George Sand in Her Own Words
The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters
The Double Life of George Sand, Woman and Writer
A year ago in these pages (August 17, 1978), V.S. Pritchett, reviewing new editions of four of George Sand’s novels, observed that the revival of interest in her work is owing at least in part to “opportunism of the women’s liberation kind.” This “disconcerting sybil,” in his wonderful phrase, is, no question about it, a rich topic for hungry feminist scholars and alert publishers. Sand herself remarked of her complete works, “They are endless,” and of her rather good novel Consuelo (recently published by Da Capo Press) and its sequel she could say, only half joking, “Are they mine? I don’t recall a single word of them.”
If anything the Sand revival has gathered momentum in the past year, still owing to opportunism of the women’s liberation kind, but also to the coincidence of these concerns with growing general interest in romantic literature, and, in addition, to the availability in recent years of reliable texts in French of her letters and other autobiographical writings—the monumental edition of Oeuvres autobiographiques, prepared by the great French textual scholar Georges Lubin, and the Lubin edition of her correspondence.
It is likely that the autobiography and letters will do more than her novels to enhance her stature in the modern view. Her work is surprisingly readable, full of plots, retaining for all its melodrama a reassuring core of eighteenth-century worldliness: “All this is fine, my dear,” says the worldly husband in Valentine to his much younger wife when she confides that she is attracted to someone else.
“but it is supremely ridiculous. You are very young. Please accept some friendly advice: a woman should never use her husband as her confessor; it demands more virtue of him than his situation allows…. It seems to me that I have done enough for you by closing my eyes. You force me to open them, and thus I have to go away, because the situation between us would no longer be bearable and we could no longer look at each other without laughing.”
Her pastoral novels have always been admired; her more sensational novels, like Consuelo or Mauprat, are better than just entertaining. But her life, with its prodigies of accomplishment and perhaps the most distinguished array of lovers ever assembled, was, like the lives of other great romantic writers of her generation, more interesting yet. And she is at her most interesting when she writes about herself, although her tone is modest, equable, honest, and informed—quite unlike the self-dramatizing reputation she has acquired—and although she leaves out all the scandalous bits.
Two of the following works are of autobiography: My Life is a condensed translation of her twenty-volume Histoire de ma vie, prepared by Dan Hofstadter, and Joseph Barry’s compendium George Sand in Her Own Words is a selection from the autobiography, from her travel writings, journals and letters, and from several of the novels. The idea is to present her character, emotions, and opinions, together with a sample of her literary style, and although such hodgepodges are rarely successful, this one largely succeeds; one could even wish both these works were fuller. Next comes an edition of Sand’s letters to and from Flaubert, and finally yet another biography of this much-scrutinized woman, of whom at least nine biographies, either new ones or reprints, have been issued in English in the last three years alone.
The lives of artists, like those of religious figures, retain at any period a singular power of example. Why? Perhaps because life itself, for the writer, is a sort of busman’s holiday. As with the saint, it is his professional duty to examine matters of behavior and the heart, and we await his expert conclusions. How closely the world watched writers as different as Byron, Charlotte Brontë, Thomas Carlyle, George Sand. Today the writer who would lead an exemplary life is obliged to asceticism. Flesh, for one thing, is no longer equal to the efforts required to shock us today the way Byron or Sand shocked their contemporaries. Sand was fortunate in her times and, unlike Byron, in her constitution.
Sand herself did not believe that people should watch or be affected by the lives of artists, only by their works: the artist “does neither good nor ill when turning to the right or to the left. His end justifies all.” Yet it is the testimony of this excellent woman’s life, much more than of her (highly virtuous) works, that we are apt to value.
What Flaubert, like many other artists, thought of Experience is implied by his industry. He stuck to his desk. A “sense of the grotesque has restrained me from an inclination to a disorderly life. I maintain that cynicism borders on chastity,” he wrote to Sand, who was always too sincere to be chaste. She in her long life had taken wide risks (“everyone is free to embark either on a great ship in full sail, or on a fisherman’s vessel”). But she also put in a lot of time at her desk—she went farther both in life and art than she needed to, and is seen to have collected a reward. Life provides too few of these inspiring examples of people collecting their rewards—mountain climbers, Eagle Scouts, valedictorians—of effort and courage paying off, for us to take them lightly. George Sand’s reward was being George Sand, a soul in health. The conclusion of her latest biographer, that she was “in some ways a tragic figure,” raises some questions about us, about these days, and about the real meaning of that glib description.
George Sand wrote her autobiography in 1854-1855 when she was fifty, with twenty-two years more of productive life ahead, her most famous novels and most notorious liaisons behind her, and at a time of relative calm after decades of domestic tumult. Adultery and tumult are matters, in general, that she does not discuss, doubtless to the disappointment of her contemporaries, who were accustomed to “confessions” in the style of Rousseau and who were familiar, through gossip and scandal, with the outlines of her affairs.
Instead she writes about the development of her character, her literary interests and her intellectual concerns, with particular emphasis on the origins of these in her early childhood and family relationships. Her purpose in writing, apart from money, was closer to that of Mill or Carlyle, or authors of other nineteenth-century autobiographies, whose formal continuity is provided not by events but by a spiritual or mental theme, in the service of which “facts” can be bent a little. Here, nearly a third of the original work was taken up with family history, including the correspondence of her father with his mother, causing a contemporary to observe that she should have called it “The History of My Life Before I Was Born.” It is interesting to note that Sand doctored this correspondence, with the abandon of a novelist, to make it more interesting and affectionate than it really was. All in all, her awareness of the influence of early life (and allowing for the fact that these are selections) produces a work quite modern in effect, and so little emphasis on accomplishments is disarming.
Autobiographies have always been a rich source of error for biographers, no doubt because although an author has, as Dr. Johnson observed, the “first qualification of an historian, the knowledge of the truth…it may plausibly be objected that his temptations to disguise it are equal to his opportunities of knowing it.” Modern readers are more familiar than Dr. Johnson with the idea that the autobiographer may also be unwilling or unable to perceive certain truths or patterns in his own life, something biographers are often insufficiently aware of; and sometimes the meaning of autobiographical memories emerges from patterns common to the genre itself. Sand’s infant memory of “a blurred train of hours spent sleepless on my little bed and filled with gazing on some curtain fold or flowers in the wallpaper” might suggest to a biographer of Ruskin, for instance, the possibility that the hard view posterity has taken of his ordinarily indulgent parents, which originates in part from his mentioning that they gave him no toys but a bunch of keys and no pastimes but to trace the design in the carpet, has prevailed because the elderly autobiographer was remembering a time in his infancy, before he could walk or talk.
The translator of Sand’s autobiography, Dan Hofstadter, remarks in his preface that what she writes is “experience transformed by self-advocacy into melodrama,” an opinion belied by the work itself, but nonetheless the view which has prevailed, mostly because, as Curtis Cate deplored in his 1975 biography, she has too long been depicted as “a voracious nymphomaniac, moving insatiably from the exhausted body of one genius to the next in vain search of inexhaustible virility.” No doubt but that she was supremely energetic, and remarkable for fitting in so much real life between the hours spent in composition of her tremendous oeuvre (tremendous, though in the same scale as her contemporaries Dumas, Balzac, Scott, Sue).
The impression conveyed by her autobiography, however, is one of wisdom, modesty, and calm, perhaps slightly tinged in places with satisfaction:
I had a sound constitution, and as a child seemed likely to become beautiful, a promise I did not keep. This was perhaps my fault, since at the age when beauty blossoms I was already spending my nights reading and writing.
On the whole, with decent hair; eyes, teeth, and no deformities, I was neither ugly nor beautiful in my youth—a serious advantage, I think, since ugliness prejudices people one way and beauty another…. It is best to have a face which neither dazzles nor frightens, and with mine I get on well with friends of both sexes.
Renee Winegarten observes in her biography of Sand that it was Sand’s particular vanity to see herself as “a frank, sober, straightforward person of simple tastes, one who easily forgave injuries and who was really the victim of other people’s passions”; and perhaps every autobiographer does indulge some vanity or other. Rousseau was vain of his wickedness and Mill of his reason. But on the whole it is easy to take Sand at her own valuation. She is not a writer with a variety of fictional poses at her command—her heroes and heroines all sound remarkably alike. And the first person is a difficult voice for dissimulation, let alone for twenty volumes.
Joseph Barry’s collection seeks to present Sand’s character as it emerges not only from the autobiography but in selections from journals, letters, articles, and in novels, especially the novels which were most widely viewed as autobiographical, particularly Indiana, her first novel, a tale of an unhappily married young wife like Sand herself at the time. There are also bits of the controversial Lélia, which scandalized and titillated its audience with its hints of lesbian love and complaints about rude sexual behavior in men (“When he had dozed off, satisfied and sated, I would lie motionless and dismayed at his side. Thus I passed many hours watching him sleep”). Barry’s volume also includes a useful chronology of Sand’s life, a list of principal works, a bibliography of secondary sources in both English and French, and of editions of her works in English. All this makes it a most useful introductory collection. It is too bad it does not appear in hard covers.
The late Ellen Moers, in an excellent introduction to these selections, remarks on the process of “denigration familiar to experts in women’s history,” by which “the name of George Sand came to mean to most people not an author at all but a target for labels: transvestite, man-eater, lesbian, nymphomaniac.” She points out that in Sand’s own day she was seen as a great, though controversial, woman, and a great writer. A fresh view of her work may restore her to the reputation of her own time; literary reputations always sink and rise this way. But it seems that the sinking of Sand’s was also strongly owing to her sexual behavior, born of the anxiety society apparently feels at women who embellish, in any fashion, traditional female roles. Literary history, for its part, tends to be uncomfortable with books by women which attempt to describe, however mildly and literally, the actual conditions of female life: even the most judicious descriptions are usually taken for dangerous symptoms of rabid feminism. Poor Sand is also in our day attacked as being no feminist, because she disapproved of the vote for women, and of free love, and she enjoyed making jam and doll clothes for her grandchildren.
Certainly she was in advance of her day in advocating divorce and sexual and legal equality for women, and in wanting decent educations for them. The specifics of her views today seem unimportant, but the criteria by which she has been judged in biographies over the years, even by her most sympathetic biographers, remain interesting. Some recent critical comment will serve to illustrate the general tone of disapproval, sometimes strong, sometimes only faint, as here, in The New York Times review, by Patricia Meyer Spacks, of Barry’s book: “The compilation provides relatively little evidence of Sand’s art, but a vivid impression of personality: a woman intense in political and personal passion, opinionated, self-absorbed, ever projecting herself on the external world,”—the kind of personality, in short, that is often congratulated in men and practically required in writers. On the other hand, André Maurois and Curtis Cate, in their biographies, both admire her capacity for “feminine” self-sacrifice.
Sand was aware that her society believed, as society may still really believe, that female character is most becomingly produced in reaction to an array of customary choices (marriage, maternity) rather than by projection. In fact the singular and most admirable thing about Sand was that she seems to have considered herself a free and responsible moral agent, accountable, and capable of theorizing, like a man. If she did slightly despise other women it was because they did not act freely in the world but only in response to it.
Society encourages artificial sexual differences; in fact “there is only one sex.” This feeling allows her to be unself-conscious in her enjoyment of “female pursuits,” and yet an artist, and the confidante and intellectual adviser of many men, including Gustave Flaubert, seventeen years her junior. They were drawn into close friendship by the patterns of their respective lives—Sand, always generous to genius, was also an old hand at younger men. Flaubert, who had so few human contacts, and had lost his beloved mother during the course of his friendship with Sand, found in her much maternal consolation and support. Their affection seems to have transcended their differences, in age, in political persuasion, in temperament, and in ideas of art, where each embodies the perspectives of his different generation. Sand remained a romantic idealist, and Flaubert was afflicted with the “modern ennui.”
Their wonderful letters range from art and politics to cold remedies, family gossip, and advice. Sand thinks Flaubert should get married, and that he needs more exercise. There are some famous exchanges on democracy and on literary realism, two topics where they diverged utterly. After the Franco-Prussian war, both were in political despair, but disagreed about the future, and their disagreement is the model of nineteenth-century ambivalence about democracy, which wasn’t working out very well. To Flaubert, the Revolution had been “an abortion, a failure,” proceeding from the Middle Ages and from Christianity—deplorable epoch, deplorable creed. “The crowd, the common herd will always be hateful.” “The idea of equality…is opposed to that of justice…. People are now not even indignant against murderers.” His rather Saint-Simonian remedies are criticism, science, and an end to metaphysics. He also would do away with universal suffrage and compulsory education.
Sand’s reply, which grew immensely long and was published in Le Temps, implores people not to abandon good will, love of, faith in humanity. Her views are those of the generation of Shelley; Flaubert’s like those of many intellectuals of his age, in England as well as in France, and on art as well as on liberty. He deplores romantic sentimentality, and holds it responsible for political ills. She deplores the absence of ideology in his work: “You especially, lack a definite and extended view of life. Art is not merely painting…. Art is not merely criticism and satire…. I think that your school is not concerned with the substance, and that it dwells too much on the surface. By virtue of seeking the form, it makes the substance too cheap.”
Flaubert protests that he is “constantly doing all that I can to enlarge my brain, and I work in the sincerity of my heart…. I do not enjoy making ‘desolation,’ believe me, but I cannot change my eyes! As for my ‘lack of conviction,’ alas! I choke with convictions. But according to the ideal of art that I have, I think that the artist should not manifest anything of his own feelings, and that the artist should not appear any more in his work than God in nature.”
“That desire to depict things as they are, the adventures of life as they present themselves to the eye, is not well thought out, in my opinion,” Sand replies. “Depict inert things as a realist, as a poet, it’s all the same to me, but, when one touches on the emotions of the human heart, it is another thing.” It is the debate in current fiction even now.
They did not resolve their differences, of course, nor did they resent them. When Sand died, six months after this exchange, Flaubert wrote to her son Maurice that it had seemed to him, at the funeral, that he was burying his mother a second time. “Poor, dear, great woman! What genius and what heart! But she lacked nothing, it is not she whom we should pity.”
This is the only available translation in English of these letters, but the publisher notes that a more definitive one may be expected when M. Jean Brunneau’s edition of Flaubert’s letters (now being translated by Francis Steegmuller) and/or Lubin’s edition of Sand’s letters are ready. This edition has a long and helpful introduction by Stuart Sherman, but badly needs adequate notes.
Men liked George Sand better than women did; similarly, she may have been more fortunate in her male than in her female biographers. Renee Winegarten, although able to interpret some of Sand’s sexual activities and ambivalence toward female duties with a woman’s understanding, has nonetheless something of the tone of a plain woman who doesn’t like to think of others being fooled by the ruses of a pretty one: “When she created women who were lonely, a prey to nerves, hysteria and mysterious illnesses; who saw themselves as their husbands saw them (that is, as irresponsible children or virtual idiots)…she had not far to look. She had only to examine her own heart, for she herself was one of them.” “(If she knew about feminine ruse, it was because she shared it while despising it.)”
Winegarten’s is a kind of wound-and-bow view in which Sand tries to compensate for the early loss of her father, and childhood feelings of being unloved, by strenuous efforts to win love and admiration as an adult. Naturally. It seems rather odd for the author of a biography with, ostensibly, a special interest in Sand as someone who seriously contended “on behalf of all women, with the central experiences and issues of womanhood: with daughterhood, with motherhood, and finally, with the desperate need for selfhood,” to conclude that for all her success Sand “ultimately remains, through some deep inner flaw, a tragic figure.” And she incurs this patronizing judgment, moreover, in part because “she never found an equal partner in life (as distinct from a friend) to accept her on equal terms.”
No doubt a view can be defended that all human beings are tragic. By Winegarten’s definition, certainly, more are tragic than not (tragic George Washington, tragic Mrs. Gaskell). And are those tragic who enjoy being the superior of their partner in life, as Victorian husbands were admonished to be?
And by what qualities, indeed, do we define a life as successful or tragic? One criterion might be the owner’s contentment with it. George Sand did not feel herself to be a tragic figure. Instead is she not better thought of as the very pattern of a successful and lucky human being—generous, kindly, rich in possessions, experience, friendship, independent, accomplished, a woman who lived to be famous and old and whose children survived her, and whose personal qualities of wisdom, humor, toleration, and compassion were acknowledged by all. It’s as if we have got so used to looking at lives for their secret disappointments and neuroses, to debunk or to empathize, that we have got out of the habit of remembering that some lives can be really marvelous and inspiring.
Perhaps some of Winegarten’s points would be clearer if the book were more clearly written; it has the quality of a bad translation from some other language: of Sand’s grandmother, “after a lucky escape from consummating her first marriage to a diseased debauchee by his timely demise, she had married Maurice’s father, the experienced, cultivated, elderly tax collector of the Châteauroux district and hence a man of considerable means, whom she called ‘my papa’ and who died in 1786.” Or “thanks to George’s interest in natural history, the destructive ideas of Charles Darwin concerning spontaneous creation, the animal origins of mankind, and the survival of the fittest were already being discussed at Nohant in the autumn of 1853, even before the publication of his major work.” This is surely impossible, as Darwin’s ideas were not generally known even in England then, though the notion of evolution had been around a long time. Nor, I think, did Darwin address himself to spontaneous creation. One is sure, however, that the talk at Nohant was very good indeed.
The Talk of Nohant February 7, 1980