The First Modern Woman
If you had a time machine and could go back to a downtown street corner at any great city of two hundred years ago, New York or London or Paris or Constantinople, the first thing that would strike you was that the streets were full of horses. The second would be that they were empty of women. Turn where you would outside of a cleaning woman or an oyster woman or a prostitute or two, all the people would be men -- soldiers and government officials and merchants and lawyers and priests and coachmen and porters and lackeys and poets, all scurrying about as they made the world go round, while their women were out of sight at home sewing and cooking and having babies.
It took a long time for all the uncounted millions of changes in individual attitudes and actions which produced the very different street scenes of today, and it is hard to draw up an exact chronology. No one can say that at such and such a moment the demise of the horse became inevitable. In the case of the women, however, it can be plausibly argued that the first step in what has become their irresistible rise in the modern world was taken one afternoon in November 1830 at the lovely chateau of Nohant in the center of France which is visited today by thousands of pilgrims come to pay their respects to the famous writer who spent half her life there, George Sand.
The visitors find everything so peaceful here, the 18th century architecture is so airy and comfortable and elegant, the dining table under its Venetian glass chandelier set so properly with its place-cards for Monsieur Flaubert and Monsieur Turgeniev and the Prince Jérome Napoléon, the walls so stately with their family portraits and pale-blue paper, the views so lovely out of every window of the rich fields and woodlands of the old province of Berry, that it is hard to associate this gracious place, recently subject to a widespread and loving restoration, with a revolutionary event, one had have greater consequences than the uprising in Paris which had overthrown the last of the Bourbon kings earlier that same year.
George Sand was not yet George Sand in 1830 She was the baroness Aurore Dudevant, twenty-six years old, a handsome hot-blooded thoroughly unhappy young lady living with her husband and two little children on the estate she had inherited from her grandmother. She was rummaging through her husbands desk that day looking for some paper she had misplaced, when she came across a bulky envelope with her name on it and written below it the words, ONLY TO BE OPENED AFTER MY DEATH. Since it was addressed to her, she saw no reason not to open it, and it turned out to be full of violent abuse, all the resentments and disapprovals which had been simmering for eight years of a marriage between two people who had nothing in common except a love for riding horses.
This was perhaps the pretext she had been looking for all along, at all events something snapped inside of her at that moment, all the ideas that had been simmering and boiling in her head for years came steaming together at once, and being a sturdy country girl used to action she acted on them at once. She summoned her husband and told him that she was tired of living with a drunken oaf who fell asleep and snored when she talked about books or played the piano, and that she was moving to Paris to make a living there by writing books, and to live her own life in her own way., while he could take care of the house and the children. She needed his consent to do it, for though the property and most of the money belonged to her, the legal wisdom handed down for thousands of years decreed that a married woman was incapable of handling her own business affairs and all the checks had to be signed by the husband. In fact, since the product of a wifes work was the property of her husband, under a provision of French law which was not changed until 1970 he had the right to insist on having his own name printed on the title page of any book she might write. This particular husband was a great hunter and a heavy drinker, but he was no match for her in character, and she bullied him into accepting her terms, and giving her a small allowance when she went off to Paris. In his dull fuddled way he knew that something unusual was going on, but he could have had no idea that he was helping to inaugurate a new era in human history.
Within a couple of months, the baroness had packed her bags, kissed her children goodbye and taken the diligence for Paris, where she attracted immediate attention by wearing pants, a sight which no Parisian had ever seen on a woman outdoors. Within a few weeks she began selling articles and short stories to newspapers, and had become an active member of a hitherto all-male circle of talkative turbulent students and artists. She was living in some rooms overlooking the river with a curly-haired boy named Jules Sandeau whom she had met at a party the previous year and who had told her that he was a writer. They agreed to collaborate, and in short order had written two novels which were snapped up by a publisher. The publisher did not want a womans name on the title page, for the public would not take such a book seriously, and so they concocted a joint asexual pseudonym, J. Sand. When she realized that her "little Jules" was very lazy and that she was doing almost all of the work, she decided to strike out on her own and produced a remarkable novel called Indiana, about a beautiful young bride married to a dull brute, wooed by a cynical cad to whom she is willing to sacrifice all if he will agree to sacrifice all to her, but he prefers to make a safe and profitable marriage, and she jumps off a cliff. Her heroine Indiana was, she said, "Choice at war with Necessity; she is Love blindly butting its head against all the obstacles set in its way by civilization."
Once again the publisher would not hear of a womans name on the title page.. He suggested that they might lure all the J. Sand fans into buying the book by changing a single letter, something they were not likely to notice. So the authors name became G. Sand, and the G, she decided, would stand for George. It was the name by which she was to be known forevermore.
Indiana was an instant success. She wrote another novel, and then another. She was launched on a career.
That was only the beginning of her aspirations.
The pants she wore were primarily a matter of practical convenience: you could not work in newspaper offices and run around with all the bright young writers and artists or even sit in the orchestra at theaters (ladies were supposed to sit in expensive boxes) if you were hobbled by ballooning skirts. They were also, like the cigars she smoked, a signal of revolt, they announced her intention to turn law and society and traditional modes of thought upside down and put an end to the age-old tyranny of men over women. Not just talk about it, complain about it, intrigue against it, artfully influence men to do something about it, but actually defy it out in the open. She was going to live like a man, make money like a man, have love affairs the way every famous man from Saint Augustine to Lord Byron had done, and do it all without giving up any of what the world regarded as traditional feminine features: She would be a good cook and a good housekeeper, managing a dozen servants and an estate of 300 acres. She would be a good mother, and she would be flighty and flirty, let emotion run her life when the right lover came along. One of those lovers might complain of her "impetuous changeableness." She was only trying to be completely honest and completely independent: "I ask the support of no one, neither to kill someone for me, gather a bouquet for me, correct a proof, or to go with me to the theater. I go there on my own as a man, by choice; and when I want flowers, I go on foot, by myself, to the Alps." After all the millennia of female servitude, she would be Spartacus leading the way to freedom.
She was not quite as radical as she sounded to the horrified conservatives of her day. She did not propose to do away with marriage, she only wanted the wife to have equal rights with the husband. She wanted marriage to stop being a business arrangement between families and become a loving union between two human beings. Since she was a child of the Romantic Age, she had high standards for love. She maintained that life should be ruled by emotion and instinct, the heart rather than the brain. In practice, she was not quite that simple-minded. She would follow her heart anywhere, but the love she dreamed of, the only love she would tolerate, had to involve a complete accord of heart, body and mind, "complete effusion, embrace of twin souls". Such accords and embraces were as hard to come by in the nineteenth century as they would be in the twenty-first, and it is no wonder that her love life was marked by a series of disappointments, disillusionments, agonies of despair. So was her political life, where her hatred of oppression and poverty led her to join revolutionary causes with boundless enthusiasm, only to find that when her heroes came to power, after years of shouting for the people, they soon began to think only of Me Me Me
Underneath the swirling tides of her romantic impulses was a bedrock of common sense, and where other Romantics like Lord Byron and Alfred de Musset found no alternative to unattainable ideals but random sex and steady drinking early death, she had the capacity for looking over her ideals coolly, finding them wanting, and going on to something else. But she never lost her faith that the future was brighter than the past and that the future meant freedom. "My profession," she said, "is to be free."
A proposal to live by this code was amazing enough coming from a somnolent backwater n the hidebound society of King Louis Philippes France. Still more amazing was that she got away with it. By the time she died in 1876 at the age of 72, surrounded by grieving and adoring grandchildren and local villagers, she was universally recognized (and extolled, worshiped, denounced, derided) as one of the giant figures of the 19th century. Though little of her vast output is still read today, she counts as one of the classic writers of France. Though only a handful of the millions of women now breaking their way through the innumerable glass ceilings of government and business and the liberal professions and manly sports have any idea of the various political and religious causes she espoused,, many of them are at least vaguely aware that she took the first step for them all.
She knew she would have to take that step in one of the few domains where women of her time had the slightest chance of getting ahead in the world. There was no hope in church or state (unless you were born a Queen or slept with a King) or commerce or shoemaking, but there was a long if subdued tradition of women in the arts, and a handful of successful women novelists had received grudging recognition: Fanny Burney, Madame de Stael, Jane Austen.. They had all operated on the sidelines of the professional literary world.. Aurore Dupin was going to get into the thick of it.
She knew she could write well and she had plenty to write about. Few novelists of any sex have had such a rich tangle of family and youthful background to draw upon.
On her mothers side, she came from the back alleys of Paris, where her grandfather had peddled canaries. On her fathers, she was fifth cousin three times removed of the last three kings of France, through her great-great-grandfather Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. By his favorite mistress, Countess Aurora von Königsmark, the most beautiful woman of her time, Augustus produced the most famous of his 360 (or 355 or 300 or 200, the biographers differ) illegitimate children: the Maréchal de Saxe, one of the most successful of French generals -- there is a great broad tree-lined avenue named for him in the heart of Paris. He in turn had numerous bastards, including a girl whom he tried to repudiate but who persuaded the courts to let her legally call herself Aurore de Saxe. She married a rich tax collector named Dupin de Franoeuil and became one of those handsome free-thinking art-loving aristocratic ladies who set the tone of French social life in the 18th century. She was a friend of Voltaire and Rousseau, she used to tell her grand-daughter that in the happy days before the Revolution old age was unknown, no one complained of pain or illness, everyone went on enjoying good food, good conversation, good music every day of their lives, and if they had to die preferred to die at a ball or the opera rather than in a bed surrounded by gloomy figures in black. (As her grand-daughter coolly observed, it was a great life if you were assured of a steady income of five hundred thousand francs a year) Aurore de Saxe had one son, Maurice, who became a war hero fighting for the Revolution and for Napoleon. After the battle of Marengo he stole away his commanding generals girl friend, Sophie Delaborde, who previously had made what living she could in cabarets, dancing and meeting army officers He married her a month before the birth of their daughter and despite the efforts of his mother to annul the marriage, the little girl was born with an honest name, Aurore Dupin. By the time she married the baron Casimir Dudevant at the age of seventeen, Aurore Dupin had lived in her mothers Paris garret, in her grandmothers chateau, in a palace in Madrid (when her father was aide-de-camp to General Murat who had just gobbled up Spain for his brother-in-law Napoleon). She had seen a battle, seen Napoleon review his troops, seen her father killed when his wild Spanish stallion threw him against a tree near Nohant on his way home from a long drunken evening. She had fed pigs with the little peasant kids her neighbors and had spent three years in a school for young ladies of good family run by English nuns in Paris (where the other young ladies translated her family name of Dupin into the nickname Some Bread). The nuns convent was part of her earliest childhood memories because her grandmother used to tell her stories of the days during the Reign of Terror when it was a jail and she herself was locked up there. One day her fifteen-year-old son had come to whisper to her how he and his tutor had crept in the dead of night to the apartment from which they had been expelled, detached the seals which the police had put on the doors, searched out and burned compromising documents which would have sent her to the guillotine if the police found them, resealed the doors and went out without waking up a soul.
Young Aurore knew how to gallop astride a horse, to the outrage of respectable neighbors who expected her to ride side saddle like a lady. She knew how to sew and draw and play the piano and how to set a broken limb, she could speak fluent English as well as Latin and Greek, she could tell stories that would hold her mother, children and chambermaids spellbound.
She had seen her grandmother and her mother fight over her, and where a weaker child might have been torn apart by two selfish and tyrannical women (and she liked to pretend that she had been), she came out with an uncommon ability to stand up to both of them with her feet firmly on the ground.
Helping to keep them there was the remarkably robust constitution she had inherited. from the kings and tavern-keepers who were her ancestors. She could walk twenty miles in a day, she climbed Alps, she swam in the Indre river at what was then the very advanced age of seventy despite the agonized protests of her doctor.
And whatever emotional hurricanes might sweep through her semi-tropical soul, she had a thoroughly professional, businesslike, cast of mind. She had a truly extraordinary capacity for work. Whatever was going on at any time at the breakneck pace of her complex and variegated life -- whether it was Chopin and Liszt playing four-handed piano in the living room, or revolutionists being shot down on their barricades outside her window in a Paris street, or Jules Sandeau climbing a ladder to her bedroom while her husband snored down the hall, or if there were eighteen people coming to dinner, or her malicious daughter Solange aged seventeen was trying to steal Chopin from her out of sheer spite, or she herself was out in the countryside collecting insects and prehistoric artifacts, or nursing sick neighbors, whether she was going through romantic transports and agonies with poets artists actresses political leaders revolutionary agitators or prophets, or was designing and sewing the costumes for her sons marionette theater, or stayed up all night talking and drinking and running her fingers through some young poets hair -- she was never far from her writing desk. She unfailingly turned out her twenty and more pages a day to get the royalties which were hardly ever sufficient to pay for her lavish hospitality, her boundless generosity to friends, lovers, neighbors, political causes.
The work did not exhaust her energy. "Unceasingly I see her hovering anxiously over me," wrote Chopin of the ghastly winter they spent in Majorca, where it rained all the time, where he spat blood and people avoided them like lepers, "nursing me all by herself, for God preserve us from the doctors of that country. making my bed, cleaning my room, depriving herself of everything for me, watching over the children as well. Add to this, that she continues to write." In fact she finished one novel in Majorca and revised the three volumes of her previous best-seller Lélia. and in the ten weeks they spent recuperating in Marseilles she wrote another novel. She had to work fast because the fourteen weeks in Majorca, including the huge bribe she had to pay the Spanish customs officials to get Chopins piano out of storage at Palma, had cost her two years royalties
This workmanlike approach to her job was one of the things men found it hard to forgive her for, because it seemed so contrary to what they regarded as womans nature..Prosper Mérimée, creator of Carmen, went into a fury when he woke up at dawn after a night of passion and there she was lighting a fire and getting her quill pen ready to start her next chapter as soon as the sun came up.
Balzac wrote after a visit to Nohant: "She lives almost exactly as I do. She goes to bed at six in the morning and gets up at midday, whereas I go to bed at six in the evening and get up at midnight. But naturally I fitted with her arrangements, and during three days we talked from five in the evening after dinner, until five in the morning.".
By keeping such hours, the burly Balzac wore himself out and died before he was fifty-three. Little (five foot three) George Sand took it all in her stride. She was working on her seventy-first (or ninety-first, if you count the ones she burned) novel when she died in 1876 at the age of 72.
She had written in addition many short stories, twenty-four plays, ten volumes of autobiography; essays, book reviews, political pamphlets, and an estimated forty thousand letters, of which twenty-three thousand have been printed. Her Complete Works now number 123 volumes, and they do not include hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, or the seventeen thousand lost letters, some of which were burned by their recipients to keep them from the eyes of their children..
She wrote about everything that came to hand, love stories, adventure stories, psychological stories, religious stories, stories about foreign lands and secret societies, Roman prelates and Balkan pirates, corrupt noblemen and hard-working peasants, anything. In one of Mussets plays a jealous husband is driven to distraction when the woman from whom he is trying get information about his wife insists instead on talking about the fascinating article of Madame Sand that has just come out in the morning paper, about orangotangs.
In her day she was one of the half-dozen most widely=reaf novelists of the western world, at a time when novelists -- who had no movies or television to worry about -- had far more influence on peoples thoughts and feelings than they do today. She was extravagantly admired by people as different as Dostoyevsky, Walt Whitman and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (who wrote two sonnets dedicated to "that great-brained woman and great-hearted man self-styled George Sand") She was extravagantly denounced as well; by the Vatican which repeatedly put her on the Index of books no good Catholic was allowed to read, by a critic who asked for a red-hot iron to be applied to her polluted lips, and by Baudelaire who called her a "great fool...a latrine...a stupid creature."
.Her reputation as a writer has not stood up very well, and though there is a current revival of interest in her works it is unlikely that she will ever regain the worldwide popularity she acquired in her lifetime. Librarians and booksellers report few requests for her books She is too long-winded and preachy, her plots are too unbridled, her optimism too syrupy, for modern tastes. But there are many unexpected pleasures to be derived from dipping at random into that immense mass of work, for she had a keen eye and a warm heart and a lively forthright style which her reviewers used to call approvingly "masculine," as they would later call the style of another pseudo-George, Mary Anne Evans who took the name George Eliot.
She may seem old-fashioned today, a writer of "charming improbable romances for persons of the optimistic class," as Henry James called her, but in her time she was hailed, or reviled, as an innovator, bringing something radically new into literature. She was the first novelist, male or female, to treat of marriage not as the goal and fulfilment of a maidens desire, but as a fact of life, which in most cases meant a commercial contract leading to a life of submission and servitude. This was a very radical position in her day: even her friend Balzac who agreed with her that women should be free before marriage argued that they had to be slaves after it, otherwise society would collapse.
She was a trail-blazer too in dealing with a class of people that has always been neglected by playwrights and novelists and historians alike, though it has always comprised the vast majority of mankind and kept the world going round:: the working poor. Playwrights and novelists and historians have to keep an eye on the public, and the public is always most interested in extreme situations involving colorful characters, Lady Macbeth or Lady Chatterley or Bonnie and Clyde; saints and drunkards, noblemen and beggars, as Yeats put it. Most people throughout history have had no time for drama or colorful personality in their own lives, they are too busy trying, and barely succeeding, to keep alive. George Sand was one of the first, if not the first, serious writer to attempt a sober realistic account of their lives. She knew perfectly well from keeping her eyes and her heart open that even in a fairly prosperous region like Berry the rural poor were condemned to a hard squalid stifling life. She didnt dare to show all the squalor, the work and worries, the diseases and disasters, the long plodding monotony of their days, for fear of alienating her bourgeois readers whom she wanted to make aware of the fundamental decency and dignity of these people. So her picture of the life of poverty is apt to seem rosy and sentimental to the modern reader, used to much stronger stuff.
She never had the gift for creating unforgettable characters like her contemporaries Balzac and Dickens -- at least in her novels, for in real life she did create one character that seems sure to live on indefinitely, the character of George Sand, a fascinating and complex mixture of shyness and boldness, passion and reason, wildness and domesticity, frankness and hypocrisy. Always hitching her wagon to impossible stars but never losing her sturdy country-girl good sense, it was a character which fascinated everybody who met her, and naturally they liked to talk about her. Friends made sure she heard all the gossip, which in the way of most gossip was largely focused on her love life. In the fall of 1833 she wrote her friend and confidant the critic Sainte-Beuve:"I have fallen in love, and this time very seriously, with Alfred de Musset...You may perhaps think that a woman should conceal her feelings; but I beg you to realize that I am in a quite exceptional situation, and am compelled, from now on, to live my private life in the full light of day."
These are words that would come naturally from the lips of any Princess of Wales or Hollywood starlet today. In 1833 they were quite revolutionary. She was self-consciously making herself a Celebrity, perhaps the first true Celebrity of the 20th century breed. Like her descent on Paris two years earlier, her public proclamation of her new love was a symbolic gesture, asserting her right as a woman to follow the same paths of activity and receive the same treatment and be judged by the same standards as any man.
Men had of course been acting out their private lives in public since the world began. But they could hardly be judged Celebrities by todays standards because their fame was necessarily circumscribed by the narrow limits in which life used to be lived, whether it was a village or a monastery or the court of Versailles. George Sand had the good fortune to appear on the scene at the same time as the railroad, the daily newspaper and the telegraph, and that meant that every time this bizarre cigar-smoking woman did something outrageous or simply something unusual, everyone would be talking about it in a few days from St. Petersburg to San Francisco.
There were no press agents in those days but George Sand needed none. She was recognized and observed wherever she went. And she was always writing letters, they might be up to 71 pages long, pouring out her soul to her friends and giving her side of whatever situation she happened to be in. These letters were meant to be passed from hand to hand, they were both justifications for her conduct and manifestoes of the new age.
She was not, like so many of todays Celebrities, just putting on a show for the public. She was always following her heart, or her good sense when she realized her heart had led her astray. One way or the other, it made good copy everywhere.
The whole world was watching as she departed with Alfred de Musset, the delicate dandified poet seven years her junior, for Italy, land of dreams and desire, from the moment they got aboard a paddle-wheel steamer in Marseilles on December 20, 1833.. Coldly summarized, their voyage looks as if it had been scripted a hundred and fifty years later by Woody Allen. The Mediterranean was rough, George strode the deck blowing smoke at the elements. Alfred was sick as a dog, and wrote a furious little quatrain to protest the reversal of traditional gender roles. He got his revenge when they arrived in Venice at the hotel Danieli and something she ate gave George a bad case of dysentery which knocked her out for days. There was nothing in tradition which required a man, especially a young aristocrat like Alfred, to stick around a smelly hotel room, and he did what he was accustomed to do, he went out night after night to drink and gamble and pick up girls along the canals. A handsome young doctor named Pietro Pagello came to bleed George regularly, and George and Pagello fell madly in love. Back in the hotel after she was healed, Alfred collapsed with what different biographers describe as typhoid, brain fever, swamp fever, or delirium tremens. He saw George and Pagello drinking tea out of the same cup, in his fever he saw much more, and threw a violent jealous fit.
Alfred then went back to Paris alone. George stayed on happily in Venice till summer, then took Pagello back to Paris with her and introduced him to her friends as a famous archeologist. Alfred eventually threw himself back into Georges arms. They had moments of rapture, moments of horrid spite and unforgivable insult, there were ecstasies in the forest in moonlight, there was a suicide pact, and finally they broke up for good.
George, who had written two novels, a novelette and two essays about Venice at the Danieli, eventually wrote a book about the whole experience. So did Alfred. So did Alfreds brother, and the actress who succeeded George in Alfreds affections.. Doctor Pagello lived on in Venice till the age of 92, a local celebrity to whom everyone came to find out about the famous George Sand, The public could not get enough of the amants de Venise.
Within a month of her finally writing off Musset she was passionately in love with a well-known lawyer named Michel de Bourges, a man who has always posed a problem for biographers anxious to put her in a psycho-analytical cubby-hole because unlike most of her other lovers he was quite a bit older than she was, and ugly and bald. But he had a golden tongue. He helped win the case against Casimir for separation (there was no such thing as divorce in France in those days). He also converted George to the cause of revolution, though she drew back a little when she heard him say that Paris should be reduced to plow-land so that equality might reign on earth.
Once again her grasp deal fell short of the ideal. In 1839, when she had been mountain-climbing in Switzerland with Franz Liszt and his mistress Marie dAgoult, she could write to Michel: At noon, in the exquisite depths of mountain valleys, with the song of birds in my ears, and sweet forest smells in my nostrils, I have more than once withdrawn from my companions to sit apart, my heart full of love and knees trembling with desire. I am a young woman still..I can still walk ten leagues, and, when I fall into bed at the inn, can still dream that the shoulder of the man I love is the only pillow which can bring rest to soul and body alike...It is you of whom I have been dreaming when I wake in a cold sweat, your name that I cry aloud when nature breathes her passionate summons in my ear, and the mountain air assails my flesh with a thousand prickings of desire."
Shortly thereafter, a very different woman is speaking, in the traditional tones of the woman scorned: Whereas you....On my way through Bourges there was no lack of friends to tell me that you had fallen for a woman of the most disgusting fatness. I had it for certain, from the lips of somebody who is as innocent of guile as a child, that you have been spending all your time with this woman...I know from what you have said that you do not care two pins about her husband. What, then, takes you to her house? She can sing, but abominably out of tune. This I know because I have heard her....Tell me, Michel, what is it you do when you are with her, and why you spend in her house the hours that you can spare from work? Is it just that she relieves your loins like any street-walker?
And shortly afterwards she sat down to write a letter to herself coolly analyzing the impossibility of remaining attached to a man who wanted only her devotion and submission, who was not going to leave his wife or his comfortable way of life for her. That was the end of Michel de Bourges, and she was ready to take on Frédéric Chopin.
Chopin was a delicate, tubercular, morbidly punctilious, morbidly jealous genius, "frail as a snow-drop," said an American visitor Margaret Fuller. To him George Sand would play alternately lover and muse and worshipful mother and devoted nurse for eight years. They were the years during which he wrote most of his best piano compositions and she some of her best novels, including the one which has been the most popular down to the present day, La Mare au Diable, The Devils Pool, a simple tale of love in the Berry countryside, this time a love triumphant over social convention, which she wrote in four days. They were also years of squabbles with her daughter Solange, now an adolescent with a roving eye and when it roved to Chopin and he responded, a tangle of jealousies and resentments ensued, involving her son Maurice and Augustine, a poor cousin whom she had adopted, who fell in love with Maurice, to the intense annoyance of Solange, who managed to turn Maurice against Augustine, Chopin against Maurice, George against Chopin. Solange married a brute of a sculptor who once attacked Maurice and George with a hammer, every one blamed every one else, and the affair with Chopin, which might have gone on till he died a couple of years later, petered out unpleasantly.
Political turmoil followed domestic. There was a revolution in 1848, a brief republic, then a coup détat which gave France a second Bonaparte emperor. For a while swept up by revolutionary enthusiasm, George Sand poured out pamphlets and open letters, she was almost a Minister of Propaganda for the republican government
But as she grew older, she was losing her taste for adventure. She spent more and more time in Nohant, and it was a quieter time than any she had ever known. She had the longest-lasting of all her love affairs, fifteen years with a young painter named Alexandre Manceau, a devoted attendant to whom she was very devoted too, and when her son threw a jealous fit about having hm around the house, she went off with Manceau to live in a Paris suburb till he died in 1869 of tuberculosis.
She settled into an active old age at Nohant, playing with her grandchildren and building grottoes for them as her mother had once built for her, writing and producing elaborate marionette shows with her son, entertaining guests by the dozen and writing novels steadily. She was an international celebrity by now, she was everyones grandmother, people came to see her from Russia, from America, everywhere. And although young people continued to adore her as a standard-bearer of revolt and liberation, her views of the world had calmed down considerably, she had grown to detest violence, she was all for moderation.
She never gave up her capacity to "live life as it is, without being ungrateful, fully aware that joy is neither enduring nor assured." Her last great affection, a purely platonic one this time, was for Flaubert, who admired her whole-heartedly though he could never understand her taste for playing rowdy practical jokes when he wanted to talk about Literature.
When Flaubert told her that "a novelist does not have the right to express his opinion on anything. Did God ever state His opinion?" she replied that she could never understand "putting nothing of ones heart in what one writes. It seems to me one cant put anything else in it."
And when he wrote to her from the Swiss mountains where he had been sent to calm his nerves, "I am not a man of nature, I would trade all the glaciers in the world for the Vatican Library," she snapped back that he himself was a part of nature and he had better get used to it. It was at her insistence that he wrote what many regard as his most human work, Un Coeur Simple, a tale of the lonely life and loves and death of a house-maid in Normandy, when he would have preferred to be writing about bare-bottomed chorus girls and saber-toothed bats tormenting Saint Anthony in the desert
Nature was with her to the end. Almost the last words she uttered when she was dying in agony of an intestinal cancer, were laissez verdure, leave the green perhaps because she was looking for the last time on the two great cedar trees outside her window which she had planted at the birth of her children almost half a century before.
If she had a time machine and were to come back to Nohant today, she might find much to displease her in modern life, but Nohant itself would have its consolations. Her house is much the way she left it, and so are the rolling grainfields and woodlands around it. The sturdy farmhouses of her neighbors are much the same, the farmers look much the same though they now use tractors instead of oxen for their planting, and their wives wear blue jeans. She would be saddened by the loss of so many old traditions: the ox-car ruts that are now paved roads, the people who have been taught by their new television sets to speak French instead of the throaty Berrichon patois she loved. But then she was a creator of tradition too, and she would take a generous delight in watching the women drive up on their visits to what is now a national monument, women who may keep house the way she did but also have careers such as she made for herself, as doctors, lawyers, cabinet ministers, professors of gender studies, vice-presidents of international conglomerates, even nuns, wearing short skirts or pants, striding over the earth as if they owned at least as much of it as the men trotting along beside them. She would recognize them all as her grandchildren. "One day," she had predicted, "the world will understand me, and if this day never comes, no matter, I will have opened the way for other women."
The cedar trees still stand in her garden.
©1996 Robert Wernick
Smithsonian Magazine, December 1996