Give me calf’s tears

John Sturrock

  • George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large by Belinda Jack
    Chatto, 412 pp, £20.00, August 1999, ISBN 0 7011 6647 9

The first work of fiction to which Proust returns in A la recherche du temps perdu – and also the last, one complete, 2500-page orbit later – is George Sand’s François le champi, the first ‘real’ novel the narrator remembers having read. Or rather, remembers having had read to him, by his mother on that seminal evening of anxiety when she fails to come up and give him a goodnight kiss. The emergency recital is a success, the book’s ‘crudities’ and ‘very common prose’ notwithstanding, so sedative is the effect of his mother’s voice on her jumpy son. Poor George Sand, on the other hand, a victim yet again, as she said she’d been too often in her life, finding herself condescendingly banished to the shelf where the literary tranquillisers go, taken down only to be read by bourgeois parents to their children on grounds of her ‘goodness and moral distinction’ – qualities, Proust can’t resist observing, that aren’t necessarily rewarding to read about even if held to be admirable when met with in people.

Except that François le champi isn’t quite the sound, simple-minded story that it should have been for a Combray bedtime book, since the young hero, a foundling, or champi in the local patois, comes in the end to marry the same village woman who has brought him up. The narrator’s mother in Proust leaves the love bits out, in case her cosseted boy isn’t yet ready for them, but given that the derelict François grows up to be the village paragon despite having been abandoned by his natural mother, you begin to ask yourself whether the choice of book for this literary initiation ceremony has turned not on memory, but on Proust’s wish slyly to pre-plot the life curve of his narrator, whose own story has just been launched by an act of desertion by his mother but will one day end so very affirmatively in his heroics as a writer.

François le champi is one of the four ‘country’ novels that Sand published between 1846 and 1853, along with La Mare au diable, La Petite Fadette and Les Maîtres-Sonneurs. (The last named is, at a guess, the least read, as it’s certainly the most interesting book of the four, for showing life in the country in a less friendly, at times even sinister light and putting music and musicians somewhere near the heart of it, the ‘maîtres-sonneurs’ of the title being a brotherhood of itinerant pipers.) The books are all of them set in the Berry, that bit of la France profonde whose centre is Bourges, and are the writing thanks to which, pace Proust, Baudelaire, Henry James (who described her work as being like ‘a large, polished, gilded Easter egg, the pride of a sweet shop if not the treasure of a museum’) and other townees who couldn’t be doing with her, Sand maintains to this day a pastoral niche in the overwhelmingly urban 19th-century canon. I don’t doubt that feminist critics have been working in recent years to give her a more robust presence there, even if she was so successful as a novelist in her lifetime, read throughout Europe and especially by sentimental Russians, that she can’t be used for an example of a woman writer who never got her due on account of her sex. If she’s now to be made more of, which she should be, it’s rather because she was capable of writing bigger, odder and intellectually more adventurous novels – Consuelo is the one I’m thinking of – and because the vast autobiography that she wrote in middle age, L’Histoire de ma vie, and her even vaster correspondence, which runs to 25 volumes in the modern edition, form an uncommonly rich and attractive documentary whole, the record of a muddled life lived with an estimable generosity and resilience that you don’t have to read every word of to form an altogether higher opinion of the person who lived it. If all there was to George Sand were stories of an edifying ruralism of the François le champi sort, then we could safely abandon her to Henry James’s museum-case, but this was also the woman whom the endlessly grouchy Flaubert, another who couldn’t stomach her novels, mourned more than he might have liked at the time of her death, and who wrote to and received from him some of the French 19th century’s most thoroughly human letters.

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