Saturday, June 8, 2019

George Sand and Alfred de Musset: The Confession

George Sand by Alfred de Musset, 1833. Image: Wikimedia Commons

The decade of the 1830s saw George Sand transformed from an anonymous journalist into a literary institution. From 1831 to 1839 she published an average of a full-length novel every six months. She also embarked on a series of romantic liaisons, including with the critic Gustave Planche, the actress Marie Dorval, the writer Prosper Mérimée, her lawyer Michel de Bourges, her son's tutor Felicien Mallefille, and the socialist advocate Pierre Leroux, among others. She also had two great affairs; the first, between 1833 and 1835, was with the writer Alfred de Musset.

George Sand and Alfred de Musset (?) by Célestin Nanteuil 
(in other portraits from the 1830s de Musset is not clean-shaven)

The Confession

Alfred de Musset's La Confession d'un enfant du siècle (The Confession of a Child of the Century, 1836) is the highly fictionalized story of his affair with Sand. The narrator Octave is a young man (de Musset was 22 when he met Sand, who was 29) whose brazen betrayal by his first love has sent him careening down the path of unrestrained dissipation, bitter cynicism, and a near-pathological distrust of women.

In this state he meets the beautiful widow Brigitte Pierson. He is struck by her kindness and goodness, the peace and serenity of her home, and falls in love. Although at first she does not return his feelings, eventually she is unable to resist the intensity of his passion and they become lovers. The narrator, though, like his creator, has a volatile temperament, and only two days after their love is consummated he starts their first serious argument over a trifle. As a joke Brigitte has told him a white lie, which she immediately confesses:
She laughed heartily as she told me. But all at once I felt a cloud had settled over me. . .The more I tried to fight the gloom which had gripped me the blacker the darkness which gathered in my head became.
'Well now,' I said, 'are you really an accomplished liar?. . .Do you find that telling lies comes easily?' She looked at me in amazement. . .
You may smile, reader, as you peruse this page. But I, who write it, still tremble at the memory. Misfortunes have symptoms just as physical illnesses do, and there is nothing more alarming to the sailor than a small black dot on the horizon. [1]
De Musset is a master at describing the suffocating sense of paranoia that jealousy arouses. An example: to avoid gossip the couple plans to travel outside of France, but the narrator deliberately delays their departure due to vague suspicions of Brigitte. A friend of hers, a man named Smith, has been visiting them regularly:
Sitting by the fire, I would let my eyes wander from Smith to Brigitte and back again. They both looked pale and serious and said little. I had no idea why they were like that but, try as I might, I couldn't help thinking that it could be for the same reason and that there were not two secrets waiting to be discovered but one. . .It was an overpowering, fateful intuition. [2]
In the narrator's state of hypervigilant awareness, circumstances that might otherwise seem unimportant take on a heightened significance. One evening the narrator goes to bed, leaving Brigitte and Smith together just as she asks for tea to be served. The next morning he notices that there is only one teacup on the table: "My hands were shaking. . .What possible reason could explain why Smith and Madame Pierson drank from the same cup?" [3]

Of course, there is another and more likely explanation available to Octave: perhaps Smith simply didn't want tea and the maid took his unused cup away with her. But Octave's leap of jealous illogic is a signal that he has sensed a deeper truth: there is indeed a growing emotional connection between Brigitte and Smith, and his "fateful intuition" may be justified after all.

George Sand by Alfred de Musset

This electric moment of unwelcome insight is based on an incident from de Musset's affair with Sand. They had travelled to Venice together, but relations between them became strained. Ultimately Sand barred her bedroom door to de Musset, ostensibly so that she could write, and he went out on his own in the evenings to sample the pleasures of the city. He sampled them so thoroughly that he worried that he had contracted a venereal disease, and became seriously ill, perhaps with typhoid. The Italian doctor who treated him was the handsome, cultured 27-year-old Pietro Pagello. As Pagello and Sand stayed up together to watch over the patient, a romantic attachment formed. Pagello offered Sand the stability and comfort that the impulsive, erratic (and now prostrated) de Musset was incapable of providing.

Although de Musset lapsed in and out of consciousness, he later recounted to his brother Paul his somewhat hazy memories of one particular night. Pagello was preparing to leave when Sand asked him to stay for a cup of tea. The two leaned close and conversed in whispers, and as Sand's biographer Curtis Cate describes the scene, de Musset "had the distinct impression that they were drinking from the same cup. Later, when Pagello rose to leave, George Sand accompanied him out. They passed behind a screen placed in front of the door, and though Musset could see nothing, he had the impression that they were kissing. George Sand came back for a candle, accompanying the surgeon out on to the landing, where they remained for an unusually long time. . .By the light of the single remaining candle he could see the table, and on it was just one tea cup." [4] This image, seared into de Musset's feverish brain, becomes the moment the narrator of Confession realizes that Brigitte is being emotionally unfaithful to him.

George Sand  by Alfred de Musset

The affair of de Musset and Sand was tempestuous. Sand broke with him in Venice, and ultimately travelled back to Paris with Pagello. But the co-generated melodrama of her relationship with the poet exerted an inexorable pull, and in Paris she and de Musset became lovers again. Sand wrote him, "I no longer love you, I adore you forever. I no longer want to have anything to do with you, but I can't go on without you. Only a bolt of lightning from the heavens could cure me by annihilating me. Farewell, stay, leave, only don't say I'm not suffering. . .Go, but kill me." [5]

After an enraged de Musset took her at her word and threatened her with a knife, though, Sand made a final break with him in March 1835. He had been telling her for close to a year that he was writing a roman à clef about their affair, and after their breakup she was very concerned by what her fictional portrait might look like. In the end, she was relieved that Brigitte was portrayed as noble and self-sacrificing.

The fictional trail of this relationship would continue. In 1859, two years after the death of de Musset, Sand published Elle et lui (Her and him), her version of the affair in which "Therese" is faithful, and forgiving of the dissolute and groundlessly jealous "Laurent." De Musset's brother Paul then wrote an angry answer novel, Lui et elle (Him and her, 1859), in which the poet "Eduoard" is betrayed by his lying, faithless mistress "Olympe." This was followed—in the same year!—by Louise Colet's Lui (Him). Colet had been de Musset's on-again, off-again mistress in the final years of his life. In her version of de Musset's affair with Sand, the rising poet "Albert" has the misfortune to become involved with the hypocritical, self-promoting "Antonia," who smokes, neglects her children, and betrays him with an Italian named Piacentini. At this point the satirists began to have a field day; Alexis Doinet wrote Eux, drame contemporain, par Moi (Them, a contemporary drama, by Me) and Adolphe de Lescure published Eux et Elles (Himselves and Herselves). A grand passion had become farce.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. Alfred de Musset, The Confession of a Child of the Century, translated with an Introduction and Notes by David Coward, Penguin Classics, 2012, p. 157.
  2. De Musset, p. 221.
  3. De Musset, p. 229.
  4. Curtis Cate, George Sand: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 294.
  5. Quoted in Cate, p. 347. Translation slightly altered.

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