George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 8
NOVELIST AND POLITICIAN.
By her novels classed as "socialistic," Madame Sand had, as we have seen, incurred the public hostility of those whom her doctrines alarmed. And yet her "communist" heroes and heroines are the most pacific and inoffensive of social influences. They merely aspire to isolate themselves, and personally to practise principles and virtues of the highest order; unworldliness such as, if general, might indeed turn the earth into the desired Utopia. Nothing can be said against their example, unless that it is too good, and that there is little hope of its being widely followed.
Charges of another sort, no less bitter, and though exaggerated somewhat better founded, assailed her after the appearance in 1847 of Lucrezia Floriani, a novel of character-analysis entirely, but into which she was accused of having introduced an unflattering portrait of Frédéric Chopin, whose long and long-requited attachment to her entitled him to better treatment at her hands.
With respect to the general question of such alleged fictitious reproductions, few novelists escape getting into trouble on this head. It has been aptly observed by Mr. Hamerton that the usual procedure of the reading public in such cases is to fix on some real personage as distinctly unlike the character in the book as possible, for the original, and then to complain of the unfaithfulness of the resemblance. Madame Sand's taste and higher art-instincts would have revolted against the practice—now unfortunately no longer confined to inferior writers—of forcing attention to a novel by making it the gibbet of well-known personalities, with little or no disguise; and Chopin himself, morbidly sensitive and fanciful though he was, read her work without perceiving in it any intention there to portray their relations to each other, which, indeed, had differed essentially from those of the personages in the romance.
Lucrezia Floriani is a cantatrice of genius, who whilst still young has retired from the world, indifferent to fame, and effectually disenchanted—so she believes—with passion. Despite an experience strange and stormy, even for a member of her Bohemian profession, Lucrezia has miraculously preserved intact her native nobility of soul, and appears as a meet object of worship to a fastidious young prince on his travels, who becomes passionately enamoured of her. He over-persuades Lucrezia into trusting that they will find their felicity in each other. Their happiness is of the briefest duration, owing to the unreasonable character of the prince, who leads the actress a miserable life; his love taking the form of petty tyranny and retrospective jealousy. After long years of this material and moral captivity, the heroic Lucrezia fades and dies.
Not content with identifying the intolerable, though it must be owned severely-tested Prince Karol with Chopin, imaginative writers have gone so far as to assert that the book was conceived and written from an express design on the novelist's part to bring about the breach of a link she was beginning to find irksome!
Madame Sand has described how it was written—as are all such works of imagination—in response to a sort of "call"—some striking yet indefinable quality in one idea among the host always floating through the brain of the artist, that makes him instantly seize it and single it out as inviting to art-treatment. It would be preposterous to doubt her statement. But whether the inspiration ought not to have been sacrificed is another question. Her gift was her good angel and her evil angel as well, but in any case something of her despot. Here, assuredly, it ruled her ill. It is indisputable that, as she has pointed out, the sad history of the attachment of Lucrezia the actress and Karol the prince deviates too widely from that which was supposed to have originated it for just comparisons to be drawn between the two, that Karol is not a genius, and therefore has none of the rights of genius—including, we presume, the right to be a torment to those around him—that to talk of a portrait of Chopin without his genius is a contradiction in terms, that he never suspected the likeness assumed until it was insinuated to him, and so forth. But there remains this, that in the work of imagination she here presented to the public there was enough of reality interwoven to make the world hasten to identify or confound Prince Karol with Chopin. This might have been a foregone conclusion, as also that Chopin, the most sensitive of mortals, would be infinitely pained by the inferences that would be drawn. Perhaps if only as a genius he had the right to be spared such an infliction, and one must wish it could have appeared in this light to Madame Sand. It seems as though it were impossible for the author to put himself at the point of view of the reader in such matters. The divine spark itself, that quickens certain faculties, deadens others. When Goethe, in Werther, dragged the private life of his intimate friends the Kestners into publicity, and by falsifying the character of the one and misrepresenting the conduct of the other, in obedience to the requisitions of art, exposed his beloved Charlotte and her husband to all manner of annoyances, it never seems to have entered into his head beforehand but that they would be delighted by what he had done. Nor could he get over his surprise that such petty vexations on their part should not be merged in a proud satisfaction at the literary memorial thus raised by him to their friendly intercourse! This seems incredible, and yet his sincerity leaves no room for doubt.
Madame Sand's transgressions on this head, though few, have obtained great notoriety, on account of the extraordinary celebrity of two of the personages that suggested characters she has drawn. To the supposed originals, however obscure, the mortification is the same. But what often passes uncommented on when the individuals said to be traduced are unknown to fame, sets the whole world talking when one of the first musicians or poets of the century is involved; so that Madame Sand has incurred more censure than other novelists, though she has deserved it more rarely. But regret remains that for the sake of Lucrezia Floriani, one of the least pleasant though by no means the least powerful of her novels, she should have exposed herself to the charge of unkindness to one who had but a short while to live.
Other causes had latterly been combining to lead to differences of which it would certainly be unfair to lay the whole blame on Madame Sand. The tie of personal attachment between Chopin and herself was not associated with identity of outward interests or even of cares and family affections, such as, in the case of husband and wife, make self-sacrifice possible under conditions which might otherwise be felt unbearable, and help to tide over crises of impatience or wrong. Madame Sand's children were now grown up; cross-influences could not but arise, hard to conciliate. Without accrediting Chopin with the self-aborption of Prince Karol, it is easy to see here, in a situation somewhat anomalous, elements of probable discord. It was impossible that he should any longer be a first consideration; impossible that he should not resent it.
For some years his state of health had been getting worse and worse, and his nervous susceptibilities correspondingly intensified. Madame Sand betrayed some impatience at last of what she had long borne uncomplainingly, and their good understanding was broken. As was natural, the breach was the more severely felt by Chopin; but that it was of an irreparable nature, one is at liberty to doubt. He bitterly regretted what he had lost, for which not all the attentions showered on him by his well-wishers could afford compensation, as his letters attest.
But outward circumstances prolonged the estrangement till it was too late. They met but once after the quarrel, and that was in company in March 1848. Madame Sand would at once have made some approach, but Chopin did not then respond to the appeal; and the reconciliation both perhaps desired was never to take place. Political events had intervened to widen the gap between their paths. Chopin had neither part nor lot in the revolutionary movement that just then was throwing all minds and lives into a ferment, and which was completely to engross Madame Sand's energies for many months to come. It drove him away to England, and he only returned to Paris, in 1849, to die.
In May 1847 the tranquillity of life at Nohant had been varied by a family event, the marriage of Madame Sand's daughter Solange with the sculptor Clésinger. The remainder of the twelvemonth was spent in the country, apparently with very little anticipation on Madame Sand's part that the breaking of the political storm, that was to draw her into its midst, was so near.
The new year was to be one of serious agitations, different to any that had yet entered into her experience. Political enterprise for the time cast all purely personal interests and emotions into the background. "I have never known how to do anything by halves," she says of herself very truly; and whatever may be thought of the tendency of her political influence and the manner of its exertion, no one can tax her with sparing herself in a contest to which, moreover, she came disinterested; vanity and ambition having, in one of her sex, nothing to gain by it. But in political matters it seems hard for a poet to do right. If, like Goethe, he holds aloof in great crises, he is branded for it as a traitor and a bad patriot. The battle of Leipzig is being fought, and he sits tranquilly writing the epilogue for a play. If, like George Sand, he throws the whole weight of his enthusiastic eloquence into what he believes to be the right scale, it is ten to one that his power, which knows nothing of caution and patience, may do harm to the cause he has at heart.
Madame Sand rested her hopes for a better state of things, for the redemption of France from political corruption, for the amelioration of the condition of the working classes, and reform of social institutions in general, on the advent to power of those placed at the head of affairs by the collapse of the Government of Louis Philippe, a crisis long threatened, long prepared, and become inevitable.
"The whole system," wrote Heine prophetically of the existing monarchy, five years before its fall, "is not worth a charge of powder, if indeed some day a charge of powder does not blow it up." February 1848 saw the explosion, the flight of the Royal Family, and the formation of a Provisional Government, with Lamartine at its head.
It is hard to realise in the present day, when we contemplate these events through the sobering light of the deplorable sequel, how immense and widespreading was the enthusiasm that at this particular juncture seemed to put the fervent soul of a George Sand or an Armand Barbès into the most lukewarm and timid. "More than one," writes Madame d'Agoult, "who for the last twenty years had been scoffing at every grand thought, let himself be won by the general emotion." The prevailing impression can have fallen little short of the conviction that a sort of millennium was at hand for mankind in general and the French in particular, and that all human ills would disappear because a bad government had been got rid of, and that without such scenes of blood and strife as had disfigured previous revolutions.
The first task was firmly to establish a better one in its place. Madame Sand, though with a strong perception of the terrible difficulties besetting a ministry which, to quote her own words, would need, in order to acquit itself successfully, "the genius of a Napoleon and the heart of Christ," never relaxed an instant in the enforcement both by example and exhortation of her conviction that it was the duty of all true patriots and philanthropists to consecrate their energies to the cause of the new republic.
"My heart is full and my head on fire," she writes to a fellow-worker in the same cause. "All my physical ailments, all my personal sorrows are forgotten. I live, I am strong, active, I am not more than twenty years old." The exceptional situation of the country was one in which, according to her opinion, it behoved men to be ready not only with loyalty and devotion, but with fanaticism if needed. She worked hard with her son and her local allies at the ungrateful task of revolutionising Le Berry, which, she sighs, "is very drowsy." In March she came up to Paris and placed her services as journalist and partizan generally at the disposal of Ledru-Rollin, Minister of the Interior under the new Government. "Here am I already doing the work of a statesman," she writes from Paris to her son at Nohant, March 24. Her indefatigable energy, enabling her as it did to disdain repose, was perhaps the object of envy to the statesmen themselves. At their disgust when kept up all night by the official duties of their posts, she laughs without mercy. Night and day her pen was occupied, now drawing up circulars for the administration, now lecturing the people in political pamphlets addressed to them. To the Bulletin de la République, a Government journal started with the laudable purpose of preserving a clear understanding between the mass of the people in the provinces and the central government, she became a leading contributor. For the festal invitation performances given to the people at the "Théâtre de la République," where Rachel sang the Marseillaise and acted in Les Horaces, Madame Sand wrote a little "occasional" prologue, Le Roi Attend, a new and democratic version of Molière's Impromptu de Versailles. The outline is as follows:—Molière is discovered impatient and uneasy; the King waits, and the comedians are not ready. He sinks asleep, and has a vision, in which the muse emerges out of a cloud, escorted by Æschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, Shakespeare, and Beaumarchais, to each of whom are assigned a few lines—where possible, lines of their own—in praise of equality and fraternity. They vanish and Molière awakes; his servant announces to him that the King waits—but the King this time is, of course, the people, to whom Molière now addresses his flattering speech in turn.
But the fervour of heroism that fired everybody in the first days of successful revolution, that made the leaders disinterested, the masses well-behaved, reasonable, and manageable, was for the majority a flash only; and the dreamed-of social ideal, touched for a moment, was to recede again into the far distance. It was Madame Sand's error, and no ignoble one, to entertain the belief that a nation could safely be trusted to the guidance of a force so variable and uncontrollable as enthusiasm, and that the principle of self-devotion could be relied upon as a motive power. The divisions, intrigues, and fatal complications that quickly arose at head-quarters confirmed her first estimation of the practical dangers ahead. She clung to her belief in the sublime virtues of the masses, and that they would prove themselves grander, finer, more generous than all the mighty and the learned ones upon earth. But each of the popular leaders in turn was pronounced by her tried and found wanting. None of the party chiefs presented the desirable combination of perfect heroism and political genius. Michel, the apostle who of old had converted her to the cause, she had long scorned as a deserter. Leroux, in the moment of action, was a nonentity. Barbès "reasons like a saint," she observes, "that is to say, very ill as regards the things of this world." Lamartine was a vain trimmer; Louis Blanc, a sectarian; Ledru-Rollin, a weathercock. "It is the characters that transgress," she complains naïvely, as one after the other disappointed her. Her own shortcomings on the score of patience and prudence were, it must be owned, no less grave. Her clear-sightedness was unaccompanied by the slightest dexterity of action. Years before, in one of the Lettres d'un Voyageur she had passed a criticism on herself as a political worker, the accuracy of which she made proof of when carried into the vortex. "I am by nature poetical, but not legislative, war-like, if required, but never parliamentary. By first persuading me and then giving me my orders some use may be made of me, but I am not fit for discovering or deciding anything."
Such an influence, important for raising an agitation, was null for controlling and directing the forces thus set in motion. In the application of the theories she had accepted she was as weak and obscure as she was emphatic and eloquent in the preaching of them. Little help could she afford the republican leaders in dealing with the momentous question how to fulfil the immense but confused aspirations they had raised, how to show that their principles could answer the necessities of the moment.
The worst perhaps that can be said of Madame Sand's political utterances is that they encouraged the people in their false belief—which belief she shared—that the social reforms so urgently needed could be worked rapidly by the Government, provided only it were willing. Over-boldness of expression on the part of advanced sections only increased the timidity and irresolution of action complained of in the administration. As the ranks of the Ministry split up into factions, Madame Sand attached herself to the party of Ledru-Rollin—in whom at that time she had confidence,—a party that desired to see him at the head of affairs, and that included Jules Favre, Étienne Arago, and Armand Barbès. No more zealous political partizan and agent than Madame Sand. The purpose in view was to preserve a cordial entente between these trusted chiefs and the masses whose interests they represented and on whose support they relied. To this end she got together meetings of working men at her temporary Parisian abode, addressing them in speech and in print, and seemingly blind in the heat of the struggle to the enormous danger of playing with the unmanageable, unreasoning instincts of a crowd. She still cherished the chimera dear to her imagination—the prospective vision of the French people assembling itself in large masses, and deliberately and pacifically giving expression to its wishes!
Into the Bulletin de la République there crept soon a tone of impatience and provocation, improper and dangerous in an official organ. The 16th Number, which appeared on April 16, at a moment when the pending general elections seemed likely to be overruled by reactionaries, contained the startling declaration that if the result should thus dissatisfy the Paris people, these would manifest their will once more, by adjourning the decision of a false national representation.
This sentence, which came from the pen of Madame Sand, was interpreted into a threat of intimidation from the party that would make Ledru-Rollin dictator, and created a considerable stir. There was, indeed, no call for a fresh brand of discord in the republican ranks. Almost simultaneously came popular demonstrations of a menacing character. Ledru-Rollin disavowed the offending Bulletin; but the growing uneasiness of the bourgeoisie, the unruly discontent among the workmen, the Government, embarrassed and utterly disorganized, was powerless to allay. Madame Sand began to perceive that the republic of her dreams, the "republican republic," was a forlorn hope, though still unconscious that even heavier obstacles to progress existed in the governed many than in the incapacity or personal ambition of the governing few. She writes to her son from Paris, April 17:—
I am sad, my boy. If this goes on, and in some sense there should be no more to be done, I shall return to Nohant to console myself by being with you. I shall stay and see the National Assembly, after which I think I shall find nothing more here that I can do.
At the Fête de la Fraternité, April 20th, the spectacle of a million of souls putting aside and agreeing to forget all dissensions, all wrongs in the past and fears for the future, and uniting in a burst of joyous exultation, filled her with enthusiasm and renewed hope. But the demonstration of the 15th of May, of which she was next a spectator, besides its mischievous effect in alarming the quiet classes and exciting the agitators afresh, gave fatal evidence of the national disorganization and uncontrollable confusion everywhere prevailing, that had doomed the Republic from the hour of its birth.
Madame Sand, though she strenuously denied any participation or sympathy with this particular manifestation, was closely associated in the public mind with those who had aided and abetted the uprising. During the gathering of the populace, which she had witnessed, mingling unrecognised among the crowd, a female orator haranguing the mob from the lower windows of a café was pointed out to her, and she was assured that it was George Sand. During the repressive measures the administration was led to take she felt uncertain whether the arrest of Barbès might not be followed by her own. Some of her friends advised her to seek safety in Italy, where at that time the partisans of liberty were more united and sanguine. She turned a deaf ear. But she was severed now from all influential connection with those in authority. Before the end of May she left for Nohant, with her hopes for the rapid regeneration of her country on the wane. "I am afraid for the future," she writes to the imprisoned Barbès, shortly after these events. ". . . I suffer for those who do harm and allow harm to be done without understanding it. . . . I see nothing but ignorance and moral weakness preponderating on the face of the globe."
Through the medium of the Press, notably of the journal La Vraie République, she continued to give plain expression to her sentiments, regardless of the political enmities she might excite, and of the personal mortification to which she was exposed, even at Nohant, which with its inmates had recently become the mark for petty hostile "demonstrations." Alluding to these, she writes:—
Here in this Berry, so romantic, so gentle, so calm and good, in this land I love so tenderly, and where I have given sufficient proof to the poor and uneducated that I know my duties towards them, I myself in particular am looked upon as the enemy of the human race; and if the Republic has not kept its promises, it is I, clearly, who am the cause.
The term "communist," caught up and passed from mouth to mouth, was flung at Madame Sand and her son by the peasants, whose ideas as to its significance were not a little wild. "A pack of idiots," she writes to Madame Marliani, who threaten to come and set fire to Nohant. Brave they are not, neither morally nor physically; and when they come this way and I walk through the midst of them they take off their hats; but when they have gone by they summon courage to shout, 'Down with the communists.'"
The ingratitude of many who again and again had received succour from her and hers, she might excuse on account of their ignorance, but the extent of their ignorance was an obstacle to immediate progress whose weight she had miscalculated.
"I shall keep my faith," she writes to Joseph Mazzini at this crisis—"the idea, pure and bright, the eternal truth will ever remain for me in my heaven, unless I go blind. But hope is a belief in the near triumph of one's faith. I should not be sincere if I said that this state of mind had not been modified in me during these last months."
The terrible insurrection of June followed, and overwhelmed her for the time. It was not only that her nature, womanly and poetical, had the greatest horror of bloodshed. The spectacle of the republicans slaughtering each other, of the evil passions stirred, the frightful anarchy, ended but at a frightful cost, the complete extinction of all hopes,—nothing left rampant but fear, rancour and distrust,—was heartrending to her whose heart had been thrown into the national troubles.
Great was the panic in Berry, an after-clap of the disturbances in the capital. Madame Sand's position became more unpleasant than ever. She describes herself as "blasée d'outrages—threatened perpetually by the coward hatreds and imbecile terrors of country places." But to all this she was well-nigh insensible in her despair over the public calamities oppressing her nation—the end of all long-struggling aspirations in "frightful confusion, complete moral anarchy, a morbid condition, in which the most courageous of us lost heart and wished for death."
"You say that the bourgeoisie prevails," she writes to Mazzini, in September 1848, and that thus it is quite natural that selfishness should be the order of the day. But why does the bourgeoisie prevail, whilst the people is sovereign, and the principle of its sovereignty, universal suffrage, is still standing? We must open our eyes at last, and the vision of reality is horrible. The majority of the French people is blind, credulous, ignorant, ungrateful, wicked, and stupid; it is bourgeoise itself!"
Under no conceivable circumstances is it likely that Madame Sand would not very soon have become disgusted with active politics, for which her temperament unfitted her in every respect. Impetuous and uncompromisingly sincere, she was predestined to burn her fingers; proud and independent, to become something of a scape-goat, charged with all the follies and errors which she repudiated, as well as with those for which she was more or less directly responsible.
For some time to come she remained in comparative seclusion at Nohant. She had not ceased her propaganda, though obliged to conduct it with greater circumspection. After the horrors of civil warfare had come the cry for order at any price, and France had declared for the rule of Louis Bonaparte. During the course of events that consolidated his power, Madame Sand withdrew more and more from the strife of political parties. She had been, and we shall find her again, inclined to hope for better things for France from its new master than time showed to be in store. Other republicans besides herself had been disposed to build high their hopes of this future "saviour of society" in his youthful days of adversity and mysterious obscurity. When in confinement at the fortress of Ham in 1844, Louis Napoleon sent to George Sand his work on the Extinction of Pauperism. She wrote back a flattering letter in which, however, with characteristic sincerity, she is careful to remind him that the party to which she belonged could never acknowledge any sovereign but the people; that this they considered to be incompatible with the sovereignty of one man; that no miracle, no personification of popular genius in a single individual, could prove to them the right of that individual to sovereign power.
Since then she had seen the people supreme, and been forced to own that they knew not what they wanted nor whither they were going, divided in mind, ferocious in action. Among the leaders, she had seen some infatuated by the allurements of personal popularity, and the rest showing, by their inability to cope with the perplexities of administrative government, that so far philosophical speculations were of no avail in the actual solution of social problems.
The result of her disenchantment was in no degree the overthrow of her political faith. A conviction was dawning on her that her social ideal was absolutely impracticable in any future that she and her friends could hope to live to see. But the belief on which she founded her social religion was one in which she never wavered; a certainty that a progress, the very idea of which now seemed chimerical, would some day appear to all as a natural thing, nay that the stream of tendency would carry men towards this goal in spite of themselves.