23 January 2012

George Sand amuses us and herself

 George Sand (née Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin) 1804-1876

Some aspects of her life and writing by René Doumic

George Sand (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin) wrote for nearly half a century. For fifty times three hundred and sixty-five days, she never let a day pass by without covering more pages than other writers did in a month. Her first books shocked people, her early opinions were greeted with storms. From that time forth she rushed head-long into everything new, she welcomed every chimera and passed it on to us with more force and passion in it. Vibrating with every breath, electrified by every storm, she looked up at every cloud behind which she fancied she saw a star shining. The work of another novelist has been called a repertory of human documents. But what a repertory of ideas her work was! She has said what she had to say on nearly every subject; on love, the family, social institutions and on the various forms of government. And with all this she was a woman. Her case is almost unique in the history of letters. It is intensely interesting to study the influence of this woman of genius on the evolution of modern thought.

There was only one marked trait in her character as a child, and that was a great tendency to reverie. For long hours she would remain alone, motionless, gazing into space. People were anxious about her when they saw her looking so "stupid", but her mother invariably said: "Do not be alarmed. She is always ruminating about something."
Following the failure of trip to a convent and then an early marriage, Sand remained an individual instead of harmonizing and blending in a general whole. Her ill-assorted union merely accentuated and strengthened her individualism. She arrived alone in Paris the first week of the year 1831. The woman who was rebellious to marriage was now in a city which had just had a revolution.

The extraordinary effervescence of Paris in 1831 can readily be imagined. There was tempest in the air, and this tempest was bound to break out here or there, either immediately or in the near future, in an insurrection. Every one was feverishly anxious to destroy everything, in order to create all things anew. In everything—art, ideas and even in costume—there was the same explosion of indiscipline, the same triumph of capriciousness. Every day some fresh system of government was born, some new method of philosophy, an infallible receipt for bringing about universal happiness, an unheard-of idea for manufacturing masterpieces, some invention for dressing up and having a perpetual carnival in the streets. The insurrection was permanent and masquerade a normal state. Besides all this, there was a magnificent burst of youth and genius. Victor Hugo, proud of having fought the battle of "Hernani", was then thinking of "Notre-Dame" and climbing up to it. Musset had just given his "Contes d'Espagne el d'Italie". Stendhal had published "Le Rouge et le Noir", and Balzac "La Peau de Chagrin".  The painters of the day were Delacroix and Delaroche. Paganini was about to give his first concert at the Opera. Such was Paris in all its impatience and impertinence, in its confusion and splendour immediately after the Revolution.

The young wife, who had snapped her bonds asunder, breathed voluptuously in this atmosphere. She was like a provincial woman enjoying Paris to the full. She belonged to the romantic school, and was imbued with the principle that an artist must see everything, know everything, and have experienced himself all that he puts into his books. She found a little group of her friends from Berry in Paris, among others Felix Pyat, Charles Duvernet, Alphonse Fleury, Sandeau and de Latouche. This was the band she frequented, young men apprenticed either to literature, the law, or medicine. With them she lived a student's life. In order to facilitate her various evolutions, she adopted masculine dress. In her "Histoire de ma vie" she says: "Fashion helped me in my disguise, for men were wearing long, square frock-coats styled 'a la proprietaire'. They came down to the heels, and fitted the figure so little that I had a 'sentry-box coat' made, of rough grey cloth, with trousers and waistcoat to match. With a grey hat and a huge cravat of woollen material, I looked exactly like a first-year student. . . ."

Dressed in this style, she explored the streets, museums, cathedrals, libraries, painters' studios, clubs and theatres. She heard Frederick Lemaitre one day, and the next day Malibran. One evening it was one of Dumas' pieces, and the next night "Moise" at the Opera. She took her meals at a little restaurant, and she lived in an attic. She was not even sure of being able to pay her tailor, so she had all the joys possible. "Ah, how delightful, to live an artist's life! Our device is liberty!" she wrote. She lived in a perpetual state of delight, and, in February, wrote to her son Maurice as follows: "Every one is at loggerheads, we are crushed to death in the streets, the churches are being destroyed, and we hear the drum being beaten all night." In March she wrote to Charles Duvernet: "Do you know that fine things are happening here? It really is amusing to see. We are living just as gaily among bayonets and riots as if everything were at peace. All this amuses me."

She was amused at everything and she enjoyed everything. With her keen sensitivity, she revelled in the charm of Paris, and she thoroughly appreciated its scenery.
"Paris," she wrote, "with its vaporous evenings, its pink clouds above the roofs, and the beautiful willows of such a delicate green around the bronze statue of our old Henry, and then, too, the dear little slate-coloured pigeons that make their nests in the old masks of the Pont Neuf . . ."  She loved the Paris sky, so strange-looking, so rich in colouring, so variable. She was over-excited with the joy of her newly-found liberty. It was that really which made her so joyful and which intoxicated her. "I do not want society, excitement, theatres, or dress; what I want is freedom," she wrote to her mother. In another letter she said: "I am absolutely independent. I go to La Chatre, to Rome. I start out at ten o'clock or at midnight. I please myself entirely in all this."

It is not enough to say that George Sand was a born writer. She was a born novelist, and she belonged to a certain category of novelists. She had been created by a special decree of Providence to write her own romances, and not others. It is this which makes the history of the far-back origins of her literary vocation so interesting. It is extremely curious to see, from her earliest childhood, the promises of those faculties which were to become the very essence of her talent. When she was only three years old, her mother used to put her between four chairs in order to keep her still. By way of enlivening her captivity, she tells us what she did.

"I used to make up endless stories, which my mother styled my novels. . . . I told these stories aloud, and my mother declared that they were most tiresome on account of their length and of the development I gave to my digressions. . . . There were very few bad people in them, and never any serious troubles. Everything was always arranged satisfactorily, thanks to my lively, optimistic ideas."

She had already commenced, then, by the age of three, and these early stories are the precursors of the novels of her maturity: optimistic, drawn out, and with long digressions. There is evidently a primordial instinct in those who are born story-tellers, urging them on to invent fine stories for amusing themselves.

[Rene Doumic]

[Images #1 and #3: George Sand painted by Charpentier and Delacroix; Image #2: Artist unknown]


  1. Hi H.! Is Haworth you? It's taken me a while to visit you! I love your cozy little studious haven here. I've visited your first page, but I see that there's so much more! I wonder if you saw Midnight in Paris? This piece reminded me of it. Lots of amusing artists and writers turn up in it, and Paris stars in the film. Thanks so much for your cheery comments!

  2. Hello Jacqueline! I've been thoroughly enjoying your blog as well. I haven't yet seen "Midnight in Paris" but I hope to soon. If you like tales of Paris and American expats, you may enjoy reading a book called "Charmed Circle". http://cottage-industry.blogspot.com/2011/08/rose-is-rose-is-rose-loveliness-extreme.html