Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence
This great correspondence is built upon equality and difference. Flaubert’s exchanges with Turgenev are full of equality—not to say crusty backpatting—but largely empty of difference: “We are a pair of old moles,” writes Turgenev, “burrowing in the same direction.” Flaubert’s exchanges with Louise Colet, vivid with difference, lack any useful equality: not just because most of her letters were destroyed, but because of his flamboyant and bullying assertiveness. He, the unpublished writer and debutant amorist, is always telling her, the well-known poet and skilled boudoir operator, just exactly what is what in both art and love: “O enfant, enfant, que tu es jeune encore!” is a characteristic apostrophe to a woman eleven years his senior. Only with George Sand does Flaubert manage to attain both equality and difference.
“Your letters fall upon me,” Sand writes with lyrical gratitude, “like a good shower of rain, making all the seeds in the ground start to sprout.” But it is not the rain that decides the nature of the crop: she warns him not to expect her roots “to produce tulips when all they can give you is potatoes.” So this is not a correspondence that changes its participants’ minds. By the time it starts, with Sand fifty-eight and Flaubert an antiquated forty-one, they are too wise, or set, in their ways for that. Early on, she urges him to criticize one of her novels: “People ought to do this service for one another, as Balzac and I used to do. It doesn’t mean you change one another—on the contrary, it usually makes one cling more firmly to one’s point of view.” Their thirteen-year correspondence exhibits much passionate and at times desperate clinging.
On the other hand, this is a correspondence whose two sides make up a whole argument, the argument every writer and reader has with him- or herself, the argument art never ceases to have with itself: Beauty v. Utility, Truthfulness v. Moral Uplift, Happy Few v. Mass Audience, Contemporary Relevance v. Future Durability, Primacy of Form v. Urgency of Message, Style v. Content, The Artist as Controlling Creator v. The Artist as Played-Upon Instrument, and so on.
Flaubert, lordly and inflexible, always takes the high aesthetic line: the making of art necessarily entails the partial renunciation of life; the artist can only know humanity, but cannot change it; truth is a sufficient good in itself. Sand’s position, to which she is just as committed, is pragmatic and involving: life, and especially love, are more important than art; artists cannot negotiate a detachment from the rest of the human species, since art springs precisely from their intimate, messy commingling with it; art must be useful and moral. If their general stances are often foreseeable, the outcome of their individual arguments is less so; at times even the committed Flaubertian will acknowledge some of Mme. Sand’s shrewder blows.
Flaubert told Sand that her work “often set me dreaming in my youth”; and there is corroboration of this in a letter from the seventeen-year-old Flaubert to his school-friend Ernest Chevalier. But most of his references to her before they meet are disparaging. He calls her “that latter-day Dorothée” (after the hormonally confused Mme. d’Esterval in Sade’s La Nouvelle Justine); he reports, when her Histoire de ma vie comes out, “Every day I read G. Sand and regularly work myself up into a state of indignation for a good quarter of an hour”; while in 1852, in one of his least gallant similes, he compares her work to leukorrhea, or vaginal discharge: “everything oozes, and ideas trickle between words as though between slack thighs.” Her books put him off; so did her public image as ladite mère St. Sand. The two of them were set far apart by age, sex, geography, temperament, politics, aesthetics, and metaphysics.
But Flaubert could be as warm and undogmatic in person as he was stern in matters of art. In 1856, for instance, he began his long, touching, and unexpected correspondence with Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, the elderly, devout fan who was also a thorough-going Sandian (“G. Sand est ma foi et ma loi, je me retrouve tout entière dans les sentiments et les pensées exprimées dans ses ouvrages…on dirait que c’est une soeur“). Shortly afterward he met Sand herself and was enchanted. This is not surprising. She was by the 1860s a sort of literary monument whom many came to mock but stayed to admire. Her chief characteristics are held to be placidity, dignity, “elephantine gravity” (the Goncourts), stolidity, calm, serenity, platitudinousness, kindness, sweetness, and charm. Male littérateurs were reluctantly, even ruefully, won round by her goodness, her honesty, her efficiency. Théophile Gautier went to Nohant, reported it “as amusing as a Moravian monastery,” complained of the personnel that “all their fun comes from farting” (not especially monastic, you’d have thought), but ended by admitting that “All in all, she does you very well.” Maxime Du Camp writes that she “had the serenity of those ruminants whose peaceful eyes seem to reflect immensity”; but in rather a confused account he is clearly impressed by her honorable nature and awed by her industry.
The Goncourts are predictably cattier, but though satirical and prurient, they cannot deny her charm. They record her at her first Magny dinner glancing timidly round the table and murmuring to Flaubert “You’re the only one here with whom I feel at ease”; on another occasion they mock her clothes as being chosen to seduce him; later, they report an overhearing in the Princesse Mathilde’s conservatory: suddenly, amid the habitual vous of Flaubert and Sand, a tu escapes Sand’s lips, and the princess looks meaningfully across at the Goncourts. Was this a theatrical tu or a lover’s tu? In fact, neither: throughout their correspondence Sand regularly addressed Flaubert as tu, just as, out of respect for her age and sex, he always addressed her as vous. He also called her chère maître, the feminizing of the adjective marking a double homage to his friend.
Both were provincials still drawn to Paris; both were established as major writers; both lived in large, comfortable, well-run households making visits agreeable. (Nohant is the better documented and mythologized: Henry James was half awed and half disgusted after having visited “the very scene where they pigged so thrillingly together. What a crew, what moeurs, what habits…and what an altogether mighty and marvelous George!—not diminished by all the greasiness and smelliness in which she made herself (and so many other persons!) at home.” Croisset, by contrast, had fewer visitors. Sand found the bearish retreat “comfortable, pretty and well arranged. Good servants; clean; plenty of water; every need thoughtfully provided for.”) Beyond this, their very difference drew them together, and perhaps made them less rivalrous. As Sand wrote to him: “I don’t think there can be two workers in the world more different from one another than we are…. We complete ourselves by identifying every so often with what is not ourselves.”
Mutual praise helps friendship; so does sucking-up. Flaubert’s behind-the-hand disparagement of Sand did not stop him sending her a dedicated copy of Madame Bovary (“hommage d’un inconnu“) when the novel appeared in volume form in 1857. She wrote admiringly and defendingly of it in the Courrier de Paris; and she was later to praise Salammbô in La Presse (while privately thinking it “really of interest only to artists and scholars”). In return, Flaubert seems to have tried hard and often succeeded in liking Sand’s work. In 1872 Flaubert called on le père Hugo and found him “charming! I say it again: charming” because “I love to love what I admire.” A variant of this is also true: we love to admire what we love. And so Flaubert, won over by Sand’s goodness, sympathy, and intelligence, seeks and finds virtue in her writing for the first time since he was seventeen. While remaining intractable in matters of literary principle, he is generous in acknowledging the vivid scene, the plausible character, the flow of plot. He continues occasionally to make an intemperate aside about her work to other correspondents; but this is unexceptional literary behavior.
The pair of them also cemented their friendship with brief bouts of Old Fartery. The funniest of these moments comes when they start complaining about the sexual morality of the rising generation. In 1866 Sand mentions a young engineer friend of hers, handsome, frequently ogled by women, and yet with a terrible behavioral problem: “He’s in love, and engaged, and has to wait and work for four years to be in a position to marry, and he’s made a vow,” she records pityingly. “Morality apart, I don’t think young people nowadays have the energy to cope with science and debauchery, tarts and fiancées, all at the same time.” Flaubert harrumphs back that the engineer’s vow is, in his opinion, “Pure foolishness…. ‘In my day’ we made no such vows. We made love! And boldly!… And if we kept away from ‘the Ladies,’ as I did, absolutely, for two years (from 21 to 23), it was out of pride, as a challenge to oneself, a show of strength…. We were Romantics, in short—Red Romantics, utterly ridiculous, but in full efflorescence.”
Now they are largely retired from the emotional field, and this too is a bond. Sand’s well-documented amours lie in the past (though as she Piafly remarked to Maxime Du Camp over dinner in 1868, “Je ne regrette rien“). She was established as an active rural grandmother, still swimming in the icy Indre in her mid-sixties, devoted to family and duty, passionate about the education of her granddaughter Aurore. Flaubert was increasingly the book-bound bachelor, letting few into his study and even fewer into his heart. Sand at one point suggests to him that seclusion is “your form of ecstasy”—which he denies with more indignation than conviction.
In addition, they shared an element of gender attenuation, or perhaps gender elision. Sand quotes anatomists to the effect that “there is only one sex,” and writes in one of her earliest letters to Flaubert: “Now that I’m no longer a woman I’d become a man if God were just.” He addresses her as “You who are of the Third Sex,” and after her death recalled “how much femininity there was in that great man.” (The Goncourts, who believed genius to be exclusively a male possession, put it with a gloating coarseness: an autopsy on any famous female writer, Mme. Sand or Mme. de Staël, would reveal a clitoris growing enviously toward the size of a penis.) For his part, Flaubert described himself as a “male hysteric” in 1867, and is delighted seven years later when a certain Dr. Hardy raises the stakes by pronouncing him “a hysterical old woman,” an observation he judges “profound.”
She post-menopausal, he wombridden; both perhaps in the intermediate, sex-free state which is supposedly a writer’s ideal. It may have some light significance that both Sand and Flaubert indulged in cross-dressing. In her younger Paris days Sand often wore men’s clothes. (There was a restaurateur who told the Goncourts, “It’s a funny thing, but when she’s dressed as a man I call her Madame, and when she’s dressed as a woman I call her Monsieur.”) As for Flaubert, his only two recorded instances of transvestism both took place at Nohant. On December 27, 1869, he “dressed up as a woman and danced the chachucha with Plauchut. It was grotesque; everyone went wild.” (This is not the cha-cha-cha but the cachucha, a Spanish dance.) And on Easter Day 1873 Sand reports: “Flaubert put on a skirt and had a shot at the fandango. He was very funny, but gasping for breath after about five minutes.”
The correspondence between Flaubert and Sand is unusually and dramatically patterned. What often happens in friendship is that the larger issues and beliefs are elaborated early on, and that the relationship then proceeds in terms of amicable arrangements, news, and gossip. Flaubert and Sand begin by courteously laying out both their difference of ideas and their proximity of heart; but such establishings prove merely preliminary. The correspondence untypically gathers weight as it proceeds, and then bursts into two great argumentative climaxes: the first, about politics, society, and the nature of man, is set off by the events of 1870–1871; the second, about the nature and function of art, is surprisingly saved until the very last six months of their friendship. As a result, the Correspondence has some of the narrative drive and surprise of a novel. It is, moreover, a book of which the English-reading public has been deprived for far too long. Aimée McKenzie’s 1922 translation (which contained some three hundred letters compared to the present 423) has long been unavailable. This new edition sprang from Alphonse Jacobs’s masterly French version of 1981, and is additionally embellished by the precise, elegant, and wise interpolations of Francis Steegmuller, our premier English-language Flaubertian. The two-handed translation, by Steegmuller and Barbara Bray, is excellent.
Flaubert viewed the Prussian invasion of 1870 and the Commune of 1871 as the logical conclusion of a historical cycle begun in 1789. France had wandered off the high road of Voltairean thought and plunged itself into a national stupidity typified by the opposing forces of neo-Catholicism and socialism: “Everything is either the Immaculate Conception or workers’ lunches.” He is shocked by the fakery of pre-1870 French life, dismayed by French war-lust, indignant at the complacent idiocy of those who govern. George Sand is prepared to agree that “the French no longer have any social or intellectual standards”; after the Lichtenstein crisis of 1867 she writes of a society “paralyzed” and “demoralized,” wondering metaphorically, “Have we fallen so low we won’t eat anything unless we’re assured it won’t give us indigestion?” But mostly she displays a firm and consistent trust in “the laws of eternal progress,” and in the essential virtue of humanity. She believes in mass education, which Flaubert considers a waste of time, leading only to the reading of newspapers (that “school for stultification”). She believes in universal suffrage, whereas he knows “I am worth twenty other Croisset voters,” despises the predominance of Number, and proposes government by a Mandarinate. Finally, essentially, George Sand loves the proletariat “in the classical sense”: she has “dreamed only of its future.” Flaubert distrusts and fears the mass viewed simply as a mass: he would grant them liberty but not power.
So the events of 1870–1871 were for the two friends more than a foreign invasion and civil war to be answered in terms of nationalism and politics; they were a personal test of their deepest convictions. Flaubert made various military gestures in the face of the Prussian invasion (buying himself a revolver, drilling some men, and taking them on night patrol); but his main response was the protracted howl of one confirmed in his low opinion of humanity. The Prussian victory heralded for him the end of the Latin world and endorsed the historical superiority of Protestant over Catholic; while the Commune was a throwback to medievalism which “seems to me to surpass Dahomey in ferocity and imbecility.” And if Flaubert sees himself as grimly vindicated, his predictions for the future are even grimmer. The world, he thought, was now entering its third era: after paganism and Christianity, we had arrived at Muflisme (boorishness, loutishness, yobbery), a term he later expanded to Panmuflisme. This would mean “the return of racial wars,” so that “Within a century we’ll see millions of men kill each other at one go.” The future would be “Utilitarian, militaristic, American, and Catholic. Very Catholic!” Prediction of fair accuracy.
For Sand the invasion of 1870 was a moment when humanity took a Pascalian “two steps back.” However, she allowed herself to think that “We need these harsh lessons in order to realize our own foolishness”; she continued to insist optimistically that “out of evil comes good,” and that soon the world would continue its advance “further than ever.” The Commune therefore comes as an unbearable second blow to her: proof that humanity, having learned to take two steps backward, is just longing to take another two. The proletariat, despite being loved in the classical sense, seems no less capable of cruelty, hatred, and blood-lust than its long-term oppressors. Sand is consequently much harder on the Communards than might have been expected: they “have ruined and will continue to ruin the republic, exactly as the priests have ruined Christianity.” While Flaubert becomes almost incoherent with rage, Sand falls into a lucid despair. Her sorrow is, as she admits, partly the result of geopolitical solipsism: “I used to judge others by myself. I’d made great progress in schooling my own character: I’d sown my volcanoes with grass and flowers, and they were getting on well. And I imagined that everyone could enlighten and correct and control themselves.” But grass was never much defense against volcanoes, and Flaubert offers her typically tough consolation: “Our ignorance of history makes us slander our own time. People have always been like this.” But it would be misleading to see this first climax to the Correspondence as an exchange which Flaubert somehow “wins.” Sand may be the disillusioned idealist, in a position of classic pain; but Flaubert is the vindicated pessimist, a condition which can produce only a distant and perverted kind of pleasure.
The second great climax comes right at the end of the book, and consists of no more than a dozen letters, begun by Sand’s of December 18–19, 1875. She has by now regained that serenity which Flaubert once described as “contagious”—though he himself never contracted it—while he is embarked upon his own violently irascible valedictory phase. In facing old age and death, they remain, as in all things, different. She writes to him with blithe certainty: “Before long you will gradually be entering the happiest and most propitious part of life: old age. It’s then that art reveals itself in all its sweetness; in our youth it manifests itself in anguish.” Flaubert makes no specific reply to this; but doubtless preferred the more saturnine analysis of his fellow-mole Turgenev: “I have just turned 60, my dear old fellow…This is the start of the tail-end of life. A Spanish proverb says that the tail is the hardest part to flay. At the same time it’s the part that gives least pleasure and satisfaction. Life becomes completely self-centered—a defensive struggle with death; and this exaggeration of the personality means that it ceases to be of interest, even to the person in question.”
Sand, at ease with use of the word “God,” and with a benevolently open mind about the afterlife, moved with comparative calmness toward death. “When I’m no longer useful or agreeable to other people,” she had written in 1872, “I’d like to depart peacefully without a sigh, or at least with no more than a sigh over the poor human race: it doesn’t amount to much, but I’m a part of it, and perhaps I don’t amount to much either.” For Flaubert, blackly aware of final extinction, the last years were a true tail-flaying. His health worsened; his finances collapsed when he honorably bailed out his niece’s husband; he became more solitary, especially after the death of his mother; he visited Switzerland and was as “bored as a donkey”; he perceived criticism as “hatred for my person, willful denigration”; he temporarily abandoned his “bitch of a novel” (Bouvard et Pécuchet), about which both Sand and Turgenev had already expressed severe misgivings. Increasingly he expresses envy of those—like Sand’s son Maurice—who have opted for normal family life; he describes his own existence as “arid” and is prone to bitter regret: “I was a coward in my youth. I was afraid of Life. Ultimately, all accounts are rendered.” He signs his letters with his self-caricatures “Cruchard” and “Polycarpe,” the first a wheezing ecclesiastical dotard, the second a (genuine) world-bewailing saint. Melancholy, gouty, and enraged, he turns the old universal charge of stupidity against himself: “I’m becoming too stupid! I bore everybody! In short, your Cruchard has turned into an intolerable old geezer—the result of his own intolerance.” He is so insupportable that a servant of ten years’ standing and perfect suitability “announced that he no longer wished to work for me, because ‘I wasn’t nice to him any more.’ ”
Through this self-lacerating despair George Sand continues to trip—how could she not?—like an aesthetic Florence Nightingale. She is his old, devoted friend, still and always; yet in literary matters she is no replacement for his lost “left testicle,” the poet Louis Bouilhet, who had died in 1869. Increasingly she comes across as something between an agony aunt and Little Mary Sunshine. In that Key letter of December 18–19, she bids them both to “get back to the grindstone” and analyzes their respective fictional ambitions: “So what shall we be doing? You’ll go in for desolation, I’ll wager, while I go in for consolation…. You make your readers sadder than they were before. I’d like to make them less unhappy.” Flaubert’s response is especially poignant in the context of this whole correspondence. In one of her earliest letters to him, she signs off with “A kiss on each of the two large diamonds that adorn your trompette [nose].” Later the same year, less allusively, she ends with a promise to “kiss you three times on each eye”; while her New Year greetings for 1868 include further kissing of “your beautiful big eyes.” These epistolary tendernesses from his old troubadour are—we may assume—forgotten when Flaubert replies to her in late December 1875. He doesn’t “go in for desolation,” at least not “wantonly: please believe me!” The problem, he explains to her, in a tone that is hurt, yet also grand and exact, is this: “I can’t change my eyes!”
These last dozen or so letters are, in personal terms, a tenderly serious exchange between two old friends, one increasingly bossy and the other increasingly irritable. On the professional level they grow to something hauntingly magnificent: a face-off between two artists, each differently aware that they are nearing the end of their creative lives, each committed to radically different principles, fighting for those long-held principles, and also, by extension, fighting for the way they have chosen to live their lives. Flaubert always believed that the production of art necessarily involved some amputation of the life: What if he had been wrong, what if he could have taken a wife (as Sand crassly suggested), had children to dote on, and discovered that this didn’t affect his work? Sand always believed that art was not something separate from life but something that grew out of it and fitted into it, something you did, if you had enough energy (and she had lots), after putting the grandchildren to bed and paying the bills: What if she had been wrong, what if her art were rendered flimsy by its ease and normality of manufacture? And they are arguing about the future as well, about what will happen to their art after their joint deaths. Flaubert claimed to write “not for the reader of today, but for all readers as long as the language exists.” Sand replied: “I think I shall be completely forgotten, perhaps severely denigrated, in fifty years’ time. That’s the natural fate of things that are not of the highest order, and I have never thought my work was of the highest order.” But like every other writer, she thought her literary principles were of the highest order; and it is the future, as well as the past, of those principles that they argue over in furious friendship. For it is necessary not just to establish the correctness and superiority of your own aesthetic, but also—for the sake of posterity—to kill off your friend’s.
Over the previous few years Sand has become increasingly prone to giving Flaubert increasingly basic advice. She has told him to get married (which causes him to complain to the Princesse Mathilde that his friend’s “perpetual pious optimism…sometimes sets my teeth on edge”); she has told him not to be grumpy; told him to eat properly and take walks—“All your trouble comes from lack of exercise”; told him, after the humiliating failure of his play Le Candidat, to ” ‘Have another go and do better!’ as the peasants say.” At times her consoling words resemble those of a syndicated astrologist: “Many a man has overcome adversity by his own efforts. Be sure that better days will come…. So…brighten up, write us a good successful novel, and think of those who love you.” There is even a moment when, like some thwarted therapist referring him upward to a wiser colleague, she tells him to go and see Victor Hugo, “who could change you…and save you.” Flaubert reminds her that this is not a likely source of cure: his last visit had precisely the opposite effect. “The foolishness of what he said about Goethe is not to be imagined. He thought, for example, that Goethe wrote Wallenstein, and he attributed the Elective Affinities to Ancillon! He had never heard of Prometheus, and considered Faust a feeble work. The visit literally made me ill.”
Perhaps Sand’s exasperating belief that life is a soluble problem gave an extra harsh verve to Flaubert’s replies; in any case he now rises once more to a lordly and particular “deffence et illustration” of his art. And perhaps Flaubert’s increasing crabbiness and gloom made Sand more trenchant in her criticism of his work than she had previously been. He provides “desolation”; he lacks a “broad and definite view of life”; his “school” fails to concern itself with the depths; art is more than just “criticism and satire”; withdrawing one’s “soul” from one’s books is a “morbid fancy”—“supreme impartiality is anti-human”; he should give up his obsession with form and concentrate on emotion. She wants a return to “true reality, which is made up of a mixture of good and evil, bright and dull”; but she is also afraid that the “unsophisticated reader” will be “saddened and frightened” unless Good is shown—and, moreover, shown to triumph. Some of Sand’s assault comes from mere aesthetic difference; some from misreading; and some—the part that has a friend’s anguish in it—from a despairing sympathy allied to a Romantic view of art as the direct, unfiltered expression of the artist’s personality.
What constantly puzzles her, what she can’t understand about his books, is why she cannot find in them the good chap she has known for so many years: where is the “affection, protection of others, graceful and simple kindness” she has observed? In this respect Flaubert always escapes Sand. Though both assert their old-Romantic buddiness, she is a moralizing humanitarian meliorist, a product of Christian civilization; while he is something assembled from both before and after—pre-Christian in his lofty, austere contemplation of the world, yet modern in his artistic response to that contemplation. He loves to quote something his friend Littré once said to him: that Man is an “unstable compound” living on “a most inferior planet.”
Sand is considerably exercised by L’Education sentimentale, thinking it would have been improved and made more popular (concepts not far apart for her) by the addition of some cornflake-packet statement of intent: “It needed either a short preface, or some expression of disapproval, if only a significant word here or there, to condemn evil, call weakness by its right name, and draw attention to endeavour.” (This recalls the suggestion that a “health warning” affixed to The Satanic Verses would solve that particular problem.) Flaubert doesn’t reply to this, any more than when Sand applauds Madame Bovary on gloriously wrongheaded grounds; that it is a moral book, “a severe and striking judgment on a woman faithless and without conscience; a rebuke to vanity, ambition and folly” (though of course “It would have been plainer—plain to all—if you’d deigned to show what you thought, and what should be thought, about the woman, her husband and her lovers”). Fifteen years earlier Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie had agreed with her “soeur” in admiring the novel’s pensée morale, and had found the ending more impressive than any sermon: “C’est un enseignement sévère, terrible, et de nature à retenir toutes les femmes dans la voie du devoir.” Flaubert courteously declined to comment on this either.
He does, however, restate his aesthetic one final, forceful time. At Nohant they had playfully named a ram after him—the two M. Gustaves had been introduced to each other in 1869—and even in his last tormented years he can still put his head down and charge. Art is not a vomitorium where one relieves one’s personal feelings; the artist must be hidden in the work as God is in Nature; a novel should imply, not state, its moral; form and content are interdependent; the truth of an observation or description is a good in itself. He denies that what he writes is “criticism and satire”; denies that he has a school; asserts that his goal is not Realism but Beauty; asserts that style is not a question of surface gloss—on the contrary, good writing implies good thinking. Of course he does not convince her, any more than she does him: tulips are not going to flower in the potato fields at this late stage.
Is it merely that the two novelists are intellectually loyal to an aesthetic creed each developed early, or is it something more: that the aesthetic creed is itself an emanation of the personality, and that this argument over ideas is really just a clash of chromosomes? One of Sand’s charges, for instance, is that Flaubert’s celebrated refusal to allow his own personal attitudes to enter his work may not be part of some objective artistic credo but merely a subjective indicator that as a human being he lacks convictions. This may and should strike us as batty and bizarre: his letters, after all, thunder with convictions, none more so than those George Sand has been receiving over the years.
But Sand could have made the point differently: for instance, Flaubert’s insistence on the creator’s invisibility in the work does fit with his extreme distaste for journalistic intrusion into his life (and with his distaste for being photographed); just as Sand’s easygoing here-I-am moralizing accords with her earlier life as a “fast,” highprofile public figure. And he is aware of this: he tells her that whereas she instinctively “leaps upward,” he remains “glued to the earth, as though the soles of my shoes were made of lead…. If I tried to assume your way of looking at the world I’d become a mere laughingstock. For no matter what you preach to me, I can have no temperament other than my own. Nor any aesthetic other than the one that proceeds from it.”
So perhaps the sense we have when reading this book of witnessing some gigantic Franco-Prussian war of ideas is both true and slightly fraudulent; on the other hand, the deep and stubborn emotional commitment shown by each party makes the spectacle fiercely moving. A twentieth-century reader will probably find Flaubert’s view of the world more truthful than George Sand’s because since their deaths the world has itself turned out more to confirm his vision than hers: the return of racial wars, millions of men killed in a single go, and a century which is utilitarian, militaristic, American, and a fair bit Catholic. We also nowadays prefer his art to hers. In her preface to La Mare au diable Sand laid down as opposing, irreconcilable forces in art the search for “la vérité idéale” and the study of “la réalité positive“; these polarities were exemplified for her by The Vicar of Wakefield on the one side and Les Liaisons dangereuses on the other. In our own century we prefer Laclos to Goldsmith, but what is that the result of? Intellectual argument, the proven nature of the world, changing literary taste? Perhaps the comparative victory of Flaubert’s aesthetic over Sand’s is mainly a matter of the reader’s temperament, or the accumulated mass of readers’ temperaments. In which case, Flaubert will have had an ironic triumph, attributable to the hated principle of the predominance of Number.
In his very last letter to his old troubadour, Flaubert’s intransigence suddenly appears less granitic. He tells her that he is “not as obstinate as you think,” and predicts that she will recognize her “direct influence” on the story he is currently writing, Un Coeur simple: “I believe you will like the moral tendency, or rather the underlying humanity, of this little work.” After her death he wrote to Maurice Sand: “I began Un Coeur simple exclusively for her, solely to please her. She died when I was in the middle of my work. Thus it is with all our dreams.” It is a fine and famous literary compliment, though we should allow for Flaubert’s innate gallantry: he once claimed that he wrote L’Education sentimentale “to please Sainte-Beuve.” Nor does the Correspondence provide earlier corroboration of her influence, from the time he was starting the story.
Further, and most importantly, we should check the author’s amicable declarations against the work itself. It is true that a Sandian reading is loosely possible if you half-close your eyes: here is a tale of ordinary, nearcontemporary life about a simple, good-hearted woman who serves others and believes in God. Remove this deliberate soft focus, however, and you see one of the grimmest and most relentless stories ever written, about a downtrodden, ignorant, exploited servant who is ruthlessly stripped of every single person, living thing, or object to which she becomes attached. Her existence is a Calvary of loss, and ends with a deathbed scene whose potential Sandian poignancy is weather-clouded by the Flaubertian grotesque—the monumental, cruel grotesque, as a stuffed parrot, reanimated and gigantized, does service for the Holy Ghost. Unless you believe (and the story does not invite you to) that Félicité’s sufferings will be rewarded in Heaven, or that they are somehow a good in themselves, the “moral tendency” of Un Coeur simple is unsparingly bleak. The work it lies closest to, in its tone and its machinelike unrolling, is Madame Bovary. Truly, its author could not change his eyes.
Flaubert’s and Sand’s Correspondence begins with a small misunderstanding. Sand had received a pressed plant in an envelope with no name on the back, and wondered if the handwriting might be Flaubert’s. No, he replies, though curiously enough at about the same time someone had sent him an equally anonymous leaf. (The identity of the horticultural donor is about the only mystery unsolved by Alfonse Jacobs’s and Steegmuller’s impeccable annotations.) Three years later, when Sand visits Croisset for the first time, she intends to take away as a souvenir some leaves from a tulip tree—“I need them for arcane purposes”—but forgets them. He brings the leaves up to Paris a few days later, but fails to find her in. Later that year, when the Seine floods, she inquires after the health of the tree. She mentions it again in her diary in 1868, in a letter of 1869, and for the last time (“Tell me whether the tulip tree suffered from the frost this winter”) in April 1871.
The tree, like the house at Croisset, has long since disappeared, but arboreal antiquarians who visit George Sand’s grave at Nohant can still stand under the yew tree which was growing there when Flaubert helped bury his old friend on June 10, 1876. A fine rain was falling and the mud was ankledeep. Flaubert wrote to Turgenev, who was in Russia, that Sand’s funeral “was like a chapter in one of her books.” He reported that he had wept like a calf (“twice,” he specified, with unnerving if characteristic precision). To Sand’s son Maurice, Flaubert wrote, in the fraternity of grief, that he felt as if “I was burying my mother a second time.” The two women had, after all, offered him the same rebuke. In one of her last letters Sand, defending the eighteenth-century comic dramatist Sedaine, complained to Flaubert that “you look only for the well-turned phrase.” Twenty-one years earlier, when he was still struggling with Madame Bovary, his mother had told him that “your mania for sentences has dried up your heart.” Flaubert, good-heartedly, considered her remark “sublime.”