Bocage, the great character actor of his time, was another who likewise appealed particularly to her sympathies, as the personation, on the boards, of the protest of the romantic school against the slavery of convention and tradition. Her acquaintance with him dated from the first representation of Hugo's Lucrece Borgia, February, 1833, when Bocage and the author of Indiana, then strangers to each other, chanced to sit side by side. In their joint enthusiasm over the play they made the beginning of a thirty years' friendship, terminated only by Bocage's death in 1862. "It was difficult not to quarrel with him," she says of this popular favorite; "he was susceptible and violent; it was impossible not to be reconciled with him quickly. He was faithful and magnanimous. He forgave you admirably for wrongs you had never done him, and it was as good and real as though the pardon had been actual and well-founded, so strong was his imagination, so complete his good faith."
The assistance of Madame Dorval, added to the strength of the Comedie Francaise company, did not, however, save from failure Madame Sand's first drama, Cosima, produced, as will be remembered, in 1840. She allowed nearly a decade to elapse before again seriously competing for theatrical honors, by a second effort in a different style, and more satisfactory in its results.
This, a dramatic adaptation by herself of her novel, Francois le Champi, was produced at the Odeon in the winter of 1849. Generally speaking, to make a good play out of a good novel, the playwright must begin by murdering the novel; and here, as in all George Sand's dramatic versions of her romances, we seem to miss the best part of the original. However, the curious simplicity of the piece, the rustic scenes and personages, here faithfully copied from reality, unlike the conventional village and villager of opera comique, and the pleasing sentiment that runs through the tale, were found refreshing by audiences upon whom the sensational incidents and harrowing emotions of their modern drama were already beginning to pall. The result was a little stage triumph for Madame Sand. It helped to draw to her pastoral tales the attention they deserved, but had not instantly won in all quarters. Theophile Gautier writes playfully of this piece: "The success of Francois le Champi has given all our vaudeville writers an appetite for rusticity. Only let this go on a little, and we shall be inundated by what has humorously been called the 'ruro-drama.' Morvan hats and Berrichon head-dresses will invade the scenes, and no language be spoken but in dialect."
Madame Sand was naturally encouraged to repeat the experiment. This was done in Claudie (1851) and Le Pressoir (1853), ruro-dramas both, and most favorably received. The first-named has a simple and pathetic story, and, as usual with Madame Sand's plays, it was strengthened at its first production by the support of some of the best acting talent in Paris—Fechter, then a rising jeune premier, and the veteran Bocage ably representing, respectively, youth and age. Old Berrichon airs were introduced with effect, as also such picturesque rustic festival customs as the ancient harvest-home ceremony, in which the last sheaf is brought on a wagon, gaily decked out with poppies, cornflowers and ribbons, and receives a libation of wine poured by the hand of the oldest or youngest person present.
"But what the theatre can never reproduce," laments Madame Sand, "is the majesty of the frame—the mountain of sheaves solemnly approaching, drawn by three pairs of enormous oxen, the whole adorned with flowers, with fruit, and with fine little children perched upon the top of the last sheaves."
Henceforward a good deal of her time and interest continued to be absorbed by these dramatic compositions. But though mostly eliciting during her lifetime a gratifying amount of public favor and applause, the best of them cannot for an instant be placed in the same high rank as her novels. For with all her wide grasp of the value of dramatic art and her exact appreciation of the strength and weakness of the acting world, her plays remain, to great expectations, uniformly disappointing. Her specialty in fiction lies in her favorite art of analyzing and putting before us, with extreme clearness, the subtlest ramifications, the most delicate intricacies of feeling and thought. A stage audience has its eyes and ears too busy to give its full attention to the finer complications of sentiment and motive; or, at least, in order to keep its interest alive and its understanding clear, an accentuation of outline is needed, which she neglects even to seek.
Her assertion, that the niceties of emotion are sufficient to found a good play upon, no one now will dream of disputing. But for this an art of execution is needed of which she had not the instinct. The action is insufficient, or rather, the sense of action is not conveyed. The slightness of plot—a mere thread in most instances—requires that the thread shall at least be never allowed to drop. But she cuts or slackens it perpetually, long arguments and digressions intervening, and the dialogue, whose monotony is unrelieved by wit, nowhere compensates for the limited interest of the action. Awkward treatment is but half felt when subject and situations are dramatically strong; but plays with so airy and impalpable a basis as these need to be sustained by the utmost perfection of construction, concision and polish of dialogue.
Her novel Mauprat has many dramatic points, and she received a score of applications for leave to adapt it to the stage. She preferred to prepare the version herself, and it was played in the winter of 1853-4, with moderate success. But it suffers fatally from comparison with its original. An extreme instance is Flaminio (1854), a protracted drama, drawn by Madame Sand from her novelette Teverino. This is a fantasy-piece whose audacity is redeemed, as are certain other blemishes, by the poetic suggestiveness of the figure of Madeline, the bird-charmer; whilst the picturesque sketch of Teverino, the idealized Italian bohemian, too indolent to turn his high natural gifts to any account, has proved invaluable to the race of novelists, who are not yet tired of reproducing it in large. The work is one addressed mainly to the imagination.
In the play we come down from the clouds; the poetry is gone, taste is shocked, fancy uncharmed, the improbabilities become grotesque, and the whole is distorted and tedious. Madame Sand's personages are never weary of analyzing their sentiments. Her flowing style, so pleasant to read, carries us swiftly and easily through her dissertations in print, before we have time to tire of them. On the stage such colloquies soon appear lengthy and unnatural. The climax of absurdity is reached in Flaminio, where we find the adventurer expatiating to the man of the world on "the divinity of his essence."
There is scarcely a department of theatrical literature in which Madame Sand does not appear as an aspirant. She was a worshipper of Shakespeare, acknowledging him as the king of dramatic writers. For her attempt to adapt "As You Like It" to suit the tastes of a Parisian audience, she disarms criticism by a preface in the form of a letter to M. Regnier, of the Comedie Francaise, prefixed to the printed play. Here she says plainly that to resolve to alter Shakespeare is to resolve to murder, and that she aims at nothing more than at giving the French public some idea of the original. In "As You Like It" the license of fancy taken is too wide for the piece to be safely represented to her countrymen, since it must jar terribly on "that French reason which," remarks Madame Sand, "we are so vain of, and which deprives us of so many originalities quite as precious as itself." The fantastic, which had so much attraction for her (possibly a result of her part German origin), is a growth that has hard work to flourish on French soil. The reader will remember the fate of Weber's Freischuetz, outrageously hissed when first produced at Paris in its original form. Nine days later it was reproduced, having been taken to pieces and put together again by M. Castil-Blaze, and thus as Robin des Bois it ran for 357 nights. The reckless imagination that distinguishes the Shakespearian comedy and does not shrink before the introduction of a lion and a serpent into the forest of Arden, and the miraculous and instantaneous conversion of the wretch Oliver into a worthy suitor for Celia, needed to be toned down for acceptance by the Parisians. But Madame Sand was less fortunate than M. Castil-Blaze. Her version, produced at the Theatre Francais, in 1856, failed to please, although supported by such actors as Delaunay, Arnold-Plessy, and Favart. Macready, who had made Madame Sand's acquaintance in 1845, when he was giving Shakespearian performances in Paris, and whom she greatly admired, dedicating to him her little theatrical romance Le Chateau des Desertes, was present at this representation and records it as a failure. But of her works for the stage, which number over a score, few like her Comme il vous plaira missed making some mark at the time, the prestige of her name and the exceptionally favorable circumstances under which they were produced securing more than justice for their intrinsic merit. It was natural that she should over-estimate their value and continue to add to their number. These pieces would be carefully rehearsed on the little stage in the house at Nohant, often with the aid of leading professional actors; and there, at least, the success was unqualified.
Her ingenious novel Les Beaux Messieurs Bois Dore, dramatized with the aid of Paul Meurice and acted in 1862, was a triumph for Madame Sand and her friend Bocage. The form and spirit of this novel seem inspired by Sir Walter Scott, and though far from perfect, it is a striking instance of the versatility of her imaginative powers. The leading character of the septuagenarian Marquis, with his many amiable virtues, and his one amiable weakness, a longing to preserve intact his youthfulness of appearance as he has really preserved his youthfulness of heart, is both natural and original, comic and half pathetic withal. The part in the play seemed made for Bocage, and his heart was set upon undertaking it. But his health was failing at the time, and the manager hesitated about giving him the role. "Take care, my friend," wrote Bocage to Madame Sand; "perhaps I shall die if I play the part; but if I play it not, I shall die of that, to a certainty." She insisted, and play it he did, to perfection, she tells us. "He did not act the Marquis de Bois Dore; he was the personage himself, as the author had dreamt him." It was to be his last achievement, and he knew it. "It is my end," he said one night, "but I shall die like a soldier on the field of honor." And so he did, continuing to play the role up till a few days before his death.
More lasting success has attended Madame Sand in two of the lightest of society comedies, Le Mariage de Victorine and Le Marquis de Villemer, which seem likely to take a permanent place in the repertoire of the French stage. The first, a continuation that had suggested itself to her of Sedaine's century-old comedy, Le Philosophe sans le savoir, escapes the ill fate that seems to attend sequels in general. It is of the slightest materials, but holds together, and is gracefully conceived and executed. First produced at the Gymnase in 1851, it was revived during the last year of Madame Sand's life in a manner very gratifying to her, being brought out with great applause at the Comedie Francaise, preceded on each occasion by Sedaine's play, and the same artists appearing in both.
The excellent dramatic version of her popular novel Le Marquis de Villemer, first acted in 1864, is free from the defects that weaken most of her stage compositions. It is said that in preparing it she accepted some hints from Alexander Dumas the younger. Whatever the cause, the result is a play where characters, composition and dialogue leave little to be desired.
L'autre, her latest notable stage success, brings us down to 1870, when it was acted at the Gymnase, Madame Sarah Bernhardt impersonating the heroine. This not very agreeable play is derived, with material alterations, from Madame Sand's agreeable novel La Confession d'une jeune Fille, published in 1864.
If, however, her works for the stage, which fill four volumes, added but little, in proportion to their quantity, to her permanent fame, her dramatic studies added fresh interest and variety to her experience, which brought forth excellent fruit in her novels. Actors, their art and way of life have fared notoriously badly in fiction. Such pictures have almost invariably fallen into the extreme of unreality or that of caricature, whether for want of information or want of sympathy in those who have drawn them.
The subject, always attractive for Madame Sand, is one in which she is always happy. Already in the first year of her literary career her keen appreciation of the art and its higher influences had prompted her clever novelette La Marquise. Here she illustrates the power of the stage as a means of expression—of the truly inspired actor, though his greatness be but momentary, and his heroism a semblance, to strike a like chord in the heart of the spectator—and, in a corrupt and artificial age, to keep alive some latent faith in the ideal. Since then the stage and players had figured repeatedly in her works. Sometimes she portrays a perfected type, such as Consuelo, or Imperia in Pierre qui roule, but always side by side with more earthly and faulty representatives such as Corilla and Anzoleto, or Julia and Albany, in Narcisse, incarnations of the vanity and instability that are the chief dangers of the profession, drawn with unsparing realism. In Le Chateau des Desertes we find further many admirable theories and suggestive ideas on the subject of the regeneration of the theatre. But it fared with her theatrical as with her political philosophy: she failed in its application, not because her theories were false, but for want of practical aptitude for the craft whose principles she understood so well.
It is impossible here to do more than cast a rapid glance over the literary work accomplished by George Sand during the first decade of the empire. It includes more than a dozen novels, of unequal merit, but of merit for the most part very high. The Histoire de ma Vie was published in 1855. It is a study of chosen passages out of her life, rather than a connected autobiography. One out of the four volumes is devoted to the story of her father's life before her birth; two more to the story of her childhood and girlhood. The fourth rather indicates than fully narrates the facts of her existence from the time of her marriage till the Revolution of 1848. It offers to her admirers invaluable glimpses into her life and mind, and is a highly interesting and characteristic composition, if a most irregular chronicle. It has given rise to two most incompatible-sounding criticisms. Some have been chiefly struck by its amazing unreserve, and denounced the over-frankness of the author in revealing herself to the public. Others complain that she keeps on a mask throughout, and never allows us to see into the recesses of her mind. Her passion for the analysis of sentiment has doubtless led her here, as in her romances, to give very free expression to truths usually better left unspoken. But her silence on many points about which her readers, whether from mere curiosity or some more honorable motive, would gladly have been informed, was then inevitable. It could not have been broken without wounding the susceptibilities of living persons, which she did right in respecting, at the cost of disappointment to an inquisitive public.
In January, 1855, a terrible domestic sorrow befell her in the loss of her six-years-old grandchild, Jeanne Clesinger, to whom she was devoted. It affected her profoundly. "Is there a more mortal grief," she exclaims, "than to outlive, yourself, those who should have bloomed upon your grave?" The blow told upon her mentally and physically; she could not rally from its effects, till persuaded to seek a restorative in change of air and scene, which happily did their work.
"I was ill," she says, when writing of these events to a lady correspondent, later in the same year; "my son took me away to Italy.... I have seen Rome, revisited Florence, Genoa, Frascati, Spezia, Marseilles. I have walked a great deal, been out in the sun, the rain, the wind, for whole days out of doors. This, for me, is a certain remedy, and I have come back cured."
Those who care to follow the mind of George Sand on this Italian journey may safely infer from La Daniella, a novel written after this tour, and the scene of which is laid in Rome and the Campagna, that the author's strongest impression of the Eternal City was one of disillusion. Her hero, a Berrichon artist on his travels, confesses to a feeling of uneasiness and regret rather than of surprise and admiration. The ancient ruins, stupendous in themselves, seemed to her spoilt for effect by their situation in the center of a modern town. "Of the Rome of the past not enough exists to overwhelm me with its majesty; of the Rome of the present not enough to make me forget the first, and much too much to allow me to see her."
But the Baths of Caracalla, where the picture is not set in a frame of hideous houses, awakened her native enthusiasm. "A grandiose ruin," she exclaims, "of colossal proportions; it is shut away, isolated, silent and respected. There you feel the terrific power of the Caesars, and the opulence of a nation intoxicated with its royalty over the world."
So in the Appian Way, the road of tombs, the fascination of desolation—a desolation there unbroken and undisfigured by modern buildings or otherwise—she felt to the full. But whatever came under her notice she looked on with the eye of the poet and artist, not of the archaeologist, and approved or disapproved or passed over it accordingly.
The beauties of nature, at Tivoli and Frascati, appealed much more surely to her sympathies. But of certain sites in the Campagna much vaunted by tourists and hand-books she remarks pertinently: "If you were to pass this village" (Marino) "on the railway within a hundred miles of Paris, you would not pay it the slightest attention." Such places had their individuality, but she upheld that there is not a corner in the universe, "however common-place it may appear, but has a character of its own, unique in this world, for any one who is disposed to feel or comprehend it." In one of her village tales a sagacious peasant professes his profound contempt for the man who cannot like the place he belongs to.
Neither the grottoes and cascades of Tivoli, the cypress and ilex gardens of Frascati and Albano, nor the ruins of Tusculum, were ever so pleasant to her eyes as the poplar-fringed banks of the Indre, the corn-land sand hedgerows of Berry, and the rocky borders of the Creuse at Crozant and Argenton. She had not ceased making fresh picturesque discoveries in her own neighborhood. Of these she records an instance in her pleasant Promenades autour d'un village, a lively sketch of a few days' walking-tour on the banks of the Creuse, undertaken by herself and some naturalist friends in June, 1857. In studying the interesting and secluded village of Gargilesse, with its tenth-century church and crypt with ancient frescoes, its simple and independent-minded population, in following the course of a river whose natural wild beauties, equal to those of the Wye, are as yet undisfigured here by railroad or the hand of man, lingering on its banks full of summer flowers and butterflies, exploring the castles of Chateaubrun and La Prugne au Pot, George Sand is happier, more herself, more communicative than in Rome, "the museum of the universe."
The years 1858 to 1861 show her to us in the fullest conservation of her powers and in the heyday of activity. The group of novels belonging to this period, the climax of what may be called her second career, is sufficiently remarkable for a novelist who was almost a sexagenarian, including Elle et Lui, L'Homme de Neige, La Ville Noire, Constance Verrier, Le Marquis de Villemer and Valvedre. Elle et Lui, in which George Sand at last broke silence in her own defense on the subject of her rupture with Alfred de Musset, first appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes, 1859. Though many of the details are fictitious, the author here told the history of her relations with the deceased poet much too powerfully for her intention to be mistaken or to escape severe blame. That a magnanimous silence would have been the nobler course on her part towards the child of genius whose good genius she had so signally failed to be, need not be disputed. It must be remembered, however, that De Musset on his side had not refrained during his lifetime from denouncing in eloquent verse the friend he had quarreled with, and satirizing her in pungent prose. Making every possible allowance for poetical figures of speech, he had said enough to provoke her to retaliate. It is impossible to suppose that there was not another side to such a question. But Madame Sand could not defend herself without accusing her lost lover. She often proved herself a generous adversary—too generous, indeed, for her own advantage—and in this instance it was clearly not for her own sake that she deferred her apology.
It is even conceivable that the poet, when in a just frame of mind, and not seeking inspiration for his Nuit de Mai or Histoire d'un Merle blanc, would not have seen in Elle et Lui a falsification of the spirit of their history. The theorizing of the outside world in such matters is of little worth; but the novel bears, conspicuously among Madame Sand's productions, the stamp of a study from real life, true in its leading features. And the conduct of the heroine, Therese, though accounted for and eloquently defended, is by no means, as related, ideally blameless. After an attachment so strong as to induce a seriously-minded person, such as she is represented, to throw aside for it all other considerations, the hastiness with which, on discovering her mistake, she entertains the idea of bestowing her hand, if not her heart, on another, is an exhibition of feminine inconsequence which no amount of previous misconduct on the part of her lover, Laurent, can justify. Further, Therese is self-deceived in supposing her passion to have died out with her esteem. She breaks with the culprit and engages her word to a worthier man. But enough remains over of the past to prevent her from keeping the promise she ought never to have made. When she sacrifices her unselfish friend to return to the lover who has made her miserable, she is sincere, but not heroic. She is too weak to shake off the influence of the fatal infatuation and shut out Laurent from her life, nor yet can she accept her heart's choice for better or worse, even when experience has left her little to learn with regard to Laurent. Clearly both friend and lover, out of a novel, would feel wronged. Therese's excuse lies in the extremely trying character of her companion, whose vagaries may be supposed to have driven her beside herself at times, just as her airs of superiority and mute reproach may have driven him not a little mad. Those who wish to know in what spirit Madame Sand met the attacks upon her provoked by this book, will find her reply in a very few words at the conclusion of her preface to Jean de la Roche, published the same year.
Most readers of Elle et Lui have been so preoccupied with the question of the rights and wrongs of the originals in their behavior to each other, so inclined to judge of the book according to its supposed accuracy or inaccuracy as a matter of history, that its force, as a study of the attraction that so often leads two exceptional but hopeless, irreconcilable spirits to seek in each other a refuge from the isolation in which their superiority places them, has been somewhat overlooked. Laurent, whether a true portrait or not, is only too true to nature; excessive in his admirable powers and in his despicable weakness. Therese is an equally faithful picture of a woman not quite up to the level of her own principles, which are so high that any lapse from them on her part brings down more disasters on herself and on others than the misdemeanors of avowedly unscrupulous persons.
Within a few months of Elle et Lui had appeared L'Homme de Neige,[D] a work of totally different but equally characteristic cast. The author's imagination had still all its old zest and activity, and readers for whom fancy has any charm will find this Scandinavian romance thoroughly enjoyable. The subject of the marionette theater, here introduced with such brilliant and ingenious effect, she had studied both historically and practically. She and her son found it so fascinating that, years before this time, a miniature stage had been constructed by the latter at Nohant, over which he presided, and which they and their friends found an endless source of amusement. Madame Sand wrote little dramas expressly for such representations, and would sit up all night, making dresses for the puppets. In an agreeable little article she has devoted to the subject, she describes how from the crudest beginnings they succeeded in elaborating their art to a high pitch; the repertoire of their lilliputian theater including more than twenty plays, their "company" over a hundred marionettes.
To the next year, 1860, belong the pleasant tale of artisan life, La Ville Noire, and the well-known and popular Marquis de Villemer, notable as a decided success in a genre seldom adopted by her, that of the purely society novel.
Already Madame Sand had outlived the period of which she was so brilliant a representative. After the Romantic movement had spent its force, a reaction had set in that was influencing the younger school of writers, and that has continued to give the direction to successful talent until the present day. Of the so-called "realism," Madame Sand said that it was nothing new. She saw there merely another form of the same revolt of nature against affectation and convention which had prompted the Romantic movement, whose disciples had now become guilty of affectation in their turn. Madame Bovary she pronounced with truth to be but concentrated Balzac. She was ready to perceive and do justice to the great ability of the author, as to original genius in any school; thus of Tourguenief she speaks with enthusiasm: "Realist to see all, poet to beautify all, great heart to pity and understand all." But she deplored the increasing tendency among artists to give the preference among realities to the ugliest and the most painful. Her personal leanings avowedly were towards the other extreme; but she was too large-minded not to recognize that truth in one form or another must always be the prime object of the artist's search. The manner of its presentation will vary with the age.
Let the realists, if they like, go on proclaiming that all is prose, and the idealists that all is poesy. The last will have their rainy days, the first their days of sunshine. In all arts the victory remains with a privileged few, who go their own ways; and the discussions of the "schools" will pass away like old fashions.
On the generation of writers that George Sand saw growing up, any opinion pronounced must be premature. But with regard to herself, it should now be possible to regard her work in a true perspective. As with Byron, Dickens, and other popular celebrities, a phase of infinite enthusiasm for her writings was duly succeeded by a phase of determined depreciation. The public opinion that survives when blind friendship and blind enmity have done their worst is likely to be the judgment of posterity.
ARTIST AND MORALIST.
On what, in the future, will the fame of George Sand mainly rest? According to some critics, on her gifts of fertile invention and fluent narration alone, which make her novels attractive in spite of the chimerical theories, social, political and religious, everywhere interwoven. According to other judges again, her fictions transcend and are likely to outlive other fictions by virtue of certain eternal philosophic verities which they persistently set forth, and which give them a serious interest the changes in novel-fashions cannot effect.
The conclusion seems inevitable that whilst the artistic strength of George Sand's writings is sufficient to command readers among those most out of harmony with her views, to minds in sympathy with her own these romances, because they express and enforce with earnestness, sincerity and fire, the sentiments of a poetic soul, a generous heart, and an immense intelligence, on subjects of consequence to humanity, have a higher value than can attach to skillful development of plot and intrigue, mere display of literary cleverness, or of the storings of minute observation.
Her opinions themselves have been widely misapprehended, perhaps because her personality—or rather that imaginary personage, the George Sand of the myths—has caused a confusion in people's minds between her ideal standard and her individual success in keeping up to it. We would not ignore the importance of personal example in one so famous as herself. We may pass by eccentricities not inviting to imitation; for if any of her sex ever thought to raise themselves any nearer to the level of George Sand by smoking or wearing men's clothes, such puerility does not call for notice. Still, the influence she strenuously exerted for good as a writer for the public would have worked more clearly had she never seemed to swerve from the high principles she expressed, or been led away by the disturbing forces of a nature calm only on the surface. Nothing is more baffling than the incomplete revelations of a very complex order of mind, with its many-sided sympathies and its apparent contradictions. The self-justification she puts forward for her errors is sometimes sophistical, but not for that insincere. She is not trying to make us her dupes; she is the dupe herself of her dangerous eloquence. But her moral worth so infinitely outweighed the alloy as to leave but little call, or even warrant, for dwelling on the latter. "If I come back to you," said her old literary patron Delatouche, into whose disfavor she had fallen awhile, when he came years after to ask for the restitution of the friendship he had slighted, "it is that I cannot help myself, and your qualities surpass your defects."
To pass from herself to her books, no one has made more frank, clear and unchanging confession of their heart's faith or their head's principles. Her creed was that which has been, and ever will be in some guise, the creed of minds of a certain order. She did not invent it. Poets, moralists, theologians, have proclaimed it before her and after her. She found for it a fresh mode of expression, one answering to the needs of the age to which she belonged.
It is in the union of rare artistic genius with an almost as rare and remarkable power of enthusiasm for moral and spiritual truth that lies her distinguishing strength. Most of her novels—all her best novels—share this characteristic of seeming to be prompted by the double and equal inspiration of an artistic and a moral purpose. Wherever one of these preponderates greatly, or is wanting altogether, the novel falls below her usual standard.
For in several qualities reckoned important her work is open to criticism. "Plan, or the want of it," she acknowledges, with a sort of complacency, "has always been my weak point." Thus whilst in many of her compositions, especially the shorter novels, the construction leaves little to be desired, Consuelo is only one among many instances in which all ordinary rules of symmetry and proportion are set at naught. Sometimes the leading idea assumed naturally and easily a perfect form; if simple, as in Andre and her pastorals, it usually did so; but if complex, she troubled herself little over the task of symmetrical arrangement. M. Maxime Du Camp reports that she said to him: "When I begin a novel I have no plan; it arranges itself whilst I write, and becomes what it may." This fault shocks less in England, where genius is apt to rebel against the restrictions of form, and such irregularity has been consecrated, so to speak, by the masterpieces of the greatest among our imaginative writers. And even the more precise criticism of her countrymen has owned that this carelessness works by no means entirely to her disadvantage. In fictions more faultless as literary compositions the reader, whilst struck with admiration for the art with which the whole is put together, is apt to lose something of the illusion—the impression of nature and conviction. The faults of no writer can be more truly defined as the defauts de ses qualites than those of George Sand. Shorn of her spontaneity, she would indeed be shorn of her strength. We are carried along by the pleasant, easy stream of her musical eloquence, as by an orator who knows so well how to draw our attention that we forget to find him too long. Her stories may be read rapidly, but to be enjoyed should be read through. Dipped into and their parts taken without reference to the whole, they can afford comparatively but little pleasure.
In translation no novelist loses more than George Sand,—who has so much to lose! The qualities sacrificed, though almost intangible, are essential to the force of her charm. The cement is taken away and the fabric coheres imperfectly; and whilst the beauties of her manner are blurred, its blemishes appear increased; the lengthiness, over-emphasis of expression, questionable taste of certain passages, become more marked. Although nevertheless many of her tales remain pleasant reading, they suffer as much as translated poetry, and only a very inadequate impression of her art as a novelist can be arrived at from any rendering of it in a foreign tongue.
Her dialogue has neither brilliancy nor variety. Her characters characterize themselves by the sentiments they express; their manner of expression is somewhat uniform—it is the manner of George Sand; and although pleasant humor and good-natured fun abound in her pages, these owe none of their attractions to witty sayings, being curiously bare of a bon mot or an epigram.
But we find there the rarer merits of a poetic imagination, a vast comprehension of nature, admirable insight into human character and power of clear analysis; a whole science of sentiment and art of narrative, and a charm of narrative style that soothes the nerves like music.
She has given us a long gallery of portraits of extraordinary variety. It is true that her creations for the most part affect us rather as masterly portraits than as living, walking men and women. This is probably owing to the above-noted sameness of style of dialogue, and the absence generally of the dramatic quality in her novels. On the other hand they are extremely picturesque, in the highest sense, abounding in scenes and figures which, without inviting to the direct illustration they are too vivid to need, are full of suggestions to the artist. The description in Teverino of Madeleine, the bird-charmer, kneeling at prayer in the rude mountain chapel, or outside on the rocks, exercising her natural magic over her feathered friends; in Jeanne, of the shepherd-girl discovered asleep on the Druidical stones; the noon-day rest of the rustic fishing-party in Valentine—Benedict seated on the felled ash-tree that bridges the stream, Athenais gathering field-flowers on the banks, Louise flinging leaves into the current, Valentine reclining dreamily among the tall river-reeds,—are a few examples taken at random, which it would be easy to multiply ad infinitum.
Any classification of her works in order of time that professes to show a progressive change of style, a period of super-excellence or of distinct decadence, seems to us somewhat fanciful. From Indiana and its immediate successors, denounced by so many as fraught with peril to the morals of her nation, down to Nanon (1872), which might certainly carry off the prize of virtue in a competition in any country, George Sand can never be said to have entirely abandoned one "manner" for another, or for any length of time to have risen above or sunk below a certain level of excellence. Andre, extolled by her latest critics as "a delicious eclogue of the fields," was contemporary with the bombastic, false Byronism of Jacques; the feeble narrative of La Mare au Diable with the passion-introspection of Lucrezia Floriani. The ever-popular Consuelo immediately succeeded the feeble Compagnon du Tour de France. La Marquise, written in the first year of her literary life, shows a power of projection out of herself, and of delicate analysis, hardly to be surpassed; but Francia, of forty years' later date, is an equally perfect study. From the time of Indiana onwards she continued to produce at the rate of about two novels a year; and at intervals, rare intervals, the product was a failure. But we shall find her when approaching seventy still writing on, without a trace of the weakness of old age.
The charge of "unreality" so commonly brought against her novels it may be well briefly to examine. Such little fantasy-pieces in Hoffmann's manner as Le Chateau des Desertes, Teverino, and others, making no pretense to be exact studies of nature, cannot fairly be censured on this head. Like fairy tales they have a place of their own in art. One of the prettiest of these is Les Dames Vertes, in which the fable seems to lead us over the borders of the supernatural; but the secret of the mystification, well kept till the last, is itself so pleasing and original that the reader has no disappointing sense as of having had a hoax played upon his imagination.
In character drawing no one can, on occasion, be a more uncompromising realist than George Sand. Andre, Horace, Laurent in Elle et Lui, Pauline, Corilla, Alida in Valvedre, might be cited as examples. But her theory was unquestionably not the theory which guides the modern school of novel writers. She wrote, she states explicitly, for those "who desire to find in a novel a sort of ideal life." She made this her aim, but without depreciation of the widely different aims of other authors. "You paint mankind as they are," she said to Balzac; "I, as they ought to be, or might become. You write the comedy of humanity. I should like to write the eclogue, the poem, the romance of humanity." She has been taxed with flattering nature and human nature because her love of beauty—defined by her as the highest expression of truth—dictated her choice of subjects. An artist who paints roses paints from reality as entirely as he who paints mud. Her principle was to choose among realities those which seemed best worth painting.
The amount of idealization in her peasant sketches was naturally over-estimated by those who, never having studied the class, could not conceive of a peasant except conventionally, as a drunken boor. The very just portrait of Cecilia Boccaferri, the conscientious but obscure artist in Le Chateau des Desertes, might seem over-flattered to such as imagine that all opera-singers must be persons of riotous living. The types she prefers to present, if exceptional, are not impossible or non-existent. An absolutely faultless heroine, such as Consuelo, she seldom attempts to bring before us; an ideal hero; never.
Further, even when the idealism is greatest the essence is true. Her most fanciful conceptions, most improbable combinations, seem more natural than do every-day scenes and characters treated by inferior artists. This is only partly due to the inimitable little touches of nature that renew the impression of reality at every page. Her imagination modified her material, but only in order the more vividly to illustrate truths positive and everlasting. So did Shakespeare when he drew Prospero and Miranda, Caliban and Ariel. Art, as regarded by George Sand, is a search for ideal truth rather than a study of positive reality. This principle determined the spirit of her romances. She was the highest in her genre; let the world decide which genre is the highest.
When, after the publication of Indiana, Valentine, Lelia and Jacques, the moral tendency of her works was so sharply attacked, it was contended on her behalf by some friendly critics that art and social morality have no necessary connection—a line of defense she would have been the last to take up for herself. In the present day her judges complain rather of her incessant moralizing, and on the whole with more reason. She indignantly denied that her novels had the evil tendencies imputed to them. Certainly the supposition of the antagonistic spirit of her writings to Christianity and marriage vanishes in proportion to the reader's acquaintance with her works. But against certain doctrines and practices of the Roman Catholic Church which she believed to be pernicious in their influence, she from the first declared war, and by her frank audacity made bitter enemies. M. Renan relates that when he was a boy of fifteen his ecclesiastical superiors showed him George Sand, emblematically portrayed for the admonition of the youth under their care, as a woman in black trampling on a cross! Now, it is not merely that her own faith was eminently Christian in character, and that the Christian ideal seemed to her the most perfect that has yet presented itself to the mind of man; but if unable to accept for herself the doctrine of revelation as commonly interpreted, she is utterly without the aggressiveness of spirit, the petty flippancy, that often betray the intellectual bigot under the banner of free thought. She was too large-minded to incline to ridicule the serious convictions of earnest seekers for truth, and she respected all sincerity of belief—all faith that produced beneficence in action.
The alleged hostility of her romances to marriage resumes itself into a declared hostility to the conventional French system of match-making. Much that she was condemned for venturing to put forward we should simply take for granted in England, where—whichever system work the best in practice—to the strictest Philistine's ideas of propriety there is nothing unbecoming in a love-match. The aim and end of true love in her stories is always marriage, whether it be the simple attachment of Germain, the field-laborer, for the rustic maiden of his choice, the romantic predilection of the rich young widow in Pierre qui roule for the handsome actor Laurence, or the worship of Count Albert for the cantatrice Consuelo. Her ideal of marriage was, no doubt, a high one, "the indissoluble attachment of two hearts fired with a like love;" a love "great, noble, beautiful, voluntary, eternal." Among French novelists she should rather be noted for the extremely small proportion of her numerous romances that have domestic infelicity for a theme.
Her remark that their real offense was that they were a great deal too moral for some of their critics, hit home, inasmuch as in her attack on the ordinary marriage system of France she struck directly at the fashionable immorality which is its direct result, and which she saw, both in life and in literature, pass free of censure. It is the selfish intriguer who meets with least mercy in her pages, and who is there held up, not only to dislike, but to ridicule.
Persons perplexed by the fact that particular novels of hers which, judged by certain theories, ought to be morally hurtful, do yet produce a very different effect, have accounted for it in different ways. One explains it by saying that if there is poison on one page there is always the antidote on the next. Another observes that a certain morality of misfortune is never absent from her fictions. In other words, she nowhere presents us with the spectacle of real happiness reaped at the expense of a violation of conscience. And in the rare cases where the purpose of the novel seems questionable, she defeats her own end. For truth always preponderates over error in her conceptions, and the result is a moral effect.
The want of delicacy that not unfrequently disfigures her pages and offends us, offends also as an artistic fault. As a fact it is taste rather than conscience that she is thus apt to shock. For the almost passing coarseness of expression or thought is nothing more than the overflow, the negligent frankness of a rich and active but healthy nature, not the deliberate obliquity of a corrupt fancy or perverted mind. Such unreserve, unfortunately, has too commonly been the transgression of writers of superabundant energy. But her sins are against outward decorum rather than against the principles upon which the rules of decorum are based. No one was better capable of appreciating and indicating with fine touches, delicacy and niceties of taste and feeling in others. Her sympathy with such sensitiveness is a corrective that should render harmless what might vitiate taste if that qualification were absent. And her stories, though including a very few instances where the subject chosen seems to most English minds too repulsive to admit of possible redemption, and the frequent incidental introduction of situations and frank discussion of topics inadmissible in English fiction of that period—an honorable distinction it seems in some danger of losing in the present—can hardly be censured from the French standpoint, as fair critics now admit. It is inconceivable that a public could be demoralized by Indiana and Valentine, at a time when no subject seemed wicked and morbid enough to satisfy popular taste. The art of George Sand in the main was sound and healthy, and in flat opposition to the excesses both of the ultra-romantic and ultra-realist schools.
Clear-sighted critics, perceiving that the impression produced by her works is not one to induce men and women to defy the laws of their country, nor likely to undermine their religious faith, have gone more to the heart of the matter. The dangerous tendency is more insidious, they say, and more general. Virtue, and not vice, is made attractive in her books; but it is an easy virtue, attained without self-conquest. All her characters, good and bad, act alike from impulse. Those who seek virtue seek pleasure in so doing, and her philosophy of life seems to be that people should do as they like. The morality she commends to our sympathy and admiration is a morality of instinct and emotion, not of reason and principle. Self-renunciation, immolation of desire in obedience to accepted precept, is ignored. Sentiment is supreme. Duty, as a motive power, is set aside.
George Sand, who as a writer from first to last appeared as a crusader against the evil, injustice and vice that darken the world, did undoubtedly choose rather to speak out of her heart to our hearts, than out of her head to our heads, and considered moreover that such was the more effectual way. Her idea of virtue lay not in the curbing of evil instincts, but in their conversion or modification by the evoking of good impulses, that "guiding and intensifying of our emotions by a new ideal" which has been called the great work of Christianity.
It is not—or not in the first place—that people should do as they like, but that they should like to do right; and further, that human nature in that ideal life the sentiment of which pervades her works, and in which she saw "no other than the normal life as we are called to know it," does not desire what is hurtful to it.
The goodness that consists in doing right or refraining from doing wrong reluctantly, or in obedience to prescribed rules, or from mechanical habit, had for her no life or charm. The object to be striven for should be nothing less than the "perfect harmony of inward desire and outward obligation."
Virtue should be chosen, though we seem to sacrifice happiness; but that the two are in the beginning identical, that, as expressed by Mr. Herbert Spencer, "whether perfection of nature, virtuousness of action, or rectitude of motive, be assigned as the proper aim, the definition of perfection, virtue, rectitude, brings us down to happiness experienced in some form, at some time, by some person as the fundamental idea," is a philosophic truth of which a large apercu is observable in the works of George Sand. Self-sacrifice should spring from direct desire, altruism be spontaneous—a need—becoming a second and better nature; not won by painful effort, but through the larger development of the principle of sympathy. Strong in her own immense power of sympathy, she applied herself to the task of awakening and extending such sympathies in others. This she does by the creation of agreeable, interesting and noble types, such as may put us out of conceit with what is mean and base. Goodness, as understood and portrayed by her, must recommend itself not only to the judgment but to the heart. She worked to popularize high sentiments, and to give shape and reality to vague ideas of human excellence. Her idea of virtue as a motive, not a restraint, not the controlling of low and evil desires, but the precluding of all temptations to yield to these, by the calling out of stronger, higher desires, so far from being a low one, is indeed the very noblest; yet not on that account a chimera to those who hold, like her, to the conviction that "what now characterizes the exceptionally high may be expected eventually to characterize all. For that which the highest human nature is capable of is within the reach of human nature at large." "We gravitate towards the ideal," she writes, "and this gravitation is infinite, as is the ideal itself." And her place remains among those few great intelligences who can be said to have given humanity an appreciable impulse in the direction of progress.
When, in 1869, Madame Sand was applied to by M. Louis Ulbach—a literary friend who proposed to write her biography—for some account of her life from that time onwards where her memoirs break off, she replied, in a letter now appended to those memoirs, as follows:—
For the last five-and-twenty years there is nothing more that is of interest. It is old age, very quiet and very happy, en famille, crossed by sorrows entirely personal in their nature—deaths, defections, and then the general state of affairs in which we have suffered, you and I, from the same causes. My time is spent in amusing the children, doing a little botany, long walks in summer—I am still a first-rate pedestrian—and writing novels, when I can secure two hours in the daytime and two in the evening. I write easily and with pleasure. This is my recreation, for my correspondence is numerous, and there lies work indeed! If one had none but one's friends to write to! But how many requests, some touching, some impertinent! Whenever there is anything I can do, I reply. Those for whom I can do nothing I do not answer. Some deserve that one should try, even with small hope of succeeding. Then one must answer that one will try. All this, with private affairs to which one must really give attention now and then, makes some ten letters a day.
The old age of George Sand, brighter, fuller and more active than the youth of most men and women, was in itself a most signal proof of the stability and worth of her mental organization. Life, which deteriorates a frail character, told with a perfecting and elevating power upon hers.
Of her earlier personal beauty few traces remained after middle age except a depth of expression in her eyes, the features having become thickened by age. Some among those who, like Dickens, first saw her in her later years and still looked for the semblance of a heroine of romance, failed to find the muse Lelia of their imaginations under the guise of a middle-aged bourgeoise. But such impressions were superficial. Her portrait in black and white by Couture, engraved by Manceau, seems to reconcile these apparent discrepancies. Beauty is not here, but the face is so powerful and comprehensive that we perceive there at once the mirror of a mind capable of embracing both the prose and the poetry of life; and by many this portrait is preferred to the earlier likenesses.
Nor is there anything more remarkable in her correspondence than the extremely interesting series of letters, extending from February, 1863, to within three months of her death in 1876, and addressed to Gustave Flaubert, at this period her familiar friend. The intercourse of two minds of so different an intellectual and moral order as those of the authors of Consuelo and of Madame Bovary offers to all a curious study. To the admirers of George Sand these letters are invaluable, both from a literary point of view and as a record of her inner life from that time onwards, when, as expressed by herself, she resolutely buried youth, and owned herself the gainer by an increasing calm within. The secret of her future happiness she found in living for her children and her friends. That she retained her zest for intellectual pleasures she ascribed to the very fact that she never allowed herself to be absorbed for long in these and in herself.
"Artists are spoilt children," she writes to Flaubert, "and the best of them are great egoists. You tell me I love them too well; I love them as I love woods and fields, all things, all beings that I know a little and make my constant study. In the midst of it all I pursue my calling; and how I love that calling of mine, and all that nourishes and renovates it!"
We must now take up the thread of outward events again, which we have slightly anticipated.
In the autumn of 1860 Madame Sand had a severe attack of typhoid fever. She was then on the point of beginning her little tale, La Famille de Germandre; "le roman de ma fievre," she playfully terms it afterwards, when retracing the circumstances in a letter to her old friend Francois Rollinat:—
The day before that upon which I was suddenly taken very seriously ill, I had felt quite well. I had scribbled the beginning of a novel; I had placed all my personages; I knew them thoroughly; I knew their situations in the world, their characters, tendencies, ideas, relations to each other. I saw their faces. All that remained to be known was what they were going to do, and I did not trouble my head about that, having time to think it over to-morrow.
Struck down on the morrow, she was for many days in a precarious condition; and in the confused fancies of fever found herself wandering with La Famille de Germandre about the country, alighting in ruined castles, and encountering the most whimsical adventures in flood and field.
It would have been an easy death, she remarked afterwards, had she died then, as she might, in her dream; but she came to herself to find her son and friends in such anxiety on her account, so overjoyed at her convalescence, that she could not but be glad of the life that was given back to her. Early in 1861 we find her recruiting her forces by a stay at Tamaris, near Toulon, completing the novel interrupted by illness; resuming her long walks and botanic studies, and thoroughly enjoying the sense of returning vital powers.
She stood always in great dread of the idea of possibly losing her activity as she advanced in years. The infirmities of old age, however, she was happily to be spared, preserving her energy and mental faculties, as will be seen, till just before her death. But though she was restored to health and strength, this illness seems to have left its traces on her constitution.
Her son's marriage to Mdlle. Calamatta, spoken of by Madame Sand as a heart's desire of hers at length fulfilled, took place in 1862, not many months after his return from half a year of travel in Africa and America, in the company of Prince Napoleon. The event proved a fresh source of the purest happiness to her, and was not to separate her from her son. The young people settled at Nohant, which remained her head-quarters. There a few years later we find her residing almost exclusively, except when called by matters of business to her pied-a-terre in Paris, where she never lingered long. To the two little grand-daughters, Aurore and Gabrielle, whom she saw spring up in her home, she became passionately devoted. Most of her compositions henceforward are dated from Nohant, where, indeed, more than fifty years of her life were spent.
As regards decorum of expression and temperance of sentiments, the later novels of George Sand have earned more praise than censure; but some readers may feel that in fundamental questions of taste the comparison between them and their forerunners is not always entirely to their advantage. The fervor of youth has a certain purifying power to redeem from offense matter, even though over-frankly treated, which becomes disagreeable in cold analysis, however sober the wording, and clear and admirable the moral pointed.
Mademoiselle La Quintinie, which appeared in 1863, was suggested by M. Octave Feuillet's Sibille. The point of M. Feuillet's novel is, that Sibille, an ardent Catholic, stifles her love, and renounces her lover on account of his heterodox opinions. Madame Sand gives us the reverse—a heroine who is reflectively rather than mystically inclined, and whose lover by degrees succeeds in effecting her conversion to his more liberal views. Here, as elsewhere, the author's mind shows a sympathetic comprehension of the standpoint of enlightened Protestantism curiously rare among those who, like herself, have renounced Romanism for the pursuit of free thought and speculation. But even those who prefer the denoument of George Sand's novel to that of M. Feuillet's will not rank Mademoiselle La Quintinie very high among the author's productions. It is colorless, and artistically weak, however controversially strong.
Madame Sand, according to her own reckoning in 1869, had made at least L40,000 by her writings. Out of this she had saved no fortune. She had always preferred to live from day to day on the proceeds of her work, regulating her expenses accordingly, trusting her brain to answer to any emergency and bring her out of the periodical financial crises in which the uncertainty of literary gains and the liberality of her expenditure involved her. She continued fond of travelling, especially of exploring the nooks and corners of France, felt by her to be less well known than they deserve, and fully as picturesque as the spots tourists go far to visit. Here she sought fresh frames for her novels. "If I have only three words to say about a place," she tells us, "I like to be able to refer to it in my memory so as to make as few mistakes as possible."
In January, 1869, we find her writing of herself in a playful strain to her friend Flaubert:—
The individual called George Sand is quite well, enjoying the marvelous winter now reigning in Berry, gathering flowers, taking note of interesting botanic anomalies, stitching at dresses and mantles for her daughter-in-law, costumes for the marionettes, dressing dolls, reading music, but, above all, spending hours with little Aurore, who is a wonderful child. There is not a being on earth more tranquil and happier in his home than this old troubadour retired from business, now and then singing his little song to the moon, singing well or ill he does not particularly care, so long as he gives the motif that is running in his head.... He is happy, for he is at peace, and can find amusement in everything.
M. Plauchut, another literary friend and a visitor at Nohant during this last decade of her lifetime, gives a picture of the order of her day; it is simplicity itself.
Nine o'clock, in summer and in winter alike, was her hour of waking. Letters and newspapers would then occupy her until noon, when she came down to join the family dejeuner. Afterwards she would stroll for an hour in the garden and the wood, visiting and tending her favorite plants and flowers. At two o'clock she would come indoors to give a lesson to her grandchildren in the library, or work there on her own account, undistracted by the romps around her. Dinner at six was followed by a short evening walk, after which she played with the children, or set them dancing indoors. She liked to sit at the piano, playing over to herself bits of music by her favorite Mozart, or old Spanish and Berrichon airs. After a game of dominoes or cards she would still sit up so late, occupying herself with water-color painting or otherwise, that sometimes her son was obliged to take away the lights. These long evenings, the same writer bears witness, sometimes afforded rare opportunities of hearing Madam Sand talk of the events and the men of her time. In the absolute quiet of the country, among a small circle of responsive minds, she, so silent otherwise, became expansive. "Those who have never heard George Sand at such hours," he concludes, "have never known her. She spoke well, with great elevation of ideas, charming eloquence, and a spirit of infinite indulgence." When at length she retired, it was to write on until the morning hours according to her old habit, only relinquished when her health made this imperative.
She had allowed her son and her daughter-in-law to take the cares of household management off her hands. This left her free, as she expressed it, to be a child again, to hold aloof from things immediate and transitory, reserving her thoughts and contemplations for what is general and eternal. She found a poet's pleasure in abstracting herself from human life, saying: "There are hours when I escape from myself, when I live in a plant, when I feel myself grass, a bird, a tree-top, a cloud, a running stream." Shaking off, as it were, the sense of personality, she felt more freely and fully the sense of kinship with the life and soul of the universe.
It was her habit every evening to sum up in a few lines the impressions of the day, and this journal, for the conspicuous absence of incident in its pages, she compares to the log-book of a ship lying at anchor. But one terrible and little anticipated break in its tranquil monotony was yet to come.
George Sand lived to see her country pass through every imaginable political experience. Born before the First Republic had expired, she had witnessed the First Empire, the restored Monarchy, the Revolution of 1830, the reign of Louis Philippe, the convulsions of 1848, the presidency of Louis Bonaparte, and the Second Empire. She was still to see and outlive its fall, the Franco-German War, the Commune, and to die, as she was born, under a republic.
To some of her friends who had reproached her with showing too much indulgence for the state of things under Imperial rule, she replied that the only change in her was that she had acquired more patience in proportion as more was required. The regime she condemned—and amid apparent prosperity had foretold the corrupting influence on the nation of the established ideal of frivolity, and that a crash of some kind must ensue. Her judgment on the Emperor, after his fall, is worth noting, if only because it is dispassionate. Since his elevation to the Imperial dignity she had lost all old illusions as to his public intentions. With regard to these, on the occasion of her interviews with him at the Elysee, he had completely deceived her, and designedly, she had at first thought. Nor had she concealed her disgust.
I left Paris, and did not come to an appointment he had offered me. They did not tell me "The King might have had to wait!" but they wrote "The Emperor waited." However, I continued to write to him, whenever I saw hopes of saving some victim, to ponder his answers and watch his actions; and I became convinced that he did not intentionally impose upon any one. He imposed on himself and on everybody else.... In private life he had genuine qualities. I happened to see in him a side that was really generous and sincere. His dream of grandeur for France was not that of a sound mind, but neither of an ordinary mind. Really France would have sunk too low if she had submitted for twenty years to the supremacy of a cretin, working only for himself. One would then have to give her up in despair for ever and ever. The truth is that she mistook a meteor for a star, a silent dreamer for a man of depth. Then seeing him sink under disasters he ought to have foreseen, she took him for a coward.
George Sand's Journal d'un Voyageur pendant la guerre has a peculiar and painful interest. It is merely a note-book of passing impressions from September, 1870, to January, 1871; but its pages give a most striking picture of those effects of war which have no place in military annals.
The army disasters of the autumn were preceded by natural calamities of great severity. The heat of the summer in Berry had been tremendous, and Madame Sand describes the havoc as unprecedented in her experience—the flowers and grass killed, the leaves scorched and yellowed, the baked earth under foot literally cracking in many places; no water, no hay, no harvest, but destructive cattle-plague, forest-fires driving scared wolves to seek refuge in the courtyard of Nohant itself—the remnant of corn spared by the sun, ruined by hail-storms. She and all her family had suffered from the unhealthiness of the season. Thus the political catastrophe found her already weakened by anxiety and fatigue, and feeling greatly the effort to set to work again. Finally, an outbreak of malignant small-pox in the village forced her to take her little grandchildren and their mother from Nohant out of reach of the infection. September and October were passed at or in the neighborhood of Boussac, a small town some thirty miles off. Sedan was over, and the worst had begun; the protracted suspense, the long agony of hope.
Those suffered most perhaps who, like herself, had to wait in enforced inaction, amid the awful dead calm that reigned in the provinces, yet forbidden to forget their affliction for a moment. The peasant was gone from the land—only the old and infirm were left to look after the flocks, to till and sow the field. Madame Sand notes, and with a kind of envy, the stolid patience and industry, the inextinguishable confidence, of poor old Jacques Bonhomme when things are at the worst. "He knows that in one way or another it is he who will have to pay the expenses of the war; he knows next winter will be a season of misery and want, but he believes in the spring"—in the bounty of nature to repair war's ravages.
During this time of unimaginable trouble some of the strongest minds were unhinged. It is no small honor to George Sand that hers should have preserved its balance. The pages of this journal are distinguished throughout by a wonderful calm of judgment and an equitable tone—not the calm of indifference, but of a broad and penetrating intelligence, no longer to be blinded by the wild excitement and passions of the moment, or exalted by childish hopes one hour to be thrust into the madness of despair the next.
Although tempted now and then to regret that she had recovered from her illness ten years ago, surviving but to witness the abasement of France, she was not, like others, panic-struck at the prospect of invasion, as though this meant the end of their country. "It will pass like a squall over a lake," she said.
But it was a time when they could be sure of nothing except of their distress. The telegraph wires were cut; rumors of good news they feared to believe would be succeeded by tales of horror they feared to discredit. Tidings would come that three hundred thousand of the enemy had been disposed of in a single engagement and King William taken prisoner; then of fatal catastrophes befallen to private friends—stories which often proved equally unfounded.
She had friends shut up in Paris of whom she knew not whether they were alive or dead. The strain of anxiety and painful excitement made sleep impossible to her except in the last extremity of fatigue. Yet she had her little grandchildren to care for; and when they came around her, clamoring for the fairy tales she was used to supply, she contented them as well as she could and gave them their lessons as usual, anxious to keep them from realizing the sadness the causes of which they were too young to understand.
It was the first time that she had known a distress that forbade her to find a solace in nature. She describes how one day, walking out with some friends and following the course of the river Tarde, she had half abandoned herself to the enjoyment of the scene—the cascade, the dragon-flies skimming the surface, the purple scabious flowers, the goats clambering on the boulders of rock that strewed the borders and bed of the stream—when one of the party remarks: "Here's a retreat pretty well fortified against the Prussians."
And the present, forgotten for an instant in reverie, came back upon her with a shock.
Letters in that district took three or four days to travel thirty miles. Newspapers were rarely to be procured; and when procured, made up of contradictions, wild suggestions, and the pretentious speeches of national leaders, meant to be reassuring, but marked by a vagueness and violence from which Madame Sand rightly augured ill.
The red-letter days were those that brought communications from their friends in Paris by the aerial post. On October 11, two balloons, respectively called "George Sand" and the "Armand Barbes," left the capital. "My name," she remarks, "did not bring good luck to the first—which suffered injuries and descended with difficulty, yet rescued the Americans who had gone up in it." The "Barbes" had a smoother but a more famous flight; alighting and depositing M. Gambetta safely at Tours.
As the autumn advanced Madame Sand and her family were enabled to return to Nohant. But what a return was that! The enemy were quartered within forty miles, at Issoudun; the fugitives thence were continually seen passing, carrying off their children, their furniture and their merchandise to places of security. Already the enemy's guns were said to have been heard at La Chatre. Madame Sand walked in her garden daily among her marigolds, snapdragon and ranunculus, making curious speculations as to what might be in store for herself and her possessions. She remarks:—
You get accustomed to it, even though you have not the consolation of being able to offer the slightest resistance.... I look at my garden, I dine, I play with the children, whilst waiting in expectation of seeing the trees felled roots upwards; of getting no more bread to eat, and of having to carry my grandchildren off on my shoulders; for the horses have all been requisitioned. I work, expecting my scrawls to light the pipes of the Prussians.
But the enemy, though so near, never passed the boundaries of the "Black Valley." The department of the Indre remained uninvaded, though compassed on all sides by the foreign army; and George Sand was able to say afterwards that she at least had never seen a Prussian soldier.
A sad Christmas was passed. On the last night of 1870 a meeting of friends at Nohant broke up with the parting words, "All is lost!"
"The execrable year is out," writes Madame Sand, "but to all appearances we are entering upon a worse."
On the 15th of January, 1871, her little drama Francois le Champi, first represented in the troublous months of 1849, was acted in Paris for the benefit of an ambulance. She notes the singular fate of this piece to be reproduced in time of bombardment. A pastoral!
The worst strain of suspense ended January 29, with the capitulation of Paris. Here the Journal d'un Voyageur breaks off. It would be sad indeed had her life, like that of more than one of her compeers, closed then over France in mourning. Although it was impossible but that such an ordeal must have impaired her strength, she outlived the war's ending, and the horrible social crisis which she had foreseen must succeed the political one. Happier than Prosper Merimee, than Alexandre Dumas, and others, she saw the dawn of a new era of prosperity for her country, whose vital forces, as she had also foretold, were to prevail in the end over successive ills—the enervation of corruption, of military disaster, and the "orgie of pretended renovators" at home, that signalized the first months of peace abroad.
In January, 1872, we again find her writing cheerily to Flaubert:—
Mustn't be ill, mustn't be cross, my old troubadour. Say that France is mad, humanity stupid, and that we are unfinished animals every one of us, you must love on all the same, yourself, your race, above all, your friends. I have my sad hours. I look at my blossoms, those two little girls smiling as ever, their charming mother, and my good, hard-working son, whom the end of the world will find hunting, cataloguing, doing his daily task, and yet as merry as Punch in his rare leisure moments.
In a later letter she writes in a more serious strain:—
I do not say that humanity is on the road to the heights; I believe it in spite of all, but I do not argue about it, which is useless, for every one judges according to his own eyesight, and the general outlook at the present moment is ugly and poor. Besides, I do not need to be assured of the salvation of our planet and its inhabitants in order to believe in the necessity of the good and the beautiful; if our planet departs from this law it will perish; if its inhabitants discard it they will be destroyed. As for me, I wish to hold firm till my last breath, not with the certainty or the demand to find a "good place" elsewhere, but because my sole pleasure is to maintain myself and mine in the upward way.
The last five years of her life saw her pen in full activity. In the Revue des Deux Mondes, Malgretout, the novel of 1870, was succeeded by Flamarande and Les Deux Freres—compositions executed with unflagging energy and animation of style; La Tour de Percemont, and a series of graceful fairy-stories entitled Contes d'une grand'mere. Nanon (1872), a rustic romance of the First Revolution, is a highly remarkable little work, possibly suggested by her recent experiences of the effect of public disturbances on remote country places.
She was also a constant contributor to the newspaper Le Temps. A critical notice by her hand of M. Renan's Dialogues et Fragments Philosophiques, reprinted from those columns, bears date May, 1876, immediately before she succumbed to the illness which in a few days was to cut short her life.
At the beginning of this year she had written on this subject to Flaubert, in the brave spirit she would fain impart to her weaker brethren:—
Life is perhaps eternal, and work in consequence eternal. If so, let us finish our march bravely. If otherwise, if the individual perish utterly, let us have the honor of having done our task. That is duty, for our only obvious duties are to ourselves and our fellow-creatures. What we destroy in ourselves we destroy in them. Our abasement abases them; our falls drag them down; we owe to them to stand fast, to save them from falling. The desire to die early is a weakness, as is the desire to live long.
George Sand, like most persons of an exceptional constitution, had little faith in the efficacy for herself of medical science. She was persuaded that the prescribed remedies did her more harm than good, and on more than one occasion, when her health had caused her children uneasiness, they had had to resort to an affectionate ruse to induce her to take advice. Her habit of disregarding physical ailments, fighting against them as a weakness, and working on in their despite, led her to neglect for too long failing health that should have been attended to. During the whole of May, 1876, Madame Sand, though suffering from real illness, continued to join in the household routine and to proceed with her literary work as usual. Not till the last days of the month did she, unable any longer to make light of her danger, at length consent to send for professional advice. It was then too late. She was suffering from internal paralysis. The medical attention which, sought earlier, might, in the opinion of the doctors, have prolonged her life for years, could now do nothing to avert the imminent fatal consequences of her illness. "It is death," she said; "I did not ask for it, but neither do I regret it." For beyond the sorrow of parting it had no particular terrors for her; she had viewed and could meet it in another spirit. "Death is no more," she had written; "it is life renewed and purified."
She lingered for a week, in great suffering, but bearing all with fortitude and an unflinching determination not to distress those around her by painful complaining. Up to her last hour she preserved consciousness and lucidity. The words, "Ne touchez pas a la verdure," among the last that fell from her lips, were understood by her children, who knew her wish that the trees should be undisturbed under which, in the village cemetery, she was soon to find a resting-place—a wish that had been sacredly respected.
Her suffering ceased a short while before death, which came to her so quietly that the transition was almost imperceptible to the watchers by her side. It was on the morning of the 8th of June. She was within a month of completing her seventy-second year. Although her life's work had long since been mainly accomplished, yet the extinction of that great intelligence was felt by many—as fitly expressed by M. Renan—"like a diminution of humanity."
Two days later she was buried in the little cemetery of Nohant, that adjoins her own garden wall. The funeral was conducted with extreme simplicity, in accordance with her taste and spirit. The scene was none the less a memorable one. The rain fell in torrents, but no one seemed to regard it; the country-people flocking in from miles around, old men standing bare-headed for hours, heedless of the deluge. The peasant and the prince, Parisian leaders of the world of thought and letters, and the humblest and most unlearned of her poorer neighbors, stood together over her grave.
Six peasants carried the bier from the house to the church, a few paces distant. The village priest came, preceded by three chorister-boys and the venerable singing-clerk of the parish, to perform the ceremony. A portion of the little churchyard, railed off from the rest and planted with evergreen-trees, contains the graves of her grandmother, her father, and the two little grandchildren she had lost. A plain granite tomb in their midst now marks the spot where George Sand was laid, literally buried in flowers.
A great spirit was gone from the world; and a good spirit, it will be generally acknowledged: an artist in whose work the genuine desire to leave those she worked for better than she found them, is one inspiring motive. Such endeavor may seem to fail, and she affirmed: "A hundred times it does fail in its immediate results. But it helps, notwithstanding, to preserve that tradition of good desires and of good deeds, without which all would perish."
* * * * *
[A] The biography of Alfred De Musset, by Paul De Musset, translated from the French by Harriet W. Preston. Boston, Roberts Brothers.
[B] Mauprat, translated by Miss Vaughan. Boston, Roberts Brothers.
[C] The Miller of Angibault. Translated by M. E. Dewey. Boston, Roberts Brothers.
[D] The "Snow Man," translated by Virginia Vaughan. Boston: Roberts Brothers.
* * * * *
GEORGE SAND'S NOVELS.
I. MAUPRAT. Translated by VIRGINIA VAUGHAN.
II. ANTONIA. Translated by VIRGINIA VAUGHAN.
III. MONSIEUR SYLVESTRE. Translated by FRANCIS GEORGE SHAW.
IV. THE SNOW MAN. Translated by VIRGINIA VAUGHAN.
V. THE MILLER OF ANGIBAULT. Translated by MARY E. DEWEY.
VI. MY SISTER JEANNIE. Translated by S. R. CROCKER.
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"An admirable translation. As to 'Mauprat,' with which novel Roberts Brothers introduce the first of French novelists to the American public, if there were any doubts as to George Sand's power, it would for ever set them at rest.... The object of the story is to show how, by her (Edmee's) noble nature, he (Mauprat) is subsequently transformed from a brute to a man; his sensual passion to a pure and holy love."—Harper's Monthly.
"The excellence of George Sand, as we understand it, lies in her comprehension of the primitive elements of mankind. She has conquered her way into the human heart, and whether it is at peace or at war, is the same to her; for she is mistress of all its moods. No woman before ever painted the passions and the emotions with such force and fidelity, and with such consummate art. Whatever else she may be, she is always an artist.... Love is the key-note of 'Mauprat,'—love, and what it can accomplish in taming an otherwise untamable spirit. The hero, Bernard Mauprat, grows up with his uncles, who are practically bandits, as was not uncommon with men of their class, in the provinces, before the breaking out of the French Revolution. He is a young savage, of whom the best that can be said is, that he is only less wicked than his relatives, because he has somewhere within him a sense of generosity and honor, to which they are entire strangers. To sting this sense into activity, to detect the makings of a man in this brute, to make this brute into a man, is the difficult problem, which is worked out by love,—the love of Bernard for his cousin Edmee, and hers for him,—the love of two strong, passionate, noble natures, locked in a life-and-death struggle, in which the man is finally overcome by the unconquerable strength of womanhood. Only a great writer could have described such a struggle, and only a great artist could have kept it within allowable limits. This George Sand has done, we think; for her portrait of Bernard is vigorous without being coarse, and her situations are strong without being dangerous. Such, at least, is the impression we have received from reading 'Mauprat,' which, besides being an admirable study of character, is also a fine picture of French provincial life and manners."—Putnam's Monthly.
"Roberts Brothers propose to publish a series of translations of George Sand's better novels. We can hardly say that all are worth appearing in English; but it is certain that the 'better' list will comprise a good many which are worth translating, and among these is 'Mauprat,'—though by no means the best of them. Written to show the possibility of constancy in man, a love inspired before and continuing through marriage, it is itself a contradiction to a good many of the popular notions respecting the author,—who is generally supposed to be as indifferent to the sanctities of the marriage relation as was her celebrated ancestor, Augustus of Saxony.... The translation is admirable. It is seldom that one reads such good English in a work translated from any language. The new series is inaugurated in the best possible way, under the hands of Miss Vaughan, and we trust that she may have a great deal to do with its continuance. It is not every one who can read French who can write English so well."—Old and New.
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