When I first knew George Sand, I thought to have found tried the experiment I wanted. I did not value Bettine so much. She had not pride enough for me. Only now, when I am sure of myself, can I pour out my soul at the feet of another. In the assured soul it is kingly prodigality; in one which cannot forbear it is mere babyhood. I love "abandon" only when natures are capable of the extreme reverse. I know Bettine would end in nothing; when I read her book I knew she could not outlive her love.
But in "Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre," which I read first, I saw the knowledge of the passions and of social institutions, with the celestial choice which rose above them. I loved Helène, who could hear so well the terrene voices, yet keep her eye fixed on the stars. That would be my wish also,—to know all, and then choose. I even revered her, for I was not sure that I could have resisted the call of the now; could have left the spirit and gone to God; and at a more ambitious age I could not have refused the philosopher. But I hoped much from her steadfastness, and I thought I heard the last tones of a purified life. Gretchen, in the golden cloud, is raised above all past delusions, worthy to redeem and upbear the wise man who stumbled into the pit of error while searching for truth.
Still, in "André" and "Jacques," I trace the same high morality of one who had tried the liberty of circumstance only to learn to appreciate the liberty of law;—to know that license is the foe of freedom; and, though the sophistry of Passion in these books disgusted me, flowers of purest hue seemed to grow upon the dark and dirty ground. I thought she had cast aside the slough of her past life, and begun a new existence beneath the sun of a new ideal.
But here, in the "Lettres d'un Voyageur," what do I see? An unfortunate, wailing her loneliness, wailing her mistakes, writing for money! She has genius, and a manly grasp of mind, but not a manly heart. Will there never be a being to combine a man's mind and a woman's heart, and who yet finds life too rich to weep over? Never?
When I read in "Leon Leoni" the account of the jeweller's daughter's life with her mother, passed in dressing, and learning to be looked at when dressed, "avec un front impassible," it reminded me of —— and her mother. What a heroine she would be for Sand! She has the same fearless softness with Juliet, and a sportive naïveté a mixture of bird and kitten, unknown to the dupe of Leoni.
If I were a man, and wished a wife, as many do, merely as an ornament, a silken toy, I would take —— as soon as any I know. Her fantastic, impassioned and mutable nature would yield an inexhaustible amusement. She is capable of the most romantic actions,—wild as the falcon, voluptuous as the tuberose; yet she has not in her the elements of romance, like a deeper or less susceptible nature. My cold and reasoning ——, with her one love lying, perhaps never to be unfolded, beneath such sheaths of pride and reserve, would make a far better heroine.
—— and her mother differ from Juliet and her mother by the impulse a single strong character gave them. Even at this distance of time there is a light but perceptible taste of iron in the water.
George Sand disappoints me, as almost all beings do, especially since I have been brought close to her person by the "Lettres d'un Voyageur." Her remarks on Lavater seem really shallow, à la mode du genre feminin. No self-ruling Aspasia she, but a frail woman, mourning over her lot. Any peculiarity in her destiny seems accidental; she is forced to this and to that to earn her bread, forsooth!
Yet her style—with what a deeply smouldering fire it burns! Not vehement, but intense, like Jean Jacques.
FROM A NOTICE OF GEORGE SAND.
It is probably known to a great proportion of readers that this writer is a woman, who writes under the name, and frequently assumes the dress and manners, of a man. It is also known that she has not only broken the marriage-bond, and, since that, formed other connections, independent of the civil and ecclesiastical sanction, but that she first rose into notice through works which systematically assailed the present institution of marriage, and the social bonds which are connected with it.
No facts are more adapted to startle every feeling of our community; but, since the works of Sand are read here, notwithstanding, and cannot fail to be so while they exert so important an influence abroad, it would be well they should be read intelligently, as to the circumstances of their birth and their tendency.
George Sand we esteem to be a person of strong passions, but of original nobleness and a love of right sufficient to guide them all to the service of worthy aims. But she fell upon evil times. She was given in marriage, according to the fashion of the old régime; she was taken from a convent, where she had heard a great deal about the law of God and the example of Jesus, into a society where no vice was proscribed, if it would only wear the cloak of hypocrisy. She found herself impatient of deception, and loudly appealed to by passion; she yielded, but she could not do so, as others did, sinning against what she owned to be the rule of right and the will of Heaven. She protested, she examined, she "hacked into the roots of things," and the bold sound of her axe called around her every foe that finds a home amid the growths of civilization. Still she persisted. "If it be real," thought she, "it cannot be destroyed; as to what is false, the sooner it goes the better; and I, for one, would rather perish by its fall, than wither in its shade."
Schiller puts into the mouth of Mary Stuart these words, as her only plea: "The world knows the worst of me, and I may boast that, though I have erred, I am better than my reputation." Sand may say the same. All is open, noble; the free descriptions, the sophistry of passion, are, at least, redeemed by a desire for truth as strong as ever beat in any heart. To the weak or unthinking, the reading of such books may not be desirable, for only those who take exercise as men can digest strong meat. But to any one able to understand the position and circumstances, we believe this reading cannot fail of bringing good impulses, valuable suggestions; and it is quite free from that subtle miasma which taints so large a portion of French literature, not less since the Revolution than before. This we say to the foreign reader. To her own country, Sand is a boon precious and prized, both as a warning and a leader, for which none there can be ungrateful. She has dared to probe its festering wounds; and if they be not past all surgery, she is one who, most of any, helps towards a cure.
Would, indeed, the surgeon had come with quite clean hands! A woman of Sand's genius—as free, as bold, and pure from even the suspicion of error—might have filled an apostolic station among her people with what force had come her cry, "If it be false, give it up; but if it be true, keep to it,— one or the other!"
But we have read all we wish to say upon this subject lately uttered just from the quarter we could wish. It is such a woman, so unblemished in character, so high in aim, so pure in soul, that should address this other, as noble in nature, but clouded by error, and struggling with circumstances. It is such women that will do such others justice. They are not afraid to look for virtue, and reply to aspiration, among those who have not dwelt "in decencies forever." It is a source of pride and happiness to read this address from the heart of Elizabeth Barrett:—
TO GEORGE SAND.
A DESIRE. Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man, Self-called George Sand! whose soul amid the lions Of thy tumultuous senses moans defiance, And answers roar for roar, as spirits can,— I would some wild, miraculous thunder ran Above the applauding circus, in appliance Of thine own nobler nature's strength and science, Drawing two pinions, white as wings of swan, From the strong shoulders, to amaze the place With holier light! That thou, to woman's claim, And man's, might join, beside, the angel's grace Of a pure genius, sanctified from blame, Till child and maiden pressed to thine embrace, To kiss upon thy lips a stainless fame!
TO THE SAME.
A RECOGNITION. True genius, but true woman! dost deny Thy woman's nature with a manly scorn, And break away the gauds and armlets worn By weaker woman in captivity? Ah, vain denial! that revolted cry Is sobbed in by a woman's voice forlorn:— Thy woman's hair, my sister! all unshorn, Floats back dishevelled strength in agony, Disproving thy man's name; and while before The world thou burnest in a poet-fire, We see thy woman-heart beat evermore Through the large flame. Beat purer, heart! and higher, Till God unsex thee on the spirit-shore, To which, alone unsexing, purely aspire!This last sonnet seems to have been written after seeing the picture of Sand, which represents her in a man's dress, but with long, loose hair, and an eye whose mournful fire is impressive, even in the caricatures.
For some years Sand has quitted her post of assailant. She has seen that it is better to seek some form of life worthy to supersede the old, than rudely to destroy it, heedless of the future. Her force is bending towards philanthropic measures. She does not appear to possess much of the constructive faculty; and, though her writings command a great pecuniary compensation, and have a wide sway, it is rather for their tendency than for their thought. She has reached no commanding point of view from which she may give orders to the advanced corps. She is still at work with others in the breach, though she works with more force than almost any.
In power, indeed, Sand bears the palm above all other French novelists. She is vigorous in conception, often great in the apprehension and the contrast of characters. She knows passion, as has been hinted, at a white heat, when all the lower particles are remoulded by its power. Her descriptive talent is very great, and her poetic feeling exquisite. She wants but little of being a poet, but that little is indispensable. Yet she keeps us always hovering on the borders of enchanted fields. She has, to a signal degree, that power of exact transcript from her own mind, in which almost all writers fail. There is no veil, no half-plastic integument between us and the thought; we vibrate perfectly with it.
This is her chief charm, and next to it is one in which we know no French writer that resembles her, except Rousseau, though he, indeed, is vastly her superior in it; that is, of concentrated glow. Her nature glows beneath the words, like fire beneath ashes,—deep, deep!
Her best works are unequal; in many parts written hastily, or carelessly, or with flagging spirits. They all promise far more than they can perform; the work is not done masterly; she has not reached that point where a writer sits at the helm of his own genius.
Sometimes she plies the oar,—sometimes she drifts. But what greatness she has is genuine; there is no tinsel of any kind, no drapery carefully adjusted, no chosen gesture about her. May Heaven lead her, at last, to the full possession of her best self, in harmony with the higher laws of life!
We are not acquainted with all her works, but among those we know, mention "La Roche Maupart," "André," "Jacques," "Les Sept Cordes de la Lyre," and "Les Maitres Mosaistes," as representing her higher inspirations, her sincerity in expression, and her dramatic powers. They are full of faults; still they show her scope and aim with some fairness, which such of her readers as chance first on such of her books as "Leone Leoni" may fail to find; or even such as "Simon," and "Spiridion," though into the imperfect web of these are woven threads of pure gold. Such is the first impression made by the girl Fiamma, so noble, as she appears before us with the words "E l'onore;" such the thought in Spiridion of making the apparition the reward of virtue.
The work she is now publishing, "Consuelo" with its sequel, "Baroness de Rudolstadt," exhibits her genius poised on a firmer pedestal, breathing a serener air. Still it is faulty in conduct, and shows some obliquity of vision. She has not reached the Interpreter's house yet. But when she does, she will have clues to guide many a pilgrim, whom one less tried, less tempted than herself could not help on the way.