Tuesday, June 18, 2019

George Sand and Gustave Flaubert: Marianne

George Sand by Nadar, 1864. Source: Wikimedia Commons
It was after the terrible days of June, 1848, that, troubled and overwhelmed to the bottom of my soul by the storms from without, I tried to find again in solitude, if not calm, at least faith.

. . .there is a deep horror of the blood spilled on either side, and a kind of despair at the sight of the hatred, wrongs, threats, and calumnies. . .

In times when evil comes because men misunderstand and hate one another, it is the mission of the artist to praise sweetness, confidence, and friendship, and so to remind men, hardened or discouraged, that pure morals, tender sentiments, and basic justice still exist, or at least can exist, in this world. . .

Preaching unity to men who are cutting one another's throats, is crying in the wilderness. There are times when souls are so agitated that they are deaf to every direct appeal. Since those June days of which present events are the inevitable consequence, the author of the story that you are going to read has undertaken the task of being agreeable, even if it means dying of despondency.

—George Sand, 1851 Preface to La Petite Fadette (1849) [1]

Barricades in the rue St.-Maur on 25 June 1848 (top), and on 26 June 1848 (bottom) after the assault by the troops of General Lamoricière, by Thibault (detail). Source: Chubachus Library of Photographic History

In the aftermath of the betrayal and defeat of the 1848 revolution Sand retreated to her country estate at Nohant and largely withdrew from participation in political events. But despite her disillusionment she did not lose faith in her republican ideals.

This became one of many points of contention endlessly discussed between Sand and Gustave Flaubert when they struck up a correspondence in the early 1860s after the publication of Salammbô (Sand had reviewed it favorably). Despite their many differences—of political views, of working methods, of literary aesthetics, of general outlook—the two became fast friends (although they rarely met in person), and Flaubert soon began addressing her as Chère Maître (Dear Master). Their letters to one another are among the most engaging works of either writer.

Gustave Flaubert by Nadar, ca. 1870

Towards the end of the year 1875 Sand wrote to Flaubert,
What's next for us? You, for sure, will produce desolation, while I will produce consolation. I don’t know what determines our destinies; you watch them unfold, you criticise, you won’t appraise them in your writing, just depict, while painstakingly and systematically concealing your personal feelings. Yet one understands them easily enough between the lines, and you make the people who read you sadder. As for me, I would like to make them less sad. I can’t forget that my personal victory over despair came as an act of will and a new way of understanding entirely opposed to my previous views. [2]
What was next for Sand was the last in a series of novels set in the countryside that she had begun in the late 1840s. Notably, they often involve intergenerational, semi-incestuous, or otherwise forbidden romances. In La Mare au Diable (The Devil's Pool, 1846), a widower marries his 15-year-old ward instead of a woman closer to his age of whom his family approves. In François le Champi (The Country Waif, 1847) a stray orphan raised by a miller's wife marries her once he becomes an adult. And in La Petite Fadette (1849), the farmer's son Landry falls in love with Fadette, who is ostracized by the other villagers because her grandmother is reputed to be a witch, because she is rumored to be the daughter of a "fallen woman," and because she and her younger brother are often dirty, unkempt and wild. In each story the characters must learn "to trust eroticism and overcome fear," and all are rewarded by finding true love. [3] That pattern would be continued in her final novel, Marianne (1876).


Title page of La Tour de Percemont and Marianne from the Oeuvres Completes edition, 1876. Source: Edition-Originale.com

Marianne Chevreuse is a young woman who has inherited her parents' farm, and so is independent; she has no financial need to marry. Pierre André, her godfather, is fifteen years her senior. Pierre is shy, and as he approaches middle age is also ashamed of his lack of worldly success.
He was intelligent and hardworking and in his youth had felt capable of anything. . .He was a gifted conversationalist and had a great talent for writing. But he was crippled with shyness and, outside his own circle of friends, found it impossible to behave with any degree of spontaneity. . .
He might have become a writer; he wrote a great deal but published nothing for fear of being considered mediocre. . .Possessing every kind of artistic impulse, he could not make the leap from feeling to action, from inspiration to expression. . .
During these periods of utter dejection he would consider himself the feeblest of creatures, lacking in will-power, drive and conviction. . .His mind, after his return home, was weighed down with two equally heavy burdens: a disillusioned past and a future without prospects. [4]
Pierre is asked by a former village acquaintance who has become a successful businessman to try to arrange a marriage between Marianne and his son Philippe. Philippe has artistic pretensions; if Pierre is talented but lacks confidence, Philippe is the reverse. The sudden appearance of a young, handsome and rich suitor for Marianne forces Pierre to recognize his own hopeless love for her. What he doesn't realize is that his inability to express his feelings may inadvertently drive Marianne into the arms of the new arrival. Marianne, though, has her own ideas about whom, or whether, she will marry. . .

Sand sent a copy of the newly published novel (together with another short novel, La Tour de Percemont) to Flaubert. He responded,
Marianne moved me deeply and two or three times I wept. I recognized myself in the character of Pierre. Certain pages seemed to me fragments of my own memoirs, supposing I had the talent to write them in such a way! How charming, poetic and true to life it all is! La Tour de Percemont pleased me extremely. But Marianne literally enchanted me. . .Anyway, this time I admire you completely and without the least reservation. [5]
Around the same time, he had news for her of a new tale he was working on:
You will see by my "Histoire d'un coeur simple" where you will recognize your immediate influence, that I am not so obstinate as you think. I believe that the moral tendency, or rather the human basis of this little work will please you! [6]
But Flaubert would never learn what Sand might have thought of "Un coeur simple" (as the tale was published in Trois Contes (1877)). In May Sand fell seriously ill, and she died on 8 June 1876. Flaubert later wrote to Sand's son Maurice,
I had begun "Un coeur simple" solely on account of her, only to please her. She died while I was in the midst of this work. Thus it is with our dreams. [7]
Sand's death deeply affected Flaubert. (After the funeral he wrote, "It seemed to me that I was burying my mother the second time. Poor, dear, great woman! What genius and what heart!" [8]) Although they had disagreed about almost everything, they both truly valued their affectionate exchanges.

A key moment in their friendship occurred in the aftermath of the catastrophic siege, bombardment and bloody suppression of the Paris Commune in 1871. Both the Commune and its end in military assault and massacre had confirmed Flaubert in his view of the endless brutality of humanity. In September of that year he wrote Sand:
Why are you so sad? Humanity offers nothing new. Its irremediable misery has filled me with sadness ever since my youth. And in addition I now cannot be disillusioned. I believe that the crowd, the common herd will always be hateful. . .

Ah! dear, good master, if you only could hate! That is what you lack, hate. In spite of your great Sphinx eyes, you have seen the world through a golden color. That comes from the sun in your heart; but so many shadows have arisen that now you are not recognizing things any more. [9]

Burning buildings in the Rue de Rivoli, 24 May 1871. Lithograph by Léon Sabatier and Albert Adam for Paris et ses ruines (1873). Source: Wikimedia Commons

Ruins of the Rue de Rivoli, and in the background of the Hotel de Ville, headquarters of the Commune, after the military assault on Paris in May 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Sand was silent for several days after receiving this letter, and then a week afterwards wrote Flaubert to tell him that her response (concealing his identity) would be published in Le Temps as one of her fortnightly columns. That column, "A reply to a friend," was a cry from the heart against hatred:
And what, you want me to stop loving? You want me to say that I have been mistaken all my life, that humanity is contemptible, hateful, that it has always been and always will be so? And you chide my anguish as weakness, and as puerile regret for a lost illusion? You assert that the people has always been savage, the priest always hypocritical, the bourgeois always cowardly, the soldier always brigand, the peasant always stupid? You say that you have known all that ever since your youth and you rejoice that you never have doubted it, because maturity has not brought you any disappointment; have you not been young then? Ah! We are entirely different, for I have never ceased to be young, if being young is always loving. . .

Our life is made of love, and to stop loving is to cease living.
. . .Frenchmen, let us love one another, my God! my God! let us love one another or we are lost. Let us destroy, let us deny, let us annihilate politics, since it divides us and arms us against one another. . .

And you, friend, you want me to see these things with a stoic indifference? You want me to say: man is made thus, crime is his expression, infamy is his nature?

No, a hundred times no. Humanity is outraged in me and with me. We must not dissimulate nor try to forget this indignation which is one of the most passionate forms of love. We must make great efforts in behalf of brotherhood to repair the ravages of hate. [10]
Flaubert was ever the great skeptic and told Sand that he was moved, but not persuaded, by her reply. But after Sand's death Flaubert wrote to her son Maurice:
And when you shall have rejoined her, when the great-grand-children of the grandchildren of your two little girls shall have joined her, and when for a long time there shall have been no question of the things and the people that surround us,—in several centuries,—hearts like ours will palpitate through hers! People will read her books, that is to say that they will think according to her ideas and they will love with her love. [11]
As Flaubert recognized, in her faith in the power of love to bring about freedom and equality for all in both the political and personal spheres, Sand was ahead of her time; in many ways she remains ahead of ours.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. George Sand, Preface to Fadette, Little, Brown, 1893, pp. 5-7. https://archive.org/details/fadette00sedggoog/page/n14. Translation slightly altered.
  2. The George Sand-Gustave Flaubert Letters, translated by Aimee L. McKenzie, Boni and Liveright, 1921, Sand to Flaubert, 18th and 19th December, 1875. http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/5115/pg5115-images.html. Translation slightly altered.
  3. Tim Parks, "Devils v. Dummies," London Review of Books, Vol. 41, No. 10, 23 May 2019, pp. 31-32. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v41/n10/tim-parks/devils-v-dummies (subscription required). The title of the article refers to the two factions of students at the convent school to which Aurore Dupin was sent at age 13: the rebellious, mischievous "devils" and the obedient, well-mannered "dummies." Aurore, initially a devil, wound up becoming the favorite of one of the nuns and was accepted by both groups.
  4. George Sand, Marianne, Carroll & Graf, 1988, Chs. I-III.
  5. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, Friday evening [14 April?] 1876. Translation slightly altered.
  6. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, Monday evening [3 April?] 1876.
  7. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 20 August 1877.
  8. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 24 June 1876.
  9. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Sand, 8 September 1871. Translation slightly altered.
  10. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Sand to Flaubert, 14 September 1871. Translation slightly altered.
  11. The Sand-Flaubert Letters, Flaubert to Maurice Sand, 24 June 1876. 

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