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’s temperament was too strong for her writing, temperament was her subject as an artist:
…readers have come to hold in new high regard the truths of the imagination, the romantic principle, the idea that the passionate artist had access to truths and secrets of human nature more interesting than mere dramas of social arrival.
Gothic melodrama is back with us, if in dank condition, “for reasons best understood today in terms of psychology, but understood very well by George Sand in universal terms.” (The universal is the trouble.) It is true, at any rate, that the Romantics—especially those of the second wave, the Hernani generation—set the artist apart as the supreme seer in society; and that for all their extravagance of feeling and even because of it, they were excellent pre-Freudian psychologists. Their very violence is a prediction and their inflation of the ballooning self makes it dramatic and macroscopic. We have to add that she is shamelessly autobiographical. The love affair of the week, month, or year, along with mysticism, socialism, and The People was transposed into the novel that promptly followed; she spoke of herself as “the consumer” of men and women too, and the men often turned out to be projections of herself. The passions of her characters, their powerful jealousies, their alternations of exaltation and gloom, were her own. She was half Literature.
Her finer powers emerged when her fame as a novelist declined, above all in her Histoire de ma vie, in her lively travel writing and her letters. In her letters there is no need of Gothic castles or dreadful ravines: her mundane experience was extraordinary enough in itself. As a traveler she had eyes, ears, and verve. The pastoral tales La Mare au diable (The Haunted Pool) or François le Champi (The Country Waif) are serene masterpieces drawn from her childhood and her love of nature, which awakened her senses as they awakened Colette’s. She was close to the peasants of Nohant. The self is in these tales but it is recollected or transposed in tranquility—in her own early life she had known what it was to be a waif, albeit a very fortunate one. These works have never lost their quiet, simple, truth-telling power, and we understand why Turgenev, Henry James, and, later, Malraux praised them.
George Sand was the child of one of Napoleon’s well-born officers. He was a descendant of the great Maréchal de Saxe and therefore, on the wrong side of the blanket, of the King of Poland. Her mother was a plebeian woman, the hot-tempered daughter of a Paris innkeeper and bird fancier. The inner class conflict enriched both George Sand’s exuberant imagination and those sympathies with the poor which took her into radical politics; strangely like Tolstoy—but without his guilt or torment—she turned to presenting the peasantry not as quaint folk or a gospel, but as sentient, expressive beings. She listened to the curious Berrichon dialect and translated it, without folkish affectations or condescension, into a truthful expression of plain human feeling. She had the humility and concern to discard dramatic earnestness without losing her psychological acumen or her art as a story teller who keeps her people in focus as the tradition of Pastoral does: very often her best work is a gloss on traditional forms.
In the feminist foreground of the present revival is Lélia, the confessional novel which she wrote at the age of twenty-nine in 1833 after the rebellion against her marriage, the break with Jules Sandeau, and the disastrous attempts to obtain sexual pleasure from an expert like Mérimée, or from any other man as far as we know. Partly because of its attacks on the Church and the marriage system, the male hold on property, and the double standard, partly because of its erotic revelation and the suggestion of a lesbian attachment to the actress Marie Dorval, the book itself was attacked for outrageous and morbid candor. Lélia is intended to be a Romantic heroine, a doomed but indomitable soul, one pursuing a mystical quest for spiritual love. She is beautiful, intellectual, independent, yet tormented by a sensuality that is nevertheless incapable of sexual happiness. She cannot be a nun like Santa Teresa nor can she be a courtesan or married woman. The dreams of a poetically exalted adolescence have divorced the heart from the body. Literature has paralyzed her. She says of a lover:
When I was near him I felt a sort of strange and delirious greed which, taking its source from the keenest powers of my intelligence, could not be satisfied by any carnal embrace. I felt my bosom devoured by an inextinguishable fire, and his kisses shed no relief. I pressed him in my arms with a superhuman force, and I fell next to him exhausted, discouraged at having no possible way to convey to him my passion. With me desire was an ardor of the soul that paralyzed the power of the senses before it awakened them. It was a savage fury that seized my brain and concentrated itself there exclusively. My blood froze, impotent and poor, before the immense soaring of my will…
When he was drowsy, satisfied, and at rest, I would lie motionless beside him. I passed many hours watching him sleep. He seemed so handsome to me! There was so much force and grandeur on his peaceful brow. Next to him my heart palpitated violently. Waves of blood mounted to my face. Then unbearable tremblings passed through my limbs. I seemed to experience again the excitation of physical love and the increasing turmoil of desire. I was violently tempted to awaken him, to hold him in my arms, and to ask for his caresses from which I hadn’t yet known how to profit. But I resisted these deceiving entreaties of my suffering because I well knew it wasn’t in his power to calm me.
The stone images of Catholic “palaces of worship” give no comfort, for her imagination responds chiefly to the figurations of medieval nightmare: scaly serpents, hideous lizards, agonized chimeras and emblems of sin, illusion and suffering. Sublimation has two faces:
When the red rays of the setting sun played on their forms, I seemed to see their flanks swell, their spiny fins dilate, their faces contract into new tortures…. While I contemplated these bodies engulfed in masses of stone, which the hand of neither man nor time had been able to dislodge, I identified myself with these images of eternal struggle between suffering and necessity, between rage and impotence.
The nightmares of the unconscious haunt the aspirant. And we are warned that when spring comes to stir the senses, all attempt to deny the calyx or the bud, by the study of botany, or to turn to science, will not annul the ferment of the imagination. As always in George Sand, poetic observation and imagery is rather fine: but the inevitable tutorial follows.
I take these passages from Maria Espinosa’s translation. She has worked on the 1833 edition which George Sand toned down three years later. This early edition has not been done into English until now, and this version is remarkable for coming very close to the resonant vocabulary and its extraordinary physical images. If there is a loss it is because English easily droops into a near-evangelical tune; our language is not made for operatic precisions and we have a limited tradition of authorized hyperbole. Abstractions lose the intellectual formality that has an exact ring in French.
It is important to remember, also, that George Sand’s prose arises from a sensibility to music which dated from her childhood: she was alert to all sounds in nature and to all delicacies and sonorities of voice and instrument. (Her novels might be described as irresistible overtures to improbable operas which are—as they proceed—disordered by her didactic compulsion.) Lélia, I think, rises above this, because it is so personal and arbitrary in its succession of sounds and voices, and we are bounced into accepting the hyperbole as we would if it were sung, though we may be secretly bored by the prolonging of the moans.
In Lélia we listen to five voices: there is the voice of Sténio, the young poet lover whom Lélia freezes with Platonic love: she is an exalted allumeuse; there is Trenmor, the elderly penitent gambler and stoic—her analysis of the gambler’s temperament is the best thing in the book: George Sand was at heart a gambler—there is Magnus, the fanatic priest who is made mad by the suppression of his sexual desires and who sees Lélia as a she-devil; there is Pulchérie, Lélia’s sister, a genial courtesan living for sexual pleasure; and Lélia herself, defeated by her sexual coldness, horrified by the marriage bed, the mocker of a stagnant society, religion, and the flesh. She is sick with self-love and her desires approach the incestuous: she seeks weak men who cannot master her, to whom she can be either a dominating mother, sister, or nurse.
In chorus these voices sing out the arguments for and against spiritual love. As in opera, the plot is preposterous and scenes are extravagant and end without warning. Pulchérie introduces a pagan and worldly note and also—it must be said—the relief of more than a touch of nature. She reminds the miserable Lélia of a charming incident in their childhood when the beauty of Lélia troubled her as they lay sleeping on the mossy bank dear to Romantic fiction. Pulchérie says:
Your thick, black hair clung to your face, and the close curls tightened as if a feeling of life had clenched them next to your neck, which was velvet with shadow and sweat. I passed my fingers through your hair. It seemed to squeeze and draw me toward you…. In all your features, in your position, in your appearance, which was more rigid than mine, in the deeper tint of your complexion, and especially in that fierce, cold expression on your face as you slept, there was something masculine and strong which nearly prevented me from recognizing you. I found that you resembled the handsome young man with the black hair of whom I had just dreamed. Trembling, I kissed your arm. Then you opened your eyes, and your gaze penetrated me with shame…. But, Lélia, no impure thought had even presented itself to me. How had it happened? I knew nothing. I received from nature and from God my first lesson in love, my first sensation of desire.
The scenes of Lélia’s despair take place inevitably in an abandoned monastery, with its debris that suggest the horrors of death and the futility of existence. Lélia says:
At times I tried to find release by crying out my suffering and anger. The birds of the night flew away terrified or answered me with savage wailings.
(Nature always responds to George Sand.)
The noise echoed from vault to vault, breaking against those shaky ruins; and the gravel that slid from the rooftops seemed to presage the fall of the edifice on my head.
That gravel, it must be said, is excellent observation. Her comment is typically orchestral:
Oh, I would have wished it were so! I redoubled my cries, and those walls echoed my voice with a more terrible and heartrending sound. They [the ruins] seemed inhabited by legions of the damned, eager to respond and unite with me in blasphemy.
These terrible nights were followed by days of bleak stupor.
A scene of Oriental luxury was indispensable to the Romantics: the looting of Eygpt was Napoleon’s great gift to literature. There is the fantastic ball given by Prince Bambuccj in which lovers can disappear into boudoirs and artificial caves as busily as bees. The trumpets, one must say, acclaim the triumphs of fornication; they are gorgeously brazen in the lascivious scene; the perfumes are insidious. Pulchérie and Lélia are masked and Lélia plots to pass off Pulchérie as herself so that Sténio is deceived into thinking his cold mistress has relented. He awakens and is shattered by the deceit. He stands at the window of the palace and hears the voice of Lélia mocking him—in a somewhat classy way—from a pretty boat that floats by in the Asiatic lagoon. This is an operatic scene of a high order. Calamity, of course. Having tasted flesh, Sténio becomes a drunken debauchee and eventually commits suicide. If he starts, in real life, as the innocent Jules Sandeau, he ends as the drunken Musset. Magnus, the mad priest, is now sure that Lélia is possessed by a devil and strangles her. With a rosary, of course. One recalls that Lélia has had fantasies of strangulation.
Lélia is one of those self-dramatizations that break off as mood follows mood. She asks what God intended for men and women: whether he intended them to meet briefly and leave each other at once, for otherwise the sexes would destroy each other; whether the hyprocrisy of a bourgeois society is the enemy; whether intellectual vision must be abnormal; whether poetry and religion corrupt. All the voices are George Sand herself—and very aware, as she frankly said, that she belonged to a generation which, for the moment, was consciously out to shock. What she did not expect was laughter. She had little sense of humor.
One can see how much of the book comes out of Hoffmann and even more precisely from Balzac’s equally chaotic and melodramatic La Peau de chagrin. Lélia, it has often been noted, is the female Raphael de Valentin. Both writers feel the expanding energies of the new century; both have the confident impulse toward the Absolute and to Omniscience; but hers is the kind of imagination and intellect that breaks off before suggesting a whole. Balzac and Sand were both absorbed by an imaginative greed; they worked themselves to the bone, partly because they were like that, partly because they created debts and openly sought a vast public. Their rhetoric was a nostalgia for the lost Napoleonic glory.
How thoroughly she toiled in her social-problem novels! The tedious Compagnon du Tour de France is a garrulous study of the early trade unions, a politically pious book, enlivened by her strong visual sense. In the far more sympathetic Mauprat she goes to the heart of her life-long debt to Rousseau: the young brutal Mauprat who belongs to the brigand and mafioso branch of an aristocratic family rescues the aristocratic heroine from his gang—but with the intention of raping her on the quiet. She frustrates the attempt and is shown redeeming her brute: to love he must pass through a long psychological reeducation. This is achieved but not entirely in a sentimental way; both he and the woman are hot-tempered, sulky, and sensitive to points of honor.
George Sand herself did not think we should be punished for our sins or our grave faults of character, but that we were called upon to learn from them: they were—grâce à Rousseau—opportunities for interesting self-education and reform. She is not a doctrinaire like Gorki in his communist phase. Her advantage as a woman is that she is a psychologist who gives hostilities their emotional due: they are indications of the individual’s right to his temperament. She may have been a domineering, ruthless woman, and very cunning and double-minded with it, but there is scarcely a book that is not redeemed by her perceptions, small though they may be.
She understands the rich very well—“There are hours of impunity in chateau life”—and she thinks of the poor as individuals but flinches from them as a case. Two words recur continually in her works: “delirium,” which may be ecstatic, bad, or, more interestingly, a psychological outlet; and “boredom”—energy and desire had been exhausted. One can see that she is woman but not Woman. The little fable of François de Champi shows that she used every minute of her life; for not only was she in a fortunate sense a waif, as I have said, but an enlightened waif; and we note that when François grows up he marries the widow who has been a mother to him. Most of George Sand’s men were waifs in one way or another; the Higher Incest was to be their salvation. Women were the real power figures, whereas men were consumable. She liked to pilfer their brains. We remember the cold words of Solange, the daughter who was no less willful than herself: “It would take a shrewd fellow to unravel the character of my mother.”
August 17, 1978