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.

As one of that Empire generation (she was born in 1804, the year in which Napoleon was crowned) which liked to refer to itself, with a suggestion of fatalism, as ‘enfants du siècle’, George Sand grew up in times that had all the more influence on her because they were reactionary and she was not. She remained constantly open – almost to a fault, given the confusion of mind it was capable of producing in her – to what was being thought or written and what was happening publicly around her. Whoever chooses to write her biography in our own day and age is duty bound to make less of the idiosyncrasies – the hobnail boots, the cigars, the field sports, not forgetting the serial amours – so fatuously overdone in the past (A Song to Remember sticks in the mind as it once did in the gullet) and more of how she related to the social, aesthetic and political ideas that came and went in France after 1820. Take her ill-advised subtitle seriously, and the worry would be that Belinda Jack was a Sand-anista of the old school: that onto the boards there was about to emerge yet again a heroine who, for all her 4'10", when the occasion came to suffer, suffered big, and who, when the din from the piano made her migraines worse, could take comfort from knowing that the fingers thumping the keys were Chopin’s. But Jack’s Sand is thankfully not writ so large as that: in this new Life her love affairs and her mannish habits are made to fit smoothly enough with the contradictory rest of her. It can’t, however, be said that the account of the public world in the midst of which her difficult emotional life transpired is correspondingly built up: so far as the literary and other history is concerned, this is a disappointingly facile biography.

George Sand began writing professionally at what for her was the wrong moment, when literary Paris was sweating in the greenhouse effect of early Romanticism. Bright young (male) novelists agreed that Victor Hugo had set off on the right lines in Bug-Jargal or Notre Dame de Paris, but that he’d proved too tame: to out-sensationalise the only moderately sensational Hugo was the way they thought fiction should now go. As a young (female) novelist, Sand was turned off by all their ‘bizarreries’, however, by the ‘impossible titles and distasteful subject-matter’, though briefly tempted to fall into line, since she had no money and needed to sell what she wrote. But she was a moralist from the start and shrank from compromising the good that she believed fiction could do if it set good examples before its readers, by attempts at a counterfeit terribilismo. Only when the vogue for the monstrous gave way to a certain ‘poetic’ realism, did she find the prevailing conventions more to her taste. She could then, ‘instinctively’, as she put it, and profitably as it soon turned out, write novels in which an idealised hero or heroine lives out, or if need be dies from, an amorous passion in a setting that is ‘real’; and all the more real in the case of the ‘romans champêtres’ for being a countryside the authenticity of whose ways her urban readers had no way of judging, never having got very close to it.

To bring the Berry with her into Paris was a crucial part of Sand’s larger mission as a reformer of minds, and through them of society. She thought that the ‘gens de campagne’ – the honorific description settled on them in 1789 – deserved a more philanthropic showing than the one they had got from Balzac, for example, in a novel with the retrograde title of Les Paysans. As they certainly did, for Balzac’s picture of woodland savagery in that exciting but overdone book owes more to his admiration for the novels of Fenimore Cooper than to any field trips he may have taken into the French countryside. Sand knew the country at first hand, having spent a lot of her childhood and regular periods of her adult life in the quite grand house in Nohant that had been her grandmother’s. She admits in L’Histoire de ma vie that the way of life of the Nohant locals could get her down, that they were apathetic and that too many of them drank too much, but she felt able nonetheless to use them in her country novels for an example of community, of the social ‘solidarity’ that she adopted for an ideal, having met with too little of it on the ground in a bohemian Paris that seemed to be all rampaging egos and emotional loneliness. It suited her well as a moralist to mediate between the two environments known to her – the one rough but in its way supportive, the other civilised, mind-sharpening but also callous – which even in the new age of railways and improved roads were more or less impervious to one another.

And as with dissonant milieux, so it was with individuals: here, too, Sand, when she writes, portrays herself as brokering an armistice between parties who could never in reality get on. There’s a story in L’Histoire de ma vie which has her as a new baby being passed off on her paternal grandmother (of whom more in a second) as the child of someone other than her real father, who’s been shown the door by his mother for having married way beneath him: the deception is no sooner practised than it’s uncovered and the adorable neonate does the trick simply by being there – son and mother are at once reconciled. The story becomes more than a little suspect once you find Sand casting herself regularly in this same role of a restorer of harmony, whose autobiographical pleasure it is to lay old and hurtful confrontations to rest at long last by making every possible allowance for those who were guilty at the time of provoking them. Her life as a child, as an adolescent and then as a young wife had been traumatically full of antagonisms but her account of it is so forgiving that a modern reader can only drum his heels in frustration, so few details will she give out, for example, about the way in which her loutish husband victimised her during the few married years they spent together, or why her brief fling with Alfred de Musset was so brief, or the nasty circumstances in which she eventually broke with Chopin (who took her problem daughter’s side against her mother): in retrospect, she’s prepared to be harsh towards herself alone. The outrageous Baudelaire laid the blame for her doveishness on the Devil, ‘who has persuaded her to trust herself to her kind heart and her good sense’, and there are times reading L’Histoire de ma vie when a curse on her kind heart seems almost in order. To rub it in, at the end of a very long book, she admits of the other, less happy life that she has kept almost entirely out of sight, that it had been one ‘veiled in terrible bitternesses’.

Those bitternesses began in, or anyway around, the cradle. Sand was both well and badly born, well born in the class sense since her father was minor aristocracy, badly born in the double sense that her mother was working class and also a disastrously unreliable human being: the daughter of a seller of cage-birds on the Paris quais, she is on record as already living with a man by the age of 16; she had had one child with him and a second with someone else by the time she met Sand’s soldier father, Maurice Dupin, in Italy, in 1790. Dupin’s own mother was an illegitimate daughter of that legendary debauchee, Maurice de Saxe, who’d in turn been a bastard son of the King of Poland. So in George Sand, née Aurore Dupin, the Ancien Régime was crossed, give or take a bar sinister, with the Paris proletariat, and once she was grown up, and France had gone back to having a king, she could in a sense choose, according to which side of her forked family she felt she belonged, to live either in the last century or in her own: to act patrician or to act people. She chose to act people.

In doing so, she suggests that in the first instance she was following the example set by her father, an officer and a gentleman maybe, but, so she maintains, strongly egalitarian at heart, a revolutionary even. The first four hundred or more pages of L’Histoire de ma vie are devoted almost entirely to Maurice Dupin, and to the (often edited versions of, I learn from Jack) letters he wrote home to his mother (not to his none too literate wife) when campaigning abroad with the Napoleonic Army. He died in 1808, when his daughter was only four, not gloriously in action, but accidentally and on leave, when he was thrown from his horse at Nohant. Thereafter, Sand became the victim of a localised class war, unsure of who she should be siding with: her dry, snobbish, rationalistic grandmother, who’d been so appalled by what she saw as her son’s degrading marriage that she tried to bully him into ending it, or with a chaotic, runaway mother whose behaviour grew more wilful year by year. Sand spent time with one and then time with the other, but time also with mother and grandmother together, in a household whose air was fouled by the mutual resentment. It says a lot about what she had to endure at home that she recalls as far and away her happiest years the two she spent in her early teens as a boarder in a Paris convent run by British nuns, her account of which reads in its girlier moments like something out of Angela Brazil.

If having been born ‘astride two classes’ was the unmaking of her as a child, it was the making of her as a writer and as someone who, when the moment came, threw in her lot politically, and ‘instinctively’ one can but add, with the Republican and democratic Left. The moment came in 1835, with the so-called ‘procès monstre’, or mass trial, in Paris of the surviving ringleaders of those who, the year before, had taken to the streets against what Sand described as the ‘system of provocation inaugurated by the policy of Louis-Philippe’ and, in Lyon at least, had been massacred by the forces of an alarmed law and order. From then on, Sand was anti-King and anti-Government, but if she was ready to go on calling herself a progressive for the rest of her life – that Flaubert was able to live with this is a sure sign of how fond of her he’d become – she could never accept that a more equal society than the hatefully unequal one she saw around her could be brought into being only by the shedding of blood, and she refused to bend to the arguments of the enragés on her own side, one of them for a time her lover, who’d have been happy to see a repeat of the Revolutionary Terror if that seemed the likeliest way of restoring the Republic. She looked back not to the ugly year of 1794, but to the hopeful one of 1789, which she saw as ‘one of the active phases of the evangelical life’: a remarkable expression, both of the eirenicism tous azimuts that so riled darker souls like Baudelaire, and of her belief that socialism was essentially a Christian idea, as people would have been better able to grasp had the Church not long ago sold out to Napoleon and allowed the gospel simplicities that it should have been preaching to become smothered by its close association with one unchristian regime after another. Sand’s will to pacifism and to simplicity in politics brought her close to the Saint-Simonians, but she never wanted to be part of any concerted action and could only despair later on at such violent events as the botched revolutions of 1848, whose benighted outcome was the Second Empire, and, in her old age, first the institution and then the terrible suppression of the Commune.

The lifelong ‘rêve du bon’, which kept her writing year in year out, and which she feared she could not give up on without lapsing into wordless depression, may look flimsy, escapist even, when set against the social and political facts it could do little to mitigate. But, dreamer or not, she had become, with Victor Hugo, one of the two great democratic consciences of the age and in 1870, during the Prussian siege of Paris, she outdid even him, when one of two hot-air balloons carrying members of the provisional government to safety outside the city was named after her.

Belinda Jack has had to rely uncomfortably much on the often confusing evidence that Sand supplies about herself in L’Histoire de ma vie, one of whose virtues and claims to modernity is its author’s admission that she couldn’t, looking back, see that she had ever really been in charge of her life, for all the independence that she had so spectacularly gained for herself by splitting from her husband and earning her own living as a writer. She had been passive, waiting for other people to take the initiative, and unclear about the sort of person she was or what her strongest beliefs were until locked in disagreement with those that she admired but couldn’t go along with. All of which makes it hard for a biographer needing to present George Sand as one person and not several. If Jack fails in the main to meet that stock (and dubious) obligation of the genre, it comes as much as anything from her readiness to follow rather than put questions to her prime source; she should have paid more attention to – and certainly quoted more from – Sand’s frequently splendid letters, which are the safer source for having been written as and when, whereas the autobiography was written over some eight years between 1847 and 1855, presumably from memory rather than any earlier written record, and is patently novelistic at the moments when Sand wants us to experience more sharply the discordancies of her past to which she is now applying her therapeutic pen. L’Histoire de ma vie is offered indeed at the start, in the same didactic spirit as Rousseau’s Confessions had been offered, as ‘un enseignement fraternel’, a moralising aim for which her biographer has made too few allowances.

Jack has also absurdly little to say about the novels, which is strange for someone who teaches French at Oxford, and who – unless of course she was under orders from her publisher – could have been asked to do better than the few lightning plot summaries that she provides, with nary a word of formal analysis. She’s interested in the novels only to the extent that they can be read as continuous in their psychology or contents with what has just been happening in the novelist’s life. Thus the wild but intriguing Consuelo, having been described as ‘arguably Sand’s finest’ novel, is sent packing in less than a page, whereas Lélia, an earlier and less mature book, is cited again and again, on biographical grounds alone. By the time I got to the end of George Sand, I felt a nostalgia I never expected to feel for the long-ago days of ‘l’homme et l’oeuvre’, or that style of literary biography which thought that biographical and literary facts were best kept separate, and that, however steamy the biographical facts might turn out to be, the literary ones, too, deserved a decent look in. As they don’t get here.

George Sand further contains sentences of a simplistic, clumsy or otherwise inadequate kind such as I’m astonished an Oxford don is happy to have put her name to: ‘The boom of cannons signalled that a battle was raging not far off’; ‘She recognised the cruel and terrible miseries thrown up by life’; ‘After long moans on his mother’s lap the baby grew colder and colder.’ Perhaps any author is capable when in a hurry of writing this sort of thing but there was a time when they’d have been spared public exposure by editors in publishing houses who were paid, and no doubt eager, to cut or reword their authors’ more embarrassingly gammy sentences. No longer, or so you’d decide from reading this Life. Can it have been the publisher also who was so scared of seeing even the simplest French word in an English book that a village drinking den called the Cheval Blanc here becomes the White Horse, as if the Berry would do well to sound like Berkshire? While we’re on the zoological aspects, why is Flaubert, who said that he’d cried ‘comme un veau’, or literally, ‘like a calf’ (meaning, for some reason, copiously), at George Sand’s funeral, reported in Jack’s version to have cried ‘like an ass’? Give me calf’s, not ass’s, tears at my funeral is all I can say.