Wanting and Not Getting, Getting and Not Wanting

Rosemary Dinnage

  • My Life by George Sand, translated and adapted by Dan Hofstadter
    Gollancz, 246 pp, £7.95, September 1980, ISBN 0 575 02682 0
  • George Sand in her Own Words edited and translated by Joseph Barry
    Quartet, 475 pp, £7.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 7043 2235 8

The 19th century loved George Sand: the Brownings, the Carlyles, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Ruskin, Whitman all read her; Arnold preferred her to Dickens; George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë were influenced by her; G.H. Lewes in a rash moment called her the most remarkable writer of the century. Henry James, of all people, loved her ‘serene volubility’. It is not likely, he wrote, that posterity will travel with her novels in its trunk, but when they have gone out of fashion and are rediscovered in dusty corners of old libraries, the discoverers will say: ‘What a beautiful mind! What an extraordinary style! Why have we not known more about these things?’ He could not have guessed that in the 1970s the dusty corners of libraries would be almost bare of her books and that her rediscovery would come about, not on account of her ‘charming, improbable romances for initiated persons of the optimistic class’, but of her life and ideas.

Consistent ideas and consistent feminism are the last things to be found in Sand’s work, and she was willing to admit it. But if only as an introduction to a sacred monster of Romanticism these two books of translation are welcome. Of her voluminous writings, the letters, autobiography and journal intime have been fully edited in France only in the past fifteen years; in English, though no less than six biographies have appeared during the 1970s, early translations of the novels are hard to find; and Dan Hofstadter, translator of My Life, declares his to be the first English translation of any ‘substantial part’ of that book (the bibliography of George Sand In her Own Words lists another, but – maddeningly – without date).

Ma Vie first appeared, between 1854 and 1855, in 138 instalments in the Parisian newspaper La Presse. Hofstadter has reduced it to about a fifth of its original half a million words, and cut out repetitions, digressions and effusions; in re-creating the style, which he describes as ‘full of self-regarding modesty and feigned folksiness’, he says he has aimed at the tone of mid-19th-century American magazine and diary-writing. It reads spankingly and is tolerably free of forced modernisms or archaisms. Sand was around fifty when she was writing it and the main dramas of her life were behind her. Readers were disappointed that these – the break with her husband, her affairs with Musset and Chopin and others – are barely sketched in: it is chiefly an account of her family background and childhood. To expose intimate matters, she wrote (with her unerring gift for extracting a pious lesson from what she wanted to do), might lead readers less pure than herself into immorality: so ‘what I am planning is a useful book, free from danger and scandal, without vanity and without baseness.’ In fact, the repetitive drama of her love affairs might well have made more tedious reading than this account of her rather extraordinary childhood. The sacred monster is always a challenge and the clue should be somewhere in childhood.

The ancestry of Aurore Dupin (her real name) had elements in it that were compulsively reproduced in her own life. Her paternal grandmother, who virtually brought her up, was the illegitimate child of the distinguished Maréchal Maurice de Saxe (himself the illegitimate child of a King of Poland); the mother had been a courtesan and one among many mistresses. This grandmother, a clever and prudish woman, was placed in a convent and forbidden to see her mother (as was Aurore herself). She married, was widowed young, and her only child, Aurore’s father, contracted a mésalliance with a kept woman of the humblest birth just in time for Aurore to be legitimate. The girl grew up with a half-sister (born to her mother by a previous lover) and half-brother (son of her father by a housemaid). It made a striking mixture of blue blood and proletarian blood, licence and strictness.

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