Join On The Issues
Receive information and updates via email.
George Sand at Nohant
For an American driver in an Avis Renault, French highways are a fearsome place. I've got truckers on my tail and the road signs are as readable as bull's eyes by Jasper Johns. Only with the help of my own police escort do I finally arrive at Nohant, George Sand's country estate. But the moment I turn into the shaded dirt road, I'm flooded by well-being.
Nohant is in fact a tiny village with a central square, Romanesque church, and sandstone manor. Gilded by the hot June sun, the only sound birdsong, it's a rustic tableau from a vanished era. Sand regularly fled the hurlyburly of Paris for this refuge in her native Berry, a place of dreaming farm fields bordered with dense foliage that lies between the Loire Valley and the Massif Central. Me, I've come to rub shoulders with the spirit of George Sand. I want to discover what she has to tell women today.
Nohant, George Sand's country estate
The prolific writer was born Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin to a family of country aristocracy. Adulated by her contemporaries, Sand (1804-1876) is now read mainly by scholars and school children. Her most enduring work is arguably her life. We're familiar with the George Sand who cut a swath across 19th-century Paris in redingote and trousers, inspiring grand passions and fending off bill collectors with her pen. Her first novel, Indiana, made her a celebrity at 28 with its stinging critique of marriage; Ulia (1833) scandalized Paris with its erotic candor. Sand's shortlist of lovers included Alfred de Musset, Prosper Merimee, and Frederic Chopin; she counted many of the creative giants of the Romantic age as her friends.
But I'm in pursuit of the woman beyond the cliche. The Sand who achieved, especially in her later years, a rare wholeness and richness of life - all the more striking compared to the sense of fragmentation dogging many of us today. A woman ahead of her time, course, but perhaps ahead of ours as well.
Stuffed Birds and Gravestones I'm too late for the last swing through Sand's manor, so I explore neighboring La Chatre, an ochre-hued town that spills downward at odd angles from a central square, as if a subterranean giant had shrugged. An eccentric Musee George Sand displays stuffed birds on one floor, and above it a cobbled-together collection of Sand memorabilia (France venerates every lock of hair from its cultural icons; this is a country where St. Exupery's Little Prince adorns 50-franc notes). Then, in a dusk like poured honey - France in June must hoard light - I drive back to L'Auberge de la Petite Fadette, a one-star hotel and restaurant in a building at Nohant. It's a tryster's heaven. But L'Auberge also welcomes the solitary traveler come to commune with the "shadowy presences" alluded to in the guidebook - and out in full force, I discover, in the family graveyard (one tombstone reads: "OÇ me croit mort,je vis ici" - "I'm believed dead, but here I live").
The next morning, to my dismay, a bus disgorges a load of noisy German school kids at the manor. But the moment we enter the stone-chilled vestibule, they fall silent, maybe sensing the resident spirits. There's a sprawling rough-hewn kitchen. Perforated pots for cooking chestnuts are ranged high on a shelf. Making plum jam was as serious an affair, Sand once declared, as writing a book. (This from a woman who wrote more than 70.) She saw no contradiction between mucking about in the kitchen and pursuing the sublime. Today, in our busier-than-thou era, that happy balance still eludes many of us. Domestic activities are seen only as burdensome, a distraction from career advancement. Is this a leftover reflex to the stigma of "housewife"? Or a reflection of our need to work doubly hard just to stay in the game? Certainly, it's easier to celebrate jam-making if you have Sand's staff.
Life Still Hovers Here The dining room is dominated by a blue and pink glass Venetian chandelier ("kitsch," comments a German boy). The table is set, as if for this evening's dinner, with place cards for the likes of Flaubert, Turgenev, Alexandre Dumas Jils, Delacroix, and Franz Liszt (all at one time guests at Nohant). I imagine the cross-pollination of blinds, the sense of community hovering J over this table. In what isolation artists I now live on our shores, cloistered with members of our own little guild. If there's an intellectual community out there, will someone please draw me a map?
I join the crush around Les Lavandieres, a darkly sinister drawing by Sand's son Maurice that depicts a scene, taken from local folklore, of peasant women killing their bastard babies. Maurice Tvas the product of Sand's marriage to Casimir Dudevant, a retired army officer she later divorced. Sand adored her son - excessively, our mental health police would say - though 19th-century Romantics were nothing if not excessive. Maurice's least cough tormented her, and she defended his modest talent like a python, bullying a publisher into making a book of his drawings of the Berry region. (Curiously, Sand's relations with her daughter Solange were mostly poisonous.)
We move to a living room presided over by ancestors' portraits. The romantic tumult of her youth behind her, Sand loved to hunker down at Nohant with good friends and Maurice's family, grandchildren bobbing in her wake. Her maternal largesse is especially resonant now. We, too, revel in family, both actual and adoptive; it's our anchor in a world rife with uncertainty and dislocation. In a subtle shift, many of us have abandoned the old couple ideal, replacing it with something larger and more inclusive: chosen families. We dream of creating a modern-day version of the life Sand and company enjoyed in these rooms.
The Site of All the Action We peer into the roped-off boudoir housing Sand's work station: just a dropleaf shelf in a wall cupboard. A humbling sight, considering all the equipment our consumerist culture has persuaded us we need. What an example Sand offers of discipline and staying power, scratching out her immense oeuvre at night, even when all hell was breaking loose during the day - legal wrangles spawned by her divorce, battles with her penny-pinching publisher...even the Revolution of 1848. Once, she monstrously started a new novel the same night she finished one.
The wonder is she wrote 70 books while working overtime at love. We've just arrived at the apartment occupied for seven summers by Frederic Chopin, Sand's most celebrated lover. On a table sits a reproduction of Delacroix's haunting portrait of the composer seemingly captured in mid-inspiration. I hear strains of the "Harp Etude" and sprout gooseflesh
I suppose Sand anticipated the modern Superwoman juggling love and a demanding career. Yet what money manager wedded to her powerbook could afford Sand's amorous follies? One glacial winter's night she galloped seven leagues on horseback to sleep with Michel de Bourges, then galloped home the same night. The gentleman eventually decided he preferred his cozy marriage. In an effort to squelch desire, Sand had herself bled.
Woman of Many Parts Sand loved in many modes, as wife, mother, mistress, friend, fellow artist. I Rumor had it that she loved the actress Marie Dorval. It was Sand who took the lead in courting the reluctant Chopin, nervously seizing the male prerogative. Later, at Nohant, she retreated to a more familiar female pattern, providing the chronically-ill Chopin with the familial calm he needed to compose, catering to his every need in the way of women down the ages. The difference is Sand never stopped churning out novels; they 'were two artists working in tandem.
With the engraver Alexandre Manceau - the more satisfying, if less celebrated, mate of her later years - Sand pioneered a style of relationship that even today many women view with ambivalence. Their life centered around Sand's work, which Manceau supported apparently without grudge. One visitor grumbled that Manceau had converted Nohant into a writing factory: "[Sand] cannot sit down in any room without pens, blue ink, cigarette papers, Turkish tobacco and lined writing paper suddenly materializing for her. And how she runs through them!"
From a second floor window, the guide points out Nohant's orchards and parks, commenting that even in her fifties Sand loved to take icy dips in the nearby Indre River. I'm reminded of Sand's quip to Flaubert: "The moment I gave up my youth, I dropped 20 years." What a grand model for today's graying boomers. An eternal student, at near-60 she studied the botany and mineralogy of the Berry countryside. And she never gave up romance. After the death of Manceau (13 years her junior), Sand pursued a liaison with the painter Charles Marchal, whom she called "my great big springtime." Answering her powerful need to love, an object always hove into view, attracted no doubt by her fame, but also by her grandeur of being.
The tour over, I sit for a while in the rear court looking up at the two towering cedar trees that Sand had planted at the birth of her children. Dying, she asked to be shown the trees from her bedroom window. I grope for some defining notion of Sand to accompany me back to Paris. Why does she feel so contemporary? Perhaps it's her emotional resilience, perhaps her ability in later life to supplant the one-on-one romantic bond with an extended community of family, friends, lovers.
Sand is modern in her androgynous nature as well. Her contemporaries were never certain to which sex she really belonged: One lover lauded her femaleness; Flaubert called her "that great man." Living on the borderline of the sexes, Sand scrambled masculine and feminine to achieve her own wholeness. Quietly, without program or fanfare, might we be scrambling those borders ourselves?
I hit the road back to Paris, exhilarated and a-tingle in my Avis Renault, as if I'd just come from a dip in the Indre.
Le Salon De George Sand. Sand drew an entourage of family and friends around her