The Companion of the Tour of France
The Haunted Pool
The spell imposed by George Sand on European and Russian readers and critics in the nineteenth century is understandable; her people and landscapes are silhouettes seen in sheet lightning. For ourselves, what has been left is her notorious life story and the throbbing of her powerful temperament. Yet Balzac, Dostoevsky, and—of all people—Matthew Arnold admired her as a novelist. Proust admired her sinuous and gliding prose and Flaubert her exotic imagination. There she was pouring out ink in her sixty novels, her enormous autobiography, her works of travel, and her thousands of letters; a thinking bosom and one who overpowered her young lovers; all sybil, teacher, a Romantic, and, in the end, a respectable Victorian moralist.
There were hostile voices of course. As Curtis Cate reminds us in his exhaustive biography published three years ago, Baudelaire burst out with an attack on what had most allured her admirers:
She has always been a moralist. Only, previously she had indulged in anti-morality. She has thus never been an artist. She has the famous flowing style dear to the bourgeois. She is stupid, she is ponderous, she is long-winded: she has in moral judgments the same depth of judgment and the same delicacy of feeling as concierges and kept women.
(These last two words are wildly wrong: one thing she certainly was not was a pampered courtesan. She spent her own money extravagantly and in charity.) Shuddering at her candor Henry James was closer to her in his judgment on her talents. Her novels, he said, had turned faint
as if the image projected, not intense, not absolutely concrete—failed to reach completely the mind’s eye…. The wonderful change of expression is not really a remedy for the lack of intensity, but rather an aggravation of it through a sort of suffusion of the whole thing by the voice and speech of the author…. [There is] a little too much of the feeling of going up in a balloon. We are borne by a fresh cool current and the car delightfully dangles, but as we peep over the sides we see things—as we usually know them—at a dreadful drop beneath.
The woman who was known for her gifts as a listener took to the upper air when she shut herself up at night and was garrulous in ink.
Now, it is evident, an attempt to draw the general reader back to George Sand is underway. The most obvious reason for this is opportunism of the women’s liberation kind, where she is bound to be a disappointment to those who look for a guru. A disconcerting sybil she may have been; as a priestess she hedged. The Saint-Simonians were discouraged when they tried to turn her into the Mrs. Eddy of free love. A more interesting lure to contemporary taste is suggested by Diane Johnson in her introduction to the novelist’s edifying Gothic romance, Mauprat, written in the 1830s. Mrs. Johnson says that if George Sand …