The Good Lady of Nohant

Pierre Ferrand


T

hough she was no longer there, except in spirit (she died in 1876), I visited George Sand at Nohant last September with my wife, Binnie. This was more by accident than on purpose. We were driving eastward across central France to get to Taize, the ecumenical center not far from Lyons where Binnie wanted to spend a few days. On the way, we landed in La Chatre, a small town in the province of Berry. I noticed signs indicating the little town had a “Musee George Sand.”

  Nohant

The family estate, Nohant, with an inset of George Sand. From the collection of Pierre Ferand.

 

We found it in a tower, which had served as a prison. I was non-plussed to find that the ground floor was dedicated to an exhibit of many caged birds, though the second floor did contain a well-presented selection of George Sand books and manuscripts as well as iconographic materials illustrating her life and career. George Sand mentioned many times that she loved birds, but she preferred them free.

La Chatre is less than three miles from Nohant, the estate she inherited from her grandmother, one of whose ancestors had been a King of Poland and who was thus related to all the royal houses of Europe, including the French Bourbons. On the other hand, Aurora Dupin, Baronne Dudevant, who adopted the pen name of George Sand, took pride in the fact that her mother was of most humble birth. She also disliked La Chatre because she had been the victim of its narrow-minded small-town gossip since her youth.

Since Nohant had been the focal point of George Sand’s life and indeed of many of her writings, I had always wanted to see it. However, since it is literally “in the middle of nowhere,” in the center of France, I did not expect that my wish would ever be fulfilled. The fact that I happened to be in the neighborhood proved to be the opportunity of a lifetime to visit the estate and the big, unpretentious but tastefully furnished house surrounded by greenery and equipped with all mid-19th Century modern conveniences, including an elaborate kitchen with gleaming copper pots and pans. Though an idealist, she was also practical, compassionate, and balanced. Because of her care for the poor and sick among her neighbors, she was known in her lifetime as “la bonne dame de Nohant (“the good lady of Nohant”).

We saw her tiny office and the desk on which she wrote day after day, year after year, chiefly through the night. We noted her children’s rooms and the huge dining room table, around which her friends had held forth. They included many of the greatest writers and artists of her time: Balzac, Flaubert, Tourgenev, and Delacroix , for instance. They came to visit her and often stayed for weeks, though in the mid-19th Century Nohant was at some three-days’ journey from Paris. Many other contemporaries had a tremendous admiration for her, including Elisabeth Barrett Browning, George Eliot, Dostoevski, and Henry James. Walt Whitman adopted a number of her ideas and ideals.

In her Nohant home, there was the piano, which had been used by her frequent visitors Liszt and Chopin. Though no musician herself, she had excellent taste and considerable knowledge of music and other arts. There was a well-appointed stage inside the house where some of the greatest actors and singers of her time performed for her guests. One of her passions she shared with her son Maurice was an elaborate puppet theatre, which was also set up in her home. Indeed, much of George Sand is still present in Nohant: the lover of nature, the hostess, the practical homemaker, the diligent writer who wrote more than 60 novels, a number of shorter tales, many plays and essays, the woman of taste who greatly appreciated music and other arts, and the devoted mother and grandmother.

Her French prose is almost always a delight, and, her word paintings of landscapes are among the most appealing in world literature. Her works display her considerable intelligence and psychological acuteness, and cover a broad range. Indiana and Valentine, her first two novels, (both of 1832), portray the experience of women in a society in which they have few rights. She became famous (and was much reviled) for insisting upon equal rights in her marital and love relationships, and she generally succeeded in securing them in the end in a very male chauvinistic society. Still, it took her a number of years to disentangle herself from her own loveless marriage and get back control of Nohant.

For most of her life, she yearned for true love, both physical and spiritual, with a man who would be a genuine companion and an equal partner, but failed to meet with her ideal despite her notorious succession of love affairs. She found her lovers (generally a few years younger than she was), to be inadequate if measured by her standards, though they were generally gifted people, or even people of genius, like the poet and playwright Alfred de Musset or Frederick Chopin. After a relatively brief time of infatuation, she came to pity them, and looked at them compassionately as sick children. She was very maternal and nursed them devotedly through illnesses, for she had a strong urge to be helpful and kind. She generally took the initiative in breaking with them (which shocked contemporaries as assuming a male prerogative).

Another early prose work, Lelia (1833), is a romantic oratorio of despair and depression, a brilliant compendium of many romantic attitudes. Her longest and in some ways most impressive novel, Consuelo, with its sequel, The Countess of Rudolstadt (1842-43) has been described as an apprenticeship novel, which is the closest in French to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, though “initiation novel” would perhaps be more accurate. It is a wide-ranging historical saga, covering the musical world of 18th Century Venice, a Bohemia still recovering from the memories of the Hussite wars, the Vienna of Maria Theresa, the Prussia of Frederick the Great, and the mysteries of the Masonic and Illuminati secret societies.

She had a wide range of interests and was open to new ideas, but she was no one’s blind disciple and kept her critical sense. She also scorned the worship of “great men,” though she sincerely admired artistic and human achievements. In Consuelo and other novels, she proclaimed her social ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity, and her opposition to violence and oppression from whatever source. Her works of fiction circulated in a number of countries controlled by oppressive regimes, which did not allow treatises or pamphlets pro-moting such sentiments. They proved to be, for most of the century, trumpet calls for individual rights and the cause of the people everywhere.

She wrote some remarkable accounts of the early industrial revolution, though her most widely read works are four novels located in the rural neighborhood of Nohant, La Mare au Diable, 1846 (The Haunted Pool), La Petite Fadette, 1849, Francois le Champi, 1850 (Francois the Waif), and Les Maitres Sonneurs, 1853 (The Bagpipers), which are among her masterpieces, particularly the last-named story, which echoes, in part, her nine-year relationship with Chopin, though this relationship is reflected more directly in Lucrezia Floriani (1847). She similarly used the experience of her famous affair with Musset, in Elle et Lui (1859), though she knew the difference between any fiction and reality, something which quite a few of her many biographers do not seem to grasp. She always insisted that fiction is “a form of lying,” and does not and indeed cannot present the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Sand is at her most appealing in the stories of her childhood and youth in her 1,500-page autobiography. Also remarkable is her collection of semi-autobiographical essays, the Lettres d’unVoyageur, 1837, and parts of her account of the Un Hiver a Majorque, 1842 (Winter in Majorca), which she spent with Chopin and her two children. Again, she by no means tells everything in these texts. As an example, in Winter in Majorca, Chopin (never mentioned by name), has merely the shadowy presence of a sick man. George Sand, in her writings for the public, is usually discreet, modest, and does not put on airs. She also mentions many times that she was writing “to earn a living,” and, indeed, most of her books were published first as newspaper or magazine serials, like many of the works of Balzac and Dickens.

There is more about her private life and affairs in the 25 large volumes of her extant correspondence, edited 1964-1992 by Georges Lubin. Her letters, most of them interesting and many of them beautifully written, do not require us to change the essential picture of a woman of extraordinary gifts, industry, and good sense, who also had a sense of fun. Being human, she made mistakes, and did not always live up to her ideals. However, she tried hard, and her reputation, for many years, as a domineering, cross-dressing, cigar-smoking nymphomaniac and man-eater who incessantly scribbled commonplace effusions, is an absurd caricature. She was, on the contrary, well-meaning, rather quiet, unassuming, without pretence, and a good listener. While spontaneous, she was also disciplined and well organized. Fortunately, in the past half century, numerous students in France and elsewhere have come to a better appreciation of George Sand as a great writer and a fine human being who was also a complex and fascinating person.

Bibliographical note: Since the publication of Andre Maurois’s biography of George Sand 50 years ago, in 1952 (in both French and English), there has been a new appreciation of her as a writer and a woman, and a large number of studies and other biographies in a number of languages. In English, one of the most substantial (though still overly negative, to my mind) is by Curtis Cate (1975). I would single out as more sensitive and balanced the biographies of Frances Winwar, Joseph Barry, and Belinda Jack. There are others.

George Sand’s abundant work is admittedly uneven, but even the lesser products of her pen can prove intriguing because she was both intelligent and interesting herself and because she frequently dealt with issues which still remain significant. Most of the titles mentioned above (the dates given are those of publications in book form), continue to be in print both in French and in English. Many more are available in editions by specialist presses or in second-hand bookstores both in France and in the U.S.

However, only substantial libraries, like the Newberry, have comprehensive editions of her collected works in French (109 volumes, not re-edited since the 19th Century), or the recent monumental edition of her correspondence mentioned above. (There are several English translations of partial editions of her correspondence, including at least two of the remarkable exchange of letters between her and a very different writer, who admired her greatly, Gustave Flaubert.) Her autobiographical works have been published in a two-volume definitive edition by Georges Lubin (Editions de la Pleiade), with substantial portions of them also available in English.

The dates mentioned above for Sand’s writings are those of the first publication in book form. A number of her novels have been republished since the 1950s in French scholarly editions by Classiques Garnier and in popular editions, and, indeed, about half a dozen of them have never been out of print. Other titles have been republished by small publishers and feminist presses. Many of her novels have been available in English, including some, for many years, in standard popular editions (The World’s Classics, Everyman’s, etc.)

The local Academy Chicago Publishers lists nine Sand titles, including Indiana, Valentine, Lucrezia Floriani, The Bagpipers, and a re-edition of the translation of Winter in Majorca by the brilliant (but very opinionated) writer Robert Graves. Indeed, some have joked that this respectable publishing house was “built on Sand.” The books can be ordered through their website.

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