George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 7
CONSUELO—HOME LIFE AT NOHANT.
Consuelo first appeared in the Revue Indépendante, 1842–3. This noble book might not be inaptly described as,
—a whole which, irregular in parts,
Yet left a grand impression on the mind.
Its reckless proportions naturally "shocked the connoisseurs" among literary critics, especially in her own land; but nevertheless it became, and deservedly, one of her most popular productions, and did more than any other single novel she ever wrote to spread her popularity abroad. If Indiana, Valentine and Lélia had never been written to create the fame of George Sand, Consuelo would have done so, and may be said to have established it over again, on a better and more lasting basis. Upon so well-known a work lengthened comment here would be superfluous. Originally intended for a novelette,—the opening chapters appear in the Revue under the modest headings Consuelo, conte,—the beginning was so successful, that the author was urged to extend her plan beyond its first proposed limits. The novel is an ephemeral form of art, no doubt, but it is difficult to conceive of a stage of social and intellectual progress when the first part of Consuelo will cease to be read with interest and delight.
The heroine once transported from the lagunes of Venice to the frontier of Bohemia and the castle of Rudolstadt, the character of the story becomes less naturalistic; the story-teller loses herself somewhat in subterranean passages and the mazes of adventure generally. She wrote on, she acknowledges, at haphazard, tempted and led away by the new horizons which the artistic and historical researches her work required kept opening to her view. But the powerful contrast between the two pictures—of bright, sunshiny, free, sensuous, careless Venetian folk-life, and of the stern gloom of the mediæval castle, where the more spiritual consolations of existence come into prominence—is singularly effective and original. So also is the charming way in which an incident in the boyhood of young Joseph Haydn is treated by her fancy, in the episode of Consuelo's flight from the castle, when he becomes her fellow-traveller, and their adventures across country are told with such zest and entrain, in pages where life-like sketches of character, such as the good-natured self-indulgent canon, the violent, abandoned Corilla, make us forget the wildest improbabilities of the fiction itself. The concluding portion of the book, again entirely different in frame, with its delineation of art-life in a fashionable capital, Vienna, is as true as it is brilliant. It teems with suggestive ideas on the subject of musical and dramatic art, and with excellently drawn types. The relations of professional and amateur, the contradictions and contentions to which, in a woman's nature, the rival forces of love and of an artistic vocation may give rise, have never been better portrayed in any novel. The heroine, Consuelo, is of course an ideal character; her achievements partake of the marvellous; and there are digressions in the book which are diffuse in the extreme; but nowhere is the author's imagination more attractively displayed and her style more engaging. The tone throughout is noble and pure. To look on Consuelo as an agreeable story merely is to overlook the elevation of the moral standard of the book, in which much of its power resides. It marks more strongly than Mauprat the change that had come over the spirit of George Sand's compositions.
In the continuation. La Comtesse de Rudolstadt, which followed immediately in the Revue Indépendante, 1843, the novelist strays further and further from reality—the terra firma on which her fancy improvises such charming dances. Here she only touches the ground now and then, and between whiles her imagination asks ours to accompany it on the most extraordinary flights. As a novel of adventure, it is written with unflagging spirit; and in the rites and doctrines of the Illuminati, an idealisation of the feature of the secret sects of the last century, she found a new medium of expression for her sentiments regarding the present abuses of society and the need of thorough renovation. Secret societies, at that time, were extremely numerous and active among the Republican workers in France. Madame Sand seems thoroughly to have appreciated their dangers, and has expressly stated that she was no advocate of such sects; that though under a tyranny, such as that which oppressed Germany in the times of which she wrote, they may be a necessity, elsewhere they are an abuse if not a crime. "The custom indeed I have never regarded as applicable for good in our time and our country; I have never believed that it can bring forth anything in future but a dictatorship, and the dictatorial principle is one I have never accepted." (Histoire de ma Vie.)
But the romance of the subject was irresistibly tempting to her inventive faculty. "Tell Leroux to send me some more books on freemasonry, if he can find any," she writes to a correspondent at Paris whilst working at the Comtesse de Rudolstadt at Nohant; "I am plunged into it over head and ears. Tell him also that he has there thrown me into an abyss of follies and absurdities, but that I am dabbling about courageously, though prepared to extract nothing but nonsense."
For the musical miracles which it is given to Madame Sand's heroes and heroines to perform at a trifling cost, she may well at this time have come to regard them as almost in the natural order. She had received her second, and her best musical education through the contemplation of original musical genius, of the rarest quality, among her most intimate friends, her constant guests at Paris and Nohant. The vocal and instrumental feats of Consuelo and Count Albert themselves are not more astonishing than the actual recorded achievements of Liszt, pronounced a perfect virtuoso at twelve years old,—and no wonder! The boy had so carried away his accompanyists, the band of the Italian opera at Paris, by his performance of the solo in an orchestral piece, that when the moment came for them to strike in, one and all forgot to do so, but remained silent, petrified with amazement. And Liszt when in the full development of his genius had, as we have seen, been the art-comrade of George Sand; he had spent the whole of the summer season of 1837 at Nohant, transcribing Beethoven's symphonies for the pianoforte whilst she wrote her romances; she was familiar with his marvellous improvisations. In her "Trip to Chamounix" (Lettres d'un Voyageur, No. VI.) she has drawn a vivid picture of their extraordinary effect, describing his unrehearsed organ recital in the Cathedral of Freibourg to his little party of travelling companions. Nor was the charm of Chopin's gift less magical. The well-known anecdotes related on this subject are like so many glimpses into a musical paradise. Madame Sand has given us an amusing one herself. It is evening, in her salon at Paris. At the piano is Chopin; and she, her son, Eugène Delacroix, and the Polish poet Mickiewicz sit listening whilst the composer, in an inspired mood, is extemporising in the sublimest manner to the little circle. All are in silent raptures; when the servant breaks in with the alarm—the house is on fire. They rush to the room where the flames are and succeed after a time in extinguishing these. Then they perceive that the poet Mickiewicz is missing. On returning to the salon they find him as they left him, rapt, entranced, unconscious of the stir around him, of the scare that had driven all the rest from the room. "He did not even know we had gone and left him alone. He was listening to Chopin, he had continued to hear him." Nor could the bewitched poet be brought down from the clouds that evening. He remained deaf to their banter, to Madame Sand's laughing admonition, "Next time I am with you when the house takes fire I must begin by putting you into a safe place, for I see you would get burnt like a mere faggot, before you knew what was going on."
Eugène Delacroix, one of Madame Sand's earliest and most valued friends in the artist-world, and one of the many with whom she enjoyed a long and unclouded friendship, gives in his letters some agreeable pictures of life at Nohant, during his visits there in the successive summers of 1845 and 1846:—
When not assembled together with the rest for dinner, breakfast, a game of billiards, or a walk, you are in your room reading, or lounging on your sofa. Every moment there come in through the window open on the garden, "puffs of music" from Chopin, working away on one side, which mingle with the song of the nightingales and the scent of the roses.
He describes a quiet, monastic-like existence, simple and studious: "We have not even the distraction of neighbours and friends around. In this country everybody stays at home, to look after his oxen and his land. One would become a fossil in a very short time."
The greatest event for the visitor was a village-festival—a wedding or a Saint's day—when the rustic dances went on under the tall elms to the roaring of the bagpipes. Peasant youths and peasant maids joined hands in the bourrée, the characteristic dance of the country; now, we fear, surviving in tradition only, but then still popular. The great artist was fired to paint a "Ste. Anne," patron-saint of Nohant, in honour of the place, but his work progressed but slowly. He writes in August, 1846:—"I am frightfully lazy, I can do nothing, I hardly read; and yet the days pass too quickly, for I must soon renounce this vie de chanoine, and return into the furnace of stirring ideas, good and bad. In Berry they have very few ideas, but they do just as well without." Then he adds, "Chopin has been playing Beethoven to me divinely well. That is worth all æstheticism."
Little theatrical entertainments of an original kind, presided over by Madame Sand, and carried out by herself, her children, and their young friends, became in time a prominent feature of life at Nohant. She thus describes their nature and commencements:—
During the long evenings I took it into my head to devise for my family theatricals on the old Italian pattern —commedia dell' arte—plays in which the dialogue, itself extemporised, yet follows the outlines of a written plan, placarded behind the scenes. It is something like the charades acted in society, the development of which depends on the talent contributed by the actors. It was with these that we began, but little by little the word of the charade disappeared. We acted wild saynètes, afterwards comedies of plot and intrigue, finally dramas of event and emotion.
All began with pantomime; and this was Chopin's invention. He sat at the piano and extemporised, whilst the young people acted scenes in dumb show and danced comic ballets. These charming improvisations turned the children's heads and made their legs nimble. He led them just as he chose, making them pass, according to his fancy, from the amusing to the severe, from burlesque to solemnity—now graceful, now impassioned. We invented all kinds of costumes, so as to play different characters in succession. No sooner did the artist see them appear than he adapted his theme and rhythm to the parts wonderfully. This would be repeated for two or three evenings; after which the maestro, departing for Paris, would leave us quite excited, exalted, determined not to let the spark be lost with which he had electrified us.
Chopin was possessed of much dramatic talent himself, and was an admirable mimic. When a boy it had been said of him that he was born to be a great actor. His capacity for facial expression was something extraordinary; he often amused his friends by imitations of fellow-musicians, reproducing their manner and gestures to the life; so well as actually on more than one occasion to take in the spectator.
Madame Sand thus gives account of the even tenor of her way, in a letter of September 1845:—
I have been in Paris till June, and since then am at Nohant until the winter, as usual; for henceforward my life is ruled as regularly as music paper. I have written two or three novels, one of which is just going to appear.
My son is still thin and delicate, but otherwise well. He is the best being, the gentlest, most equable, industrious, simple-minded, and straightforward ever seen. Our characters, like our hearts, agree so well that we can hardly live a day apart. He is entering his twenty-third year, Solange her eighteenth. We have our ways of merriment, not noisy, but sustained, which bring our ages nearer together, and when we have been working hard all the week we allow ourselves, by way of a grand holiday, to go and eat our cake out of doors some way off, in a wood or an old ruin, with my brother, who is like a sturdy peasant, full of fun and good nature, and who dines with us every day, seeing that he lives not two miles off. Such are our grand pranks.
Sometimes these little outings would originate a novel, as with the Meunier d'Angibault, which she ascribes to "a walk, a discovery, a day of leisure, an hour of idleness." On a ramble with her children she came upon what she calls "a nook in a wild paradise"; a mill, whose owner had allowed everything to grow around the sluices that chose to spring up, briar and alder, oaks and rushes. The stream, left to follow its devices, had forced its way through the sand and the grass in a network of little waterfalls, covered below in the summer time with thick tufts of aquatic plants.
It was enough, the seed was sown and the fruit resulted. "The apple falling from the tree led Newton to the discovery of one of the grand laws of the universe. . . . In scientific works of genius, reflection derives the causes of things from a single fact. In art's humbler fancies, that isolated fact is dressed and completed in a dream."
The picture given by Madame Sand and her guests of these years of her life is charming enough, and in certain ways seems an ideal kind of existence, amid beloved children, friends, pleasant and calm surroundings, and the sweets of successful literary activity. But if it had its bright lights, it had also its deep shadows. For every fresh pleasure and interest crowded into her existence, there entered a fresh source of anxiety and trouble. Age, in bringing her more power of endurance, had not blunted her sensibilities. As usual with the strongest natures in their hours of depression—and none so strong as to escape these—she could then look for no help except from herself. Those accustomed, like her, to shirk no responsibility, no burden, to invite others to lean on them, and to ask no support, if their fortitude gives way find the allowance, help and sympathy so easily accorded to their weaker fellow-creatures nowhere ready for them. The exclamation wrung from one of the characters in a later work of Madame Sand's may be but a faithful echo of the cry of her own nature in some moment of mental torment. "Let me be weak; I have been seeming to be strong for so long a time!"
Chopin, though the study of his genius had freshly inspired her own and greatly extended her comprehension of musical art, was a being to whom the burden of his own life was too painful to allow him to lighten the troubles of another; a partial invalid, a prey to nervous irritation, he was dependent on her to soothe and cheer him at the best of times, and to be nurse and secretary besides when he was prostrated by illness or despondency. One is loth to call selfish a nature so attractive in its refinement, so unhappy in its over-susceptibility. But it is obvious that such a one might easily become a trial to those he loved. With all its vigour her nervous system could not escape the exhaustion and disturbance that attend on incessant brain-work. "Those who have nothing to do," she remarks, "when they see artists produce with facility, are ready to wonder at how few hours, how few instants, these can reserve for themselves. For such do not know how these gymnastics of the imagination, if they do not affect your health, yet leave an excitation of your nerves, an obsession of mental pictures, a languor of spirit, that forbid you to carry on any other kind of work."
Although her constitution was even stronger than in her youth, she had for some years been subject to severe attacks of neuralgia. "Madame Sand suffers terribly from violent headaches and pain in her eyes," remarks Delacroix, in one of the letters above quoted, "which she takes upon herself to surmount as far as possible, with a great effort, so as not to distress us by what she goes through." Her habit of writing principally at night and contenting herself with the least possible allowance of repose, few could have persisted in for so long without breaking down. For many years she never took more than four hours' sleep. The strain began to tell on her eye-sight at last, and already in a letter of 1842 she speaks of being temporarily compelled to suspend this practice of night-work, to her great regret, as in the daylight hours she was never secure from interruption. Only her abnormal power of activity and of bearing fatigue could have enabled her to fulfil so strenuously the responsibilities she had undertaken to her children, her private friends, and the public. The pressure of literary work was incessant, and whatever her dislike to accounts and arithmetic she is said to have fulfilled her engagements to editors and publishers with the regularity and punctuality of a notary. Her large acquaintance, relations with various classes, various projects, literary, political, and philanthropical, involved an immense amount of serious correspondence in addition to that arising from the postal persecution from which no celebrity escapes. Ladies wrote to consult her on sentimental subjects—to inquire of her, as of an oracle, whether they should bestow their heart, their hand, or both, upon their suitors; poets, to solicit her patronage and criticism. In the course of a single half-year, 153 manuscripts were sent her for perusal! She replied when it seemed fit, conscientiously and ungrudgingly; but experience had made her less expansive than formerly to those whose overtures she felt to be prompted by curiosity or some such idle motive, in the absence of any sympathy for her ways of thinking. "I am not to be caught in my words with indifferent persons," she writes to M. Charles Duvernet, describing how, when in her friend Madame Marliani's salon in Paris she heard herself and her political allies or their opinions attacked, she was not to be provoked into argument or indignant denial, but went on quietly with her work of hemming pocket-handkerchiefs. "To such people one speaks through the medium of the Press. If they will not attend, no matter."
Her sex, her anomalous position, her freedom of expression and action, exposed her to an extent quite exceptional, even for a public character, to the shafts of malice and slander. Accustomed to have to brave the worst from such attacks, she might and did arrive at treating them with an indifference that was not, however, in her nature, which shrank from the observation and personal criticism of the vulgar.
To a young poet of promise in whose welfare she took interest she writes, August 1842:—
Never show my letters except to your mother, your wife, or your greatest friend. It is a shy habit, a mania I have to the last degree. The idea that I am not writing for those alone to whom I write, or for those who love them thoroughly, would freeze my heart and my hand directly. Everyone has a fault. Mine is a misanthropy in my outward habits—for all that I have no passion left in me but the love of my fellow-creatures; but with the small services that my heart and my faith can render in this world, my personality has nothing to do. Some people have grieved me very much, unconsciously, by talking and writing about me personally and my doings, even though favourably, and meaning well. Respect this malady of spirit.
Madame Sand, being naturally undemonstrative, was commonly more or less tongue-tied and chilled in the presence of a stranger, and she had a frank dread of introductions and first interviews, even when the acquaintance was one she desired to make. Sometimes she asks her friends to prepare such new comers for receiving an unfavourable first impression, and to beg them not to be unduly prejudiced thereby. Such a one would find the persecution of lion-hunters intolerable, and now and then this drove her to extremities. Great must, indeed, have been the wrath of one of these irrepressibles who, more obstinate than the rest, failing by fair means to get an introduction to George Sand, calmly pushed his way into Nohant unauthorised by anyone, whereupon her friends conspired to serve him the trick it must be owned he deserved; and which we give in the words of Madame Sand, writing to the Comtesse d'Agoult. The story is told also by Liszt in his letters:—
M. X. is ushered into my room. A respectable-looking person there receives him. She was about forty years of age, but you might give her sixty at a pinch. She had had beautiful teeth, but had got none left. All passes away! She had been rather good-looking, but was so no longer. All changes! Her figure was corpulent, and her hands were soiled. Nothing is perfect!
She was clad in a grey woollen gown spotted with black, and lined with scarlet. A silk handkerchief was negligently twisted round her black hair. Her shoes were faulty, but she was thoroughly dignified. Now and then she seemed on the point of putting an s or a t in the wrong place, but she corrected herself gracefully, talked of her literary works, of her excellent friend M. Rollinat, of the talents of her visitor which had not failed to reach her ears, though she lived in complete retirement, overwhelmed with work. M. G. brought her a foot-stool, the children called her mamma, the servants Madame.
She had a gracious smile, and much more distinguished manners than that fellow George Sand. In a word X. was happy and proud of his visit. Perched in a big chair, with beaming aspect, arm extended, speech abundant, there he stayed for a full quarter of an hour in ecstasies, and then took leave, bowing down to the ground to—Sophie!
It was the maid that had thus been successfully passed off as the mistress, who with her whole household enjoyed a long and hearty laugh at the expense of the departed unbidden guest. "M. X. has gone off to Châteauroux," she concludes, "on purpose to give an account of his interview with me, and to describe me personally in all the cafés."
This anecdote however belongs to a much earlier period of her life, the year 1837. Of her cordiality and kindliness to those who approached her in a right spirit of sincerity and simplicity, many have spoken. For English readers we cannot do better than quote Mr. Mathew Arnold's interesting account, given in the Fortnightly, 1877, of his visit to her in August 1846. Desirous of seeing the green lanes of Berry, the rocky heaths of Bourbonnais, the descriptions of which in Valentine and Jeanne had charmed him so strongly, the traveller chose a route that brought him to within a few miles of her home:—"I addressed to Madame Sand," he tells us, "the sort of letter of which she must in her lifetime have had scores—a letter conveying to her, in bad French, the youthful and enthusiastic homage of a foreigner who had read her works with delight." She responded by inviting him to call at Nohant. He came and joined a breakfast-party that included Madame Sand and her son and daughter, Chopin, and other friends—Mr. Arnold being placed next to the hostess. He says of her:—
As she spoke, her eyes, head, bearing were all of them striking, but the main impression she made was one of simplicity, frank, cordial simplicity. After breakfast she led the way into the garden, asked me a few kind questions about myself and my plans, gathered a flower or two and gave them to me, shook hands heartily at the gate, and I saw her no more.
During the eight years of successful literary activity, lying between Madame Sand's return from Majorca and the Revolution of February 1848, the profits of her work had, after the first, enabled her freely to spend the greater part of the year at Nohant, and to provide a substantial dowry for her daughter. But the amassing of wealth suited neither her taste nor her principles. She writes to her poet-protégé M. Poncy in September 1845:—
We are in easy circumstances, which enables us to do away with poverty in our own neighbourhood, and if we feel the sorrow of being unable to do away with that which desolates the world—a deep sorrow, especially at my age, when life has no intoxicating personality left, and one sees plainly the spectacle of society in its injustices and frightful disorder—at least we know nothing of ennui, of restless ambition and selfish passions. We have a sort of relative happiness, and my children enjoy it with the simplicity of their age.
As for me, I only accept it in trembling, for all happiness is like a theft in this ill-regulated world of men, where you cannot enjoy your ease or your liberty, except to the detriment of your fellow-creatures—by the force of things, the law of inequality, that odious law, those odious combinations, the thought of which poisons my sweetest domestic joys and revolts me against myself at every moment. I can only find consolation in vowing to go on writing as long as I have a breath of life left in me, against the infamous maxim, "Chacun chez soi, chacun pour soi." Since all I can do is to make this protest, make it I shall, in every key.
Her republican friends in Berry bad founded in 1844 a local journal for the spread of liberal ideas—such as Lamartine at the time was supporting at Macon. Madame Sand readily contributed her services to a cause where she laboured for the enlightenment of the masses on all subjects—truth, justice, religion, liberty, fraternity, duties, and rights. The government of Louis Philippe, so long as such utterances attacked no definite institution, allowed an almost illimitable freedom in expression of opinion. The result was that thought had advanced so far ahead of action that social philosophers had grown to argue as though practical obstacles had no existence—to be rudely reminded of their consequence, when brought to the front in 1848, and acting somewhat too much as if on that supposition.
It is impossible not to make concerning Madame Sand the reflection made on other foremost workers in the same cause of organic social reform—namely, that her character and her instincts were in curious opposition to her ideas. What was said by Madame d'Agoult of Louis Blanc applies with even greater force to George Sand: "The sentiment of personality was never stronger than in this opposer of individualism, communist theories had for their champion one most unfit to be absorbed into the community." For no length of time was the idea of "communism" accepted, and never was it advocated by her except in the most restricted sense. The land-hunger, or rather land-greed, of the small proprietors in her neighbourhood had, it is true, given her a certain disgust for these contested possessions. But from the preference of a small child or a garden of its own however small, to another's however large, she characteristically infers the instinct of property as a law of nature it were preposterous to disallow, and furthermore she lays down as an axiom that, "in treating the communistic idea it is necessary first to distinguish what is essential in liberty and work to the complete existence of the individual, from what is collective." When forced by actual experience to point out what she holds to be the rightful application of the idea, she limits it to voluntary association; and she hoped great things from the co-operative principle, as tending to eliminate the ills of extreme inequalities in the social structure, and to preserve everything in it that is worth preserving.