The correspondence of George Sand and Gustave Flaubert, ifapproached merely as a chapter in the biographies of these heroes ofnineteenth century letters, is sufficiently rewarding. In arelationship extending over twelve years, including the tryingperiod of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune, theseextraordinary personalities disclose the aspects of their diversenatures which are best worth the remembrance of posterity. Howeverher passionate and erratic youth may have captivated ourgrandfathers, George Sand in the mellow autumn of her life is for usat her most attractive phase. The storms and anguish and hazardousadventures that attended the defiant unfolding of her spirit areover. In her final retreat at Nohant, surrounded by her affectionatechildren and grandchildren, diligently writing, botanizing, bathingin her little river, visited by her friends and undistracted by thefiery lovers of the old time, she shows an unguessed wealth ofmaternal virtue, swift, comprehending sympathy, fortitude, sunnyresignation, and a goodness of heart that has ripened into wisdom.For Flaubert, too, though he was seventeen years her junior, theflamboyance of youth was long since past; in 1862, when thecorrespondence begins, he was firmly settled, a shy, proud, grumpytoiling hermit of forty, in his family seat at Croisset, beginninghis seven years’ labor at L’Education Sentimentale, master of hisart, hardening in his convictions, and conscious of increasingestrangement from the spirit of his age. He, with his craving forsympathy, and she, with her inexhaustible supply of it, meet; hepours out his bitterness, she her consolation; and so with equalcandor of self-revelation they beautifully draw out and strengtheneach the other’s characteristics, and help one another grow old.
But there is more in these letters than a satisfaction for thebiographical appetite, which, indeed, finds its account rather inthe earlier chapters of the correspondents’ history. What impressesus here is the banquet spread for the reflective and criticalfaculties in this intercourse of natural antagonists. As M. Faguetobserves in a striking paragraph of his study of Flaubert:
“It is a curious thing, which does honor to them both, that Flaubertand George Sand should have become loving friends towards the end oftheir lives. At the beginning, Flaubert might have been looked uponby George Sand as a furious enemy. Emma [Madame Bovary] is GeorgeSand’s heroine with all the poetry turned into ridicule. Flaubertseems to say in every page of his work: ‘Do you want to know what isthe real Valentine, the real Indiana, the real Lelia? Here she is,it is Emma Roualt.’ ‘And do you want to know what becomes of a womanwhose education has consisted in George Sand’s books? Here she is,Emma Roualt.’ So that the terrible mocker of the bourgeois haswritten a book which is directly inspired by the spirit of the 1840bourgeois. Their recriminations against romanticism ‘whichrehabilitates and poetises the courtesan,’ against George Sand, theMuse of Adultery, are to be found in acts and facts in MadameBovary.”
Now, the largest interest of this correspondence depends preciselyupon the continuance, beneath an affectionate personal relationship,of a fundamental antagonism of interests and beliefs, resolutelymaintained on both sides. George Sand, with her lifelong passion forpropaganda and reformation, labors earnestly to bring Flaubert toher point of view, to remould him nearer to her heart’s desire. He,with a playful deference to the sex and years of his friend,addresses her in his letters as “Dear Master.” Yet in the essentialsof the conflict, though she never gives over her effort, he neverbudges a jot; he has taken his ground, and in his last unfinishedwork, Bouvard and Pecuchet, he dies stubbornly fortifying hisposition. To the last she speaks from a temperament lyrical,sanguine, imaginative, optimistic and sympathetic; he from atemperament dramatic, melancholy, observing, cynical, and satirical.She insists upon natural goodness; he, upon innate depravity. Sheurges her faith in social regeneration; he vents his spleneticcontempt for the mob. Through all the successive shocks ofdisillusioning experience, she expects the renovation of humanity bysome religious, some semi-mystical, amelioration of its heart; hegrimly concedes the greater part of humanity to the devil, and cansee no escape for the remnant save in science and aristocraticorganization. For her, finally, the literary art is an instrument ofsocial salvation — it is her means of touching the world with herideals, her love, her aspiration; for him the literary art is theavenue of escape from the meaningless chaos of existence — it is hissubtly critical condemnation of the world.
The origins of these unreconciled antipathies lie deep beneath thepersonal relationship of George Sand and Gustave Flaubert; lie deepbeneath their successors, who with more or less of amenity in theirmanners are still debating the same questions today. The maincurrents of the nineteenth century, with fluent and refluent tides,clash beneath the controversy; and as soon as one hears its “longwithdrawing roar,” and thinks it is dying away, and is become a partof ancient history, it begins again, and will be heard, no doubt, bythe last man as a solemn accompaniment to his final contention withhis last adversary.
George Sand was, on the whole, a natural and filial daughter of theFrench Revolution. The royal blood which she received from herfather’s line mingled in her veins with that of the Parisianmilliner, her mother, and predestined her for a leveller bypreparing in her an instinctive ground of revolt against all thoseinherited prejudices which divided the families of her parents. As ayoung girl wildly romping with the peasant children at Nohant shediscovered a joy in untrammeled rural life which was only toincrease with years. At the proper age for beginning to fashion aconventional young lady, the hoyden was put in a convent, where sheunderwent some exalting religious experiences; and in 1822 she wasassigned to her place in the “established social order” by hermarriage at seventeen to M. Dudevant. After a few years of ratherhumdrum domestic life in the country, she became aware that thisgentleman, her husband, was behaving as we used to be taught thatall French husbands ultimately behave; he was, in fact, turning fromher to her maids. The young couple had never been strongly united —the impetuous dreamy girl and her coarse hunting mate; and they hadgrown wide apart. She should, of course, have adjusted herselfquietly to the altered situation and have kept up appearances. Butthis young wife had gradually become an “intellectual”; she had beenreading philosophy and poetry; she was saturated with the writingsof Rousseau, of Chateaubriand, of Byron. None of the spiritualmasters of her generation counselled acquiescence in servitude orsilence in misery. Every eloquent tongue of the time-spirit urgedself-expression and revolt. And she, obedient to the deepestimpulses of her blood and her time, revolted.
At the period when Madame Dudevant withdrew her neck from theconjugal yoke and plunged into her literary career in Paris, thedoctrine that men are created for freedom, equality and fraternitywas already somewhat hackneyed. She, with an impetus from her ownprivate fortunes, was to give the doctrine a recrudescence ofinterest by resolutely applying it to the status of women. We cannotfollow her in detail from the point where she abandons the domesticsewing-basket to reappear smoking black cigars in the Latin Quarter.We find her, at about 1831, entering into competition with thebrilliant literary generation of Balzac, Hugo, Alfred de Musset,Merimee, Stendhal, and Sainte-Beuve. To signalize her equality withher brothers in talent, she adopts male attire: “I had a sentry-boxcoat made, of rough grey cloth, with trousers and waist-coat tomatch. With a grey hat and a huge cravat of woolen material, Ilooked exactly like a first-year student.” In the freedom of thisrather unalluring garb she entered into relations Platonic,fraternal, or tempestuously passionate with perhaps the mostdistinguished series of friends and lovers that ever fluttered aboutone flame. There was Aurelien de Seze; Jules Sandeau, her firstcollaborator, who “reconciled her to life” and gave her a nom deguerre; the inscrutable Merimee, who made no one happy; Musset — anencounter from which both tiger-moths escaped with singed wings; theodd transitional figure of Pagello; Michel Euraed; Liszt; Chopin,whom she loved and nursed for eight years; her master Lamennais; hermaster Pierre Leroux; her father-confessor Sainte-Beuve; and GustaveFlaubert, the querulous friend of her last decade.
As we have compressed the long and complex story of her personalrelationships, so we must compress the intimately related history ofher works and her ideas. When under the inspiration of Rousseau, theemancipated George Sand began to write, her purposes were butvaguely defined. She conceived of life as primarily an opportunityfor unlimited self-expansion, and of literature as an opportunityfor unrestricted self-expression. “Nevertheless,” she declares, “myinstincts have formed, without my privity, the theory I am about toset down, — a theory which I have generally followed unconsciously.... According to this theory, the novel is as much a work of poetryas of analysis. It demands true situations, and characters not onlytrue but real, grouped about a type intended to epitomize thesentiment or the main conceptions of the book. This type generallyrepresents the passion of love, since almost all novels are love-stories. According to this theory (and it is here that it begins)the writer must idealize this love, and consequently this type, — andmust not fear to attribute to it all the powers to which he inwardlyaspires, or all the sorrows whose pangs he has observed or felt.This type must in no wise, however, become degraded by thevicissitude of events; it must either die or triumph.”
In 1831, when her pen began its fluent course through the lyricalworks of her first period — Indiana, Valentine, Lelia, Jacques, andthe rest — we conceive George Sand’s culture, temper, and point ofview to have been fairly comparable with those of the young Shelleywhen, fifteen years earlier, he with Mary Godwin joined Byron andJane Clairmont in Switzerland — young revoltes, all of them,nourished on eighteenth century revolutionary philosophy and Gothicnovels. Both these eighteenth century currents meet in the work ofthe new romantic group in England and in France. The innermostorigin of the early long poems of Shelley and the early works ofGeorge Sand is in personal passion, in the commotion of a romanticspirit beating its wings against the cage of custom and circumstanceand institutions. The external form of the plot, whatever isfantastic and wilful in its setting and its adventures, is due tothe school of Ann Radcliffe. But the quality in Shelley and inGeorge Sand which bewitched even the austere Matthew Arnold in hisgreen and salad days is the poetising of that liberative eighteenthcentury philosophy into “beautiful idealisms” of a love emancipatedfrom human limitations, a love exalted to the height of its gamut bythe influences of nature, triumphantly seeking its own or shatteredin magnificent despair. In her novels of the first period, GeorgeSand takes her Byronic revenge upon M. Dudevant. In Indiana and itsimmediate successors, consciously or unconsciously, she declares tothe world what a beautiful soul M. Dudevant condemned to sewing onbuttons; in Jacques she paints the man who might fitly have matchedher spirit; and by the entire series, which now impresses us asfantastic in sentiment no less than in plot, she won her earlyreputation as the apologist for free love, the adversary ofmarriage.
In her middle period — say from 1838 to 1848 — of which The Miller ofAginbault, Consuelo, and The Countess of Rudolstadt arerepresentative works, there is a marked subsidence of her personalemotion, and, in compensation, a rising tide of humanitarianenthusiasm. Gradually satiated with erotic passion, graduallyconvinced that it is rather a mischief-maker than a reconstructiveforce in a decrepit society, she is groping, indeed, between hersuccessive liaisons for an elusive felicity, for a larger missionthan inspiring Musset’s Alexandrines or Chopin’s nocturnes. It issomewhat amusing, and at the same time indicative of her vague butdeep-seated moral yearnings, to find her writing rebukingly toSainte-Beuve, as early as 1834, apropos of his epicurean Volupte:“Let the rest do as they like; but you, dear friend, you mustproduce a book which will change and better mankind, do you see? Youcan, and therefore should. Oh, if poor I could do it! I should liftmy head again and my heart would no longer be broken; but in vain Iseek a religion: Shall it be God, shall it be love, friendship, thepublic welfare? Alas, it seems to me that my soul is framed toreceive all these impressions, without one effacing another... Whoshall paint justice as it should, as it may, be in our modernsociety?”
To Sainte-Beuve, himself an unscathed intellectual Odysseus, shedeclares herself greatly indebted intellectually; but on the wholehis influence seems to have been tranquillizing. The material forthe radical program, economic, political, and religious, which, likea spiritual ancestor of H. G. Wells, she eagerly sought topopularize by the novels of her middle years, was supplied mainly bySaint-Simon, Lamennais, and Leroux. Her new “religion of humanity,”a kind of theosophical socialism, is too fantastically garbed tocharm the sober spirits of our age. And yet from the ruins of thattime and from the emotional extravagance of books grown tedious,which she has left behind her, George Sand emerges for us with oneradiant perception which must be included in whatever religionanimates a democratic society: “Everyone must be happy, so that thehappiness of a few may not be criminal and cursed by God.”
One of George Sand’s French critics, M. Caro, a member of theAcademy, who deals somewhat austerely with her religiose enthusiasmsand with her Utopian projects for social reformation, remarksgravely and not without tenderness:
“The one thing needful to this soul, so strong, so rich inenthusiasm, is a humble moral quality that she disdains, and whenshe has occasion to speak of it, even slanders, — namely resignation.This is not, as she seems to think, the sluggish virtue of basesouls, who, in their superstitious servitude to force, hasten tocrouch beneath every yoke. That is a false and degradingresignation; genuine resignation grows out of the conception of theuniversal order, weighed against which individual sufferings,without ceasing to be a ground of merit, cease to constitute a rightof revolt.... Resignation, in the true, the philosophical, theChristian sense, is a manly acceptance of moral law and also of thelaws essential to the social order; it is a free adherence to order,a sacrifice approved by reason of a part of one’s private good andof one’s personal freedom, not to might nor to the tyranny of ahuman caprice, but to the exigencies of the common weal, whichsubsists only by the concord of individual liberty with obedientpassions.”
Well, resigned in the sense of defeated, George Sand never became;nor did she, perhaps, ever wholly acquiesce in that scheme of thingswhich M. Caro impressively designates as “the universal order.” Yetwith age, the abandonment of many distractions, the retreat toNohant, the consolations of nature, and her occupation with tales ofpastoral life, beginning with La Mare au Diable, there developswithin her, there diffuses itself around her, there appears in herwork a charm like that which falls upon green fields from the levelrays of the evening sun after a day of storms. It is not the charm,precisely, of resignation; it is the charm of serenity — the serenityof an old revolutionist who no longer expects victory in the morningyet is secure in her confidence of a final triumph, and still moresecure in the goodness of her cause. “A hundred times in life,” shedeclares, “the good that one does seems to serve no immediatepurpose; yet it maintains in one way and another the tradition ofwell wishing and well doing, without which all would perish.” At theoutset of her career we compared her with Shelley. In her lastphase, she reminds us rather of the authors of Far from the MaddingCrowd and The Mill on the Floss, and of Wordsworth, once, too, atorch of revolution, turning to his Michaels and his leech-gatherersand his Peter Bells. Her exquisite pictures of pastoral life areidealizations of it; her representations of the peasant are notcorroborated by Zola’s; to the last she approaches the shield ofhuman nature from the golden side. But for herself at least she hasfound a real secret of happiness in country life, tranquil work, anda right direction given to her own heart and conscience.