Among the eulogies and dissertations called forth by the death of the great writer who shared with Victor Hugo the honor of literary preeminence in France, quite the most valuable was the short notice published in the "Journal des Debats," by M. Taine. In this notice the apostle of the "milieu" and the "moment" very justly remarked that George Sand is an exceptionally good case for the study of the pedigree of a genius—for ascertaining the part of prior generations in forming one of those minds which shed back upon them the light of glory. What renders Mme. Sand so available an example of the operation of heredity is the fact that the process went on very publicly, as one may say; that her ancestors were people of qualities at once very strongly marked and very abundantly recorded. The record has been kept in a measure by George Sand herself. When she was fifty years old she wrote her memoirs, and in this prolix and imperfect but extremely entertaining work a large space is devoted to the heroine's parents and grandparents.
It was a very picturesque pedigree—quite an ideal pedigree for a romancer. Mme. Sand's great-grandfather was the Marshal Maurice de Saxe, one of the very few generals in the service of Louis XV. who tasted frequently of victory. Maurice de Saxe was a royal bastard, the 'son of Augustus II., surnamed the Strong,; Elector of Saxony and King of Po land, and of a brilliant mistress, Aurore de Königsmark. The victories of the Marechal de Saxe were not confined to the battlefield; one of his conquests was an agreeable actress, much before the Parisian public. This lady became the mother of Mme. Sand's grandmother, who was honorably brought up and married at a very early age to the Count de Horn. The Count de Horn shortly died, and his widow, after an interval, accepted the hand of M. Dupin de Francueil, a celebrity and a very old man. M. Dupin was one of the brilliant figures in Paris society during the period immediately preceding the Revolution. He had a large fortune, and he too was a conqueror. A sufficiently elaborate portrait of him may be found in that interesting if disagreeable book, the "Memoires" of Mme. d'Epinay. This clever lady had been one of his spoils of victory. Old enough to be his wife's grandfather, he survived his marriage but a few years, and died with all his illusions intact, on the eve of the Revolution, leaving to Mme. Dupin an only son. His wife outweathered the tempest, which, however, swept away her fortune; though she was able to buy a small property in the country—the rustic Château de Nohant, which George Sand has so often introduced into her writings. Here she settled herself with her son, a boy of charming promise, who was in due time drawn into the ranks of Napoleon's conquering legions. Young Dupin became an ardent Bonapartist and an accomplished soldier. He won rapid promotion. In one of the so-called "glorious" Italian campaigns he met a young girl who had followed the army from Paris, from a personal interest in one of its officers; and falling very honestly in love with her, he presently married her, to the extreme chagrin of his mother. This young girl, the daughter of a bird-catcher, and, as George Sand calls her, an "enfant du vieux pavé de Paris," became the mother of the great writer. She was a child of the people and a passionate democrat, and in the person of her daughter we see the confluence of a plebeian stream with a strain no less (in spite of its irregularity) than royal. On the paternal side Mme. Sand was cousin (in I know not what degree) to the present Bourbon claimant of the French crown; on the other she was affiliated to the stock which, out of the "vieux pavé," makes the barricades before which Bourbons go down.
This may very properly be called a "picturesque" descent; it is in a high degree what the French term accidenté. Its striking feature is that each conjunction through which it proceeds is a violent or irregular one. Two are illegitimate—those of the King of Poland and his son with their respective mistresses; the other two, though they had the sanction of law, may be called in a manner irregular. It was irregular for the fresh young Countess de Horn to be married to a man of seventy; it was irregular in her son, young Dupin, to make a wife of another man's mistress, often as this proceeding has been reversed. If it is a fair description of Mme. Sand to say that she was, during that portion of her career which established her reputation, an apostle of the rights of love quand méme, a glance at her pedigree shows that this was a logical disposition. She was herself more sensibly the result of a series of love affairs than most of us. In each of these cases the woman had been loved with a force which asserted itself in contradiction to propriety or to usage.
We may observe moreover, in this course of transmission, the opposition of the element of insubordination and disorder (which sufficiently translated itself in outward acts in Mme. Sand's younger years) and the "official" element, the respectable, conservative, exclusive strain. Three of our author's ancestresses were light women—women at odds with society, defiant of it, and, theoretically at least, discountenanced by it. The granddaughter of the Countess de Königsmark and of Mile. Verrières, the daughter of Mme. Dupin the younger, could hardly have been expected not to take up this hereditary quarrel. It is striking that on the feminine side of the house what is called respectability was a very relative quality. Mme. Dupin the elder took it very hard when her only and passionately loved son married a femme galante. She did not herself belong to this category, and her opposition is easily conceivable; but the reader of "L'Histoire de ma Vie" cannot help smiling a little when he reflects that this irreconcilable mother-in-law was the offspring of two illegitimate unions, and that her mother and grandmother had each enjoyed a plurality of lovers. At the same time, if there is anything more striking in George Sand, as a literary figure, than a certain traditional Bohemianism, it is that other very different quality which I just now called official, and which is constantly interrupting and complicating her Bohemianism. "George Sand immoral?" I once heard one of her more conditional admirers exclaim. "The fault I find with her is that she is so confoundedly virtuous." The military and aristocratic side of her lineage is attested by this "virtuous" property—by her constant tendency to edification and didacticism, her love of philosophizing and preaching, of smoothing and harmonizing things, and by her great literary gift, her noble and imperturbable style, the style which, if she had been a man, would have seated her in that temple of all the proprieties, the French Academy.
It is not the purpose of these few pages to recapitulate the various items of George Sand's biography. Many of these are to be found in "L'Histoire de ma Vie," a work which, although it was thought disappointing at the time of its appearance, is very well worth reading. It was given to the world day by day, as the feuilleton of a newspaper, and, like all the author's compositions, it has the stamp of being written to meet a current engagement. It lacks plan and proportion; the book is extremely ill made. But it has a great charm, and it contains three or four of the best portraits—the only portraits, I was on the point of saying—that the author has painted. The story was begun, but was never really finished; this was the public's disappointment. It contained a great deal about Mme. Sand's grandmother and her father—a large part of two volumes are given to a transcript of her father's letters (and very charming letters they are). It abounded in anecdotes of the writer's childhood, her playmates, her pet animals, her school adventures, the nuns at the Convent des Anglaises by whom she was educated; it related the juvenile unfolding of her mind, her fits of early piety, and her first acquaintance with Montaigne and Rousseau; it contained a superabundance of philosophy, psychology, morality, and harmless gossip about people unknown to the public; but it was destitute of just that which the public desired—an explicit account of the more momentous incidents of the author's maturity. When she reaches the point at which her story becomes peculiarly interesting (up to that time it has simply been agreeable and entertaining), she throws up the game and drops the curtain. In other words, she talks no scandal—a consummation devoutly to be rejoiced in.
The reader nevertheless deems himself, in the vulgar phrase, a trifle "sold," and takes his revenge in seeing something very typical of the author in the shortcomings of the work. He declares it to be a nondescript performance, which has neither the value of truth nor the illusion of fiction; and he inquires why the writer should preface her task with such solemn remarks upon the edifying properties of autobiography, and adorn it with so pompous an epigraph, if she meant simply to tell what she might tell without trouble. It may be remembered, however, that George Sand has sometimes been compared to Goethe, and that there is this ground for the comparison—that in form "L'Histoire de ma Vie" greatly resembles the "Dichtung und Wahrheit." There is the same charming, complacent expatiation upon youthful memories, the same arbitrary confidences and silences, the same digressions and general judgments, the same fading away of the narrative on the threshold of maturity. I should never look for analogies between George Sand and Goethe; but I should say that the lady's long autobiographic fragment is in fact extremely typical—the most so indeed of all her works. It shows in the highest degree her great strength and her great weakness—her unequalled faculty of improvisation, as it may be called, and her singular want of veracity. Every one will recognize what I mean by the first of these items. People may like George Sand or not, but they can hardly deny that she is the great improvisatrice of literature—the writer who best answers to Shelley's description of the skylark, singing "in profuse strains of unpremeditated art." No writer has produced such great effects with an equal absence of premeditation.
On the other hand, what I have called briefly and crudely her want of veracity requires some explanation. It is doubtless a condition of her serene volubility; but if this latter is a great literary gift, its value is impaired by our sense that it rests to a certain extent upon a weakness. There is something very liberal and universal in George Sand's genius, as well as very masculine; but our final impression of her always is that she is a woman and a French woman. Women, we are told, do not value the truth for its own sake, but only for some personal use they make of it. My present criticism involves an assent to this somewhat cynical dogma. Add to this that woman, if she happens to be French, has an extraordinary taste for investing objects with a graceful drapery of her own contrivance, and it will be found that George Sand's cast of mind includes both the generic and the specific idiosyncrasy. I have more than once heard her readers say (whether it was professed fact or admitted fiction that they had in hand), "It is all very well, but I can't believe a word of it!" There is something very peculiar in this inability to believe George Sand even in that relative sense in which we apply the term to novelists at large. We believe Balzac, we believe Gustave Flaubert, we believe Dickens and Thackeray and Miss Austen. Dickens is far more incredible than George Sand, and yet he produces much more illusion. In spite of her plausibility, the author of "Consuelo" always appears to be telling a fairy-tale. I say in spite of her plausibility, but I might rather say that her excessive plausibility is the reason of our want of faith. The narrative is too smooth, too fluent; the narrator has a virtuous independence that the muse of history herself might envy her. The effect it produces is that of a witness who is eager to tell more than is asked him, the worth of whose testimony is impaired by its importunity. The thing is beautifully done, but you feel that rigid truth has come off as it could; the author has not a high standard of exactitude; she never allows facts to make her uncomfortable. "L'Histoire de ma Vie" is full of charming recollections and impressions of Mme. Sand's early years, of delightful narrative, of generous and elevated sentiment; but we have constantly the feeling that it is what children call "made up." If the fictitious quality in our writer's reminiscences is very sensible, of course the fictitious quality in her fictions is still more so; and it must be said that in spite of its odd mixture of the didactic and the irresponsible, "L'Histoire de ma Vie" sails nearer to the shore than its professedly romantic companions.
The usual objection to the novels, and a very just one, is that they contain no living figures, no people who stand on their feet, and who, like so many of the creations of the other great novelists, have become part of the public fund of allusion and quotation. As portraits George Sand's figures are vague in outline, deficient in detail. Several of those, however, which occupy the foreground of her memoirs have a remarkable vividness. In the four persons associated chiefly with her childhood and youth she really makes us believe. The first of these is the great figure which appears quite to have filled up the area of her childhood—almost to the exclusion of the child herself—that of her grandmother, Mme. Dupin, the daughter of the great soldier. The second is that of her father, who was killed at Nohant by a fall from his horse, while she was still a young girl. The third is that of her mother—a particularly remarkable portrait. The fourth is the grotesque but softly-lighted image of Deschartres, the old pedagogue who served as tutor to Mme. Sand and her half-brother; the latter youth being the fruit of an "amourette" between the Commandant Dupin and one of his mother's maids. Mme. Dupin philosophically adopted the child; she dated from the philosophers of the preceding century. It is worth noting that George Sand's other playmate—the "Caroline" of the memoirs—was a half-sister on her mother's side, a little girl whose paternity antedated the Commandant Dupin's acquaintance with his wife.
In George Sand's account of her father there is something extremely delightful; full of filial passion as it is, and yet of tender discrimination. She makes him a charming figure—the ideal "gallant" Frenchman of the old type; a passionate soldier and a delightful talker, leaving fragments of his heart on every bush; clever, tender, full of artistic feeling and of Gallic gayety—having in fair weather and foul always the mot pour rire. His daughter's publication of his letters has been called a rather inexpensive way of writing her own biography; but these letters—charming, natural notes to his mother during his boyish campaigns—were well worth bringing to the light. All George Sand is in the author's portrait of her mother; all her great merit and all her strange defects. I should recommend the perusal of the scattered passages of "L'Histoire de ma Vie" which treat of this lady to a person ignorant of Mme. Sand, and desiring to make her acquaintance; they are an excellent measure of her power. On one side an extraordinary familiarity with the things of the mind, the play of character, the psychological mystery, and a beautiful clearness and quietness, a beautiful instinct of justice in dealing with them; on the other side a startling absence of delicacy, of reticence, of the sense of certain spiritual sanctities and reservations. That a woman should deal in so free-handed a fashion with a female parent, upon whom nature and time have enabled her to look down from an eminence, seems at first a considerable anomaly; and the woman who does it must to no slight extent have shaken herself free from the bonds of custom. I do not mean that George Sand talks scandal and tittle-tattle about her mother; but Mme. Dupin having been a light woman and an essentially irregular character, her daughter holds her up in the sunshine of her own luminous contemplation with all her imperfections on her head. At the same time it is very finely done—very intelligently and appreciatively; it is at the worst a remarkable exhibition of the disinterestedness of a great imagination
It must be remembered also that the young Aurore Dupin "belonged" much more to her grandmother than to her mother, to whom in her childhood she was only lent, as it were, on certain occasions. There is nothing in all George Sand better than her history of the relations of these two women, united at once and divided (after the death of the son and husband) by a common grief and a common interest; full of mutual jealousies and defiances, and alternately quarrelling and "making up" over their little girl. Jealousy carried the day. One was a patrician and the other a jealous democrat, and no common ground was attainable. Among the reproaches addressed by her critics to the author of "Valentine" and "Valvèdre" is the charge of a very imperfect knowledge of family life and a tendency to strike false notes in the portrayal of it. It is apparent that both before and after her marriage her observation of family life was peculiarly restricted and perverted. Of what it must have been in the former case this figure of her mother may give us an impression; of what it was in the latter we may get an idea from the somewhat idealized ménage in "Lucrezia Floriani."
George Sand's literary fame came to her very abruptly. The history of her marriage, which is briefly related in her memoirs, is sufficiently well known. The thing was done, on her behalf, by her relatives (she had a small property), and the husband of their choice, M. Dudevant, was neither appreciative nor sympathetic. His tastes were vulgar and his manners frequently brutal; and after a short period of violent dissension, and the birth of two children, the young couple separated. It is safe to say, however, that even with an "appreciative" husband Mme. Sand would not have accepted matrimony once for all. She represents herself as an essentially dormant, passive, and shrinking nature, upon which celebrity and productivity were forced by circumstances, and whose unsuspectingness of its own powers was dissipated only by the violent breaking of a spell. There is evidently much truth in these assertions, for of all great literary people, few strike us as having had a smaller measure of the more vulgar avidities and ambitions. But for all that, it is tolerably plain that even by this profoundly slumbering genius the most brilliant matrimonial associate would have been utterly overmatched. Mme. Sand, even before she had written "Indiana," was too imperious a force, too powerful a machine, to make the limits of her activity coincide with those of wifely submissiveness. It is very possible that for her to write "Indiana" and become a woman of letters a spell had to be broken; but the real breaking of the spell lay not in the vulgarity of a husband, but in the deepening sense, quickened by the initiations of marriage, that outside of the quiet meadows of Nohant there was a vast affair called life, with which she had a capacity for making acquaintance at first hand. This making acquaintance with life at first hand is, roughly speaking, the great thing that, as a woman, Mme. Sand achieved; and she was predestined to achieve it. She was more masculine than any man she might have married; and what powerfully masculine person—even leaving genius apart—is content at five-and-twenty with submissiveness and renunciation? "It was a mere accident that George Sand was a woman," a person who had known her well said to the writer of these pages; and though the statement needs an ultimate corrective, it represents a great deal of truth. What was feminine in her was the quality of her genius; the quantity of it—its force, and mass, and energy—was masculine, and masculine were her temperament and character. All this masculinity needed to set itself free; which it proceeded to do according to its temporary light. Her separation from her husband was judicial, and assured her the custody of her children; but as, in return for this privilege, she made financial concessions, it left her without income (though in possession of the property of Nohant) and dependent upon her labors for support. She had betaken herself to Paris in quest of labor, and it was with this that her career began.
This determination to address herself to life at first hand—this personal, moral impulse, which was not at all a literary impulse—was her great inspiration, the great pivot on which her history wheeled round into the bright light of experience and fame. It is, strictly, as I said just now, the most interesting thing about her. Such a disposition was not customary, was not what is usually called womanly, was not modest or delicate, or, for many other persons, in any way comfortable. But it had one great merit: it was in a high degree original and active; and because it was this, it constitutes the great service which George Sand rendered her sex—a service in which, I hasten to add, there was as much of fortune as of virtue. The disposition to cultivate an "acquaintance with life at first hand" might pass for an elegant way of describing the attitude of many young women who are never far to seek, and who render no service to their own sex—whatever they may render to the other.
George Sand's superiority was that she looked at life from a high point of view, and that she had an extraordinary talent. She painted fans and glove boxes to get money, and got very little. "Indiana," however—a mere experiment—put her on her feet, and her reputation dawned. She found that she could write, and she took up her pen never to lay it down. Her early novels, all of them brilliant, and each one at that day a literary event, followed each other with extraordinary rapidity. About this sudden entrance into literature, into philosophy, into rebellion, and into a great many other matters, there are various different things to be said. Very remarkable, indeed, was the immediate development of the literary faculty in this needy young woman, who lived in cheap lodgings and looked for "employment." She wrote as a bird sings; but unlike most birds, she found it unnecessary to indulge, by way of prelude, in twitterings and vocal exercises; she broke out at once with her full volume of expression. From the beginning she had a great style. "Indiana," perhaps, is rather in falsetto, as the first attempts of young, sentimental writers are apt to be; but in "Valentine," which immediately followed, there is proof of the highest literary instinct—an art of composition, a propriety and harmony of diction, such as belong only to the masters.
One might certainly have asked Mme. Sand, as Lord Jeffrey asked Macaulay on the appearance of his first contribution to the "Edinburgh Review," where the deuce she had picked up that style. She had picked it up apparently at Nohant, among the meadows and the traines—the deeply-sunken byroads among the thick high hedges. Her language had to the end an odor of the hawthorn and the wild honeysuckle—the mark of the "climat souple et chaud," as she somewhere calls it, from which she had received " l'initiation première." How completely her great literary faculty was a matter of intuition is indicated by the fact that "L'Histoire de ma Vie" contains no allusion to it, no account of how she learned to write, no record of effort or apprenticeship. She appears to have begun at a stage of the journey at which most talents arrive only when their time is up. During the five-and-forty years of her literary career, she had something to say about most things in the universe; but the thing about which she had least to say was the writer's, the inventor's, the romancer's art. She possessed it by the gift of God, but she seems never to have felt the temptation to examine the "pulse of the machine."
To the cheap edition of her novels, published in 1852-'3, she prefixed a series of short prefaces, in which she relates the origin of each tale—the state of mind and the circumstances in which it was written. These prefaces are charming; they almost justify the publisher's declaration that they form the "most beautiful examination that a great mind has ever made of itself." But they all commemorate the writer's extraordinary facility and spontaneity. One of them says that on her way home from Spain she was shut up for some days at an inn, where she had her children at play in the same room with her. She found that the sight of their play quickened her imagination, and while they tumbled about the floor near her table, she produced "Gabriel"—which, though inspired by the presence of infancy, cannot be said to be addressed to infants. Of another story she relates that she wrote it at Fontainebleau, where she spent all her days wandering about the forest, making entomological collections, with her son. At night she came home and took up the thread of "La dernière Aldini," on which she had never bestowed a thought all day. Being at Venice, much depressed, in a vast, dusky room in an old palace which had been turned into an inn, while the sea wind roared about her windows, and brought up the sounds of the carnival as a kind of melancholy wail, she began a novel by simply looking round her and describing the room and the whistling of the mingled tumult without. She finished it in a week, and, hardly reading it over, sent it to Paris as "Léone Léoni"—a masterpiece.
In the few prefatory lines to "Isidora" I remember she says something of this kind: "It was a beautiful young woman who used to come and see me, and profess to relate her sorrows. I saw that she was attitudinizing before me, and not believing herself a word of what she said. So it is not her I described in 'Isidora.'" This is a happy way of saying how a hint—a mere starting point—was enough for her. Particularly charming is the preface to the beautiful tale of "André"; it is a capital proof of what one may call the author's limpidity of reminiscence, and want of space alone prevents me from quoting it. She was at Venice, and she used to hear her maid servant and her sempstress, as they sat at work together, chattering in the next room. She listened to their talk in order to accustom her ear to the Venetian dialect, and in so doing she came into possession of a large amount of local gossip. The effect of it was to remind her of the small social life of the little country town near Nohant. The women told each other just such stories as might have been told there, and indulged in just such reflections and "appreciations" as would have been there begotten. She was reminded that men and women are everywhere the same, and at the same time she felt homesick. "I recalled the dirty, dusky streets, the tumble-down houses, the poor moss-grown roofs, the shrill concerts of cocks, children, and cats, of my own little town. I dreamed too of our beautiful meadows, of our perfumed hay, of our little running streams, and of the botany beloved of old which I could follow now only on the muddy mosses and the floating weeds that adhered to the sides of the gondolas. I don't know amid what vague memories of various types I set in motion the least complex and the laziest of fictions. These types belonged quite as much to Venice as to Berry. Change dress and language, sky, landscape, and architecture, the outside aspect of people and things, and you will find that at the bottom of all this man is always about the same, and woman still more, because of the tenacity of her instincts."
George Sand says that she found she could write for an extraordinary length of time without weariness, and this is as far as she goes in the way of analysis of her inspiration. From the time she made this discovery to the day of her death her life was an extremely laborious one. She had evidently an extraordinary physical robustness. It was her constant practice to write at night, beginning after the rest of the world had gone to sleep. Alexandre Dumas the younger described her somewhere, during her latter years, as an old lady who came out into the garden at midday in a broad-brimmed hat and sat down on a bench or wandered slowly about. So she remained for hours, looking about her, musing, contemplating. She was gathering impressions, says M. Dumas, absorbing the universe, steeping herself in nature; and at night she would give all this forth as a sort of emanation. Without using the vague epithets one may accept this term "emanation" as a good account of her manner.
If it is needless to go into biographical detail, this is because George Sand's real history, the more interesting one, is the history of her mind. The history of her mind is of course closely connected with her personal history; she is indeed a writer whose personal situation, at a particular moment, is supposed to be reflected with peculiar vividness in her work. But to speak of her consistently we must regard the events of her life as intellectual events, and its landmarks as opinions, convictions, theories. The only difficulty is that such landmarks are nearly as numerous as the trees in a forest. Some, however, are more salient than others. Mme. Sand's account of herself is that her ideal of life was repose, obscurity, and idleness—long days in the country, spent in botany and entomology. She affirms that her natural indolence was extreme, and that the need of money alone induced her to take her pen into her hand. As this need was constant, her activity was constant; but it was a perversion of the genius of a kind, simple, friendly, motherly, profoundly unambitious woman, who would have been amply content to take care of her family, live in slippers, gossip with peasants, walk in the garden, and listen to the piano. All this is certainly so far true as that no person of equal celebrity ever made fewer explicit pretensions. She philosophized upon a great many things that she did not understand, and toward the close of her life, in especial, was apt to talk metaphysics, in writing, with a mingled volubility and vagueness which might have been taken to denote an undue self-confidence. But in such things as these, as they come from George Sand's pen, there is an air as of not expecting any one in particular to read them. She never took herself too much au serieux—she never postured at all as a woman of letters. She scribbled, she might have said—scribbled as well as she could; but when she was not scribbling she never thought of it; though she liked to think of all the great things that were worth scribbling about—love and religion and science and art, and man's political destiny. Her reader feels that she has no vanity, and all her contemporaries agree that her generosity was extreme.
She calls herself a sphinx bon enfant, or says at least that she looked like one. Judgments may differ as to what degree she was a sphinx; but her good nature is all-pervading. Some of her books are redolent of it—some of the more "objective" ones: "Consuelo," "Les Maîtres Sonneurs" "L'Homme de Neige," "Les beaux Messieurs de Bois-Doré." She is often passionate, but she is never rancorous; even her violent attacks upon the church give one no impression of small acrimony. She has all a woman's loquacity, but she has never a woman's shrillness; and perhaps one can hardly indicate better the difference between great passion and small than by saying that she is never hysterical. During the last half of her career, her books went out of fashion among the new literary generation. "Realism" had been invented, or rather propagated; and in the light of "Madame Bovary," her own facile fictions began to be regarded as the work of a sort of superior Mrs. Radcliffe. She was antiquated; she belonged to the infancy of art. She accepted this destiny with a cheerfulness which it would have savored of vanity even to make explicit. The realists were her personal friends; she knew that they did not, and could not, read her books; for what could Gustave Flaubert make of "Monsieur Sylvestre," what could Ivan Tourguéneff make of "Césarine Dietrich"? It made no difference; she contented herself with reading their productions, never mentioned her own, and continued to write charming, improbable romances for initiated persons of the optimistic class.
After the first few years she fell into this more and more; she wrote stories for the story's sake. Among the novels produced during a long period before her death I can think of but one, "Mademoiselle La Quintinie," which is of a controversial cast. All her early novels, on the other hand, were controversial—if this is not too mild a description of the passionate contempt for the institution of marriage expressed in "Indiana," "Valentine," "Lélia," and "Jacques." Her own acquaintance with matrimony had been of a painful kind, and the burden of three at least of these remarkable tales ("Lélia" stands rather apart) is the misery produced by an indissoluble matrimonial knot. "Jacques" is the story of an unhappy marriage from which there is no issue but by the suicide of one of the conjoints; the husband throws himself into an Alpine crevasse, in order to leave his wife to an undisturbed enjoyment of her loves.
It very soon became apparent that these matters were handled in a new and superior fashion. There had been plenty of tales about husbands, wives, and "third parties," but since the "Nouvelle Héloise" there had been none of a high value or of a philosophic tone. Mme. Sand, from the first, was nothing if not philosophic; the iniquity of marriage arrangements was to her mind but one of a hundred abominations in a society which needed a complete overhauling, and to which she proceeded to propose a loftier line of conduct. The passionate eloquence of the writer in all this was only equalled by her extraordinary self-confidence. "Valentine" seems to me even now a very eloquent book, and "Jacques" is hardly less so; it is easy to imagine their having made an immense impression. The intellectual freshness, the sentimental force of "Valentine" must have had an irresistible charm; and I say this with a full sense of what there is false and fantastical in the substance of both books. Hold them up against the light of a certain sort of ripe reason, and they seem as porous as a pair of sieves; but subject them simply to the literary test, and they hold together very bravely. The author's philosophic predilections were at once her merit and her weakness. On the one side it was a great mind, curious about all things, open to all things, nobly accessible to experience, asking only to live, expand, respond; on the other side stood a great personal volition, making large exactions of life and society and needing constantly to justify itself—stirring up rebellion and calling down revolution in order to cover up and legitimate its own agitation. George Sand's was a French mind, and as a French mind it had to theorize; but if the positive side of its criticisms of most human institutions was precipitate and ill balanced, the error was in a great measure atoned for in later years. The last half of Mme. Sand's career was a period of assent and acceptance; she had decided to make the best of those social arrangements which surrounded her—remembering, as it were, the homely native proverb which declares that when one has not got what one likes one must like what one has got. Into the phase of acceptance and serenity, the disposition to admit that even as it is society pays, according to the vulgar locution, our author passed at about the time that the Second Empire settled down upon France. I suspect the fact I speak of was rather a coincidence than an effect. It is very true that the Second Empire may have seemed the death-knell of "philosophy"; it may very well have appeared profitless to ask questions of a world which anticipated you with such answers as that. But I take it rather that Mme. Sand was simply weary of criticism; the pendulum had swung into the opposite quarter—as it is needless to remark that it always does.
I have delayed too long to say how far it had swung in the first direction; and I have delayed from the feeling that it is difficult to say it in the pages of an American magazine. For twenty years before the period I just now spoke of she had written about love, and she continued to do so for a greater number of years after it. Love was her inveterate theme, her specialty, and one misses the main point if one fails to put this in the clearest light. On the other hand, to say all that it is consistent to say on the matter would be to say a great deal which it belongs to our American etiquette to leave unsaid. So true is this that I hasten to declare that no complete and satisfactory analysis of George Sand's work can be written in English. We can only go to a certain point—which I confess I consider a great comfort. We will, however, go as far as we can. We have seen that George Sand was, by the force of heredity, projected into this field with a certain violence; she took possession of it as a conqueror, and she was never compelled to retreat. The reproach brought against her by her critics is that she has for the most part portrayed vicious love, not virtuous love. But the reply to this, from her own side, would be that she has at all events portrayed something which those who disparage her activity have not portrayed. She may claim that although she has the critics against her, the writers of her own class who represent virtuous love have not pushed her out of the field. She has the advantage that she has portrayed a passion, and those of the other group have the disadvantage that they have not. In English literature, which I suppose is more especially the region of virtuous love, we do not "go into" the matter, as the phrase is (I speak of course of English prose). We have agreed among our own confines that there is a certain point at which all elucidation of it should stop short; that among the things which it is possible to say about it, the greater number had on the whole better not be said. It would be easy to make an ironical statement of the English attitude, and it would be, if not easy, at least very possible, to make a sound defence of it. The thing with us, however, is not a matter of theory; it is above all a matter of practice, and the practice has been that of the leading English novelists. Miss Austen and Sir Walter Scott, Dickens and Thackeray, Hawthorne and George Eliot have all represented young people in love with each other; but no one of them has, to the best of my recollection, described anything that can be called a passion—put it into motion before us, and shown us its various paces. To say this is to say at the same time that these writers have spared us much that we consider disagreeable, and that George Sand has not spared us; but it is to say furthermore that few persons would resort to English prose fiction for any information concerning the ardent forces of the heart—for any ideas upon them. It is George Sand's merit that she has given us ideas upon them—that she has enlarged the novel-reader's conception of them, and proved herself in all that relates to them an authority. This is a great deal. From this standpoint Miss Austen, Walter Scott, and Dickens will appear to have omitted the erotic sentiment altogether, and George Eliot will seem to have treated it with singular austerity. Strangely loveless, seen in this light, are those large, comprehensive fictions "Middlemarch" and "Daniel Deronda." They seem to foreign readers, probably, like vast, cold, commodious, respectable rooms, through whose windowpanes one sees a snow-covered landscape, and across whose acres of sober-hued carpet one looks in vain for a fireplace or a fire.
The distinction between virtuous and vicious love is not particularly insisted upon by George Sand. In her view love is always love, and is always of divine essence and of ennobling effect. The largest life possible is to hold one's self open to an unlimited experience of it. This, I believe, was Mme. Sand's practice, as it was certainly her theory—a theory to the exposition of which one of her novels, at least, is expressly dedicated. "Lucrezia Floriani" is the history of a lady who, in the way of love, takes everything that comes along, and who sets forth her philosophy of the matter with infinite grace and felicity. It is probably fortunate for the world that ladies of Lucrezia Floriani's disposition have not as a general thing her argumentative brilliancy. About all this there would be much more to say than these few pages afford space for. Mme. Sand's plan was to be open to all experience, all emotions, all convictions; only to keep the welfare of the human race, and especially of its humbler members, well in mind, and to trust that one's moral and intellectual life would take a form profitable to the same. One was therefore not only to extend a great hospitality to love, but to interest one's self in religion and politics. This Mme. Sand did with great activity during the whole of the reign of Louis Philippe. She had broken utterly with the church, of course, but her disposition was the reverse of skeptical. Her religious feeling, like all her feelings, was powerful and voluminous, and she had an ideal of a sort of etherealized and liberated Christianity, in which unmarried but affectionate couples might find an element friendly to their "expansion."
Like all her feelings, too, her religious sentiment was militant; her ideas about love were an attack upon marriage; her faith was an attack upon the church and the clergy; her socialistic sympathies were an attack upon all present political arrangements. These things all took hold of her by turn—shook her hard, as it were, and dropped her, leaving her to be played upon by some new inspiration; then, in some cases, returned to her and took possession of her afresh, and sounded another tune. M. Renan, in writing of her at the time of her death, used a fine phrase about her; he said that she was "the Æolian harp of our time"; he spoke of her "sonorous soul." This is very just; there is nothing that belonged to her time that she had not a personal emotion about—an emotion intense enough to produce a brilliant work of art—a novel which had bloomed as rapidly and perfectly as the flower that the morning sun sees open on its stem. In her care about many things during all these years, in her expenditure of passion, reflection, and curiosity, there is something quite unprecedented. Never had philosophy and art gone so closely hand in hand. Each of them suffered a good deal; but it had appeared up to that time that their mutual concession must be even greater. Balzac was a far superior artist; but he was incapable of a lucid reflection. I have already said that mention has been made of George Sand's analogy with Goethe, who claimed for his lyrical poems the merit of being each the result of a particular incident in his life. It was incident too that prompted Mme. Sand to write; but what it produced in her case was not a short copy of verses, but an elaborate drama, with a plot and a dozen characters. It will help us to understand this extraordinary responsiveness of mind and fertility of imagination to remember that inspiration was often embodied in a concrete form; that Mme. Sand's "incidents" were usually clever, eloquent, suggestive men. "Le style c'est l'homme"—of her, it has been epigramatically said, that is particularly true. Be this as it may, these influences were strikingly various, and they are reflected in works which may be as variously labelled: amatory tales, religious tales, political, æsthetic, pictorial, musical, theatrical, historical tales. And it is to be noticed that in whatever the author attempted, whether or no she succeeded, she appeared to lose herself. The "Lettres d'un Voyageur" read like a writer's single book. This melancholy, this desolation and weariness, might pass as the complete distillation of a soul. In the same way "Spiridion" is insistant, religious, and theological. The author might, in relation to this book, have replied to such of her critics as reproach her with being too erotic, that she had performed the very rare feat of writing a novel not only containing no love save divine love, but containing not one woman's figure. I can recall but one rival to "Spiridion" in this respect—Godwin's "Caleb Williams."
But if other things come and go with George Sand, amatory disquisition is always there. It is of all kinds: sometimes very noble and sometimes very disagreeable. Numerous specimens of the two extremes might be cited. There is to my taste a great deal too much of it; the total effect is displeasing. The author illuminates and glorifies the divine passion, but she does something which may be best expressed by saying that she cheapens it. She handles it too much; she lets it too little alone. Above all she is too positive, too explicit, too businesslike; she takes too technical a view of it. The various signs and tokens and stages, its ineffable mysteries, are all catalogued and tabulated in her mind, and she whisks out her references with the nimbleness with which the doorkeeper at an exhibition hands you back your umbrella in return for a check. In this relation, to the English mind, discretion is a great point—a virtue so absolute and indispensable that it speaks for itself and cannot be analyzed away; and George Sand is judged from our point of view by one's saying that for her discretion is simply non-existent. Its place is occupied by a sort of benevolent, an almost conscientious disposition to sit down, as it were, and "talk over" the whole matter. The subject fills her with a motherly loquacity; it stimulates all her wonderful and beautiful self-sufficiency of expression—the quality that I have heard a hostile critic call her "glibness."
We can hardly open a volume of George Sand without finding an example of what I mean. I glance at a venture into "Teverino," and I find Lady G., who has left her husband at the inn and gone out to spend a day with the more fascinating Léonce, "passing her beautiful hands over the eyes of Léonce, peut-étre par tendresse naïve, perhaps to convince herself that it was really tears she saw shining in them." The peut-étre here, the tendresse naïve, the alternatives, the impartial way in which you are given your choice, are extremely characteristic of Mme. Sand. They remind us of the heroine of "Isidora," who alludes in conversation to "une de mes premières fautes." In the list of Mme. Sand's more technically amatory novels, however, there is a distinction to be made; the earlier strike me as superior to the later. The fault of the earlier—the fact that passion is too intellectual, too pedantic, too sophistical, too much bent upon proving its self-abnegation and humility, maternity, fraternity, humanity, or some fine thing that it really is not and that it is much simpler and better for not pretending to be—this fault is infinitely exaggerated in the tales written after "Lucrezia Floriani." "Indiana," "Valentine," "Jacques," and "Mauprat" are, comparatively speaking, frankly and honestly passionate; they do not represent the love that declines to compromise with circumstances as a sort of eating of one's cake and having it too—an eating it as pleasure and a having it as virtue. But the stories of the type of "Lucrezia Floriani," which indeed is the most argumentative, have an indefinable falsity of tone. Mme. Sand had here begun to play with her topic intellectually; the first freshness of her interest in it had gone, and invention had taken the place of conviction. To acquit one's self happily of such experiments, one must certainly have all the gifts that George Sand possessed. But one must also have two or three that she lacked. Her sense of purity was eminently defective. This is a brief statement, but it means a great deal. Of what it means there are few of her novels that do not contain a number of illustrations. She had no fixed ideal of delicacy; and if there is an essential difference between the clean and the unclean, it is impossible to describe what are called the relations of the sexes without such a fixed ideal.
An ideal of some sort of course Mme. Sand had, but it was hardly more useful than a pair of spectacles that is continually being mislaid. Her sense of purity is not so much absent as confused; it is, indeed, at times oppressively present, in the strongest attitudes—attitudes which are the natural result of its having to accommodate itself to an "inside view" of the relations I have just mentioned. Her discrimination between what is agreeable and possible to people of delicacy and what is not had no need to be perverted or bewildered by romance writing; we see in her first books that it is not to be trusted. She has no appreciation of what may be called purity of composition. There is something very fine about "Valentine," in spite of its contemptible hero; there is something very sweet and generous in the figure of the young girl. But why, desiring to give us an impression of great purity in her heroine, should the author provide her with a half-sister who is at once an illegitimate daughter and the mother of a child born out of wedlock, and who, in addition, is half in love with Valentine's lover? though George Sand thinks to better the matter by representing this love as partly maternal. After Valentine's marriage, a compulsory and most unhappy one, this half-sister plots with the doctor to place the young wife and the lover whom she has had to dismiss once more en rapport. She hesitates, it is true, and inquires of the physician if their scheme will not appear unlawful in the eyes of the world. But the old man reassures her, and asks, with a "sourire malin et affectueux," why she should care for the judgment of a world which has viewed so harshly her own irregularity of conduct.
Mme. Sand is for ever striking these false notes; we meet in her pages the most singular mixings up. In "Jacques" there is the queerest table of relations between the characters. Jacques is possibly the brother of Silvia, who is probably, on another side, sister of his wife, who is the mistress of Octave, Silvia's dismissed amant! Add to this that if Jacques is not the brother of Silvia, who is an illegitimate child, he is convertible into her lover. On a'y perd. Silvia, a clever woman, is the guide, philosopher, and friend of this melancholy Jacques; and when his wife, who desires to become the mistress of Octave (her discarded lover), and yet, not finding it quite plain sailing to do so, weeps over the crookedness of her situation, she writes to the injured husband that she has been obliged to urge Fernande not to take things so hard: "je suis forcée de la consoler et de la relever à ses propres yeux." Very characteristic of Mme. Sand is this fear lest the unfaithful wife should take too low a view of herself. One wonders what had become of her sense of humor. Fernande is to be "relevée" before her fall, and the operation is somehow to cover her fall prospectively.
Take another example from "Léone Léoni." The subject of the story is the sufferings of an infatuated young girl, who follows over Europe the most faithless, unscrupulous, and ignoble, but also the most irresistible of charmers. It is "Manon Lescaut," with the incurable fickleness of Manon attributed to a man; and as in the Abbé Prevost's story the touching element is the devotion and constancy of the injured and deluded Desgrieux, so in "Léone Léoni" we are invited to feel for the too closely-clinging Juliette, who is dragged through the mire of a passion which she curses and yet which survives unnamable outrage. She tells the tale herself, and it might have been expected that, to deepen its effect, the author would have represented her as withdrawn from the world and cured of the malady of love. But we find her living with another charmer, jewelled and perfumed; in her own words, she is a fille entretenue, and it is to her new lover that she relates the story of the stormy life she led with the old. The situation requires no comment beyond our saying that the author had morally no taste. Of this want of moral taste I remember another striking instance. MLle. Merquem, who gives her name to one of the later novels, is a young girl of the most elevated character, beloved by a young man, the intensity of whose affection she desires to test. To do this she contrives the graceful plan of introducing into her house a mysterious infant, of whose parentage she offers an explanation so obtrusively vague, that the young man is driven regretfully to the induction that its female parent is none other than herself. I forget to what extent he is staggered, but, if I rightly remember, he withstands the test. I do not judge him, but it is permitted to judge the young lady.
I have called George Sand an improvisatrice, and it is in this character that, in dealing with the conduct of people in love, she goes sometimes so strangely astray. When she deals with other things, with matters of a more "objective" cast, she is always delightful; nothing could be more charming than her tales of mystery, intrigue, and adventure. "Consuelo," "L'Homme de Neige," "Le Piccinino," "Teverino," "Le Beau Laurence" and its sequel, "Pierre qui Roule," "Antonia," "Tamaris," "La Famille de Germandre," "La Filleule," "Le dernière Aldini," "Cadio," "Flamarande"—these things have all the spontaneous inventiveness of the romances of Alexandre Dumas, his open-air quality, his pleasure in a story for a story's sake, together with an intellectual refinement, a philosophic savor, a reference to spiritual things, in which he was grotesquely deficient. But to improvise, to let one's invention go, in the inner region of the relations of the sexes, to resort for one's material, one's "effects," one's surprises and catastrophes, to the psychology—I had almost said the physiology—of love-making, is—I do not say unlawful, but at least very dangerous. A writer roaming irresponsibly among these dim labyrinths is likely to make some monstrous encounters. This was constantly happening to George Sand. In such intellectual puddles as "Le dernier Amour" and "Francia," there is an extraordinary want of proportion and general verity. The standard of reality, the measure of interest, has been left quite outside. The reader feels like a person who should go down into the cellar to sit while a spacious house stood unoccupied above him.
I have given no full enumeration of George Sand's romances, and it seems needless to do so. I have lately been trying to read them over, and I frankly confess that I have found it impossible. They are excellent reading for once, but they lack that quality which makes things classical—makes them impose themselves. It has been said that what makes a book a classic is its style. I should modify this, and instead of style say form. Mme. Sand's novels have plenty of style, but they have no form. Balzac's have not a shred of style, but they have a great deal of form. Posterity doubtless will make a selection from each list, but the few volumes of Balzac it preserves will remain with it much longer, I suspect, than those which it borrows from his great contemporary. I cannot easily imagine posterity travelling with "Valentine" or "Mauprat," "Consuelo" or the "Marquis de Villemer" in its trunk. At the same time I can imagine that if these admirable tales fall out of fashion, such of our descendants as stray upon them in the dusty corners of old libraries will sit down on the bookcase ladder with the open volume and turn it over with surprise and enchantment. What a beautiful mind I they will say; what an extraordinary style! Why have we not known more about these things? And as, when that time comes, I suppose the world will be given over to a "realism" that we have not as yet begun faintly to foreshadow, George Sand's novels will have, for the children of the twenty-first century, something of the same charm which Spenser's "Fairy Queen" has for those of the nineteenth. For a critic of to-day to pick and choose among them seems almost pedantic; they all belong quite to the same intellectual family. They are the easy writing which makes hard reading. In saying this I must immediately limit my meaning. All the world can read George Sand over and not find it in the least hard. But it is not easy to return to her; putting aside a number of fine descriptive pages, the reader will not be likely to resort to any volume that he has once laid down for a particular chapter, a brilliant passage, an entertaining conversation. George Sand invites reperusal less than any mind of equal eminence. Is this because after all she was a woman, and the laxity of the feminine intellect could not fail to claim its part in her? I will not attempt to say; especially as, though it may be pedantic to pick and choose among her works, I immediately think of two or three which have as little as possible of intellectual laxity. "Mauprat" is a solid, masterly, manly book; "André" and "La Mare au Diable" have an extreme perfection of form. M. Taine, whom I quoted at the beginning of these remarks, speaks of our author's rustic tales (the group to which the "Mare au Diable" belongs) as a signal proof of her activity and versatility of mind. Besides being charming stories, they are in fact a real study in philology—such a study as Balzac made in the "Contes Drôlatiques," and as Thackeray made in "Henry Esmond." George Sand's attempt to return to a more naif and archaic stage of the language which she usually handled in so modern and voluminous a fashion was quite as successful as that of her fellows. In "Les Maîtres Sonneurs" it is extremely felicitous, and the success could only have been achieved by an extraordinarily sympathetic and flexible talent. This is one of the impressions George Sand's reader—even if he has read her but once—brings away with him. His other prevailing impression will bear upon that quality which, if it must be expressed in a single word, may best be called the generosity of her genius. It is true that there are one or two things which limit this generosity. We think, for example, of Mme. Sand's peculiar power of self-defence, her constant need to justify, to glorify, to place in a becoming light, to "arrange," as I said at the outset, those errors and weaknesses in which her own personal credit may be at stake. She never accepts a weakness as a weakness; she always dresses it out as a virtue; and if her heroines abandon their lovers and lie to their husbands, you may be sure it is from motives of the highest morality. Such productions as "Lucrezda Floriani" and "Elle et Lui" may be attributed to an ungenerous disposition—both of them being stories in which Mme. Sand is supposed to have described her relations with distinguished men who were dead, and whose death enabled her without contradiction to portray them as monsters of selfishness, while the female protagonist shone forth the noblest of her sex. But without taking up the discussion provoked by these works, we may say that, on the face of the matter, there is a good deal of justification for their author. She poured her material into the crucible of art, and the artist's material is of necessity in a large measure his experience. Mme. Sand never described the actual; this was often her artistic weakness, and as she has the reproach she should also have the credit. "Lucrezia Floriani" and "Elle et Lui" were doubtless to her imagination simply tales of what might have been.
It is hard not to feel that there is a certain high good conscience and passionate sincerity in the words in which, in one of her prefaces, she alludes to the poor novel which Alfred de Musset's brother put forth as an incriminative retort to "Elle et Lui." Some of her friends had advised her not to notice the book; "but after reflection she judged it to be her duty to attend to it at the proper time and place. She was, however, by no means in haste. She was in Auvergne following the imaginary traces of the fiofures of her new novel along the scented byway, among the sweetest scenes of spring. She had brought the pamphlet with her to read it; but she did not read it. She had forgotten her herbarium, and the pages of the infamous book, used as a substitute, were purified by the contact of the wild flowers of Puy-de-Dôme and Sarcy. Sweet perfumes of the things of God, who to you could prefer the memory of the foulnesses of civilization?"
It must, however, to be just all round, be further remembered that those persons and causes which Mme. Sand has been charged first and last with misrepresenting belonged to the silent, inarticulate, even defunct class. She was always the talker, the survivor, the adversary armed with a gift of expression so magical as almost to place a premium upon sophistry. To weigh everything, I imagine she really outlived experience, morally, to a degree which made her feel, in retrospect, as if she were dealing with the history of another person. "Où sont-ils, où sont-ils, nos amours passés?" she exclaims in one of her later novels. (What has become of the passions we have shuffled off? into what dusky limbo are they flung away?) And she goes on to say that it is a great mistake to suppose that we die only once and at last. We die piecemeal; some part of us is always dying; it is only what is left that dies at last. As for our "amours passés," where are they indeed? Jacques Laurent and the Prince Karol may be fancied, in echo, to exclaim.
In saying that George Sand lacks truth the critic more particularly means that she lacks exactitude—lacks the method of truth. Of a certain general truthfulness she is full to overflowing; we feel that to her mind nothing human is alien. I should say of her not that she knew human nature, but that she felt it. At all events she loved it and enjoyed it. She was contemplative; but she was not, in the deepest sense, observant. She was a very high order of sentimentalist, but she was not a moralist. She perceived a thousand things, but she rarely in strictness judged; so that although her books have a great deal of wisdom, they have not what is called weight. With the physical world she was as familiar as with the human, and she knew it perhaps better. She would probably at any time have said that she cared much more for botany, mineralogy, and astronomy than for sociology. "Nature," as we call it—landscape, trees, and flowers, rocks, and streams. and clouds—plays a larger part irn he novels than in any others, and in none are they described with such a grand, general felicity. If Turner had written his landscapes rather than painted them, he might have written like George Sand. If she was less truthful in dealing with men and women, says M. Taine, it is because she had too high an ideal for them; she could not bear not to represent them as better than they are. She delights in the representation of virtue, and if we sometimes feel that she has not really measured the heights on which she places her characters, that so to place them has cost little to her understanding, we are nevertheless struck with the nobleness of her imagination. M. Taine calls her an idealist; I should say, somewhat more narrowly, that she was an optimist. An optimist "lined," as the French say, with a romancer, is not the making of a moralist. George Sand's optimism, her idealism, are very beautiful, and the source of that impression of largeness, luminosity, and liberality which she makes upon us. But I suspect that something even better in a novelist is that tender appreciation of actuality which makes even the application of a single coat of rose color seem an act of violence.
- "Constance Verrier," "Isidora," "Pauline," "Le dernier Amour," "La Daniella," "Francia," " Mademoiselle Merquem."
- "François le Champi," "La Petite Fadette."