George Sand (Thomas 1889)/Chapter 9
"So you thought," wrote Madame Sand to a political friend in 1849, "that I was drinking blood out of the skulls of aristocrats. Not I! I am reading Virgil and learning Latin." And her best propaganda, as by and by she came to own, was not that carried on in journals such as La Vraie République and La Cause du Peuple. Through her works of imagination she has exercised an influence more powerful and universal, if indirect.
Among the more than half a hundred romances of George Sand there stands out a little group of three, belonging to the period we have now reached—the mezzo cammin of her life—creations in a special style, and over which the public voice, whether of fastidious critics or general readers, in France or abroad, has been and remains unanimous in praise.
In these, her pastoral tales, she hit on a new and happy vein which she was peculiarly qualified to work, combining as she did, intimate knowledge of French peasant life with sympathetic interest in her subject and lively poetic fancy. Here she affronts no prejudices, advances no startling theories, handles no subtle, treacherous social questions, and to these compositions in a perfectly original genre she brought the freshness of genius which "age cannot wither," together with the strength and finish of a practised hand.
Peasants had figured as accessories in her earlier works. The rustic hermit and philosopher, Patience, and Marcasse the rat-catcher, in Mauprat, are noteworthy examples. In 1844 had appeared Jeanne, with its graceful dedication to Françoise Meillant, the unlettered peasant-girl who may have suggested the work she could not read—one of a family of rural proprietors, spoken of by Madame Sand in a letter of 1843 as a fine survival of a type already then fast vanishing—of patriarchally constituted family-life, embodying all that was grand and simple in the forms of the olden time.
In Jeanne, Madame Sand had first ventured to make a peasant-girl the central figure of her novel, though still so far deferring to the received notions of what was essential in order to interest the "gentle" reader as to surround her simple heroine with personages of rank and education. Jeanne herself, moreover, is an exceptional and a highly idealized type—as it were a sister to Joan of Arc, not the inspired warrior-maid, but the visionary shepherdess of the Vosges. Yet the creation is sufficiently real. The author had observed how favourable was the life of solitude and constant communion with nature led by many of these country children in their scattered homesteads, to the development of remarkable and tenacious individuality. So with the strange and poetical Jeanne, too innately refined to prosper in her rough human environment, yet too fixedly simple to fare much better in more cultivated circles. She is the victim of a sort of celestial stupidity we admire and pity at once. In this study of a peasant heroine resides such charm as the book possesses, and the attempt was to lead on the author to the productions above alluded to, La Mare au Diable, François le Champi, and La Petite Fadette. Of this popular trio the first had been published already two years before the Revolution, in 1846; the second was appearing in the Feuilleton of the Journal des Débats at the very moment of the breaking of the storm, which interrupted its publication awhile. When those tumultuous months were over and Madame Sand, thrown out of the hurly-burly of active politics, was brought back by the course of events to Nohant, she seems to have taken up her pen very much where she had laid it down. The break in her ordinary round of work made by the excitements of active statesmanship was hardly perceptible, and in 1849 Le Champi was followed by La Petite Fadette.
La Mare au Diable, George Sand's first tale of exclusively peasant-life, is usually considered her masterpiece in this genre. It was suggested to her, she tells us, by Holbein's dismal engraving of death coming to the husbandman, an old, gaunt, ragged, overworked representative of his tribe—grim ending to life of cheerless poverty and toil!
Here was the dark and painful side of the labourer's existence—a true picture, but not the whole truth. There was another and a bright side, which might just as allowably be represented in art as the dreary one, and which she had seen and studied. In Berry extreme poverty was the exception, and the agriculturist's life appeared as it ought to be, healthy, calm, and simple, its laboriousness compensated by the soothing influences of nature, and of strong home affections.
This little gem of a work is thoroughly well known. The ploughing-scene in the opening—ploughing as she had witnessed it sometimes in her own neighbourhood, fresh, rough ground broken up for tillage, the plough drawn by four yoke of young white oxen new to their work and but half-tamed, has a simplicity and grandeur of effect not easy to parallel in modern art. The motif of the tale is that you often go far to search for the good fortune that lies close to your door. Never was so homely an adage more freshly and prettily illustrated; yet how slight are the materials, how plain is the outline! Germain the well-to-do widowed labourer, in the course of a few miles' ride, a journey undertaken in order to present himself and his addresses to the rich widow his father desires him to woo, discovers the real life-companion he wants in the poor girl-neighbour whom he patronisingly escorts on her way to the farm where she is hired for service. It all slowly dawns upon him, in the most natural manner, as the least incidents of the journey call out her good qualities of head and heart—her helpfulness in misadventure, forgetfulness of self, unaffected fondness for children, instinctively recognised by Germain's little boy, who with his unconscious childish influence is one of the prettiest features in the book. Germain, by his journey's end, has his heart so well engaged in the right quarter that he is proof against the dangerous fascinations of the coquettish widow.
There is a breath of poetry over the picture, but no denaturalisation of the uncultured types. Germain is honest and warm-hearted, but not bright of understanding; little Marie is wise and affectionate, but as unsentimentally-minded as the veriest realist could desire. The native caution and mercenary habit of thought of the French agricultural class are indicated by many a humourous touch in the pastorals of George Sand.
Equally pleasing, though not aiming at the almost antique simplicity of the Mare au Diable, is the story of François le Champi, the foundlings saved from the demoralisation to which lack of the softening influences of home and parental affection predestine such unhappy children, through the tenderness his forlorn condition inspires in a single heart—that of Madeline Blanchet, the cheerless wife, whose own wrongs, patiently borne, have quickened her commiseration for the wrongs of others. Her sympathy, little though it lies in her power to manifest it, he feels, and its incalculable worth to him, which is such that the gratitude of a whole life cannot do more than repay it.
Part of the narrative is here put into the mouth of a peasants and told in peasant language, or something approaching to it. Over the propriety of this proceeding, adopted also in Les Maîtres Sonneurs, French critics are disagreed, though for the most part they regret it. It is not for a foreigner to decide between them. One would certainly regret the absence of some of the extremely original and expressive words and turns of speech current among the rural population, forms which such a method enabled her to introduce into the narrative as well as into the dialogue.
La Petite Fadette is not only worthy of its predecessors but by many will be preferred to either. There is something particularly attractive in the portraits of the twin brothers—partly estranged by character, wholly united by affection,—and in the figure of Fanchon Fadet, an original in humble life, which has made this little work a general favourite wherever it is known.
These prose-idylls have been called "The Georgies of France." It is curious that in a country so largely agricultural, and where nature presents more variety of picturesque aspect than perhaps in any other in Europe, the poetic side of rural life should have been so sparingly represented in her imaginative literature. French poets of nature have mostly sought their inspiration out of their own land. "In France especially," observes Théophile Gautier, all literary people live in town, that is in Paris the centre, know little of what is unconnected with it, and most of them cannot tell wheat from barley, potatoes from beet-root." It was a happy inspiration that prompted Madame Sand to fill in the blank, in a way all her own, and her task as we have seen was completed, revolutions notwithstanding. She owns to having then felt the attraction experienced in all time by those hard hit by public calamities, "to throw themselves back on pastoral dreams, all the more naïve and childlike for the brutality and darkness triumphant in the world of activity." Tired of "turning round and round in a false circle of argument, of accusing the governing minority, but only to be forced to acknowledge after all that they were put there by the choice of the majority," she wished to forget it all; and her poetic temperament which unfitted her for success in politics assisted her in finding consolation in nature.
Moreover a district like Le Berry, singularly untouched by the corruptions of civilisation and preserving intact many old and interesting characteristics, was a field in which she might draw from reality many an attractive picture. She was as much rallied by town critics about her shepherdesses as though she had invented them. And yet she saw them every day, and they may be seen still by any wanderer in those lanes, and at every turn, Fanchons, Maries, Nanons, as she has described them, tending their flock of from five to a dozen sheep, or a few geese, a goat and a donkey, all day long between the tall hedgerows, or on the common, spinning the while, or possibly dreaming. A certain refinement of cast distinguishes the type. Eugène Delacroix, in a letter describing a village festival at Nohant, remarks that if positive beauty is rare among the natives, ugliness is a thing unknown. A gentle, passive cast of countenance prevails among the women: "They are all St. Annes," as the artist expresses it. The inevitable changes brought about by steam-communication, which have as yet only begun to efface the local habits and peculiarities, must shortly complete their work. George Sand's pastoral novels will then have additional value, as graphic studies of a state of things that has passed away.
It does not appear that the merit of these stories was so quickly recognised as that of Indiana and Valentine. The author might abstract herself awhile from passing events and write idylls, but the public had probably not yet settled down into the proper state of mind for fully enjoying them. Moreover Madame Sand's antagonists in politics and social science, as though under the impression that she could not write except to advance some theory of which they disapproved, presupposed in these stories a set purpose of exalting the excellence of rustic as compared with polite life—of exaggerating the virtues of the poor, to throw into relief the vices of the rich. The romances themselves do not bear out such a supposition. In them the author chooses exactly the same virtues to exalt, the same vices to condemn, as in her novels of refined society. She shows us intolerance, selfishness, and tyranny of custom marring or endangering individual happiness among the working-classes, as with their superiors. There are Philistines in her thatched cottages, as well as in her marble halls. Germain, in La Mare au Diable, has some difficulty to discover for himself, as well as to convince his family and neighbours, that in espousing the penniless Marie he is not marrying beneath him in every sense. François le Champi is a pariah, an outcast, in the estimation of the rustic world. Fanchon Fadet, by her disregard of appearances and village etiquette, scandalises the conservative minds of farmers and millers very much as Aurore Dupin scandalised the leaders of society at La Châtre. Most prominence is given to the more pleasing characters, but the existence of brutality and cupidity among the peasant classes is nowhere kept out of sight. Her long practical acquaintance with these classes indeed was fatal to illusions on the subject. The average son of the soil was as far removed as any other living creature from her ideal of humanity, and at the very time when she penned La Petite Fadette she was experiencing how far the ignorance, ill-will, and stupidity of her poorer neighbours could go.
Thus she writes from Nohant to Barbès at Vincennes, November 1848: "Since May, I have shut myself up in prison in my retreat, where, though without the hardships of yours, I have more to suffer than you from sadness and dejection. . . . and am less in safety." Threatened by the violence and hatred of the people, she had painfully realised that she and her party had their most obstinate enemies among those whom they wished and worked to save and defend.
Her profound discouragement finds expression in many of her letters from 1849 to 1852. The more sanguine hopes of Mazzini and other of her correspondents she desires, but no longer expects, to see fulfilled. She compares the moral state of France to the Russian retreat; the soldiers in the great army of progress seized with vertigo, and seeking death in fighting with each other.
To her son, who was in Paris at the time of the disturbances in May 1849, she writes:
Come back, I implore you. I have only you in the world, and your death would be mine. I can still be of some small use to the cause of truth, but if I were to lose you it would be all over with me. I have not got the stoicism of Barbès and Mazzini. It is true they are men, and they have no children. Besides in my opinion it is not in fight, not by civil war, that we shall win the cause of humanity in France. We have got universal suffrage. The worse for us if we do not know how to avail ourselves of it, for that alone can lastingly emancipate us, and the only thing that would give us the right to take up arms would be an attempt on their part to take away our right to vote.
During the two years preceding the coup d'état of December 1851, life at Nohant had resumed its wonted cheerfulness of aspect. Madame Sand was used to surround herself with young people and artistic people; but now, amid their light-heartedness, she had for a period to battle with an extreme inward sadness, confirmed by the fresh evidence brought by these years of the demoralisation in all ranks of opinion. "Your head is not very lucid when your heart is so deeply wounded," she had remarked already after the disasters of 1848, "and how can one help suffering mortally from the spectacle of civil war and the slaughter among the people?"
To that was now added a loss of faith in the virtues of her own party, as well as of the masses. It is no wonder if she fell out of love for awhile with the ideals of romance, with her own art of fiction, and the types of heroism that were her favourite creations. But if the shadow of a morbid pessimism crept over her mind, she could view it now as a spiritual malady which she had yet the will and the strength to live down; as years before she had surmounted a similar phase of feeling induced by personal sorrow.
Already in 1847 she had begun to write her Memoirs, and reverting to them now, she found there work that suited her mood, as dealing with the past, more agreeable to contemplate just then than the present or the future.
However, in September 1850 we find her writing to Mazzini,—after dwelling on the present shortcomings of the people, and the mixture of pity and indignation with which they inspired her: "I turn back to fiction and produce, in art, popular types such as I see no longer; but as they ought to be and might be." She alludes to a play on which she was engaged, and continues: "The dramatic form, being new to me, has revived me a little of late; it is the only kind of work into which I have been able to throw myself for a year."
The events of December 1851 surprised her during a brief visit to Paris. Her hopes for her country had sunk so low, that she owns herself at the moment not to have regarded the coup d'état as likely to prove more disastrous to the cause of progress than any other of the violent ends which threatened the existing political situation. She left the capital in the midst of the cannonade, and with her family around her at Nohant awaited the issue of the new dictatorship.
The wholesale arrests that followed immediately, and filled the country with stupefaction, made havoc on all sides of her. Among the victims were comrades of her childhood, numbers of her friends and acquaintance and their relatives—as well in Berry as in the capital—many arrested solely on suspicion of hostility to the President's views, yet none the less exposed to chances of death, or captivity, or exile.
The crisis drove Madame Sand once more to quit the privacy of her country life, but this time in the capacity of intercessor with the conqueror for his victims. She came up to Paris, and on January 20, 1852, addressed a letter to the President, imploring his clemency for the accused generally in an admirably eloquent appeal to his sentiments as well of justice as of generosity. The plea she so forcibly urged, that according to his own professions mere opinion was not to be prosecuted as a crime, whereas the so-called "preventive measures" had involved in one common ruin with his active opponents those who had been mere passive spectators of late events, was, of course, unanswerable. The future Emperor granted her two audiences within a week at the Élysée, in answer to her request, and he succeeded on the first occasion in convincing her that the acts of iniquity and intimidation perpetrated as by his authority were as completely in defiance of his public intentions as of his private principles. As a personal favour to herself, he readily offered her the release of any of the political prisoners that she chose to name, and promised that a general amnesty should speedily follow. She left him, reassured to some extent as to the fate in store for her country. The second interview she had solicited in order to plead the cause of one of her personal friends, condemned to transportation. The mission was a delicate one, for her client would engage himself to nothing for the future, and Madame Sand, in petitioning for his release, saw no better course open to her than, as expressed by herself, frankly to denounce him to the President as his "incorrigible personal enemy." Upon this the President granted her the prisoner's full pardon at once. Madame Sand was naturally touched by this ready response of the generous impulse to which she had trusted. To those who cast doubts on the sincerity of any good sentiment in such a quarter, she very properly replied that it was not for her to be the first to discredit the generosity she had so successfully appealed to.
But between her republican friends, loth to owe their deliverance to the tender mercies of Louis Napoleon, and her own desire to save their lives and liberties, and themselves and their families from ruin and despair, she found her office of mediator a most unthankful one. She persisted however in unwearying applications for justice and mercy, addressed both to the dictator directly, and through his cousin, Prince Napoleon (Jerôme), between whom and herself there existed a cordial esteem. She clung as long as she could to her belief in the public virtue of the President, or Emperor as he already began to be called here and there. But the promised clemency limited itself to a number of particular cases for whom she had specially interceded.
The subsequent conditions of France precluded all free emission of socialist or republican opinions, but Madame Sand desired nothing better than to send in her political resignation; and it is impossible to share the regret of some of her fellow-republicans at finding her again devoting her best energies to her art of fiction, and in November 1853 writing to Mazzini such words of wisdom as these:—
You are surprised that I can work at literature. For my part, I thank God that he has let me preserve this faculty; for an honest and clear conscience like mine still finds, apart from all debate, a work of moralisation to pursue. What should I do if I relinquished my task, humble though it be? Conspire? It is not my vocation; I should make nothing of it. Pamphlets? I have neither the wit nor the wormwood required for that. Theories? We have made too many, and have fallen to disputing, which is the grave of all truth and all strength. I am, and always have been, artist before everything else. I know that mere politicians look on artists with great contempt, judging them by some of those mountebank-types which are a disgrace to art. But you, my friend, you well know that a real artist is as useful as the priest and the warrior, and that when he respects what is true and what is good, he is in the right path where the divine blessing will attend him. Art belongs to all countries and to all time, and its special good is to live on when all else seems to be dying. That is why Providence delivers it from passions too personal or too general, and has given to its organisation patience and persistence, an enduring sensibility, and that contemplative sense upon which rests invincible faith.
Her novel, Les Maîtres Sonneurs, the first-fruits of the year 1853, is what most will consider a very good equivalent for party pamphlets and political diatribes.
When composing La Mare au Diable, in 1846, Madame Sand looked forward to writing a series of such peasant tales, to be collectively entitled Les Veillées du Chanvreur, the hemp-beaters being, as will be recollected, the Scheherazades of each village. Their number was never to be thus augmented, but the idea is recalled by the chapter-headings of Les Maîtres Sonneurs, in which Étienne Despardieu, or Tiennet, the rustic narrator, tells, in the successive veillées of a month, the romance of his youth. It is a work of a very different type to the rural tales that had preceded it, and should be regarded apart from them. It is longer, more complex in form and sentiment, more of an ideal composition. Les Maîtres Sonneurs is a delightful pastoral, woodland fantasy, standing by itself among romances much as stands a kindred work of imagination, "As You Like It," among plays, yet thoroughly characteristic of George Sand, the nature-lover, the seer into the mysteries of human character, and the imaginative artist. The agreeable preponderates in the story, but it has its tragic features and its serious import. A picturesque and uncommon setting adds materially to its charm. Every thread tells in this delicate piece of fancy work, and the weaver's art is indescribable. But one may note the ingenuity with which four or five interesting yet perfectly natural types are brought into a group and contrasted; improbable incidents so handled as not to strike a discordant note, the characteristics of the past introduced without ever losing hold of the links, the points of identity between past and present. The scene is the hamlet of Nohant itself; the time is a century ago, when the country, half covered with forest, was wilder, the customs rougher, the local colouring stronger than even Madame Sand in her childhood had known them. The personages belong to the rural proprietor class. The leading characters are all somewhat out of the common, but such exist in equal proportion in all classes of society, and there is ample evidence besides George Sand's of notable examples among the French peasantry. The plot and its interest lie in the development of character and the fine tracing of the manner in which the different characters are influenced by circumstances and by each other. If the beauty of rustic maidens, and of rustic songs and dance music, as here described, seem to transcend probability, it must be remembered it is a peasant who speaks of these wonders, and as wonders they might appear to his limited experience. As a musical novel, it has the ingenious distinction of being told from the point of view of the sturdy and honest, but unartistic and nonmusical Tiennet; a typical Berrichon. Madame Sand was of opinion that during the long occupation of Berry by the English the two races had blended extensively, and she would thus account for some of the heavier, more inexpansive qualities of our nation having become characteristic of this French province.
More than one English reader of Les Maîtres Sonneurs may have been struck by the picture there presented of peasant-folk in a state of peace and comfort, such as we do not suppose to have been common in France before the Revolution. Madame Sand has elsewhere explained how, as a fact, Nohant, and other estates in the region round about, had enjoyed some immunity from the worst abuses of the ancien régime. Several of these properties, as it happened, had fallen to women or minors—widows, elderly maiden ladies, who, and their agents, spared the holders and cultivators of the soil the exactions which, by right or by might, its lords were used to levy. "So the peasants," she writes, "were accustomed not to put themselves to any inconvenience; and when came the Revolution they were already so well relieved virtually from feudal bonds that they took revenge on nobody." A new seigneur of Nohant, coming to take possession, and thinking to levy his utmost dues, in cash and in kind, found his rustic tenants turn a deaf ear to his summons. Ere he could insist the storm burst, but it brought no convulsion, and merely confirmed an independence already existing.
Les Maîtres Sonneurs, whilst illustrating some of the most striking merits of George Sand, is free from the defects often laid to her charge; and although of all her pastorals it must suffer the most when rendered in any language but the original, it is much to be regretted that some good translation of this work should not put it within the reach of all English readers.