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.

The grandmother Dupin, owner of the château of Nohant and its estate, doted on her son (as Sand was to do on her own only son) and was for ever bitter about his marriage. The story of Sand’s childhood is essentially that of the tug-of-war over her between mother and grandmother: for her father died in an accident when she was four. Her first few years, before his death, were lived in modest lodgings with her mother and devoted, though often absent, soldier father; she remembered enough of that time to long passionately for its return throughout her childhood. There was a dramatic journey, recounted in the autobiography, across devastated battlefields to join him in camp in Spain. Here she was for the first time dressed en garçon, the ‘very image’ of her father in ‘braids and buttons of real gold, a pelisse trimmed with black fur’ and ‘boots of red morocco with gilded spurs, a sabre, a braided baldric of crimson silk … and a sabre knot with an eagle embroidered in real pearls’.

The family returned from Spain to be grudgingly accepted at Nohant. Within a couple of months both Aurore’s infant brother and her father were dead. She became the focus of the two bereaved women’s emotions; and her grandmother, who would call her ‘my son’ at times, became more and more determined to keep her. She controlled the money, and could exert further blackmail by refusing to have the illegitimate sister in the house. Aurore’s mother thus had to choose between her daughters, and between poverty or comfort for the favoured Aurore; in the end, she signed a contract that gave her mother-in-law complete control.

This, at any rate, is Sand’s story. As a writer – to return to the quotable James – she ‘never allows facts to make her uncomfortable’, and there may be much of fantasy in the autobiography. But in her account of her relationship with her mother there is a feeling of truth; and the story is consistent with her febrile pursuit of an ideal relationship in adulthood. Her mother eventually left Nohant for Paris, vaguely promising to set up a business to support them both there. Before she left, the child Aurore left a letter for her mother hidden behind a picture, and when she had gone went to look for an answer:

I ran into her room and fell upon her unmade bed, kissing the pillow which still bore the imprint of her head … I ran straight to the portrait, my heart pounding with hope: but I shook the picture of old Francucil in vain: my mother, unwilling to feed a delusion which she regretted having planted in my mind, had thought best not to reply. This was the final blow. Motionless, stupefied, I spent the rest of my free hour in her room. I had grown suddenly cold, mysterious, mournful. I did not weep – I had no tears left – but I was beginning to suffer from a pain still deeper and more distressing than absence. I said to myself, ‘My mother does not love me as much as I love her.’

The trauma was compounded not long after. Deciding to break the obstinate attachment once and for all, the grandmother summoned the child and related at length her daughter-in-law’s past life as a kept woman; adding a solemn hint that she was once again – but now irrevocably – fallen. After this,

I no longer knew if I loved or hated anyone, I felt no warmth for anyone, no resentment against a soul; I had a sort of huge internal wound, a searing emptiness in place of my heart. I was aware only of a contempt for the entire universe and of a bitterness toward life and toward whatever it might bring: In brief, I no longer loved myself. If my mother was contemptible, then so was the fruit of her womb.

Sand’s adult life, about which the autobiography is vague, is well enough known. First, the bold decision, at 26, to leave children and a husband who had become boring, in order to live in Paris with a 19-year-old student, Jules Sandeau, and earn a living by collaborating on novels with him. He was probably not the first lover, and soon became as unsatisfactory as the husband and was discarded: Sand packed for him, got him a passport, provided money, and sent him off to Italy. Her novels began to flow in a steady stream – ‘I was not born like you with a little steel spring inside the head, with a push-button which only needs touching to start the will-power going,’ her ex-collaborator had said bitterly – and so did the lovers: Musset, Pagello, Mérimée, Michel, Didier, Mallefille, Chopin, Lambert, Manceau, each one the unique, incomparable mate that the others had failed to be. She became a phenomenon and eventually an institution, notorious and respected at the same time.

Ellen Moers, in her introduction to George Sand in her Own Words (an unavoidably scrappy collection of fragments from Sand’s hundred-odd volumes), stresses Sand’s grasp of social realities and her talent for friendship, and deprecates the legend of the scandalous love goddess of French Romanticism. But Sand’s opinions on social questions were no more than good-hearted and muddled, and even her solid friendships with the great were achieved late in life, and on terms that suited her. It was ‘love’ that was, in her own and everyone else’s opinion, her special subject and her career, love pursued doggedly, humourlessly and compulsively for much of her adult life – until she washed her hands of it and settled for a circle of young admirers with a favourite to take care of sexual and social chores. A pattern remained constant: there was a choice, and an alternation, between wanting and not getting, and getting and not wanting. The characteristics of the men she used to stanch the ‘huge internal wound’ her upbringing had inflicted seem scarcely to have been distinguished, until afterwards when there was tidying up to be done, and a rather contemptuous motherliness replaced ‘love’. Before that stage there was ‘I adore you’ (to Dudevant), ‘Oh, my Angel’ (to de Séze), ‘I am in a condition of ecstatic joy’ (to Sandeau), ‘I love him more than anybody in the world’ (of Musset), ‘In you at long last I see my dream fulfilled’ (to Pagello), ‘We are one person, and you the half of me’ (to Michel) – and so on.

Our own time, which can admire the independence and courage of Sand, is also tolerant about sexual adventurism. What is harder for us to tolerate is the self-deception that cast each male extra as the final answer to the riddle of life; the hypocrisy that spread a veneer of virtue over self-interest – ‘that deceptive air of sublimity with which she used to envelop her weariness of her lovers,’ wrote one of the shrewder ones; and, in spite of a fundamentally good-natured temperament, a certain ruthlessness – ‘she is a walking graveyard,’ wrote another of them. It was not quite a fair comment because, on the whole, there were not many casualties (apart from her daughter); her partners tended to be themselves considerably implicated in the postures of a 19th-century Mc Decade. As Musset wrote:

Aimer est le grand point; qu’importe la maîtresse?
Qu’importe le flacon pourvu qu’on all I’ivresse?

Sand was to sip from many beakers in search of the necessary ivresse. But it would be quite wrong, as most of her lovers discovered, to think of her as a passionate woman: the drama was about frigidity, physical or emotional, about the internal wound, about the impossibility of using mere mortals to heal it and make good the childhood losses. She had invented, as a child, a god of her own, Corambé, ‘as pure and charitable as Christ, as radiant and beautiful as Gabriel’; the lovers were assigned, and naturally failed to fulfil, the godlike role. As usual, she set out her perplexities, with rather touching naivety, in a letter:

A great deal has been said about Moral behaviour, chasity and social virtue. I am not yet clear about any of these questions and have therefore never come to any firm conclusion about them. All the same I am not indifferent to these issues and may as well tell you that the need to find a theory which would agree with my feelings has been the main preoccupation of my life … I have changed my ideas a dozen times … I had no feeling of guilt because I have always felt that my infidelities were caused by fate, by a search for an ideal which impelled me to abandon the imperfect in favour of what appeared to be nearer perfection.

In George Sand in her Own Words there is included a dialogue from her third novel Lélia, written when she was most intensely engaged with these questions, after the separation from Sandeau. It expresses among other things the conflict between her loyalty to her ‘immoral’ mother and to her Strict grandmother, and perhaps to the ‘tainted’ half-sister who perforce came between her and her mother. The sisters Lélia and Pulchérie have been reunited; Pulchérie is a happy courtesan, Lélia a tormented idealist. ‘Unlike you, I have known no disappointments because I have never asked more of life than it could give me.’ Pulchérie says: ‘My aim has been limited to knowing how to enjoy things as they are.’ Lélia. on the other hand, confesses to an ‘unbridled desire for happiness which no human enjoyment could ever satisfy’. For her, ‘desire was an ardour of the soul which paralysed the power of my senses before they had even been aroused.’ So, ‘as I did not feel myself bound to any man by the specific, voluntary consecration of physical love, I let my restless, passionate imagination travel the universe, seizing on anything it met on the way.’ Her hollow, cerebral insatiability had grown and grown, one imaginary lover succeeding another, infidelity following on spectral infidelity:

Each new day saw me unfaithful to the one I had loved the night before. Soon one love of this kind was not sufficient to fill my always hungry, insatiable soul, and I would embrace several phantoms at the same time… Squandered in this way, my heart finally died: I became capable only of sudden crazes: and as these feelings would fade away the moment the slightest light was projected on the objects of my illusions. I was forced to change idols as soon as a new one appeared … When I have succeeded in filling the gulf of one day, I ask myself in terror with what shall I fill the next?

As she approached old age, Sand found the problem solved itself: she became more and more of a comfortable Pulchérie. The young lovers were chosen as one would choose a good butler. ‘I like his ways,’ she said of Manceau, the last:

he is light on his feet and moves about with assurance … He applies his entire mind to what he is doing, he puts his entire soul into getting me a glass of water or lighting my cigarette. He never makes me lose my temper. He is punctual, he has a watch and he takes the trouble to glance at it.

‘In short, I love him,’ she concludes briskly. This discussion of his qualifications, like every other intimate detail throughout her life, occurs in a long, chatty letter to a friend. ‘Love’ was her subject, and she came to handle it with the competent fluency of the trained case-worker. ‘Its 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,’ says James. When Alexandre Dumas asked her in her old age what she thought of Lélia, she said she could not even manage to read through the first volume. ‘All the same, when I wrote that book, I was sincere.’

Her letters, as she ages, express more and more contentment, though, from such an accomplished self-deceiver, they are not quite without that ‘self-regarding modesty and feigned folksiness’ that Hofstadter noted in translating the autobiography. About her writing she had always bean unpretentious, oddly uninterested in it, but she came to make a virtue of that – ‘ I am just a simple-minded woman of genius who produces novels as a peach-tree produces pink blossom’ – and did not hesitate to advise Flaubert to adopt the same attitude to his work. When grand-children were born she doted on them and firmly took them over for her own. She was assiduously material, except to her own daughter, for whom she prescribed a life of ‘household cares’: ‘assiduous supervision and education of your daughter, work if you can find any, if not, strict economy, the most austere simplicity in some small corner of Paris’. The interest of her life-pattern is that, after so much storm and stress, she succeeded in reconciling the three figures who had torn her childhood apart, identifying with the courage of her soldier father who had dressed her in spurs and sabre, the scandalousness of her prostituted mother, and the lofty matriarchal possessiveness of her grand-mother. She was pleased: ‘My own view is that I have deserved quite a pleasant fate in the next world.’