Search      Hot    Newest Novel
HOME > Short Stories > Notes on Novelists > GEORGE SAND 1914
Font Size:【Large】【Middle】【Small】 Add Bookmark  
 It has much occurred to us, touching those further liberations of the subordinate sex which fill our ears just now with their multitudinous sound, that the promoters of the great cause make a good deal less than they might of one of their very first contentious “assets,” if it may not indeed be looked at as quite the first; and thereby fail to pass about, to the general elation, a great vessel of truth. Is this because the life and example of George Sand are things unknown or obscure to the talkers and fighters of to-day—present and vivid as they were to those of the last mid-century, or because of some fear that to invoke victory in her name might, for particular, for even rueful reasons, not be altogether a safe course? It is difficult to account otherwise for the fact that so ample and embossed a shield, and one that shines too at last with a strong and settled lustre, is rather left hanging on the wall than seen to cover advances or ward off attacks in the fray. Certain it is that if a lapse of tradition appeared at one time to have left a little in the lurch the figure of the greatest of all women of letters, of Letters in truth most exactly, as we hold her surely to have been, that explanation should have begun to fail, some fourteen years ago, with the publication of the first volume of Madame Wladimir Karénine’s biography, and even in spite of the fact that this singularly interesting work was not till a twelvemonth ago to arrive at the dignity of a third,[7] which leaves it, for all its amplitude, still incomplete. The latest instalment, now before us, follows its predecessors after an interval that had alarmed us not a little for the proper consummation; and the story is even now carried but to the eve of the Revolution of 1848, after which its heroine (that of the Revolution, we may almost say, as well as of the narrative) was to have some twenty-seven years to live. Madame Karénine appears to be a Russian critic writing under a pseudonym; portions of her overbrimming study have appeared dispersedly, we gather, in Russian periodicals, but the harmonious French idiom, of which she is all-sufficient mistress, welds them effectively together, and the result may already be pronounced a commemorative monument of all but the first order. The first order in such attempts has for its sign a faculty of selection and synthesis, not to say a sense of composition and proportion, which neither the chronicler nor the critic in these too multiplied pages is able consistently to exhibit; though on the other hand they represent quite the high-water mark of patience and persistence, of the ideal biographic curiosity. They enjoy further the advantage of the documented state in a degree that was scarce to have been hoped for, every source of information that had remained in reserve—and these proved admirably numerous—having been opened to our inquirer by the confidence of the illustrious lady’s two great-granddaughters, both alive at the time the work was begun. Add to this that there has grown up in France a copious George Sand literature, a vast body of illustrative odds and ends, relics and revelations, on which the would-be propagator of the last word is now free to draw—always with discrimination. Ideally, well-nigh overwhelmingly informed we may at present therefore hold ourselves; and were that state all that is in question for us nothing could exceed our advantage. [7]

George Sand, sa Vie et ses ?uvres, vol. iii. (1838-1848). Par Wladimir Karénine. Paris, Plon, 1912.
Just the beauty and the interest of the case are, however, that such a condition by no means exhausts our opportunity, since in no like connection could it be less said that to know most is most easily or most complacently to conclude. May we not decidedly feel the sense and the “lesson,” the suggestive spread, of a career as a thing scarce really to be measured when the effect of more and more acquaintance with it is simply to make the bounds of appreciation recede? This is why the figure now shown us, blazed upon to the last intensity by the lamplight of investigation, and with the rank oil consumed in the process fairly filling the air, declines to let us off from an hour of that contemplation which yet involves discomfiture for us so long as certain lucidities on our own part, certain serenities of assurance, fail correspondingly to play up. We feel ourselves so outfaced, as it were; we somehow want in any such case to meet and match the assurances with which the subject himself or herself immitigably bristles, and are nevertheless by no means certain that our bringing up premature forces or trying to reply with lights of our own may not check the current of communication, practically without sense for us unless flowing at its fullest. At our biographer’s rate of progress we shall still have much to wait for; but it can meanwhile not be said that we have not plenty to go on with. To this may be added that the stretch of “life,” apart from the more concrete exhibition, already accounted for by our three volumes (if one may discriminate between “production” and life to a degree that is in this connection exceptionally questionable), represents to all appearance the most violently and variously agitated face of the career. The establishment of the Second Empire ushered in for Madame Sand, we seem in course of preparation to make out, the long period already more or less known to fame, that is to criticism, as the period of her great placidity, her more or less notorious appeasement; a string of afternoon hours as hazily golden as so many reigns of Antonines, when her genius had mastered the high art of acting without waste, when a happy play of inspiration had all the air, so far as our spectatorship went, of filling her large capacity and her beautiful form to the brim, and when the gathered fruit of what she had dauntlessly done and been heaped itself upon her table as a rich feast for memory and philosophy. So she came in for the enjoyment of all the sagesse her contemporaries (with only such exceptions as M. Paul de Musset and Madame Louise Colet and the few discordant pleaders for poor Chopin) finally rejoiced on their side to acclaim; the sum of her aspects “composing,” arranging themselves in relation to each other, with a felicity that nothing could exceed and that swept with great glosses and justifications every aspect of the past. To few has it been given to “pay” so little, according to our superstition of payment, in proportion to such enormities of ostensibly buying or borrowing—which fact, we have to recognise, left an existence as far removed either from moral, or intellectual, or even social bankruptcy as if it had proceeded from the first but on the most saving lines.
That is what remains on the whole most inimitable in the picture—the impression it conveys of an art of life by which the rough sense of the homely adage that we may not both eat our cake and have it was to be signally falsified; this wondrous mistress of the matter strikes us so as having consumed her refreshment, her vital supply, to the last crumb, so far as the provision meant at least freedom and ease, and yet having ever found on the shelf the luxury in question undiminished. Superlatively interesting the idea of how this result was, how it could be, achieved—given the world as we on our side of the water mainly know it; and it is as meeting the mystery that the monument before us has doubtless most significance. We shall presently see, in the light of our renewed occasion, how the question is solved; yet we may as well at once say that this will have had for its conclusion to present our heroine—mainly figuring as a novelist of the romantic or sentimental order once pre-eminent but now of shrunken credit—simply as a supreme case of the successful practice of life itself. We have to distinguish for this induction after a fashion in which neither Madame Sand nor her historian has seemed at all positively concerned to distinguish; the indifference on the historian’s part sufficiently indicated, we feel, by the complacency with which, to be thorough, she explores even the most thankless tracts of her author’s fictional activity, telling the tales over as she comes to them on much the same scale on which she unfolds the situations otherwise documented. The writer of “Consuelo” and “Claudie” and a hundred other things is to this view a literary genius whose output, as our current term so gracefully has it, the exercise of an inordinate personal energy happens to mark; whereas the exercise of personal energy is for ourselves what most reflects the genius—recorded though this again chances here to be through the inestimable fact of the possession of style. Of the action of that perfect, that only real preservative in face of other perils George Sand is a wondrous example; but her letters alone suffice to show it, and the style of her letters is no more than the breath of her nature, her so remarkable one, in which expression and aspiration were much the same function. That is what it is really to have style—when you set about performing the act of life. The forms taken by this latter impulse then cover everything; they serve for your adventures not less than they may serve at their most refined pitch for your Lélias and your Mauprats.
This means accordingly, we submit, that those of us who at the present hour “feel the change,” as the phrase is, in the computation of the feminine range, with the fullest sense of what it may portend, shirk at once our opportunity and our obligation in not squeezing for its last drop of testimony such an exceptional body of illustration as we here possess. It has so much to say to any view—whether, in the light of old conventions, the brightest or the darkest—of what may either glitter or gloom in a conquest of every license by our contemporaries of the contending sex, that we scarce strain a point in judging it a provision of the watchful fates for this particular purpose and profit: its answers are so full to most of our uncertainties. It is to be noted of course that the creator of Lélia and of Mauprat was on the one hand a woman of an extraordinary gift and on the other a woman resignedly and triumphantly voteless—doing without that boon so beautifully, for free development and the acquisition and application of “rights,” that we seem to see her sardonically smile, before our present tumults, as at a rumpus about nothing; as if women need set such preposterous machinery in motion for obtaining things which she had found it of the first facility, right and left, to stretch forth her hand and take. There it is that her precedent stands out—apparently to a blind generation; so that some little insistence on the method of her appropriations would seem to be peculiarly in place. It was a method that may be summed up indeed in a fairly simple, if comprehensive, statement: it consisted in her dealing with life exactly as if she had been a man—exactly not being too much to say. Nature certainly had contributed on her behalf to this success; it had given her a constitution and a temperament, the kind of health, the kind of mind, the kind of courage, that might most directly help—so that she had but to convert these strong matters into the kind of experience. The writer of these lines remembers how a distinguished and intimate friend of her later years, who was a very great admirer, said of her to him just after her death that her not having been born a man seemed, when one knew her, but an awkward accident: she had been to all intents and purposes so fine and frank a specimen of the sex. This anomalous native turn, it may be urged, can have no general application—women cannot be men by the mere trying or by calling themselves “as good”; they must have been provided with what we have just noted as the outfit. The force of George Sand’s exhibition consorts, we contend, none the less perfectly with the logic of the consummation awaiting us, if a multitude of signs are to be trusted, in a more or less near future: that effective repudiation of the distinctive, as to function and opportunity, as to working and playing activity, for which the definite removal of immemorial disabilities is but another name. We are in presence already of a practical shrinkage of the distinctive, at the rapidest rate, and that it must shrink till nothing of it worth mentioning be left, what is this but a war-cry (presenting itself also indeed as a plea for peace) with which our ears are familiar? Unless the suppression of the distinctive, however, is to work to the prejudice, as we may fairly call it, of men, drawing them over to the feminine type rather than drawing women over to theirs—which is not what seems most probable—the course of the business will be a virtual undertaking on the part of the half of humanity acting ostensibly for the first time in freedom to annex the male identity, that of the other half, so far as may be at all contrivable, to its own cluster of elements. Individuals are in great world and race movements negligible, and if that undertaking must inevitably appeal to different recruits with a differing cogency, its really enlisting its army or becoming reflected, to a perfectly conceivable vividness, in the mass, is all our demonstration requires. At that point begins the revolution, the shift of the emphasis from the idea of woman’s weakness to the idea of her strength—which is where the emphasis has lain, from far back, by his every tradition, on behalf of man; and George Sand’s great value, as we say, is that she gives us the vision, gives us the particular case, of the shift achieved, displayed with every assurance and working with every success.
The answer of her life to the question of what an effective annexation of the male identity may amount to, amount to in favouring conditions certainly, but in conditions susceptible to the highest degree of encouragement and cultivation, leaves nothing to be desired for completeness. This is the moral of her tale, the beauty of what she does for us—that at no point whatever of her history or her character do their power thus to give satisfaction break down; so that what we in fact on the whole most recognise is not the extension she gives to the feminine nature, but the richness that she adds to the masculine. It is not simply that she could don a disguise that gaped at the seams, that she could figure as a man of the mere carnival or pantomime variety, but that she made so virile, so efficient and homogeneous a one. Admirable child of the old order as we find her, she was far from our late-coming theories and fevers—by the reason simply of her not being reduced to them; as to which nothing about her is more eloquent than her living at such ease with a conception of the main relevance of women that is viewed among ourselves as antiquated to “quaintness.” She could afford the traditional and sentimental, the old romantic and historic theory of the function most natural to them, since she entertained it exactly as a man would. It is not that she fails again and again to represent her heroines as doing the most unconventional things—upon these they freely embark; but they never in the least do them for themselves, themselves as the “sex,” they do them altogether for men. Nothing could well be more interesting thus than the extraordinary union of the pair of opposites in her philosophy of the relation of the sexes—than the manner in which her immense imagination, the imagination of a man for range and abundance, intervened in the whole matter for the benefit, absolutely, of the so-called stronger party, or to liberate her sisters up to the point at which men may most gain and least lose by the liberation. She read the relation essentially in the plural term—the relations, and her last word about these was as far as possible from being that they are of minor importance to women. Nothing in her view could exceed their importance to women—it left every other far behind it; and nothing that could make for authority in her, no pitch of tone, no range of personal inquiry nor wealth of experience, no acquaintance with the question that might derive light from free and repeated adventure, but belonged to the business of driving this argument home.
Madame Karénine’s third volume is copiously devoted to the period of her heroine’s intimacy with Chopin and to the events surrounding this agitated friendship, which largely fill the ten years precedent to ’48. Our author is on all this ground overwhelmingly documented, and enlisted though she is in the service of the more successful party to the association—in the sense of Madame Sand’s having heartily outlived and survived, not to say professionally and brilliantly “used,” it—the great composer’s side of the story receives her conscientious attention. Curious and interesting in many ways, these reflections of George Sand’s middle life afford above all the most pointed illustration of the turn of her personal genius, her aptitude for dealing with men, in the intimate relation, exactly after the fashion in which numberless celebrated men have contributed to their reputation, not to say crowned their claim to superiority, by dealing with women. This being above all the note of her career, with its vivid show of what such dealing could mean for play of mind, for quickening of gift, for general experience and, as we say, intellectual development, for determination of philosophic bent and education of character and fertilisation of fancy, we seem to catch the whole process in the fact, under the light here supplied us, as we catch it nowhere else. It gives us in this application endlessly much to consider—it is in itself so replete and rounded a show; we at once recognise moreover how comparatively little it matters that such works as “Lucrezia Floriani” and “Un Hiver à Majorque” should have proceeded from it, cast into the shade as these are, on our biographer’s evidence, by a picture of concomitant energies still more attaching. It is not here by the force of her gift for rich improvisation, beautiful as this was, that the extraordinary woman holds us, but by the force of her ability to act herself out, given the astounding quantities concerned in this self. That energy too, we feel, was in a manner an improvisation—so closely allied somehow are both the currents, the flow of literary composition admirably instinctive and free, and the handling power, as we are constantly moved to call it, the flow of a splendid intelligence all the while at its fullest expressional ease, for the actual situations created by her, for whatever it might be that vitally confronted her. Of how to bring about, or at the least find one’s self “in for,” an inordinate number of situations, most of them of the last difficulty, and then deal with them on the spot, in the narrowest quarters as it were, with an eloquence and a plausibility that does them and one’s own nature at once a sort of ideal justice, the demonstration here is the fullest—as of what it was further to have her unfailing verbal as well as her unfailing moral inspiration. What predicament could have been more of an hourly strain for instance, as we cannot but suppose, than her finding herself inevitably accompanied by her two children during the stay at Majorca made by Chopin in ’38 under her protection? The victory of assurance and of the handling power strikes us as none the less never an instant in doubt, that being essentially but over the general kind of inconvenience or embarrassment involved for a mother and a friend in any real consistency of attempt to carry things off male fashion. We do not, it is true, see a man as a mother, any more than we easily see a woman as a gentleman—and least of all perhaps in either case as an awkwardly placed one; but we see Madame Sand as a sufficiently bustling, though rather a rough and ready, father, a father accepting his charge and doing the best possible under the circumstances; the truth being of course that the circumstances never can be, even at the worst, or still at the best, the best for parental fondness, so awkward for him as for a mother.
What call, again, upon every sort of presence of mind could have been livelier than the one made by the conditions attending and following the marriage of young Solange Dudevant to the sculptor Clésinger in 1846, when our heroine, summoned by the stress of events both to take responsible action and to rise to synthetic expression, in a situation, that is in presence of a series of demonstrations on her daughter’s part, that we seem to find imaginable for a perfect dramatic adequacy only in that particular home circle, fairly surpassed herself by her capacity to “meet” everything, meet it much incommoded, yet undismayed, unabashed and unconfuted, and have on it all, to her great advantage, the always prodigious last word? The elements of this especial crisis claim the more attention through its having been, as a test of her powers, decidedly the most acute that she was in her whole course of life to have traversed, more acute even, because more complicated, than the great occasion of her rupture with Alfred de Musset, at Venice in ’35, on which such a wealth of contemplation and of ink has been expended. Dramatic enough in their relation to each other certainly those immortal circumstances, immortal so far as immortalised on either side by genius and passion: Musset’s return, ravaged and alone, to Paris; his companion’s transfer of her favour to Pietro Pagello, whom she had called in to attend her friend medically in illness and whose intervention, so far from simplifying the juncture, complicated it in a fashion probably scarce paralleled in the history of the erotic relation; her retention of Pagello under her protection for the rest of her period in Venice; her marvellously domesticated state, in view of the literary baggage, the collection of social standards, even taking these but at what they were, and the general amplitude of personality, that she brought into residence with her; the conveyance of Pagello to Paris, on her own return, and the apparent signification to him at the very gate that her countenance was then and there withdrawn. This was a brilliant case for her—of coming off with flying colours; but it strikes us as a mere preliminary flourish of the bow or rough practice of scales compared to the high virtuosity which Madame Karénine’s new material in respect to the latter imbroglio now enables us ever so gratefully to estimate. The protagonist’s young children were in the Venetian crisis quite off the scene, and on occasions subsequent to the one we now glance at were old enough and, as we seem free to call it, initiated enough not to solicit our particular concern for them; whereas at the climax of the connection with Chopin they were of the perfect age (which was the fresh marriageable in the case of Solange) to engage our best anxiety, let alone their being of a salience of sensibility and temper to leave no one of their aspects negligible. That their parent should not have found herself conclusively “upset,” sickened beyond repair, or otherwise morally bankrupt, on her having to recognise in her daughter’s hideous perversity and depravity, as we learn these things to have been, certain inevitabilities of consequence from the social air of the maternal circle, is really a monumental fact in respect to our great woman’s elasticity, her instinct for never abdicating by mere discouragement. Here in especial we get the broad male note—it being so exactly the manly part, and so very questionably the womanly, not to have to draw from such imputations of responsibility too crushing a self-consciousness. Of the extent and variety of danger to which the enjoyment of a moral tone could be exposed and yet superbly survive Madame Karénine’s pages give us the measure; they offer us in action the very ideal of an exemplary triumph of character and mind over one of the very highest tides of private embarrassment that it is well possible to conceive. And it is no case of that passive acceptance of deplorable matters which has abounded in the history of women, even distinguished ones, whether to the pathetic or to the merely scandalous effect; the acceptance is active, constructive, almost exhilarated by the resources of affirmation and argument that it has at its command. The whole instance is sublime in its sort, thanks to the acuteness of all its illustrative sides, the intense interest of which loses nothing in the hands of our chronicler; who perhaps, however, reaches off into the vast vague of Chopin’s native affiliations and references with an energy with which we find it a little difficult to keep step.
In speaking as we have done of George Sand’s “use” of each twist of her road as it came—a use which we now recognise as the very thriftiest—we touch on that principle of vital health in her which made nothing that might by the common measure have been called one of the graver dilemmas, that is one of the checks to the continuity of life, really matter. What this felicity most comes to in fact is that doing at any cost the work that lies to one’s hand shines out again and yet again as the saving secret of the soul. She affirmed her freedom right and left, but her most characteristic assertion of it throughout was just in the luxury of labour. The exhaustive account we at any rate now enjoy of the family life surrounding her during the years here treated of and as she had constituted it, the picture of all the queer conflicting sensibilities engaged, and of the endless ramifications and reflections provided for these, leaves us nothing to learn on that congested air, that obstructive medium for the range of the higher tone, which the lady of Nohant was so at her “objective” happiest, even if at her superficially, that is her nervously, most flurried and depressed, in bravely breasting. It is as if the conditions there and in Paris during these several years had been consistently appointed by fate to throw into relief the applications of a huge facility, a sort of universal readiness, with a rare intelligence to back it. Absolutely nothing was absent, or with all the data could have been, that might have bewildered a weaker genius into some lapse of eloquence or of industry; everything that might have overwhelmed, or at least have disconcerted, the worker who could throw off the splendid “Lucrezia Floriani” in the thick of battle came upon her at once, inspiring her to show that on her system of health and cheer, of experiential economy, as we may call it, to be disconcerted was to be lost. To be lacerated and calumniated was in comparison a trifle; with a certain sanity of reaction these things became as naught, for the sanity of reaction was but the line of consistency, the theory and attitude of sincerity kept at the highest point. The artist in general, we need scarcely remind ourselves, is in a high degree liable to arrive at the sense of what he may have seen or felt, or said or suffered, by working it out as a subject, casting it into some form prescribed by his ar............
Join or Log In! You need to log in to continue reading

Login into Your Account

  Remember me on this computer.

All The Data From The Network AND User Upload, If Infringement, Please Contact Us To Delete! Contact Us
About Us | Terms of Use | Privacy Policy | Tag List | Recent Search  
©2010-2018, All Rights Reserved