BOSTON: ROBERTS BROTHERS. 1883.
Copyright, 1883, BY ROBERTS BROTHERS.
UNIVERSITY PRESS: JOHN WILSON AND SON, CAMBRIDGE.
The authentic materials available for an account of the life of George Sand, although lately increased by the publication of a large part of her correspondence, are still incomplete. Her memoirs by her own hand, dealing fully with her early life alone, remain unsupplemented by any entire and detailed biography, for which, indeed, the time seems hardly yet come. Hence one among many obvious difficulties in the way of this attempt to prepare for English readers a brief sketch that shall at least indicate all the more salient features of a life of singularly varied aspect.
Much, though of interest in itself, must here be omitted, as beyond the scope of the present study. There are points again into which, as touching persons still living or quite recently deceased, it would be premature to enter. But none seem of such importance as to forbid the endeavor, by a careful review of those facts in the life of George Sand which most justly represent her character as a whole, and were the determining influences on her career and on her work, to arrive at truth and completeness of general outline, the utmost it is possible to hope to accomplish in this little volume.
GIRLHOOD AND MARRIED LIFE
DEBUT IN LITERATURE
SOLITUDE, SOCIETY AND SOCIALISM
CONSUELO—HOME LIFE AT NOHANT 149
NOVELIST AND POLITICIAN 170
PLAYS AND LATER NOVELS
ARTIST AND MORALIST
In naming George Sand we name something more exceptional than even a great genius. Her rise to eminence in the literature of her century, is, if not without a parallel, yet absolutely without a precedent, in the annals of women of modern times.
The origin of much that is distinctive in the story of her life may be traced in the curious story of her lineage.
George Sand was of mixed national descent, and in her veins ran the blood of heroes and of kings. The noble and the artist, the bourgeoisie and the people, all had their representatives among their immediate ancestors. Her grandmother, the guardian of her girlhood, was the child of Maurice, Marshal Saxe, that favorite figure in history and romance, himself son of the famous Augustus II., Elector of Saxony, and King of Poland, and the Swedish Countess Aurora von Koenigsmark. The Marshal's daughter Aurore, though like her father of illegitimate birth—her mother, who was connected with the stage, passed by her professional name of Mlle. Verrieres—obtained after the Marshal's death the acknowledgment and protection of his relatives in high places, notably of his niece, the Dauphin of France, grand-daughter of Augustus of Poland, and mother of the three kings—Louis XVI., Louis XVIII., and Charles X.
Carefully educated at St. Cyr, Mlle. de Saxe was married, when little more than a child, to the Count de Horn, who was also of partly royal but irregular origin. He very shortly afterward fell in a duel. His widow, at thirty, became the wife of M. Dupin de Franceuil, an old gentleman of good provincial family and some fortune. Maurice, their only child, was the father of George Sand.
Madame Dupin (the suffix de Franceuil was afterwards dropped by her husband) appears to have inherited none of the adventurous and erratic tendencies of her progenitors. Aristocratic in her sympathies, philosophic in her intellect, and strictly decorous in her conduct, throughout the whole of her long and checkered life she was regarded with respect. Left a widow again, ten years after her second marriage, she concentrated her hopes and affections on her handsome and amiable son Maurice. Though fondly attached to her, he was yet to be the cause of her heaviest sorrows, by his more than hazardous marriage, and by his premature and tragical fate.
His strongest natural leanings seem to have been towards art in general, music and the drama in particular, and of his facile, buoyant, artist temperament there is ample evidence; but the political conditions of France under the Directory in 1798 left him no choice but to enter the army, where he served under Dupont, winning his commission on the field of Marengo in 1800. It was during this Italian campaign that the young officer met with the woman who, four years later, became his wife, and the mother of his illustrious child.
Mademoiselle Sophie Victorie Delaborde, was, emphatically speaking, a daughter of the people. Her father had been a poor bird-seller at Paris, where she herself had worked as a milliner. Left unprotected at a very early age, thoroughly uneducated and undisciplined, gifted with considerable beauty, and thrown on the world at a time when the very foundations of society seemed to be collapsing, she had been exposed to extreme dangers, and without any of the ordinary safeguards against them. That she proved herself not undeserving of the serious attachment with which she inspired Maurice Dupin, her least favorable judges were afterwards forced to admit; though, at the time this infatuation of the lieutenant of six-and-twenty for one four years his senior, and of the humblest extraction, and whose life hitherto had not been blameless, was naturally regarded as utterly disastrous by his elders.
The devoted pair were married secretly at Paris in 1804; and on the 5th of July in the same year—the last of the French Republic and the first of the Empire—their daughter entered the world, receiving the name of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore.
The discovery of the mesalliance she had been dreading for some time, and which her son had not dared to confess to her, was a heavy blow to old Madame Dupin. However, she schooled herself to forgive what was irrevocable, and to acknowledge this most unwelcome daughter-in-law, the infant Aurore helping unconsciously to effect the reconciliation. But for more than three years M. Dupin's mother and his wife scarcely ever met. Madame Dupin mere was living in a retired part of the country, in the very centre of France, on the little property of Nohant, which she had bought with what the Revolution had left her out of her late husband's fortune. Maurice, now Captain Dupin and aide-de-camp to Murat, resided, when not on service, in Paris, where he had settled with his wife and child. The union, strange though it may seem, continued to be a happy one. Besides a strong attachment there existed a real conformity of disposition between the two. The mother of George Sand was also, in her way, a remarkable woman. She has been described by her daughter as "a great artist lost for want of development"; showing a wonderful dexterity in whatever she put her hand to, no matter if practiced in it or not. "She tried everything, and always succeeded"—sewing, drawing, tuning the piano—"she would have made shoes, locks, furniture, had it been necessary." But her tastes were simple and domestic. Though married out of her rank, she was entirely without any vain ambition to push herself into fashionable society, the constraint of which, moreover, she could not bear. "She was a woman for the fire-side, or for quick, merry walks and drives. But in the house or out of doors, what she wanted was intimacy and confidence, complete sincerity in her relations with those around her, absolute liberty in her habits and the disposal of her time. She always led a retired life, more anxious to keep aloof from tiresome acquaintance than to seek such as might be advantageous. That was just the foundation of my father's character; and in this respect never was there a better-assorted couple. They could never be happy except in their own little menage. Everywhere out of it they had to stifle their melancholy yawns, and they have transmitted to me that secret shyness which has always made the gay world intolerable, and home a necessity to me."
In a modest bourgeois habitation in the Rue Meslay, afterwards transferred to the Rue Grange-Bateliere, Aurore Dupin's infancy passed tranquilly away, under the wing of her warmly affectionate mother who, though utterly illiterate, showed intuitive tact and skill in fostering the child's intelligence. "Mine," says her daughter, "made no resistance; but was never beforehand with anything, and might have been very much behindhand if left to itself."
Aurore was not four years old when adventures began for her in earnest. In the spring of 1808, her father was at Madrid, in attendance upon Murat; and Madame Maurice Dupin, becoming impatient of prolonged separation from her husband, started off with her little girl to join him. The hazards and hardships of the expedition, long mountain drives and wild scenery, strange fare and strange sights, could not fail vividly to impress the child, whose imagination from her cradle was extraordinarily active. Her mother ere this had discovered that Aurore, then little more than a baby, and pent up within four chairs to keep her out of harm's way, would make herself perfectly happy, plucking at the basket-work and babbling endless fairy tales to herself, confused and diluted versions of the first fictions narrated to her. A picturesque line in a nursery song was enough to bring before her a world of charming wonders; the figures, birds, and flowers on a Sevres china candelabrum would call up enchanting landscapes; and the sound of a flageolet played from some distant attic start a train of melodious fancies and throw her into musical raptures. Her daily experiences, after reaching Madrid with her mother, continued to be novel and exciting in the extreme. The palace of the Prince de la Paix, where Murat and his suite had their quarters, was to her the realization of the wonder-land of Perrault and d'Aulnoy; Murat, the veritable Prince Fanfarinet. She was presented to him in a fancy court-dress, devised for the occasion by her mother, an exact imitation of her father's uniform in miniature, with spurs, sword, and boots, all complete. The Prince was amused by the jest, and took a fancy to the child, calling her his little aide-de-camp. After a residence of several weeks in this abode, whose splendor was alloyed by not a little discomfort and squalor, the return-journey had to be accomplished in the height of summer, amid every sort of risk; past reeking battle-fields, camps, sacked and half-burnt villages and beleaguered cities. Captain Dupin succeeded, however, in escorting his family safely back into France again, the party halting to recruit awhile under his mother's roof.
Nohant, a spot that has become as famous through its associations as Abbotsford, lies about three miles from the little town of La Chatre, in the department of the Indre, part of the old province of Berry. The manor is a plain gray house with steep mansard roofs, of the time of Louis XVI. It stands just apart from the road, shaded by trees, beside a pleasure ground of no vast extent, but with its large flower-garden and little wood allowed to spread at nature's bidding, quite in the English style. Behind the house cluster a score of cottages of the scattered hamlet of Nohant; in the centre rises the smallest of churches, with a tiny cemetery hedged around and adjoining the wall of the manor garden.
At this country home the tired travellers gladly alighted; but they had barely a few weeks in which to recover from the fatigues of their Spanish campaign, when a terrible calamity overwhelmed the household. Maurice Dupin, riding home one night from La Chatre, was thrown from his horse and killed on the spot.
The story of Aurore Dupin's individual life opens at once with the death of her father—a loss she was still too young to comprehend, but for which she was soon to suffer through the strange, the anomalous position, in which it was to place her. Maurice Dupin's patrician mother and her plebeian daughter-in-law, bereft thus violently of him who had been the only possible link between them, found themselves hopelessly, actively, and increasingly at variance. Their tempers clashed, their natures were antipathetic, their views contradictory, their positions irreconcilable. Aurore was not only thrust into an atmosphere of strife, but condemned to the apple of discord. She was to grow up between two hostile camps, each claiming her obedience and affection.
The beginning was smooth, and the sadness which alone kept the peace was not allowed to weigh on the child. She ran wild in the garden, the country air and country life strengthening a naturally strong constitution; and her intelligence, though also allowed much freedom in its development, was not neglected. A preceptor was on the spot in the person of the fourth inmate of Nohant, an old pedagogue, Deschartres by name, formerly her father's tutor, who had remained in Madame Dupin's service as "intendant." The serio-comic figure of this personage, so graphically drawn by George Sand herself in the memoirs of her early life, will never be forgotten by any reader of those reminiscences. Pedant, she says, was written in every line of his countenance and every movement that he made. He was possessed of some varied learning, much narrow prejudice, and a violent, crotchety temper, but had proved during the troubles of the Revolution his sincere and disinterested devotion to the family he served, and Aurore and "the great man," as she afterwards nicknamed her old tutor, were always good friends.
Before she was four years old she could read quite well; but she remarks that it was only after learning to write that what she read began to take a definite meaning for her. The fairy-tales perused but half intelligently before were re-read with a new delight. She learnt grammar with Deschartres, and from her grandmother took her first lessons in music, an art of which she became passionately fond; and it always remained for her a favourite source of enjoyment, though she never acquired much proficiency as a musical performer. The educational doctrines of Rousseau had then brought into fashion a regime of open-air exercise and freedom for the young, such as we commonly associate with English, rather than French, child-life; and Aurore's early years—when domestic hostilities and nursery tyrannies, from which, like most sensitive children, she suffered inordinately, were suspended—were passed in the careless, healthy fashion approved in this country. A girl of her own age, but of lower degree, was taken into the house to share her studies and pastimes. Little Ursule was to become, in later years, the faithful servant of her present companion, who had then become lady of the manor, and who never lost sight of this humble friend. Aurore had also a boy playmate in a protege of her grandmother's, five years her senior, who patronised and persecuted her by turns, in his true fraternal fashion. This boy, Hippolyte, the son of a woman of low station, was in fact Aurore's half-brother, adopted from his birth and brought up by Madame Dupin the elder, whose indulgence, where her son was concerned, was infinite. With these, and the children of the farm-tenants and rural proprietors around, Aurore did not want for companions. But the moment soon arrived when the painful family dispute of which she was the object, was to become the cause of more distress to the child than to her elders. There were reasons which stood in the way of Madame Maurice Dupin's fixing her residence permanently under her mother-in-law's roof. But the mind of the latter was set on obtaining the guardianship of her grand-daughter, the natural heir to her property, and on thus assuring to her social and educational privileges of a superior order. The child's heart declared unreservedly for her mother, whose passionate fondness she returned with the added tenderness of a deeper nature, and all attempts to estrange the two had only drawn them closer together. But the pecuniary resources of Maurice Dupin's widow were of the smallest, and the advantages offered to her little girl by the proposed arrangement so material, that the older lady gained her point in the end. Madame Maurice settled in Paris. Aurore grew up her grandmother's ward, with Nohant for her home; a home she was to keep, knowing no other, till the end of her life.
The separation was brought about very gradually to the child. The first few winters were spent in Paris, where her grandmother had an establishment. Then she could pass whole days with her mother, who, in turn, spent summers at Nohant, and Aurore for years was buoyed up by the hope that a permanent reunion would still be brought about. But meantime domestic jealousy and strife, inflamed by the unprincipled meddling of servants, raged more fiercely than ever, and could not but be a source of more than ordinary childish misery to their innocent object. It was but slowly that she became attached to her grandmother, whose undemonstrative temper, formal habits and condescending airs were little calculated to win over her young affections, or fire her with gratitude for the anxiety displayed by this guardian to form her manners and cultivate her intellect. Nay, the result was rather to implant in her a premature dislike and distrust for conventional ideals. From the standard of culture and propriety, from the temptations of social rank and wealth held up for her preference, she instinctively turned to the simple, unrestrained affection of the despised mother, and the greater freedom and expansion enjoyed in such company. In vain did disdainful lady's-maids try to taunt her into precocious worldly wisdom, asking if she could really want to go and eat beans in a little garret. Such a condition, naturally, she began to regard as the equivalent of a noble and glorious existence!
Meantime, throughout all these alternations of content and distress, Nohant and its surroundings were perforce becoming dear to her, as only the home of our childhood can ever become. The scenery and characteristics of that region are familiar to all readers of the works of George Sand; a quiet region of narrow, winding, shady lanes, where you may wander long between the tall hedges without meeting a living creature but the wild birds that start from the honey-suckle and hawthorn, and the frogs croaking among the sedges; a region of soft-flowing rivers with curlew-haunted reed beds, and fields where quails cluck in the furrows; the fertile plain studded with clumps of ash and alder, and a rare farm-habitation standing amid orchards and hemp-fields, or a rarer hamlet of a dozen cottages grouped together. The country is flat, and, viewed from the rail or high road, unimpressive. But those fruitful fields have a placid beauty, and it needs but to penetrate the sequestered lanes and explore the thicket-bound courses of the streams, to meet with plenty of those pleasant solitudes after a poet's own heart, whose gift is to seize and perpetuate transient effects, and to open the eyes of duller minds to charms that might pass unnoticed. In this sense only can George Sand be said to have idealized for us the landscapes she loved.
The thoughtful, poetic side of her temperament showed itself early, leading her to seek long intervals of solitude, when she would bury herself in books or dreams, to satisfy the cravings of her intellect and imagination. On the other hand, her vigorous physical organization kept alive her taste for active amusements and merry companionship. So the child-squire romped on equal terms with the little rustics of Nohant, sharing their village sports and the occupations of the seasons as they came round: hay-making and gleaning in summer; in winter weaving bird-nets to spread in the snowy fields for the wholesale capture of larks; anon listening with mixed terror and delight to the picturesque legends told by the hemp-beaters, as they sat at their work out of doors on September moonlight evenings—to all the traditional ghost-stories of the "Black Valley," as she fancifully christened the country round about. Tales were these of fantastic animals and goblins, the grand'-bete and the levrette blanche, Georgeon, that imp of mischief, night apparitions of witches and charmers of wolves, singing Druidical stones and mysterious portents—a whole fairy mythology, then firmly believed in by the superstitious peasantry.
As a signal contrast to this way of life came for a time the annual visits to Paris—suspended after she was ten years old. There liberty ended, and the girl was transported into a novel and most uncongenial sphere. Her grandmother's friends and relatives were mostly old people, who clung to antiquated modes and customs; and distinguished though such circles might be, the youngest member only found out that they were intolerably dull. The wrinkled countesses with their elaborate toilettes and ceremonious manners, the abbes with their fashionable tittle-tattle and their innumerable snuff-boxes, the long dinners, the accomplishment-lessons, notably those in dancing and deportment, were repugnant to the soul of the little hoyden. She made amends to herself by observing these new scenes and characters narrowly, with the acute natural perception that was one of her leading gifts. From this artificial atmosphere of constraint, it was inevitable that she should welcome hours of escape into her mother's unpretending domestic circle; and already at ten years old she had pronounced the lot of a scullery-maid enviable, compared to that of an old marquise.
Nevertheless the fact of her having, at an age when impressions are strongest, and most lasting, mixed freely and on equal terms with the upper classes of society, was a point in her education not without its favorable action on her afterwards as a novelist. Despite her firm republican sympathies, emphatic disdain for mere rank and wealth, and her small mercy for the foibles of the fashionable world, she can enter into its spirit, paint its allurements without exaggeration, and indicate its shortcomings with none of that asperity of the outsider which always suggests some unconscious envy lurking behind the scorn.
The despised accomplishment-lessons, in themselves tending only to so much agreeable dabbling, proved useful to her indirectly by creating new interests, and as an intellectual stimulus. There seems to have been little or no method about her early education. The study of her own language was neglected, and the time spent less profitably, she considered in acquiring a smattering of Latin with Deschartres. She took to some studies with avidity, while others remained wholly distasteful to her. For mere head-work she cared little. Arithmetic she detested; versification, no less. Her imagination rebelled against the restrictions of form. Nowhere, perhaps, except in the free-fantasia style of the novel, could this great prose-poet have found the right field in which to do justice to her powers. The dry technique in music was a stumbling-block of which she was impatient. History and literature she enjoyed in whatever they offered that was romantic, heroic, or poetically suggestive. In her Nohant surroundings there was nothing to check, and much to stimulate, this dominant, imaginative faculty. Her youthful attempts at original composition she quickly discarded in disgust; but it seemed almost a law of her mind that whatever was possessing it she must instinctively weave into a romance. Thus in writing her history-epitome she must improve on the original, when too dry, by exercising her fancy in the description of places and personages. The actual political events of that period were of the most exciting character; Napoleon's Russian campaign, abdication, retreat to Elba, the Hundred Days, Waterloo, the Restoration, following each other in swift succession. Old Madame Dupin was an anti-Bonapartist, but Aurore had caught from her mother something of the popular infatuation for the emperor, and her fancy would create him over again, as he might have been had his energies been properly directed. Her day-dreams were often so vivid as to effect her senses with all the force of realities.
Such a visionary life might have been most dangerous and mentally enervating had her organization been less robust, and the tendency to reverie not been matched by lively external perception and plentiful physical activity. As it was, if at one moment she was in a cloud-land of her own, or poring over the stories of the Iliad, the classic mythologies, or Tasso's Gerusalemme, the next would see her scouring the fields with Ursule and Hippolyte, playing practical jokes on the tutor, and extemporizing wild out-of-door games and dances with her village companions.
Of serious religious education she received none at all. Here, again, the authorities were divided. Her mother was pious in a primitive way, though holding aloof from priestly influences. The grandmother, a disciple of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and of Voltaire, had renounced the Catholic creed, and was what was then called a Deist. But beyond discouraging a belief in miraculous agencies she preserved a neutrality with her ward on the subject, and Aurore was left free to drift as her nature should decide. Instinctively she felt more drawn toward her mother's unreasoning, emotional faith than toward a system of philosophic, critical inquiry. But on both sides what was offered her to worship was too indefinite to satisfy her strong religious instincts. Once more she filled in the blank with her imagination, which was forthwith called upon to picture a being who should represent all perfections, human and divine; something that her heart could love, as well as her intelligence approve.
This ideal figure, for whom she devised the name Corambe, was to combine all the spiritual qualities of the Christian ideal with the earthly grace and beauty of the mythological deities of Greece. For very many years she cherished this fantasy, finding there the scope she sought for her aspirations after superhuman excellence. It is hardly too much to say that the Christianity which had been expressly left out in her teaching she invented for herself. She erected a woodland altar in the recesses of a thicket to this imaginary object of her adoration, and it is a characteristic trait that the sacrifices she chose to offer there were the release of birds and butterflies that had been taken prisoners—as a symbolical oblation most welcome to a divinity whose essential attributes were infinite mercy and love. It will be remembered that a somewhat similar anecdote is related of the youthful Goethe.
Aurore, as the years went on, had grown sincerely fond of Madame Dupin; but her mother still held the foremost place in her heart, and she had never ceased to cherish the belief that if they two could live together she would be perfectly happy. The discovery of this deeply irritated her grandmother, who at length was provoked to intimate to the girl something of the real motive for insisting on this separation—namely, that her mother's antecedents were such as, in the eyes of Aurore's well-wishers, rendered it desirable to establish the daughter's existence apart from that of her parent. Sooner or later such a revelation must have been made; but made as it was, thus precipitately, in a moment of jealous anger, the chief result was of necessity to cause a painful and dangerous shock to the sensitive young mind. It brought about an unnatural discord in her moral nature, forbidden all at once to respect what she had loved most, and must continue to love, in spite of all. On the injurious effects of the over-agitation to which she was subjected in her childhood she has laid much stress in her remarkable work, "The Story of My Life." Much of this book, written when she was between forty and fifty, reads like a romance; and had a certain amount of retrospective imagination entered into the treatment of these reminiscences it would not be surprising. The tendency to impart poetical color and significance to whatever was capable of taking it was her mastering impulse, and may sometimes have led her to lose the distinction between fancy and reality, especially as by her own confession her memory was never her strong point. But she had an excellent memory for impressions, and no reader whose own recollections of childhood have not grown faint, but will feel the profound truth of the spirit of the narrative, which is of a kind that occasional exaggerations in the letter cannot depreciate in value as a psychological history. For an account of her early life it must always remain the most important source.
Aurore was now thirteen, and though she had read a good deal of miscellaneous literature her instruction had been mostly of a desultory sort; she was behindhand in the accomplishments deemed desirable for young ladies; and her country manners, on the score of etiquette, left something to be desired. To school, therefore, it was decided that she must go; and her grandmother selected that held by the nuns of the "English convent" at Paris, as the most fashionable institution of the kind.
This Convent des Anglaises was a British community, first established in the French capital in Cromwell's time. It has now been removed, and its site, the Rue St. Victor, has undergone complete transformation. In 1817, however, it was in high repute among conventual educational establishments. To this retreat Aurore was consigned and there spent more than two years, an untroubled time she has spoken of as in many respects the happiest of her life. There is certainly nothing more delightful in her memoirs than the vivid picture there drawn of the convent-school interior, drawn without flattery or malice, and with sympathy and animation.
The nunnery was an extensive building of rambling construction—with parts disused and dilapidated—quite a little settlement, counting some 150 inmates, nuns, pupils and teachers; with cells and dormitories, long corridors, chapels, kitchens, distillery, spiral staircases and mysterious nooks and corners; a large garden planted with chestnut trees, a kitchen garden, and a little cemetery without gravestones, over-grown with evergreens and flowers. The sisters were all English, Irish, or Scotch, but the majority of the pupils and the secular mistresses were French. Of the nuns the ex-scholar speaks with respect and affection, but their religious exercises left them but the smaller share of their time and attention to devote to the pupils. The girls almost without exception were of high social rank, the bourgeois element as yet having scarcely penetrated this exclusive seminary. Aurore formed warm friendships with many of her school-fellows, and seems to have been decidedly popular with the authorities as well, in spite of the high spirits which amid congenial company found vent in harmless mischief and a sort of organized playful insubordination. The school had two parties: the sages or good girls, and the diables, their opposites. Among the latter Aurore conscientiously enrolled herself and became a leader in their escapades, acquiring the sobriquet of "Madcap." These outbreaks led to nothing more heinous than playing off tricks on a tyrannical mistress, or making raids on the forbidden ground of the kitchen garden. But the charm that held together the confraternity of diables was a grand, long-cherished design, to which their best energy and ingenuity were devoted—a secret, heroic-sounding enterprise, set forth as "the deliverance of the victim." A tradition existed among them that a captive was kept languishing miserably in some remote cell, and they had set themselves the task of discovering and liberating this hapless wretch.
It is needless to say that prisoner and dungeon existed in their girlishly romantic brains alone, but easy to see how such a legend might possess itself of their imaginations, and to what bewitching exploits it might invite firm believers. The supervision was not so very strict but that a diable of spirit might sometimes play truant from the class-room unnoticed. The truants would then start on an exciting journey of discovery through the tortuous passages, exploring the darkest recesses of the more deserted portions of the convent; now penetrating into the vaults, now adventuring on the roofs, regardless of peril to life or limb. This sublimely ridiculous undertaking, half-sport, half-earnest, so fascinated Aurore as to become the most important occupation of her mind!
The teaching provided for the young ladies appears to have been of the customary superficial order—of everything a little; a little music, a little drawing, a little Italian. With English she had the opportunity of becoming really conversant, as it was the language commonly spoken in the convent, where also she could not fail to acquire some insight into the English character. This she has treated more fairly than England for long was to treat her. Few of her gifted literary countrymen have done such justice to the sterling good qualities of our nation. Even when, in delineating the Briton, she caricatures those peculiarities with which he is accredited abroad, her blunders seem due to incomplete knowledge rather than to any inability to comprehend the spirit of a people with whom, indeed, she had many points of sympathy. She could penetrate that coldness and constraint of manner so repelling to French natures, and has said of us, with unconventional truth, that our character is in reality more vehement than theirs; but with less mastery over our emotions themselves, we have more mastery over the expression of our emotions. Among her chosen school-comrades were several English girls, but on leaving the convent their paths separated, and in her after life she had but rare opportunities for renewing these early friendships.
Some eighteen months had elapsed in this fashion when Aurore began to tire of diablerie. The victim remained undiscoverable. The store of practical jokes was exhausted. Her restless spirit, pent up within those convent walls, was thirsting for a new experience,—something to fill her heart and life.
It came in the dawn of a religious enthusiasm—different from her mystical dream of Corambe, which however poetical was out of harmony with the spirit and ritual of a Catholic convent. But monastic life had its poetical aspects also; and through these it was that its significance first successfully appealed to her. An evening in the chapel, a Titian picture representing Christ on the Mount of Olives, a passage chanced upon in the "Lives of the Saints," brought impressions that awoke in her a new fervor, and inaugurated a period of ardent Catholicism. All vagueness was gone from her devotional aspirations, which now acquired a direct personal import. The change brought a revolution in her general behavior. She was understood to have been "converted." "Madcap" was now nicknamed "Sainte Aurore" by her profane school-fellows, and she formed the serious desire and intention of becoming a nun.
The sisters, a practical-minded community, behaved with great good sense and discretion. Without distressing the youthful proselyte by casting doubts on her "vocation," they reminded her that the consideration was a distant one, as for years to come her first duty would be to her relatives, who would never sanction her present determination. Her confessor, the Abbe Premord, a Jesuit and man of the world, was likewise kindly discouraging; and perceiving that her zeal was leading her to morbid self-accusation and asceticism of mood, he shrewdly enjoined upon her as a penance to take part in the sports and pastimes with the rest as heretofore, much to her dismay. But she soon found her liking for these return, and with it her health of mind. Unshaken still in her private belief that she would take the veil in due time, she was content to wait, and in the interval to be a useful and agreeable member of society. No more insubordination, no more mischievous freaks, yet "Sainte Aurore" remained the life and soul of all recreations recognized by authority, which even included little theatrical performances now and then.
She had become more regular in her studies since her mind had taken a serious turn, but her heart was less in them than ever. Considering this, and the deficiencies in the system of instruction itself, it is hardly surprising that when, in the spring of 1820, her grandmother fearing that the monastic idea was taking hold of Aurore in good earnest decided to remove her from the Couvent des Anglaises, she knew little more than when first she had entered it.
GIRLHOOD AND MARRIED LIFE.
Aurore Dupin was now fifteen, and so far, though somewhat peculiarly situated, she and her life had presented no very extraordinary features, nor promise of the same. Her energies had flowed into a variety of channels, and manifestly clever and accustomed to take the lead though she might be, no one, least of all herself, seems to have thought of regarding her as a wonder. The Lady Superior of the Couvent des Anglaises, who called her "Still Waters," had perhaps an inkling of something more than met the eye, existent in this pupil. But a dozen years were yet to elapse before the moment came when she was to start life afresh for herself, on a footing of independence and literary enterprise, and by her first published attempts raise her name at once above the names of the mass of her fellow-creatures.
Old Madame Dupin, warned by failing health that her end was not far off, would gladly have first assured a husband's protection for her ward, whom she had now succeeded in really dissociating from her natural guardian. The girl's bringing-up, and an almost complete separation for the last five years, had made a gap—in habits of mind and feeling—such as could hardly be quite bridged over, between her mother and herself. But though beginning to be sadly aware of this and of the increasing violence and asperities of poor Madame Maurice Dupin's temper, which made peace under one roof with her a matter of difficulty, Aurore hung back from the notion of marriage, and clearly was much too young to be urged into taking so serious a step. So to Nohant she returned from the convent in the spring of 1820. There she continued to strike that judicious compromise between temporal and spiritual duties and pleasures enjoined on her by her clerical adviser. Still bent on choosing a monastic life, when free to choose for herself, she was reconciled in the meantime to take things as they came, and to make herself happy and add to the happiness of her grandmother in the ordinary way. So we find her enjoying the visit of one of her school friends, getting up little plays to amuse the elders, practicing the harp, receiving from her brother Hippolyte—now a noisy hussar—during his brief visit home, her first initiation into the arts of riding—for the future her favorite exercise—and of pistol-shooting; and last, but not least, beginning to suspect that she had learned nothing whatever while at school, and setting to work to educate herself, as best she could, by miscellaneous reading.
In the spring of the following year Madame Dupin's health and mental faculties utterly broke down. But she lived on for another ten months. Aurore for the time was placed in a most exceptional position for a French girl of sixteen. She was thrown absolutely on herself and her own resources, uncontrolled and unprotected, between a helpless, half imbecile invalid, and the eccentric, dogmatic pedagogue, Deschartres. Highly susceptible to influences from without, her mind, during their sudden and complete suspension, seemed as it were invited to discover and take its own bent.
Piqued by the charge of dense ignorance flung at her by her ex-tutor, and aware that there was truth in it, she would now sit up all night reading, finding her appetite for the secular knowledge she used to despise grow by what it fed upon. The phase of religious exaltation she had recently passed through still gave the tone to her mind, and it was with the works of famous philosophers, metaphysicians, and Christian mystics that she began her studies. Comparing the "Imitation of Christ" with Chateaubriand's "Spirit of Christianity," and struck here and elsewhere with the wide discrepancies and contradictions of opinion manifest between great minds ranging themselves under one theological banner, she was led on to speculations that alarmed her conscience, and she appealed to her spiritual director, the Abbe Premord, for advice, fearing lest her faith might be endangered if she read more. He encouraged her to persevere, telling her in no wise to deny herself these intellectual enjoyments. But her rigid Catholicism was doomed from that hour. Hers was that order of mind which can never give ostensible adhesion to a creed whilst morally unconvinced; never accept that refuge of the weak from the torment of doubt, in abdicating the functions of reason and conscience, shifting the onus of responsibility on to others, and agreeing to believe, as it were, by proxy. She had plunged fearlessly and headlong into Aristotle, Bacon, Locke, Condillac, Mably, Leibnitz, Bossuet, Pascal, Montaigne, Montesquieu; beginning to call many things in question, and, through the darkness and confusion into which she was sometimes thrown, trying honestly and sincerely to feel her way to some more glorious faith and light.
In the convent she had been familiarized with Romanism under its most attractive aspects. The moral refinement, the mystery, the seclusion, and picturesque beauties of that abode had a poetic charm that had carried her irresistibly away. But, confronted with the system in its practical working, she was staggered by many of its features. In the country churches around her she saw the peasantry encouraged in their grossest superstitions, and the ritual, carelessly hurried through, degenerate often into mere mockery. The practice of confession, moreover—her ultimate condemnation of which, as an institution whose results for good are scanty, its dangers excessive, will be endorsed by most persons in this country—and the Church's denial of the right of salvation to all outside its pale, revolted her; and she caught at the teaching of those who claimed liberty of conscience. "Reading Leibnitz," she observes, "I became a Protestant without knowing it." That purer and more liberal Christianity she dreamed of had, she discovered, been the ideal of many great men. The step brought her face to face with fresh and grave problems of which, she truly observes, the solutions were beyond her years, and beyond that era. There came to her rare moments of celestial calm and concord, but she owed them to other and indirect sources of inspiration. The study of philosophy, indeed, was not much more congenial to her at sixteen than arithmetic had been at six. In what merely exercised memory and attention she took comparatively but languid interest. Instruction, to bring her its full profit, must be conveyed through the medium of moral emotion, but the mysterious power of feeling to stimulate intellect was with her immense. She turned now to the poets—Shakespeare, Byron, Dante, Milton, Virgil, Pope. A poet herself, she discovered that these had more power than controversialists to strengthen her religious convictions, as well as to enlarge her mind. Above all, the writings of the poet-moralist, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, helped her towards resolving the question that occupied her, of her true vocation in life, now that her determination to take the veil was not a little shaken.
The midnight student was by turns Amazon and sick-nurse as well. From the fatigue of long watches over her books or by the invalid's bedside, she found a better and more invigorating refreshment than sleep in solitary morning rides across country. Her fearlessness on horseback was madness in the eyes of the neighbors. Riding, then and there, was almost unheard of for ladies, a girl in a riding-habit regarded as simply a Cossack in petticoats, and Mademoiselle Dupin's delight in horse-exercise sufficed to stamp her as eccentric and strong-minded in the opinion of the country gentry and the towns-folk of La Chatre. They had heard of her studies, too, and disapproved of them as unlady-like in character. Philosophy was bad enough, but anatomy, which she had been encouraged to take up by Deschartres, himself a proficient in medical science, was worse—sacrilegious, for a person understood to be professedly of a devotional turn of mind. She went game-shooting with the old tutor; he had a mania for the sport, which she humored though she did not share. But when quails were the object, she owns to have enjoyed her part in the chase, which was to crouch in the furrows among the green corn, imitating the cry of the birds to entice them within gunshot of the sportsman. Lastly, finding in the feminine costume-fashions of that period a dire impediment to out-door enterprise of the sort, in a region of no roads, or bad roads, of rivers perpetually in flood, turning the lanes into water-courses for three-fourths of the year, of miry fields and marshy heaths, she procured for herself a suit of boy's clothes, donning blouse and gaiters now and then without compunction for these rough country walks and rambles.
Here, indeed, was more than enough to raise a hue-and-cry at La Chatre, a small provincial town, probably neither better nor worse than the rest of its class, a class never yet noted for charity or liberality of judgment. The strangest stories began to be circulated concerning her, stories for the most part so false and absurd as to inspire her with a sweeping contempt for public opinion. By a very common phenomenon, she was to incur throughout her life far more censure through freaks, audacious as breaches of custom, but intrinsically harmless, nor likely to set the fashion to others, than is often reserved for errors of a graver nature. The conditions of ordinary middle-class society are designed, like ready-made clothes, to fit the vast majority of human beings, who live under them without serious inconvenience. For the future George Sand to confine her activities within the very narrow restrictions laid down by the social code of La Chatre was, it must be owned, hardly to be expected. It was perhaps premature to throw down the gauntlet at sixteen, but her inexperience and isolation were complete. The grandmother in her dotage was no counsellor at all. Deschartres, an oddity himself, cared for none of these things. Those best acquainted with her at La Chatre, families the heads of which had known her father well and whose younger members had fraternized with her from childhood upwards, liked her none the less for her unusual proceedings, and defended her stoutly against her detractors.
"You are losing your best friend," said her dying grandmother to her when the end came, in December, 1821. Aurore was, indeed, placed in a difficult and painful situation. She had inherited all the property of the deceased, who, in her will, expressed her desire that her own nearest relations by her marriage with M. Dupin, a family of the name of de Villeneuve, well-off and highly connected, should succeed her as guardians to her ward. But it was impossible to dispute the claims of Madame Maurice Dupin to the care of her own daughter if she chose to assert them, which she quickly did, bearing off the girl with her to Paris—Nohant being left under the stewardship of Deschartres—and by her unconciliatory behavior further alienating the other side of the family from whom Aurore, through no fault of her own, was virtually estranged at the moment when she stood most in need of a friend. Twenty years later they came forward to claim kinship and friendship again: it was then with George Sand, the illustrious writer, become one of the immortals.
Thus her lot was cast for her in her mother's home and plebeian circle of acquaintance. So much the worse, it was supposed, for her prospects, social and matrimonial. This did not distress her, but none the less was the time that followed an unhappy one. The mother whom she had idolized, and of whom she always remained excessively fond, appears to have been something of a termagant in her later years. The heavy troubles of her life had aggravated one of those irascible and uncontrollable tempers that can only be soothed by superior violence. Aurore, saddened, gentle, and submissive, only exasperated her. Her fitful affection and fitful rages combined to make her daughter's life miserable, and to incline the girl unconsciously to look over-favorably on any recognized mode of escape that should present itself.
A long visit to the country-house of some friends near Melun, was hailed as a real relief by both. Here there were young people, and plenty of cheerful society. Aurore became like one of the family, and her mother was persuaded to allow her to prolong her stay indefinitely. Among the new acquaintance she formed whilst on this visit was one that decided her future.
M. Casimir Dudevant was a young man on terms of intimacy with her hosts, the Duplessis family. From the first he was struck by Mlle. Dupin, who on his further acquaintance was not otherwise than pleased with him. The sequel, before long, came in an offer of marriage on his part, which she accepted with the approval of her friends.
He was seven-and-twenty, had served in the army, and studied for the law; but had expectations which promised an independence. His father, Colonel Dudevant, a landed proprietor in Gascony, whose marriage had proved childless, had acknowledged Casimir, though illegitimate, and made him his heir. It was reckoned not a brilliant parti for the chatelaine of Nohant, but a perfectly eligible one. It was not a mariage de convenance; the young people had chosen freely. Still less was it a love match. Romantic sentiment—counted out of place in such arrangements by the society they belonged to—seems not to have been dreamed of on either side. But they had arranged it for themselves, which to Aurore would naturally seem, as indeed it was, an improvement on the usual mode of procedure, according to which the burden of choice would have rested with her guardians. It was a mariage de raison founded, as she and he believed, on mutual friendliness; in reality on a total and fatal ignorance of each other's characters, and probably, on Aurore's side, of her own as well. She was only just eighteen, and had a wretched home.
The match was sanctioned by their parents, respectively. In September, 1822, Aurore Dupin became Madame Dudevant, and shortly afterwards she and her husband established themselves at Nohant, there to settle down to quiet country life.
If tranquillity did not bring all the happiness that was expected, it was at least unbroken by such positive trials as those to come, and whatever was lacking to Madame Dudevant's felicity she forgot for a while in her joy over the birth of her son Maurice, in the summer of 1823—a son for whom more than ordinary treasures of maternal affection were in store, and who, when his childhood was past, was to become and remain until the time of her death a sure consolation and compensation to her for the troubles of her life.
The first two years after her marriage were spent almost without interruption in the still monotony of Nohant. "We live here as quietly as possible," she writes to her mother in June, 1825, "seeing very few people, and occupying ourselves with rural cares." That absolute dependence on each other's society that might have had its charm for a really well-assorted couple was, however, not calculated to prolong any illusions that might exist as to the perfect harmony of their dispositions. Already in the summer of 1824 the Dudevants had sought a change from seclusion in a long visit to their friends the Duplessis, after which they rented a villa in the environs of Paris for a short while. The spring found them back at Nohant, and the summer of 1825 was marked by a tour to the Pyrenees, undertaken in concert with some old school-fellows of Aurore's, two sisters, who with their father were starting for Cauterets. The pleasure of girlish friendships renewed gave double charm to the trip, and her delight in the mountain scenery knew no bounds.
"I am in such a state of enthusiasm about the Pyrenees," she writes to her mother, "that I shall dream and talk of nothing but mountains and torrents, caves and precipices, all the rest of my life." She joined eagerly in every excursion on foot and horseback, but even moderate feats of mountaineering, such as are now expected of the quietest English lady-tourists by their husbands and brothers, were then deemed startlingly eccentric, and got her into fresh trouble on this head.
Her letters and the fragments of her journal kept during this time, and in which she tried to commit to paper her impressions, whilst fresh and vivid, of the Pyrenees, show the same peculiar descriptive power that distinguished her novels—that art of seizing grand general effects together with picturesque detail, and depicting them in a simple and straightforward manner, in which she was an adept. It must be added that the diffuseness which characterizes her fiction, also pervades her correspondence. Neither can be adequately represented by extracts. Her composition is like a gossamer web, that must be shown in its entirety, as to split it up is to destroy it.
The ensuing winter and spring were passed agreeably in visits with her husband to his family at Nerac, Gascony, and to friends in the neighborhood. In the summer of 1826 their wanderings ended. Once more they settled down at Nohant, where Madame Dudevant, except for a few brief absences on visits to friends, or to health resorts in the vicinity, remained stationary for the next four years, during which her after-destiny was unalterably shaping itself.
It is perfectly idle to speculate on what might have happened had her lot in marriage turned out a fortunate one, or had she married for love, or had the moral character of the partner of her life preserved any solid claim on her respect, since the contrary was unhappily the case. Their situation, no doubt, was anomalous. In the young girl of barely eighteen, country-bred and intellectually immature, whom M. Dudevant had chosen to marry, who could have discerned one of the greatest poetical geniuses and most powerful minds of the century? Some commiseration might a priori be felt for the petty squire's son who had taken the hand of the pretty country-heiress, promising himself, no doubt, a comfortable jog-trot existence in the ordinary groove, to discover in after years that he was mated with the most remarkable woman that had made herself heard of in the literary world since Sappho! But he remained fatally blind to the nature of the development that was taking place under his eyes, preserving to the last the serenest contempt for his wife's intelligence. Her large mind and enthusiastic temperament sought in vain for moral sympathy from a narrow common spirit, and in proportion as her faculties unfolded, increasing disparity between them brought increasing estrangement. Such a strong artist-nature may require for its expansion an amount of freedom not easily compatible with domestic happiness. But of real domestic happiness she never had a fair chance, and for a time the will to make the best of her lot as it was cast appears not to have been wanting.
The Dudevants, after their return home in 1826, began to mix more freely in such society as La Chatre and the environs afforded, and at certain seasons there was no lack of provincial gayeties. Aurore Dudevant all her life long was quite indifferent to what she has summarily dismissed as "the silly vanities of finery"—"Souffrir pour etre belle" was what from her girlhood she declined to do. Regard for the brightness of her eyes, her complexion, the whiteness of her hands, the shape of her foot, never made her sacrifice her midnight study, her walks in the sunshine, or her good country sabots for the rough lanes of Berry. "To live under glass, in order not to get tanned, or chapped, or faded before the time, is what I have always found impossible," she for her part has acknowledged. And she cared very moderately for general society. She writes to her mother in spring, 1826: "It is not the thing of all others that reposes, or even that amuses me best; still there are obligations in this life, which one must take as they come." She was not yet two-and-twenty, and carnival-tide with its social "obligations" in the form of balls and receptions was not unwelcome. They snatched her away from her increasing depression. She writes of these diversions to her mother in a lively strain, describing how one ball was kept up till nine o'clock the next day, how every Sunday morning the cure preaches against dancing, but in the evening the dance goes on in despite of him—how this cross cure is not their own parish cure of St. Chartier,—a very old friend and a "character" who, when Madame Dudevant was five-and-thirty, used to say of her, "Aurore is a child I have always been fond of." "As for him, if only he were sixty years younger," she adds, "I would undertake to make him dance himself if I set about it." Then follows an amusing sketch of a rustic bridal, the double marriage of two members of the Nohant establishment:
The wedding-feast came off in our coach-houses—there was dinner in one, dancing in the other. The splendor was such as you may imagine; three tallow candle-ends by way of illumination, lots of home-made wine for refreshment; the orchestra consisting of a bagpipe and a hurdy-gurdy, the noisiest and, therefore, the best appreciated in the country side. We invited some friends over from La Chatre, and made fools of ourselves in a hundred thousand ways; as, for instance, dressing up as peasants in the evening and disguising ourselves so well as not to recognize each other. Madame Duplessis was charming in a red petticoat; Ursule, in a blue blouse and a big hat was a most comical fellow; Casimir, got up as a beggar, had some halfpence given him in all good faith; Stephane, whom I think you know, as a spruce peasant, made believe to have been drinking, stumbled against our sous-prefet and accosted him—he is a nice fellow, and was just going to depart when all of a sudden he recognized us. Well, it was a most farcical evening, and would have amused you I will engage. Perhaps you, too, would have been tempted to put on the country-cap, and I will answer for it that there would not have been a pair of black eyes to compete with yours.
In other letters written in a vein of charming good humor, her facility and spirit are shown in her treatment of trivial incidents, or sketches of local characters, as this, for example, of an ancient female servant in her employ:
The strangest old woman in the world—active, industrious, clean and faithful, but an unimaginable grumbler. She grumbles by day, and I think by night, when asleep. She grumbles whilst making the butter, she grumbles when feeding the poultry, she grumbles even at her meals. She grumbles at other people, and when she is alone she grumbles at herself. I never meet her without asking her how her grumbling is getting on, and she grumbles away more than ever.
And elsewhere she has her fling at the little squabbles and absurdities of provincial society, the "sets" and petty distinctions, giving a humorous relation of the collapse of her well-meaning efforts, in conjunction with friends at the sous-prefecture, to do away with some of these caste prejudices, of the horror and indignation created in the oligarchy of La Chatre by the apparition of an inoffensive music-master and his wife at the sous-prefet's reception, horror so great that on the next occasion, the salon of the official was unfurnished with guests, except for the said music-master and the Dudevants themselves. She wrote a poetical skit to commemorate the incident, which created great amusement among her friends.
In the autumn, 1828, her daughter Solange was born. The care of her two children, to whom she was devoted, occupied her seriously. Maurice's education was beginning, a fresh inducement to her to study that she might be better able to superintend his instruction. His least indisposition put her into a fever of anxiety. Her own health during all these years had repeatedly given cause for alarm. Symptoms of chest-disease showed themselves, but afterwards disappeared, her constitutional vigor triumphing in the end over complaints which seem to a great extent to have been of a nervous order. Meantime her domestic horizon was becoming overcast at many points.
Her brother, Hippolyte Chatiron, now married, came with his family to settle in the neighborhood, and spent some time at Nohant. He had fallen into the fatal habit of drinking, in which he was joined by M. Dudevant to the degradation of his habits and, it would be charitable to suppose, to the confusion of his intelligence. This grave ill came to make an open break in the household calm, hitherto undisturbed on the surface. Low company and its brutalizing influences were tending to bring about a state of things to which the most patient of wives might find it hard to submit. A role of complete self-effacement was not one it was in her power long to sustain, and the utter moral solitude into which she was thrown consolidated those forces inclining her to the extreme of self-assertion. For together with trials without came the growing sense of superiority, the ennui and unrest springing from mental faculties with insufficient outlet, and moreover, denied the very shadow of appreciation at home, where she saw the claim to her deference and allegiance co-exist with a repudiation she resented of all idea of the reciprocity of such engagements.
She had voluntarily handed over the management of her property—the revenue of which was hardly proportionate to the necessary expenses and required careful economy—to her husband, an arrangement which left her, even for pocket money, dependent on him. She now set herself to devise some means of adding to her resources by private industry. The more ambitious project of securing by her own exertions a separate maintenance for herself and her children would at this time have seemed chimerical, but it haunted her as a dream long before it took definite shape.
It was not in literature that she first fancied she saw her way to earning an independent income. She had begun to make amateur essays in novel-writing, but was as dissatisfied with them as with the compositions of her childhood, and with a religious novelette she had produced whilst in the convent, and speedily committed to the flames. Again, alluding to her attempts, in 1825, at descriptions of the Pyrenees, she says: "I was not capable then of satisfying myself by what I wrote, for I finished nothing, and did not even acquire a taste for writing."
But she had dabbled in painting, and remained fond of it. "The finest of the arts," she calls it, writing to her mother in 1830, "and the most pleasant, as a life-occupation, whether taken up for a profession, or for amusement merely. If I had real talent, I should consider such a lot the finest in the world." But neither did the decoration of fans and snuff-boxes nor the production of little water-color likenesses of her children and friends, beyond which her art did not go, promise anything brilliant in the way of remuneration.
In her circle of friends at La Chatre—old family friends who had known her all her life—were those who had recognized and admired her superior ability. Here, too, she met more than one young spirit with literary aspirations, and one, at least, M. Jules Sandeau, who was afterwards to achieve distinguished literary success. The desire to go and do likewise came and took hold of her, together with the conviction of her capability to make her mark. However discontented with her essays in novel-writing hitherto, she began to be conscious she was on the right track. The Revolution of July, 1830, had just been successfully accomplished, and new hopes and ambitions for the world in general, and their own country in particular, lent a stimulus to the intellectual activity of the youth of France—a movement too strong not to make itself felt, even in Berry.
The state of things at Nohant for the last two years had, as we have seen, been tending rather to stifle than to keep alive any hesitation or compunction Madame Dudevant might have felt at breaking openly from her present condition. In a letter, dated October, 1830, to her son's private tutor, M. Boucoiran, who had then been a year under their roof in that capacity, she remarks, significantly:
You often wonder at my mobility of temper, my flexible character. What would become of me without this power of self-distraction? You know all in my life, and you ought to understand that but for that happy turn of mind which makes me quickly forget a sorrow, I should be disagreeable and perpetually withdrawn into myself, useless to others, insensible to their affection.
The distance between herself and her husband had, indeed, been widening until now the sole real link between them was their joint love for the children. No pretence of mutual affection existed any longer. Madame Dudevant's feeling seems to have been of indifference merely; M. Dudevant's of dislike, mingled, probably, with a little fear. It appears that he committed to paper his sentiments on the subject, and that this document, ostensibly intended by him not to be opened till after his death, was found and perused by his wife. It was the provocation thus occasioned her, and the certainty thus acquired of her husband's aversion to her society, that brought matters to a climax; so, at least, she asserted in the heat of the moment. But nothing, we imagine, could long have deferred her next step, strange and venturesome though it was. Violent in acting on a determination when taken, after the manner, as she observes, of those whose determinations are slow in forming, she declared her intentions to her husband, and obtained his consent to her plan.
According to this singular arrangement she was to be permitted to spend every alternate three months in Paris, where she proposed to try her fortune with her pen. She looked forward to having her little girl to be there with her as soon as she was comfortably settled, supposing the experiment to succeed. For half the year she would continue to reside, as hitherto, at Nohant, so as not to be long separated from her son, who was old enough to miss her, and to part from whom, on any terms, cost her dear. But he was to be sent to school in two years, and for the meantime she had secured for him the care and services of M. Boucoiran, whom she thoroughly trusted.
Her husband was to allow her L120 a year out of her fortune, and on condition that the allowance should not be exceeded, he left her at liberty to get on as she chose, abstaining from further interference.
It seems obvious that this compromise, whilst postponing, could only render more inevitable a future separation on less amicable terms, though neither appear to have realized it at the time. Madame Dudevant can have had no motive to blind her in the matter beyond her desire, in detaching herself from her present position, not to disconnect her life from that of her children. The freedom she demanded it was probably too late to deny. Those about her, her husband and M. Chatiron, who, with his family, was temporarily domesticated at Nohant, and who so far supported her as to offer her the loan of rooms held by him in Paris, for the first part of her stay, thought her resolution but a caprice. And viewed by the light of her subsequent success it is hard now to realize the boldness of an undertaking whose consequences, had it failed, must have been humiliating and disastrous. She had no practical knowledge of the world, had received no artistic training, and enjoyed none of the advantages of intellectual society. But she had extraordinary courage, spirit, and energy, springing no doubt from a latent sense of extraordinary powers, almost matured, though as yet but half-manifest. So much she knew of herself, and states modestly: "I had discovered that I could write quickly, easily, and for long at a time without fatigue; that my ideas, torpid in my brain, woke up and linked themselves together deductively in the flow of the pen; that in my life of seclusion, I had observed a good deal, and understood pretty well the characters I had chanced to come across, and that, consequently, I knew human nature well enough to describe it." A most moderate estimate, in which, however, she had yet to convince people that she was not self-deceived.
DEBUT IN LITERATURE.
In the first days of January 1831, the Rubicon was passed. The step, though momentous in any case to Madame Dudevant, was one whose ultimate consequences were by none less anticipated than by herself, when to town she came, still undecided whether her future destiny were to decorate screens and tea-caddies, or to write books, but resolved to give the literary career a trial.
For actual subsistence she had her small fixed allowance from home; for credentials she was furnished with an introduction or two to literary men from her friends in the country who had some appreciation, more or less vague, of her intellectual powers. Though courageous and determined, she was far from self-confident; she asked herself if she might not be mistaking a mere fancy for a faculty, and her first step was to seek the opinion of some experienced authority as to her talent and chances.
M. de Keratry, a popular novelist, to whom she was recommended, spoke his mind to her without restraint. It was to the crushing effect that a woman ought not to write at all. Her sex, Madame Dudevant was informed, can have no proper place in literature whatsoever. M. Delatouche, proprietor of the Figaro, poet and novelist besides, and cousin of her old and intimate friends the Duvernets, of La Chatre, was a shade more encouraging, even so far committing himself as to own that, if she would not let herself be disgusted by the struggles of a beginner, there might be a distant possibility for her of making some sixty pounds a year by her pen. Such specimens of her fiction as she submitted to him he condemned without appeal, but he encouraged her to persevere in trying to improve upon them, and advised her well in advising her to avoid imitation of any school or master, and fearlessly to follow her own bent.
Meantime he took her on to the staff of his paper, then in its infancy and comparative obscurity. Journalism however was the department of literature least suited to her capabilities, and her fellow-contributors, though so much less highly gifted than Madame Dudevant, excelled her easily in the manufacture of leaders and paragraphs to order. To produce an article of a given length, on a given subject, within a given time, was for her the severest of ordeals; here her exuberant facility itself was against her. She would exhaust the space allotted to her, and find herself obliged to break off just at the point when she felt herself "beginning to begin." But she justly valued this apprenticeship as a professional experience, bringing her into direct relations with the literary world she was entering as a perfect stranger. Once able to devote herself entirely to composition and to live for her work, she found her calling begin to assert itself despotically. In a letter to a friend, M. Duteil, at La Chatre, dated about six weeks after her arrival in Paris, she writes:—
If I had foreseen half the difficulties that I find, I should not have undertaken this enterprise. Well, the more I encounter the more I am resolved to proceed. Still, I shall soon be returning home again, perhaps without having succeeded in launching my boat, but with hopes of doing better another time, and with plans of working harder than ever.
Three weeks later we find her writing to her son's tutor, M. Boucoiran, in the same strain:—
I am more than ever determined to follow the literary career. In spite of the disagreeables I often meet with, in spite of days of sloth and fatigue that come and interrupt my work, in spite of the more than humble life I lead here, I feel that henceforth my existence is filled. I have an object, a task, better say it at once, a passion. The profession of a writer is a violent one, and so to speak, indestructible. Once let it take possession of your wretched head, you cannot stop. I have not been successful; my work was thought too unreal by those whom I asked for advice.
But still she persisted, providing, as best she could, "copy" for the Figaro, at seven francs a column, and trying the experiment of literary collaboration, working at fictions and magazine articles, the joint productions of herself and her friend and fellow-student, Jules Sandeau, who wrote for the Revue de Paris. It was under his name that these compositions appeared, Madam Dudevant, in these first trial-attempts, being undesirous to bring hers before the public.
"I have no time to write home," she pleads, petitioning M. Boucoiran for news from the country, "but I like getting letters from Nohant, it rests my heart and my head."
And alluding to her approaching temporary return thither, in accordance with the terms of her agreement with M. Dudevant, she writes to M. Charles Duvernet:—
I long to get back to Berry, for I love my children more than all besides, and, but for the hopes of becoming one day more useful to them with the scribe's pen than with the housekeeper's needle, I should not leave them for so long. But in spite of innumerable obstacles I mean to take the first steps in this thorny career.
In her case it was really the first step only that cost dear; whilst against the annoyances with which, as a new comer, she had to contend, there was ample compensation to set in the novel interests of the intellectual, political, and artistic world stirring around her. Country life and peasant life she had had the opportunity of studying from her youth up; of middle-class society she had sufficient experience; she counted relatives and friends among the noblesse, and had moved in those charmed circles; but the republic of art and letters, to which by nature and inclination she emphatically belonged, was a land of promise first opened up to her now. She was eager and impatient to deprovincialize herself.
In the art galleries of the Louvre, at the theatre and the opera, in the daily interchange of ideas on all kinds of topics with her little circle of intelligent acquaintance, her mind grew richer by a thousand new impressions and enjoyments, and rapidly took fresh strength together with fresh knowledge. The heavy practical obstacles that interfere with such self-education on the part of one of her sex were seriously aggravated in her case by her narrow income. How she surmounted them is well known; assuming on occasion a disguise which, imposing on all but the initiated, enabled her everywhere to pass for a collegian of sixteen, and thus to go out on foot in all weathers, at all hours, alone if necessary, unmolested and unobserved, in theatre or restaurant, boulevard or reading-room. In defense of her adoption of this strange measure, she pleads energetically the perishable nature of feminine attire in her day,—a day before double-soles or ulsters formed part of a lady's wardrobe,—its incompatibility with the incessant going to and fro which her busy life required, the exclusion of her sex from the best part of a Paris theatre, and so forth; the ineffable superiority of a costume which, economy and comfort apart, secured her equal independence with her men competitors in the race, and identical advantages as to the rapid extension of her field of observation. The practice, though never carried on by her to such an extent as very commonly asserted, was one to which she did not hesitate to resort now and then in later years, as a mere measure of convenience—a measure the world will only tolerate in the Rosalinds and Violas of the stage. The career of George Sand was, like her nature, entirely exceptional, and any attempt to judge it in any other light lands us in hopeless moral contradictions. She had extraordinary incentives to prompt her to extraordinary actions, which may be condemned or excused, but which there could be no greater mistake than to impute to ordinary vulgar motives. It must also be remembered that fifty years ago, the female art student had no recognized existence. She was shut out from that modicum of freedom and of practical advantages it were arbitrary to deny, and which may now be enjoyed by any earnest art aspirant in almost any great city. However unjustifiable the proceeding resorted to for a time by George Sand and Rosa Bonheur may be held to be, it cannot possibly be said they had no motive for it but a fantastic one.
Writing to her mother from Nohant, whither she had returned in April for a length of time as agreed, Madam Dudevant speaks out characteristically in defense of her love of independence:—
I am far from having that love of pleasure, that need of amusement with which you credit me. Society, sights, finery, are not what I want,—you only are under this mistake about me,—it is liberty. To be all alone in the street and able to say to myself, I shall dine at four or at seven, according to my good pleasure; I shall go to the Tuileries by way of the Luxembourg instead of going by the Champs Elysees; this is what amuses me far more than silly compliments and stiff drawing-room assemblies.
Such audacious self-emancipation, she was well aware, must estrange her from her friends of her own sex in the upper circles of Parisian society, and she anticipated this by making no attempt to renew such connections. For the moment she thought only of taking the shortest, and, as she judged, the only way for a "torpid country wife," like herself, to acquire the freedom of action and the enlightenment she needed. Those most nearly related to her offered no opposition. It was otherwise with her mother-in-law, the baronne Dudevant, with whom she had a passage-of-arms at the outset on the subject of her literary campaign, here disapproved in toto.
"Is it true," enquired this lady, "that it is your intention to print books?"
"Well, I call that an odd notion!"
"That is all very good and very fine, but I hope you are not going to put the name that I bear on the covers of printed books?"
"Oh, certaintly not, madame, there is no danger."
The liberty to which other considerations were required to give way was certainly complete enough. The beginning of July found her back at work in the capital. On the Quai St. Michel—a portion of the Seine embankment facing the towers of Notre Dame, the Sainte Chapelle, and other picturesque monuments of ancient Paris—she had now definitely installed herself in modest lodgings on the fifth story. Accepted and treated as a comrade by a little knot of fellow literati and colleagues on the Figaro, two of whom—Jules Sandeau and Felix Pyat—were from Berry, like herself; and with Delatouche, also a Berrichon, for their head-master, she served thus singularly her brief apprenticeship to literature and experience;—sharing with the rest both their studies and their relaxations, dining with them at cheap restaurants, frequenting clubs, studios, and theatres of every degree; the youthful effervescence of her student-friends venting itself in such collegians' pranks as parading deserted quarters of the town by moonlight, in the small hours, chanting lugubrious strains to astonish the shopkeepers. The only great celebrity whose acquaintance she had made was Balzac, himself the prince of eccentrics. Although he did not encourage Madame Dudevant's literary ambition, he showed himself kindly disposed towards her and her young friends, and she gives some amusing instances that came under her notice of his oddities. Thus, once after a little Bohemian dinner at his lodgings in the Rue Cassini, he insisted on putting on a new and magnificent dressing-gown, of which he was exceedingly vain, to display to his guests, of whom Madame Dudevant was one; and not satisfied therewith, must needs go forth, thus accoutred, to light them on their walk home. All the way he continued to hold forth to them about four Arab horses, which he had not got yet, but meant to get soon, and of which, though he never got them at all, he firmly believed himself to have been possessed for some time. "He would have escorted us thus," says Madame Dudevant, "from one extremity of Paris to another, if we had let him."
Twice again before the end of the year, faithful to her original intentions, we find her returning to her place as mistress of the house at Nohant, occupying herself with her children, and working at the novel Indiana, which was to create her reputation the following year.
Meanwhile, a novelette, La Prima Donna, the outcome of the literary collaboration with Jules Sandeau, had found its way into a magazine, the Revue de Paris; and was followed by a longer work of fiction, of the same double authorship, entitled Rose et Blanche, published under Sandeau's nom de plume of Jules Sand.
This literary partnership was not to last long, and to-day the novel will be found omitted in the list of the respective works of its authors. Its perusal will hardly repay the curious. The powerful genius of Madame Dudevant, the elegant talent of the author of Mlle. de la Seigliere, are mostly conspicuous by their absence in Rose et Blanche, or La Comedienne et la Religieuse, an imitative attempt, and not a happy one, in the style of fiction then in vogue.
Madame Dudevant had stepped into the literary world at the moment of the most ardent activity of the Romantic movement. The new school was on the point of achieving its earliest signal triumphs. Victor Hugo's first poems had just been followed by the dramas Hernani and Marion Delorme. Dumas' Antony was drawing crowded and enthusiastic houses. A few months before the publication of Rose et Blanche appeared Notre Dame de Paris. The passion for innovation which had seized on all the younger school of writers was leading many astray. The strange freaks of Hugo's genius had, to quote Madame Dudevant's own expression, excited a "ferocious appetite" for whatever was most outrageous, and set taste, precedent, and probability most flatly at defiance. From those aberrations into which the great master's imitators had been betrayed Madame Dudevant's fine art-instincts were calculated to preserve her; but she had not yet learned to trust to them implicitly.
Rose et Blanche, though containing many clever passages—waifs and strays of shrewd observation, description and character analysis,—is in the main ill-conceived, ill-constructed, and unreal. The two authors have sacrificed their individualities in a mistaken effort to follow the fashion's lead, resulting in a most ineffective compound of tameness and sensationalism. Amazing adventures are undergone by each heroine before she is one-and-twenty. Angels of innocence, they are doomed to have their existences crushed out by the heartless conduct of man, Blanche expiring of dismay almost as soon as she is led from the altar, Rose burying herself and her despair in a convent. The then favorite heroes of romance were of the French Byronic type—young men of fortune who have exhausted life before they are five-and-twenty, whose minds are darkened by haunting memories of some terrific crime, but who are none the less capable of all the virtues and great elevation of sentiment on occasion. None of these requisitions are left unfulfilled by the unamiable hero of Rose et Blanche, a work which did little to advance the fortunes of its authors, and whose intrinsic merits offer little warrant for dragging it out of the oblivion into which it has been suffered to drop.
To escape the influences of the literary revolution everywhere then triumphant was of course impossible. To make them serve her individual genius instead of enslaving her individuality was all Madame Dudevant needed to learn. Her friend Balzac had done this for himself, suiting his genius to the period without any sacrifice of originality. Although not yet at the height of his fame he had produced many most successful works, and Madame Dudevant, according to her own account, derived great profit from the study of his method, although with no inclination to follow in his direction. Yet he afterwards observed to her, "Our two roads lead to the same goal."
Rose et Blanche, though little noticed by the public, brought a publisher to the door, one Ernest Dupuy, with an order for another novel by the same authors. Indiana was ready-written, and came in response to the demand. But as Sandeau had had no hand whatever in this composition, the signature had of course to be varied. The publisher wishing to connect the new novel with its predecessor it was decided to alter the prefix only. She fixed on George, as representative of Berry, the land of husbandmen; and George Sand thus became pseudonym of the author of Indiana, a pseudonym whose origin imaginative critics have sought far afield and some have discovered in her alleged sympathy with Kotzebue's murderer, Karl Sand, and political assassination in general! Its assumption was to inaugurate a new era in her life.
In the last days of April, 1832, appeared Indiana, by George Sand. "I took," says Madame Dudevant, in her account of the transaction, "the 1,200 francs paid me by the publisher, which to me were a little fortune, hoping he would see his money back again." She had recently returned from one of her periodical visits to Nohant, accompanied this time by her little girl, whom the progress already achieved enabled her now to take into her charge, and was living very quietly and studiously in her humble establishment on the Quai St. Michel, when she awoke to find herself famous.
Her success, for which indeed there had been nothing to prepare her—neither flattery of friends, nor vain-glorious ambition within herself—was immediate and conclusive. Whatever differences of opinion might exist about the book, critics agreed in recognizing there the revelation of a new writer of extraordinary power. "One of those masters who have been gifted with the enchanter's wand and mirror," wrote Sainte-Beuve, a few months later, when he did not hesitate to compare the young author to Madame de Stael. The novel of sentimental analysis, a style in which George Sand is unsurpassed, was then a fresh and promising field. Indiana, without the aid of marvellous incidents, startling crimes, or iniquitous mysteries, riveted the attention of its readers as firmly as the most thrilling tales of adventure and horror. It is a "soul's tragedy," and that is all—the love-tragedy vulgarized since by repeated treatment by inferior novelists, of a romantic, sensitive, passionate, high-natured girl, hopelessly ill-mated with a somewhat tyrannical and stupid, yet not entirely ill-disposed old colonel, and exposed to the seductions of a Lovelace—the truth about whose unloveable character, in its profound and heartless egoism, first bursts upon her at the moment when, maddened by brutal insult, she is driven to claim the generous devotion he has proffered a thousand times. Side by side with the ideal of selfishness, Raymon stands in contrast with the ideally chivalrous Ralph, Indiana's despised cousin, who, loving her disinterestedly and in silence, has watched over her as a guardian-friend to the last, and does save her ultimately. The florid descriptions, the high-flown strains of emotion, which now strike as blemishes in the book, were counted beauties fifty years since; and even to-day, when reaction has brought about an extreme distaste for emotional writing, they cannot conceal the superior ability of the novelist. The sentiment, however extravagantly worded, is genuine and spontaneous, and has the true ring of passionate conviction. The characters are vividly, if somewhat closely drawn and contrasted, the scenes graphic; every page is colored by fervid imagination, and despite some violations of probability in the latter portion, out of keeping artistically with the natural character of the rest of the book, the whole has the strength of that unity and completeness of conception which is the distinguishing stamp of a genius of the first order. The entrain of the style is irresistible. It was written, she tells us, tout d'un jet, under the force of a stimulus from within. Ceasing to counterfeit the manner of anyone, or to consult the exigencies of the book-market, she for the first time ventures to be herself responsible for the inspiration and the mode of expression adopted.
The papers spoke of the new novel in high tones of praise, the public read it with avidity. The authorship, for a time, continued to perplex people. In spite of the masculine pseudonym, certain feminine qualities, niceties of perception and tenderness, were plainly recognized in the work, but the possibility that so vigorous and well-executed a composition could come from a feminine hand was one then reckoned scarcely admissible. Even among those already in the secret were sceptics who questioned the author's power to sustain her success, since nearly everybody, it is said, can produce one good novel.
"The success of Indiana has thrown me into dismay," writes Madame Dudevant, in July, 1832, to M. Charles Duvernet, at La Chatre. "Till now, I thought my writing was without consequence, and would not merit the slightest attention. Fate has decreed otherwise. The unmerited admiration of which I have become the object must be justified." And Valentine was already in progress; and its publication, not many months after Indiana, to be a conclusive answer to the challenge.
The season of 1832, in which George Sand made her debut in literature, was marked, in Paris, by public events of the most tragic character. In the spring, the cholera made its appearance, and struck panic into the city. Six people died in the house where Madame Dudevant resided, but neither she nor any of her friends were attacked. She was next to be a witness of political disturbances equally terrible. The disappointment felt by the Liberals at the results of the Revolution of 1830, and of the establishment of Louis Philippe's Government, upon which such high hopes had been founded, was already beginning to assert itself in secret agitation, and in the sanguinary street insurrections, such as that of June, 1832, sanguinarily repressed. Madame Dudevant at this time had no formulated political creed, and political subjects were those least attractive to her. But though born in the opposite camp she felt all her natural sympathies incline to the Republican side. They were further intensified by the scenes of which she was an eye-witness, and which roused a similar feeling even among anti-revolutionists. Thus Heine, in giving an account of the struggle mentioned above, and speaking of the enthusiasts who sacrificed their lives in this desperate demonstration, exclaims: "I am, by God! no Republican. I know that if the Republicans conquer they will cut my throat, and all because I don't admire all they admire; but yet the tears came into my eyes as I trod those places still stained with their blood. I had rather I, and all my fellow-moderates, had died than those Republicans."
Amid such disturbing influences it is not surprising that we find her complaining in the letter last quoted that her work makes no progress; but the lost time was made up for by redoubled industry during her summer visit to Nohant.