When, in 1866, after a literary dinner at Magny’s restaurant in Paris, the petite George Sand (née Aurore Dupin) confessed to a particular sympathy for a toweringly tall bachelor fellow guest, Gustave Flaubert, she was sixty-two, while he was in his early forties, a mere two years older than Maurice, her only son. True, her affections—and indeed passions—had frequently been engaged by men young enough to be Maurice’s siblings. Three years before, much to Flaubert’s gratification, she had written a laudatory review of his Carthaginian novel, Salammbô, whose gory exoticism had bemused the public. She knew he was a genius. Soon, she was invited to stay with Flaubert and his mother at their house at Croisset, outside Rouen—a rare privilege. In his study overlooking the Seine, they smoked, read to each other from their work in progress, and discussed literature (his favorite subject) into the small hours, when, feeling hungry, they descended to the kitchen to partake of cold chicken.
On very few topics did they actually see eye to eye.
In the following ten years, until George Sand’s death in 1876, the two troubadours, as they liked to call themselves, were to meet from time to time in Paris; she would revisit Croisset, while Flaubert (though urged repeatedly) would stay rarely at her country mansion at Nohant. They pursued through letters—with constant protestations of mutual affection and regard, and with offers of assistance in times of trouble—their conversation about writing, politics, society, humanity, and the state of the world. On very few topics did they actually see eye to eye. Their discourse embodies not just the difference between generations but also two possible responses to fate: on Flaubert’s side, disillusionment, rage, and scorn for human folly; on Sand’s, the touching persistence of hope in the face of experience.
For years readers were reduced to contenting themselves with inadequate versions of this extraordinary duet, until the masterly edition produced by the late Alphonse Jacobs was published in 1981. The present English translation, by Francis Steegmuller for Flaubert and Barbara Bray for Sand, solidly based upon the Jacobs edition, makes available to the general English-speaking public one of the most fascinating and entertaining records of an unlikely friendship between two eminent literary figures of differing experience, temperament, taste, and outlook—a major document of perennial human interest.
At the moment of their first meeting, George Sand still enjoyed world-wide and often controversial renown for her daring views on relations between the sexes and the social classes, her one-time socialist and revolutionary politics, her anticlericalism at a period when the Church was a powerful instrument of reaction. On the other hand, Flaubert was known principally as the author of that scandalously “immoral” novel, Madame Bovary, a somewhat enigmatic figure to the public at large, and one whose time was yet to come (as Sand fully realized). It was her writings that had influenced many of the leading literary and political figures of the age from London to Berlin, from Boston to Saint Petersburg.
In comparison with Sand’s flood of variety, Flaubert produced a small if deep river.
George Sand belonged with those vast, exuberant, tirelessly energetic, larger-than-life contemporaries of hers like Balzac, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas père. From 1831, after leaving her limited and faithless husband for a bohemian existence in Paris with her lover, Jules Sandeau, she had earned her living by journalism, becoming a celebrated essayist, a fecund and varied novelist, a seeker after justice for women, early utopian socialist, government propagandist during the Second Republic in 1848, brilliant autobiographer, successful playwright—to name a few of her activities. Moreover, she had notoriously expressed her passion for life, her quest for freedom, and her feminine revolt through a long line of lovers: not least among them were the poet and dramatist Alfred de Musset (a much discussed theatrical affair) and the delicate Frédéric Chopin (to whom she devoted nine years of care in the protected ambience he needed for his nocturnes and other compositions).
At the same time as she kept up her prodigious output in life and art, she was corresponding with many important writers and political thinkers throughout Europe. Notwithstanding some losses, her marvelous collected letters in the exemplary edition by Georges Lubin run to some twenty-five volumes. Henry James, who was fascinated by her, later amusingly called her “the figure of the greatest of all women of letters, of Letters in truth most exactly.” George Sand was curious about everything; whereas once Flaubert had found his direction, he constantly reiterated the same opinions and attitudes, the same “Hindignation” about everything. It took George Sand to perceive the repressed romanticism and the tenderness buried beneath the bluster.
In his youth, Flaubert had admired her early novels, especially the influential Jacques, on woman’s right to passion. This literary admiration for Sand—like that of Henry James—had declined with the years, as he began to shape his own views on the supremacy of art and the subservience of life to it. To his mistress, the poet Louise Colet, he had once commented crudely that Sand’s “writing oozes, and the idea seeps out between the words as from between flabby thighs.” Still, in some respects Madame Bovary might be regarded as a caustic, oblique response to Sand’s notions of woman’s right to liberty and happiness. Sand’s novels, after all, are among the works that—like the books of chivalry charged with turning Don Quixote’s wits—set Emma Bovary on the path that leads to her terrible death.
The Sand-Flaubert correspondence brings to mind the saying of the Greek poet Archilochus (words which inspired Isaiah Berlin’s resonant essay): “The fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Sand is the fox who knew many things (including love of nature, of family life, of her grandchildren), while Flaubert is the hedgehog who knew one big thing—Art with a capital A—more or less to perfection. Yet it is Flaubert who has had to take a battering from Sartre as the bourgeois writer par excellence who sacrificed life to art, made literature into a religion, and vented his bile against that icon of the French Left, the Paris Commune of 1871. The attack on Flaubert stands as an attack on the value of literature itself. In contrast, George Sand has suffered no such indignity, for, with the revisions of feminist criticism and the attempt to overthrow the so-called patriarchal canon, the once neglected works of George Sand are being reprinted, translated, and re-examined from every conceivable angle in a veritable Sandian industry.
In that age, a woman was supposed to write solely for money, in order to support her family.
Sand was the dreamer (beautifully caught by Delacroix in the double portrait with Chopin that was cut up by some vandal), the Aeolian harp touched by every breeze of the age, and open to every change and new development. It was she who famously expressed the despair of the female Byron in Lélia; gave voice to the phony revolutionary in Horace (to be developed by Turgenev); shaped the enduring novel of left-wing sympathy with Simon; lauded the female artist-cum-humanitarian in Consuelo. Yet comparatively few of her works achieved formal perfection. They could be fascinating new departures, like the spiritual thriller Spiridion, which inspired Renan and Dostoevsky, leading others in fresh directions of their own.
In comparison with Sand’s flood of variety, Flaubert produced a small if deep river. He insisted that literature should be impersonal: “Has God ever expressed an opinion?” he inquired rhetorically. Yet he could famously remark elsewhere that “Madame Bovary is myself.” For Sand, impersonality in literature was not only impossible, it was also anti-human. Basically, she agreed with the poet Boileau that writing reveals willy-nilly the character of the writer. Flaubert gave much time to detailed research, often on recondite matters. It seemed to her that he did not always take the reader sufficiently into account, and that some of his work (like La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, for instance) could only appeal to a small circle. For his great novel L’Education sentimentale, Flaubert was happy to consult George Sand on the Revolution of 1848, with whose luminaries she had been closely involved. He would spend hours struggling over the choice of a word, eliminating intrusive relative pronouns, bewailing the agonies he suffered in what he called “les affres du style.” She suggested once that perhaps he complained constantly about his labors in order to win sympathy. Everyone acquainted with him knew that he was prone to exaggeration.
As for herself, she liked to give the impression that life came first. What was her historical novel Consuelo, with its sequel, La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (three large, amply researched volumes)? One of the seminal works of the century, it was regarded by Henry James as her masterpiece, but, she airily claimed to Flaubert, she had forgotten all about it. She told him that she was not writing for posterity, adding that she was quite resigned to being forgotten. This from an author who spent long hours at her inkwell, often from 7 A.M. to 5 P.M., or “working day and night,” as she told one correspondent, enjoying only four hours’ sleep and suffering from migraine. She did revise her pages, and sometimes entirely rewrote her stories, so that there are two quite different published versions of her novel Lélia. Over thirty prefaces and scattered observations on her art throughout her works and letters betray the fact that she was far from indifferent to it. Protestations of casualness in the letters to Flaubert and elsewhere form part of a strategy to avoid the dread appellation of “bluestocking,” usually employed about women who wrote books. Flaubert fell into this trap when he commented that Sand was no bluestocking, meaning that she did not fit the contemporary stereotype of the woman writer.
In that age, a woman was supposed to write solely for money, in order to support her family. Consequently, Sand always asserted that she wrote out of necessity, and to meet the claims on her generosity. Flaubert, on the other hand, with his private income (until he shared in the ruin of his niece’s husband), maintained that he did not write for filthy lucre. Yet he was absolutely furious when he thought that his publisher, Michel Lévy, had reneged on his word and was doing him down. Sand, who was no dreamer when it came to practical and financial affairs, told Flaubert that he was being naïve, that Lévy would stand by a written contract. In her early days, she had held her own with a publisher who had failed to pay her the same amount as he gave her masculine colleagues.
Were Sand and Flaubert always sincere in their correspondence? Vain query. They were writers of fiction, after all, used to adopting different identities, desirous of pleasing each other as friends. After an extremely stormy life, lived to the full, Sand was projecting her maternal side in the role of the good mother to Flaubert, showering him with sensible advice. With a great struggle she had won through to a much proclaimed serenity that amazed him, consumed as he was with anger and despair at the course of modern life.
Usually complimentary on certain aspects of her plays and novels in his letters to her, Flaubert confessed (to Turgenev and others) that she was too full of the milk of human kindness. He observed that Sand and her attempts to console him sometimes got on his nerves. Besides, he thought that she was far too “democratic.” Where Sand favored universal suffrage, Flaubert was passionately opposed to it. What he wanted was government by “mandarins” who would establish the reign of “Science.” When he visited Nohant with Turgenev in 1873, Sand found Flaubert “exhausting”: she was growing weary of his rages and prejudices. She felt irritated when he kept on about literature while she wanted to relax. To her mind, Turgenev proved a more cheerful and accommodating guest.
Sand and Flaubert discussed sexual matters in their letters. What did they not discuss? He made the mistake of writing to her about woman as “the ribbed vault of the infinite.” Sand was not to be fobbed off with such nonsense in relation to a man like the poet and critic Sainte-Beuve, who (as she knew) was paying underage girls to try to restore his potency. Flaubert might vow a life-long impossible love for Elisa Schlésinger, but in the salon of the courtesan Jane de Tourbey he could also talk about beating women or being beaten by them. He once boasted that he had chosen the ugliest prostitute in a brothel and had copulated with her in full view while keeping a cigar in his mouth. The Second Empire was not the moment for masculine refinement.
To match in irony Flaubert on the ribbed vault of the infinite, Sand made the egregious error of advising him to take a mistress (he was in fact not exactly deprived in that department) or to marry. Nonetheless, she herself had criticized the shortcomings of the institution of marriage in her books. The joke is that, years before, she had vowed that she would rather spend the rest of her life in prison than marry again. In her long liaison with Alexandre Manceau, the roles were reversed: he was, as it were, the spouse who laid out the pens and the slippers for her.
On one side in the letters between Sand and Flaubert there stands the passion for life, and, on the other, not only disgust but the fear of life (which Flaubert once admitted to her); here, the scattered energy of multifarious activity, and there, the refuge of the ivory tower against a hated world. Whatever their own inclination, readers will discover in the vivid dialogue of these two giants a very rare treat indeed.