophy. The study of it had brought a clearness into her own views, due, probably, much more to the action of her own mind upon the novel ideas suggested than to the lucidity of a system of social science as yet undetermined in some of its main points.
She writes, when looking back on this period from a long distance of time,—
After the despairs of my youth, I was governed by too many illusions. Morbid scepticism was succeeded in me by too much kindliness and ingenuousness. A thousand times over I was duped by dreams of an archangelic fusion of the opposing forces in the great strife of ideas.
Her novel Horace, written for the Revue des Deux Mondes, was rejected—as subversive of law and order—by the editor, except on condition of alterations which she declined to make.
After this temporary rupture with Buloz, Madame Sand's services were largely appropriated by the Revue Indépendante, a new journal, founded in 1840 by her friends Pierre Leroux and Louis Viardot, in conjunction with whose names hers appears on the title page as leading contributor. For this periodical no theories could be too advanced, no fictitious illustrations too audacious, and to its pages accordingly was Horace transferred. Among the secondary characters in this novel figure a young couple, immaculate otherwise in principle and in conduct, but who as converts to St. Simonism have dispensed with the ordinary legal sanction to their union. Perhaps a more solid objection to its insertion in the Revue des Deux Mondes was the picture introduced of the émeute of June 1832, painted in heroic colours. Both these features, however, are purely incidental. The main interest and the real strength of the book lie in a remarkable study of character-development—that of the chief personage, Horace. It is a cleverly painted portrait of a type that reappears, with slight modifications, in all ages; a moral charlatan, who half imposes on himself and entirely for a while on other people. A would-be hero, genius, and chivalrous lover, he has none of the genuine qualities needed for sustaining the parts. Nonchalant and inert of temperament, he is capable of nothing beyond a short course of successful affectation. The imposition breaking down at last, he sinks helplessly into the unheroic mediocrity of position and pretension for which alone he is fit.
A veritable attempt at a Socialist novel is the Compagnon du Tour de France, written in the course of 1840, which must surely be ranked as one of the weakest of George Sand's productions. Exactly the converse of Horace may be said of this book. In the former, those most repelled by the revolutionary doctrines flashing out here and there, will yet be struck and interested by the masterly piece of character-painting that makes of the novel a success. The utmost fanaticism for the ideas ventilated in the Compagnon du Tour de France can reconcile no reader to the dulness and unreality of the story which make of it a failure. For her socialism itself, as set forth in her writings, dispassionate examination of what she actually inculcated leaves but little warrant, in the state of progress now reached, for echoing the mighty outcry raised against it at the time. No doubt she thought that a complete reorganization of society on a new basis was eminently to be desired. But what she definitely advocated was, first, free education for the poor, and secondly, some fairer adjustment of the relations to each other of capital and labour. As to the first, authority has already sanctioned her opinion; the second question, if unsettled, has become a first preoccupation with statesmen and philosophers of all denominations in the present day.
With regard to the complete solution of the problem she leaves her socialist heroes, as she herself felt, in doubt and perplexity. There was something in the schemes and doctrines she conscientiously approved irreconcilable with her artist-nature—a materialistic tendency which clashed with her poetical instincts. When the stern demagogue Michel denounced the whole tribe of artists as a corrupting influence, enervating to the courage and will of a nation, she rose up energetically in defence of the confraternity to which she was born:—
Will you tell me, pray, what yon mean, with your declamations against artists. Cry out against them as much as you please, but respect art. Oh you Vandal! I like that stern sectarian who wants to dress Taglioni in a stuff gown and sabots, and set Liszt's hands to turn the machinery of a wine-press, and who yet, as he lies on the grass, finds the tears come into his eyes at the least linnet's song, and who makes a disturbance in the theatre to stop Othello from murdering Malibran! The austere citizen would suppress artists as social excrescences that absorb too much of the sap; but this gentleman is fond of vocal music, and so will spare the singers. Let us hope that painters will find one among your strong heads who appreciates painting, and won't wall up all studio windows. And as for the poets, they are your cousins; and you don't despise their forms of language and their rhythmical mechanism when you want to make an impression on the idle crowd. You will go to them to take lessons in metaphor, and how to make use of it.
Unfortunately for the cause of the superiority of antiquity, whenever you go to hear Berlioz's Funeral March, the least that can happen to you will be to confess that this music is rather better than what they used to give us in Sparta, when we served under Lycurgus; you will think that Apollo, displeased to see us sacrificing to Pallas exclusively, has played us a trick in giving lessons to that Babylonian, so that by the exercise of a magnetic and disastrous power over us, he may lead our spirits astray.
And she would prove to the demagogue, out of his own mouth, that everything cannot be reduced to "bread and shoes all round," as the grand desideratum. Give these to men, it will not suffice. The eloquent orator instinctively seeks besides to impart "hallowed emotions and mystic enthusiasm to those who toil and sweat—he teaches them to hope, to dream of God, to take courage and lift themselves above the sickening miseries of human conditions by the thought of a future, chimerical it may be, but strengthening and sublime."
For a period, however, she was too fascinated by the new ideas to judge them, and she straightway sought in her art a means of popularizing them. "These ideas," she writes in a later preface to her socialist novel, Le Péché de M. Antoine, "at which as yet but a small number of conservative spirits had taken alarm, had as yet only really begun to sprout in a small number of attentive, laborious minds. The Government, so long as no actual form of political application was assumed, was not to be disquieted by theories, and let every man make his own, put forth his dream, and innocently construct his city of the future, by his own fireside, in the garden of his imagination."
She was aware that her readers thought her novels getting more and more tedious, in proportion as she communicated to her fictitious heroes and heroines the preoccupations of her brain, and that she was thus stepping out of the domain of art. But she affirmed she could never help writing of whatever was absorbing her thoughts and feelings at the moment, and must take her chance of boring the public. Fortunately for Le Péché de M. Antoine, nature and human nature are here allowed to claim the larger share of our attention, and philosophy is a secondary feature. The scene is laid in the picturesque Marche country on the confines of Berry, a day's journey from Nohant, and we are glad to linger with her along the rocky banks of the Creuse, or among the ruined castles of Crozant and Châteaubrun. The novel contains much that is original and admirable in the drawing of characters of the most opposite classes.
Finally in Le Meunier d'Angibault, written as was the last-mentioned work some four or five years later (1844–5), but which may be named here, as making up with Le Compagnon du Tour de France the trio of "socialist" novels, the Tendenz does not interfere to the detriment of the artistic plan of the book. In it the romantic elements of the remote country nook she inhabited are cleverly brought together, without departing too widely from probability. The dilapidated castle, the picturesque mill, the traditions of brigandage two generations ago, all these were realities familiar to her notice. The painting of the country and country people is masterly; and there is not a passage in the book to offend the taste of the most scrupulous reader. Nor can it be justly impugned on the ground of inculcating disturbing political principles. The personages, in their preference of poverty and obscurity to rank and wealth, may, in the judgment of some, think and conduct themselves like chimerical dreamers, but their actions, however quixotic, concern themselves alone.
But, previous to either of the two novels last-named, she had presented the world with a more ambitious work, whose merit was to compel universal acknowledgment—the most important, in fact, she had produced for eight years.