« PreviousContinue »
ascertained which were her fields and which were not, and whose notions of the position of a rich man in the country are of a corresponding dimness, should let her pen loose in dressing up the fancies of a socialist paradise. But, on the other hand, she never loses her common sense altogether. There is a remarkable passage in Mauprat in which she expresses her recognition of the solidity of society. It is, she says, a strange building; but it all coheres, and none but a great genius must think of stirring a stone in it. In her autobiography, again, she tells us that she meditated over her own practical duties on the subject of giving her goods to the poor; and she came to the conclusion, that charity did as much harm as good. The upshot of all this is, that the socialism which she recommends is remanded to a future far enough off to be comfortably safe. No model socialist in the novels sets about doing any thing at In Consuelo, the mad count and his bride decide that after a long interval of time Consuelo shall be the instrument of bestowing unascertained blessings on some unknown persons; and Le Péché de M. Antoine ends by the socialist marquis informing the hero and heroine that he is going to bequeath them a property on which he has already laid out a garden, where the peasants of the vicinity, when they have all become good, pious, and wise, are to walk gratis. This may be nonsensical and visionary, but its harmlessness is extreme. There can be nothing dangerous in socialism like this.
For the purpose of studying George Sand as an author, it is much more important to look at the sources than the results of her socialism. The opinions are of little value; but it is instructive to see how she came to hold them. The situation of France during the last twenty years has certainly had something to do with the formation of her creed. Not only is the contrast between luxury and poverty, palaces and hovels, as marked in Paris as in any spot of civilised Europe; but in France, as Bénédict complains in Valentine, the notion of citizenship has been lost. If an Englishman feels a desire to remove social evils, he has at least got the advantage of a definite starting-point in society. But in France this is far less the case; and although there is undoubtedly something morbid in such moanings against the existing state of things as are put into the mouth of Bénédict, yet an Englishman may be apt to forget how much he is supported by the consciousness that he forms part of a system of government which he is proud of, and how powerfully the alienation of honest minds from a régime like that of Louis Philippe must have tended to produce inaction and apathy. George Sand came to Paris with a sense of personal injury, and an aversion to the constitution of society,
which, for some reason or other, she evidently thought pressed hardly on her. When she arrived there, she fell in with many writings, and many persons, of a socialistic character; and it was very natural that she should readily accept a scheme which satisfied her imagination, stimulated her enthusiasm, and gave an expression at once to her personal dissatisfaction and to the dissatisfaction pervading the society around her. It also appealed to a very different class of her sympathics-to her love of the country and of the dwellers in the country. She delights in telling us that the poor and the uneducated are often much wiser and nobler than the rich; and she has twice drawn, in the Jean Jappeloup of Le Péché de M. Antoine, and the Patience of Mauprat, the character of such a peasant-a thoughtful, benevolent, eccentric man, the terror of the selfish rich, the darling of the socialist heroines, and the champion of the surrounding poor. When she is guided, not by her feelings, but by her experience, and speaks of the real peasants she had known in Berry, she very honestly describes them as cunning, superstitious, and pigheaded. But she could not be happy without her ideal peasant also; and as it cannot be denied that there are exceptional peasants, she does but magnify and clothe with a sentimental glory virtues that either exist, or might very possibly do so.
George Sand talks so much of art and of artists, she alludes to works of art so repeatedly and so enthusiastically, and she has made so many of her novels turn on the adventures of persons who have sought a livelihood in some kind of artistic occupation, that we might easily imagine a love and knowledge of what we technically term 'art' to be a prominent part in her intellectual culture. But when we examine what she has written, we find that what she really cares for in art is a certain mode of living which she conceives artists at liberty to enjoy, and that her appreciation of the works of great masters is very slight, her judgment very untrustworthy, and her acquaintance with the principles and history of art very superficial. She has given us a most highly-wrought and seductive account of the labours of the Maitres mosaïstes; she has brought before us their noble patience, their honest enthusiasm, their disinterested carefulness of execution; but of any thing like intelligent criticism on their productions there is not a trace. The compositions of these Maitres mosaïstes still exist in Venice, and they are indisputably of a very poor and second-rate order of merit. But the quality of their performance is a matter of utter indifference to George Sand; her only interest is in their biography. When she gives an account of the works of a really great artist, as, for instance, when in her Lettres d'un Voyageur she speaks of Canova, the writing is as
graceful as her writing always is; but the criticism is of the most commonplace kind. Her admiration of what excellence she has seen in architecture, sculpture, and painting, is genuine; but it is uninstructed. She is an imaginative observer, but not a connoisseur.
Artists, not art, have been her real study; and for many years of her life, as we learn from her autobiography, artists have been her constant companions. She delights in them, because she believes that they are more independent of society than any other set of people: they live, or are supposed to live, in their own world, with their own rules of conduct and their own code of morality. George Sand admires excessively what she calls their vie bohémienne et insouciante. She also likes them because women are brought into a greater equality in their world than elsewhere. In the theatre, a prima donna is a very great person. The equality of the sexes seems restored if the female contralto can snub the male bass. All this goes straight to George Sand's heart, and we may be sure she manages to idealise the most ordinary of these facts. She furnishes, for instance, Consuelo with excellent reasons for going on the stage; the gist of which is, that in Druidical times the attractions of the theatre and the altar were united in the solemnities of religious processions, and that women were then priestesses. In these degenerate days, if a woman wishes to assume a religious character she has to become a nun, and is then buried alive; so her only way of retaining any thing of her sibylline privileges is to look to the other half of the vocation of a Druidess, and get a satisfactory engagement as an opera-singer. But it would be unfair to say that George Sand passes over the higher side of an artist's life. She has drawn in Consuelo a very beautiful picture of an artist who loves what is highest in her own branch of art, and whose purity of mind is allied to, and strengthened by, her refinement of taste. In the Maitres mosaïstes also she has exhibited an impressive type of the conscientious, laborious, far-seeing workman. But it is to the lower side of this life that she generally looks. Her whole conception of an artist's life, so far as it is founded on fact at all, relates entirely to the secondary class of artists. The great artists of each generation do not lead a vie bohémienne et insouciante; or if they do, their work suffers proportionately. But it is quite true that there is a society of more unpretending artists who have a sort of world of their own, and whose life, if regarded in its hours of gaiety and prosperity, may be said to possess that careless happiness which is popularly ascribed to a gipsy existence.
George Sand idealises this lower artist-life in one way; for
she represents it in its brightest hours and most lucky vein. In La dernière Aldini she has recounted the adventures of a typical artist, an opera-singer, who had the good fortune to win the affection of a countess, and also, fifteen years afterwards, to fascinate her daughter, the last scion of a noble race; but who had the courage and wisdom to resist the advances of both the ladies. On the other hand, the prosaic truth is sometimes told very plainly, and, we may perhaps say, coarsely. The artist is occasionally represented as neither very fortunate nor very virtuous. Lucrezia Floriani, a heroine of the noblest turn of mind, and as fine a modern Druidess as could be desired, has four children by three different fathers, who have all treated her badly. The accessories of the life are idealised more perhaps than the life itself; and much of the idealisation arises from art and artist-life being associated in George Sand's mind with recollections of Venice. She went there at a critical period of her life, after she had written Indiana, Valentine, and Lélia, and therefore after she had the consciousness of recognised power to stimulate her, but before her mind was fully set and formed. Her imagination was much excited by a manner of life wholly new to her, and by a class of associations with which she previously had no acquaintance. Two influences more especially appear to have worked on her mind. There were the great buildings, the historical monuments, the famous works of art, in which Venice abounds; and there was the life of the common people, with their vivacity, their Italian morals, and their vagabond gaiety. Consuelo shows how her observation of the Venetian populace coloured her theory of artistlife, and the poetical feeling which from so many sides attaches itself to Venice threw a halo over all that she considered to be artistic. In the portion of her writings relating to Venice there is the same combination of qualities that is observable throughout her works. There is the acuteness and common sense which guided her daily experience, and taught her to portray the early loves of Angoleto and Consuelo, a picture of humble Venetian life at once so faithful to local truth and to the general truth of human nature; there is the vagueness of eloquent rhapsody, proceeding, however, from feelings which, if uncontrolled, are genuine; and lastly, there is a real creative and poetical power, of which perhaps the little tale of L'Orco is the most perfect expression.
But if George Sand's love of art is neither very great nor very real, her love of nature is profound and genuine. Not only does she invest scenery with a sentimental colouring which, when not in excess, has an undoubted beauty, but she shows an intimate familiarity with country pleasures, and more espe
cially a native sympathy with the animated life that makes the dead rocks and trees inhabited and alive. In the first chapter of her autobiography, she tells us how dearly she has cherished through life a series of feathered pets, and how strange is the dominion which, as we have already said, she finds herself able to exercise over them. One of the first anecdotes she records of her childhood is the gift of a live pigeon, which seemed to her an inestimable treasure. And in her latest novel, La Daniella, she describes at that extraordinary length, to which most of her descriptions are spun out, the solace which the hero derived, when shut up in a lonely castle, from watching the butterflies play, and feeding a goat that strayed about the building. She has also told us with what enthusiastic joy she used to roam on foot or on horseback over the wilds of Berry, when she first returned to Nohant after her return from the convent; and transferring her recollections to one of the best of her heroines, she has worked up in Edmée a charming picture of a young light-hearted girl revelling in the first unchecked communion with nature, stimulated by fresh air and exercise, and excited by the spectacle of a varied scenery into the first sallies of meditative romance.
How deeply she has been penetrated by what she has observed and known of human life in rural districts, is shown by her having made it the basis of a style of fiction perfectly new. She has written idyls true to life, masterly in art, and yet interesting. She began the series with Jeanne, a fanciful tale, of which the strange superstitions of the peasantry of the centre of France form the groundwork. The heroine is, however, an exceptional peasant, a Joan of Arc undeveloped; not to be tempted into marriage, and abiding with a simplicity, half sublime and half idiotic, by the terms of a strange vow, which, deceived by the trick of some idle travellers into thinking she has had an intimation from Heaven, she has made, to be chaste, poor, and humble. "Jeanne was," says the authoress, "one of those pure types such as are still found in the country, which are so admirable and so mysterious that they seem made for a golden age. Such types are not sufficiently known. In painting they have been represented; but poets have always disfigured them by wishing to idealise or change them, forgetting that their essence and their originality consist in its being impossible to do more than guess what they are." In Jeanne such a character is very skilfully worked out; but it would be difficult to believe that the heroine is not idealised, and, at any rate, she is avowedly exceptional. In the later novels of the series, La Mare au Diable, La petite Fadette, and François le Champi, her aim has been to leave the exceptional for the ordinary, to seek for idyllic beauties in the extreme of pastoral simplicity, and to make her bu