I finally managed to see the vast collection of Maurice Sand's marionettes, all housed in a large annexe of the Sand family home at Nohant-en-Vic in the Berry region. Despite the beauty of this part of France, it is not an immediate choice for tourists as it is relatively far from a major city. Nevertheless, the région berrichonne attracts thousands of visitors each year, most of these wishing to visit the landscapes described in the work of its most renowned inhabitant; George Sand. More importantly, many are drawn to the country home which had been the writer's principal residence for much of her life. La Maison à Nohant, with its grand architecture, extensive gardens and wooded grounds bears the aristocratic air of its background, yet it retains an essential down-to-earth quality that defines it, in a complimentary manner.
Through its rather contradictory elements, the house reflects the very nature of its illustrious inhabitant, the woman who still largely defies definition 138 years after her death. The Maison de George Sand itself frequently played a key role in Sand's life and of those who stayed there. It was a backcloth that shaped many of the personal events therein, becoming an entity in its own right. Not only was it the object of many disputes concerning ownership, it was also the stage for the tumultuous relations between its inhabitants. In this respect, the protagonists of these human dramas were not unlike the marionettes that featured in this living theatre. George Sand herself remarked that "Nobody knows how much I owe to the marionettes of my son", as she surely recognized their value on many levels beyond the purely creative. Indeed, the pupazzi and their theatrical presentations were to become a focal point of life in this country house and one of the main creative ties between Sand and Maurice, her son. It was these marionettes that led me to discover Maurice Sand, and inevitably to reappraise any thoughts I'd previously had on his famous mother, George.
George Sand is still famous today, although less for her literary contributions during life, than her life itself. Indeed, she is largely renowned today for her social and political stance, bohemian lifestyle and unconventional love-life that seemed to flout every law and custom in 19th century
France. Although many of her works are still appreciated, these are largely sought out because the George Sand wrote them. The great figure has overshadowed this literature which fell into a specific context and category of its own. Even the sulphurous images of the licentious and lawless female have been somewhat replaced by more placid notions of the doting grandmother, this matriarchal gentlewoman governing over her idyllic country home and those who resided there. This is certainly the atmosphere that reigns in the family house today.
If Maurice Sand's name is remembered today, it is usually because he was simply the son of this illustrious woman. And yet, of all Sand's creations, her son was her proudest. Alternatively, Maurice might be remembered precisely because of the fusional relationship he kept with his mother. He is presented as clinging to the maternal apron strings, as the eager-to-please yet pathologically possessive mummy's boy. Otherwise he is shown as the child puppet, 'Bouli', tied to a dominating smother-mother, ever pulling his strings so that he never breaks free. For all this, relatively little is known about his own talent, which was considerable and wide-ranging and yet received modest recognition during his own life. Nor has Maurice Sand ever earned any well-merited post-humus acclaim, and his marionettes even less so.
The marionettes of Maurice Sand are remarkable in their own right, with or without their famous background. Countless figures with vivid features, unique characteristics and individual personalities were all painstakingly carved from lime wood by Maurice. They were often clothed by George Sand herself, while all the inhabitants and visitors of the Maison Nohant would bring these characters to life in theatre performances and shows that allowed for improvisation and invention. Such presentations greatly animated life at Nohant, but the intrigues that the puppets enacted were surely a modest affair compared to those acted out by the people who inhabited the Sand universe. Neither George Sand nor any of the people who gravitated around her, would ever be free of the invisible strings that directed their existence. Indeed, the lives of all those who entered this unique sphere, either by birth or acquaintance, were dominated by a play of images. Here was a myriad of reflections and replications of complements and contradictions, absolutes and oppositions, cyclical repetition and triangular movement that were played out between all the participants. Much of this tension centred around George Sand, who held a key role in all the happenings around her. And yet she herself appears to have been equally ensnared in this intricate spider's web of ties and bonds.
The unique environment in which Aurore Dupin, the future George Sand, spent her childhood years encouraged her to grow in a highly unconventional manner. Every aspect of her development was solicited almost to excess and every feature of her character was heightened. Nevertheless, this provided an enriching universe that pushed her forward whilst protecting her within its boundaries. Born in 1804 to a family of aristocratic descent on the one hand, with her father's family, and that of a commoner on the other, with her mother's humble origins, she had a highly mixed heritage and even greater contrasting genes.
On the early death of her father, officer Maurice Dupin, it was decided that the infant would be brought up exclusively by the paternal grandmother, Marie Aurore de Saxe. Mme de Saxe claimed that the child would benefit more from a provincial life than from an existence of limited means with the mother. Thus the education and upbringing of the young Aurore fell under the responsibility of the rather starchy grandmother, whose reserved nature was in deep contrast to that of the mother, Sophie. Indeed, the latter was of a volatile temperament, given to the flights of emotion and deep religious feeling, supposedly typical of a woman of low birth - "une grisette". Aurore was influenced by both characters. Like her grandmother, she displayed discipline and devotion in everything she undertook, but also demonstrated a drive towards boundless independence and an all-devouring excess which recalled certain aspects of her mother. As she grew older she would both seek out and reject these same tendencies in others.
Throughout her life, having been a child marked by the anguish of loss and abandonment, Aurore needed to have a certain control over all situations. The death of her father when she was still a young child and the separation from her mother left her with an underlying fear that had wounded her psyche. She apprehended all feelings of vulnerability in herself. Although she was drawn to strong, paternal figures, her independent streak led Aurore to fight any form of dominance, especially male. It was vital that she felt free from the force of others, above all if she herself could not assert a certain power over the people around her.
Aurore's relationship with her own mother had often been fraught with emotional tension and practical troubles. It was by definition dysfunctional, with both women being drawn yet repelled by the other. However the relations that later developed between Aurore and her own daughter were to prove even more toxic, by anyone's measures. Solange possessed a capricious, unruly nature that could not be disciplined. Such traits could not be found endearing by a mother who sensed danger and opposition in this head-strong child. Solange, like her mother, would be drawn to fulfillment through excess. She too fought to keep her independence, often through stubborn, often pig-headed behaviour. Yet instead of finding, and embracing similarities between herself and her daughter, the mother seems to have shunned these, or was in turn pushed away by Solange. Increasingly resistant, isolated and difficult to manage, Solange would later cause her mother to ask what she done to serve such a daughter. For indeed, a lack of manageability in the life of George Sand was simply intolerable; in today's parlance Sand was probably a born control freak.
Free of all constraint as a child, Aurore simply benefited from the unique existence that Nohant offered. She fully absorbed the liberal education that her grandmother bestowed upon her. Introduced to the arts at an early age, Aurore devored all their forms and was instinctively drawn to those who shared this broad appreciation, and simultaneously drew others to her with her multi-facetted talent. Taught by the former tutor of her own father, a certain Deschartres, Aurore had access to disciplines that would have been deemed inappropriate for a young girl in any other context. The work of the great philosophers was consumed with as much zeal as that of the great poets, writers and composers. No field was rejected out of 'feminine' prissiness or pretension. The natural world around her was a source of curiosity and adventure, as was the human anatomy and its functions. She herself was liberated from the womanly preoccupations of attire and appearance as she had developed a practical taste for wearing men's clothing. Dressed in masculine clothes, Aurore was able to move at her ease, just as a boy would, with no route barred and a certain anonymity offered. Alongside her half-brother Hippolyte, she spent her days riding and roaming the countryside with the local farmers' sons. Her nights were filled, reading and studying freely yet intensely. Ultimately Aurore became a odd mixture of civilized and cultivated, wild and spirited, forever pulled in opposing directions.
The need to tame this young, unbridled spirit finally made itself felt. Mme de Saxe sensed a lack of worldly decorum and sought a formal, structured education in a Parisian convent for her granddaughter. She could not have possibly envisaged that this move would result in a mystical awakening that transformed the young teenager and would exert a lasting influence over her.
Removed from the wealth of intellectual interests and practical occupations that filled her days at Nohant, Aurore lost herself in the spiritual atmosphere of the convent. While her Catholic faith subsided with time, from this intense mystical period was born an enduring capacity for excess and a thirst for the absolute. These would become the defining features in her life and affected all relationships in it. This resulted in a life-long insatiable desire to be devoured by a heightened passion - be it creative, spiritual, physical, sexual, emotional or political. It also drove her to devour anything or anyone that empassioned her. In many ways, this was an overwhelming need for fulfillment in a void and was something, by its very nature, that could not be satisfied.
In love and matrimony Aurore hoped to find freedom and fulfillment. She had effectively found herself caught in an impasse on the death of her grandmother in 1821. Too young to successfully manage the house and grounds of Nohant that she had inherited, and incapable of living with her mother in Paris, marriage was the only option. She accepted the offer of Casimir Dudevant. whose demeanour seemed to promise a certain vitality and his respectful behaviour towards her suggested a gentlemanly approach towards the affairs of the heart. Their union was indeed initially happy, as the young wife invested in married life and the domestic duties that it demanded of her. Their son prospered in a harmonious atmosphere where Aurore devoted herself entirely to filling her role of loving wife and mother. At this stage, at least, a certain fulfillment had indeed been reached.
Yet unbeknown to her, a gaping hole was about to reveal itself in her existence, throwing her into the psychological and physical disarray that led the sequence of events from which George Sand was born.
Believing in the union of sentiment and mind, the young wife Aurore wished to share all interests with her spouse. She soon came to the realisation, however, that he would never take up these rather more intellectual pursuits; Casimir simply had an innate inability to do so. At first he would try to follow her literary interests and discussion themes but failed miserably, invariably falling asleep or turning towards less demanding preoccupations; the hunting of country game and petticoats. With time, the marriage that had initially offered the perfect escape route from dull arranged matrimony proved to be a lacklustre and mind-numbing dead-end. Aurore's husband revealed himself to be a borish male with whom Aurore wished to share nothing.
What she could not find or cultivate in her husband, in a creative and intellectual sense, Aurore instinctively developed in her son. Having already remarked Maurice's artistic talent and interest in the natural world, she wished to nurture both in this sensitive boy. From this time until the very end of her life, Aurore and Maurice would share this common ground, the marionettes being just one example of the fruits of this union. Of her daughter, Aurore would later remark, in a matter of fact manner, that there was no such artistic leaning or gift.
Ultimately, the mother-son relationship of Maurice's early years would be insufficient to fill a void in her adult existence that nothing and no one could counter. Although a fulfilled mother, motherhood alone could not fill the emptiness within Aurore nor quell her growing unease. Once Aurore had sensed that her marriage was ill-fated, she turned to the company of men she found more compelling than her husband. In her later years, George Sand stated that she "should have been an absolute mother", for therein lay her true role and talent. Certainly, had she concentrated wholly on her son, and the daughter born a few years after him, her destiny, and that of her children would have been very different.
Solange is thought to have been the result of a liaison with a childhood friend. Whether this child was illegitimate or not is almost irrelevant since Aurore no longer sought any union with her husband. She acknowledged that she had felt a great desire to have a daughter, yet failed to experience with Solange the same joy that her son had inspired in her. Consequently, here was a being who symbolized all the doubts and dissatisfaction that her mother experienced at this stage of her life. These sentiments were never effaced.
Aurore increasingly felt a desperate need to free herself from the shackles of a now love-less marriage. She failed to find any lasting well-being in the marital home either; Nohant stifled her. A deeply-melancholic mood took hold of her. The brutish mindset of her husband and the tyranny of her wifely obligations appear to have disgusted and angered her. Furthermore, the marital laws that forced her, like all other women of the period, to hand over all her worldly possessions to her spouse on marriage filled her with a sense of injustice. Wakening herself from the state of despondency this failed union had cast her into, Aurore decided to act. In 1831, when Maurice and Solange were respectively seven and two years old, their mother decided to leave the suffocating atmosphere of the marital home in order to find independence in Paris. Thus Aurore Dudevant embarked on her Parisian adventure, without her children or estranged husband, and far from Nohant. As divorce was not possible at this period, she managed to obtain Casimir's agreement to an arrangement that saw her spend large parts of the year in the capital leaving him in the family domain.
It is difficult to judge such parenting decisions by today's standards. At that time offspring were frequently cared for, and educated by, a host of servants and governesses which meant they rarely benefited from intimate relationships with their parents. Nevertheless, the apparent ease with which the children's mother detached herself seems troubling, given that she had herself suffered greatly from loss and abandonment as a child. Perhaps the adult George Sand could not free herself from the traumas the young Aurore had endured and, as is frequently the case in dysfunctional families, simply went on to replicate what she had experienced. It may have been that in her desperate drive for independence, she simply found it easier to sacrifice her children for the time required. Whatever the reason, Aurore's absence would effectively mark her children's development. The moments shared with them were frequently charged with so much intensity and heightened emotion, of both a positive and negative nature, that a simple mother-child relationship proved difficult to maintain.
Although she herself discovered a liberating, exhilarating life in Paris Aurore's emancipation did not resolve or lessen the tensions and underlying emotions that had hitherto governed her life. These were all being channeled and contained in a heady lifestyle that offered a void of intellectual, creative, social and sexual excess. The emerging George Sand appeared to devour all that life offered, but she too was being devoured by this all-consuming drive. Her one-time friend Comptesse Marie d'Agoult, the mistress of Franz Liszt, later remarked that in Sand's life the "sacred flame that God had placed in her found nothing else to devour outside". In addition, she was desperate to find a means of independence and this further animated her with a constant energy and determination. Her nascent literary career was driven by a creative force that found little parallel in her contemporaries, with the possible exception of Balzac. From the very outset, her capacity for production was daunting and her prodigious writing never failed to astonish both during and after her life. Neither devastating passion nor debilitating illness could deter her as Musset would later attest. Nietzsche found such churning out of copy to be worthy of a literary "milk cow".
Although the initial months of this new existence had been hampered by lack of money and material means, Aurore managed to enter journalistic and literary circles. She finally co-wrote the book Rose et Blanche in 1831, alongside her current lover and fellow journalist, Jules Sandeau. They employed the pseudonym J Sand, but by the following year George Sand became the acclaimed, sole writer of the ground-breaking novel, Indiana. Dealing with such themes as the subordination of women in society, and the injustice meted out to the supposedly weaker sex in all marital situations and those of the heart, the novel Indiana met great critical acclaim. Literary success was now assured and the name Sand was associated with literary skills as much as an ability to shock through a complete disregard for social convention and customs. She succeeded in entering the masculine bastions of the city, with her skill and grit. Yet the androgynous guise, again adopted for practical reasons, the constant cigar-smoking and her bold, if not brazen, behaviour drew attention and criticism. Her anonymous status as "an atom lost in this immense crowd" could not last long. Sand was now a name to be reckoned with.
To all appearances, George Sand seemed to have forgotten Nohant. She did not, however, forsake her children. Regular correspondence and periodic visits eased this absence, to an extent, until both children finally came to Paris for their studies. After the conclusion of her divorce from Casimir in 1836, she was able to recover her home in Nohant and would resume life there with Maurice and Solange. Until that moment, however, these initial absences and upheavals must have been incomprehensible for the children. This was especially the case for Solange, who was taken to her mother in Paris towards 1832. Maurice, a little older and of an accommodating temperament by nature, had to resign himself to his situation, be that in the province or in boarding school in Paris. The letters that he sent to his mother were those of a truly devoted son, willing to adapt to his circumstances. Illustrated with the numerous sketches and caricatures for which he was so skilled, the letters skillfully disguised Maurice's true sentiments.
Wherever she herself was situated, Aurore ensured a rich cultural upbringing for her son and daughter. She refused indifference or mediocrity in the academic studies and not only supervised their schooling, but also taught them personally wherever possible. Above all, she incited their interest and curiosity. Whatever her shortcomings as a mother, she had an instinctive pedagological streak that did not simply start and end with her own children. Indeed, she would resolutely apply this to those whose lives she believed could be improved by education and application. Nor was this instinct for betterment was confined purely to academic fields. All her life, George Sand encouraged social enlightenment and improvement in order to fight ignorance and injustice in society. She was one of the few novelists to portray the peasant class in an honorable light, and to seek to preserve their unique culture. Having lived in proximity with the poor and the working classes, Sand was fully aware of the hardships they encountered on a daily basis. Oscar Wilde pertinently remarked that Sand had "the greatest veneration for the aristocracy of intelligence, but the democracy of suffering affected her more".
|Louis Eugène Lambert|
Her unconventional stand against the 'tyranny' of marriage and her demands for basic democratic rights for women were repeatedly voiced in her novels, in differing ways. These ideas were again reiterated in the political pieces that she wrote and defended in the public arena. She did not hesitate to express her socialist views and went on to publish her own newspaper during the 1848 Revolution which resulted in her being hailed as one of the first feminists. Nevertheless, her primary interest was to actively defend the most vulnerable, regardless of gender, although this was generally synonymous with the female sex. Above all, she wished to see a civil equality which could be largely acquired by a decent basic level of education for girls. Contrary to the 'real' feminists, she did not advocate the active role of women in politics, since she believed this to be incompatible with maternal obligations. Ironically, her humanist fight for a just better world would be incompatible with her life as a mother and was at the heart of many of her problems with her own children.
For Sand, a resolution for instruction, nurture and growth were part of an organic progression that had to form the basis of life itself. She admired the force of creative energy and determination. Continually pushing herself forward, she expected to find or instill stamina in those around her. Lack of will and rigor were intolerable, perhaps even more unacceptable to her than pure laziness itself. She lamented the lack of industriousness in her Parisian lover, Sandeau, and seemed to deplore his luke-warm will to fight any obstacle before him.
Without a forward movement of growth and improvement there was only stasis, decay and death. Her belief in the natural process of mother nature was almost spiritual in its intensity and was wholly positive in its outlook. Whilst Catholicism would have less and less hold over her life, this quasi-relgious faith in Life and nature grew. Perhaps this partly explains why, when faced with illness and death she would veer towards the natural vitality that a young lover could offer, or would simply turn to nature itself. Her final words on departing this world were "Laissez verdure". Life had to go on, and had to lead towards natural progress.
Sand's children were constantly goaded towards application and improvement. Despite the unstinted efforts of their mother, or perhaps precisely because of these, both periodically displayed difficulty in their instruction. The traits of character thus revealed or reinforced would remain with Maurice and Solange, shaping their lives. The manner in which the two children developed, not only sealed their personal success in life, it also affected their relationships with others, and above all with their mother.
Maurice, in his mother's opinion, lacked vigor and discipline and she strove relentlessly to incite a certain diligence in him - "la volonté". His natural abilities were not altogether matched by the determined character required to forge ahead. Already as a young boy, his aversion to his first art teacher was sufficient to deter him from attending drawing classes and distract him from his love of art. Despite the enormous talent he possessed in any project he undertook, Maurice was almost destined to be an eternal potterer. The work he produced in his life was astonishing in both quality and diversity but underlined the fact that, above all else, Maurice was a dilettante at heart. Sand aptly labelled him indicisive - "vellétitaire". With so many paths to choose, he preferred not to limit himself to one single choice.
As a young girl, Solange, was frequently distracted and was of a rather stubborn nature. Perhaps this was part of a subconscious ploy to get the undivided attention of her mother and was therefore the sulky response of a frustrated child. Unable to share the creative bonds that tied mother and son, Solange surely felt excluded. She may have felt neglected and certainly questioned her own worth. Over the years, Solange certainly grew increasingly aware and resentful of an apparent preference for her brother which she read as a rejection of herself.
Conscious that she could never match such creative talents, Solange must have experienced a sense of envy towards him and failure with regard to her own self. She instinctively understood that she could somehow never make the grade, above all when measured against her own mother. Yet instead of inciting her to push on harder, Solange's disappointment over her lot in life seemed to stunt her growth on every level. Her perceived lack of talent became a self-fulfilling reality and Solange's life was to be one of thwarted potential. Whatever projects she undertook tended to fade away and the paths she chose ultimately led nowhere. Later in life Solange remarked that her underachievement was due to the fact that she had been born to a woman of genius - "My brother is called Maurice Sand, I am just the daughter of George Sand." Maurice, indeed, had adopted his mother's pen name, Sand, in preference to his patronym, Dudevant.
Aurore, moreover had always held great ambitions for Maurice and his creations. She secured private tuition for him with none other than Delacroix, and later actively involved him in the illustration of the volumes of her work. Yet for all his manifest industriousness, Maurice was of a rather retiring nature. He was probably never happier than in his home environment, free to apply himself to his wide-ranging personal projects, preferably with his mother nearby. That he could do so was also due to the fact that his mother had assured a certain material ease which meant Maurice was never truly obliged to graft for survival. He may not have been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, but his mother ensured that, to a degree, he would always be part spoon-fed a comfortable existence.
Perhaps the excess of the fire and drive in the mother simply extinguished those same attributes in the son. Maurice may well have been emasculated to a certain degree by the power of this mother, or might have used 'weakness' to secure her maternal care. He may have felt that whatever the nature of his work, it would be perceived to be some kind of filial tribute to his mother, or merely some attempt to copy her glory.
Whatever the reason, he certainly never focused his vast talent exclusively in any one of his many centres of interest in order to attain excellence. Maurice followed his artistic vein which led him in disparate directions, perhaps causing him to spread himself 'thin' in the process. Although he discarded the indolence that had marked his late teenage years, he never demonstrated an ambition to succeed in any sense other than personal contentment. And yet all his work was remarkable on its own merit. He illustrated his mother's work Légendes Rustiques (1858); produced several novels - the best known being Raoul de La Châtre (1865) followed by his vast study of Italian commedia dell arte Masques et Bouffons (1860); turned to lepidopterology with his Monde des Papillons (1867) and again with the Catalogue raisonné des lepidoptères du Berry et l'Auvergne (1879). This was alongside the continued work on his marionettes, studies of botany, mineralogy, an interest for local folklore and followed travel around Africa, Algeria, Spain and Newfoundland!
George strove to channel Maurice's encyclopedic mind and talent. She tried to make him the chief illustrator of her work, by persuading her publisher, Hetzel, to agree to this arrangement on the death of Tony Johannet, hirtherto considered 'king' in this field. Later she also arranged interviews with theatre managers and journalists to see Maurice's work exposed to the public. All her endeavours were largely in vain. That George Sand never saw Maurice realise the great hopes that she had always entertained for him must have been frustrating, but this never drove mother and son apart. The situation was down to a difference in character that George could accept; she simply cherished her son. He was her "very soul".
The same could not be said in the case of Aurore and her daughter, who was indeed the "living antithesis" of Maurice, The feelings that Solange had harboured since childhood crystalized and manifested themselves in differing forms of behaviour, none of which brought her any closer to her mother. Quite the contrary.
For all the emotional complexities that would later mark the children's relationship with their mother the first years of Sand's Parisian period were relatively calm. At a young age, both children loved their mother simply and unconditionally. They were little aware of her convoluted personal life, even if they both suffered from the periods of separation that this entailed. Maurice was sensitive to the tensions between his divorcing parents and had heard rumours at his school, but beyond that the George Sand and her reputation were part of a largely separate universe. Although the infant Solange had already encountered her mother's first lovers in Paris, neither she nor Maurice had yet had a significant or lasting contact with any. For the time being, no third party intruded on the odd existence that the children enjoyed with their mother.
Sand's sentimental affairs during this period were, however, prodigious; even by today's standards. Her male conquests were numerous and her appetite apparently insatiable, yet initially at least, the children were largely shielded from this. In public however, she was soon to earn the reputation of man-eater, said to prey on the most notable men in literary and political milieus over whom she exerted a certain power of seduction.
Of these romances, the tumultuous, yet relatively short-lived affair with the poet Alfred de Musset was one of the best known. Of its eighteen months duration, much of this singular drama was largely acted out with Venise as its backdrop and then remodelled and replayed in the literary works of both Musset and Sand. Beyond the specifics of the sequence of events that made this affair appear at times like some bohemian pantomime, it was significant because it bore many of the elements played out with the majority of Sand's lovers, before and after. However, in spite of the emotional storm it created in Sand's life, and the months of absence that ensued, it did not affect her children in any direct manner. Her seven-year romance with Chopin did.
The period that Sand spent with the pianist probably had the most significant impact in Sand's life. It was this union that fatally fractured the dynamics of her family unit throughout its duration and above all, following its rupture. All those involved became powerless puppets, guided by almost primal emotional impulses. It seems fitting that it was the Chopin years that saw the creation and development of the marionettes in the family home.
Any flaws in Sand's relationship with her children gradually came to a head, triggering emotions that would have a devasting effect on all the participants of this drama played out on the family stage. All the actors were constantly riven apart and driven together in ever-changing patterns as obsessive love, possessiveness, jealousy, rivalry and the fear of abandonment governed all their moves. Any other individual drawn into this intense arena would soon become the direct or indirect cause of further divisions and hostilities. In continual movements of flux, one side would set itself against the other or others, splintering existing groups to create new ones that were equally contentious. Ultimately however, the family would be drawn back together to host their marionette performances, perfecting these to an art, aided and accompanied by the musical contributions of the composer.
The infamous feud that arose from Solange's marriage was probably the worst example of these family dramas, but it was but one of several. The introduction of a cousin into this tinder-box of emotions pitted Maurice and the girl in question (the future Augustine de Bertholdi) against Chopin, awakening maternal instincts in Sand that enraged in jealous child in both Solange and Chopin. As was frequently the case, the roles and boundaries of adult/child were blurred and crossed.
Indeed, the children who had happily accompanied the lovers Sand/Chopin on the ill-fated 'honeymoon' voyage to Majorca in 1838 had grown into young adults that were far less accommodating. Maurice increasingly resented Chopin's presence in his mother's life, until then exclusively his territory as somewhat a mummy's boy. He resisted the dominance of this ethereal being in his home and his mother's heart. This resulted in a struggle to win Sand's undivided attention and was the first time that Maurice manifested his rights over his mother. It was not the last. Nevertheless, these frustrated filial emotions were minor compared to those that rose up in Solange during this same period.
Solange not only felt the habitual resentment over her mother's love for another, as the child vying for maternal attention, but also grew to resent this lover's feelings towards her mother. She too, had enjoyed receiving the attentions of this young man, under whose guidance she became a rather gifted pianist. She not only felt validated by his encouragement and her own achievements, but felt a sense of self-worth through his devotion. Whether she and Chopin actually had a fully-blown liaison, under George Sand's very nose, is not clear. Either way, the understanding and mutual appreciation between these two individuals was seen by Sand as a sign of infidelity. Sand referred to her daughter unequivocally as "an enemy born from the breast and fed on my milk". This situation ultimately caused a rift between mother and daughter that was difficult to resolve and effectively terminated the union Sand/Chopin.
Drawn to the powerful figure of the sculptor Clésinger, Solange dropped her advanced marriage arrangements to her fiancé de Préault in order to marry this new beau. Perhaps this was an act of defiance on her part towards her mother, or perhaps she was attracted to a dominant man whose brute force and personality were a match for her mother's. His stamina made him a preferable choice over the insipid suitor, de Préault, who was in George Sand's words "milder than a sheep". Such a marriage would enable Solange to escape the family home, and provided her with someone strong, able to counter the will of her mother, if need be. For her part, Sand was initially reassured to see her unruly daughter with a husband who would make her toe the line, thus disciplining her, where she, as mother, had failed.
With his rough demeanor, Sand referred to this son-in-law as "le cuirassier" whilst Casimir (Solange's father) labelled him the "gauche stonemason". In many ways, the marriage between Solange and Clésinger resembled the Dudevant union. The happiness of the honeymoon years was quickly soured, leading to discord, divorce and finally tragic loss. Financial problems brought about by the husband's uncontrolled expenses and gambling was compounded by a thirst for a life-style well above the young couple's means. Sand was directly drawn into the resulting fray as the Clésingers exerted their rights to benefit from her finances. Material hand-outs did nothing to change the situation and the repeated demands for money finally met with refusal. George Sand grew increasingly hostile towards her vulgar son-in-law and his rapacious wife, her daughter. When the gruff yet loving husband gradually became a dissolute brute, the Clésinger couple separated, but not before the mother-daughter bond had taken yet another blow.
As was generally wont in the Sand universe, the Clésinger rift, like everything else, set off further dissension. Whilst predictably Maurice defended his mother against the bullying demands of the newly-weds, Chopin took a more sympathetic view of the young couple's needs. In view of his previous understanding towards Sand's daughter in the past, Chopin's support of the Clésingers was ill-timed. His allegiance seemed to validate a move on their part which could have led to the loss of the family home of Nohant. For Sand, this was the ultimate act of treachery; Chopin and Sand separated and there was no further communication. Virtually all traces of Chopin were removed from the family domain (except the sound-proofed doors), and all sentiments for him from Sand's heart. Solange continued to maintain relations with Chopin, to the disapproval of her mother. When he died a few years later, it was Clésinger himself who created the death cast of the composer's hand and face.
Although a certain calm returned to Nohant after the exit of Chopin, the underlying currents remained, ready to be stirred by new events. The birth of a first child to Solange in her ill-fated union with Clésinger ended sadly when the baby died a week later. The loss did not reunite Sand and Solange. The latter reproached her mother the unpardonable "indifference" she had shown over this death. The cruel loss of a second daughter at the age of five further damaged the fragile link between Solange and Sand. It was to be Sand who was to have the custody of this child but through a clumsy act of spite, Clésinger brought about the needless death of his own daughter. These deaths severed the remaining ties that brief motherhood had created between Solange and Sand and entrenched these two women in their respective positions, leaving them unable to cross the chasm that separated them. This effectively meant that Solange was left bereft and adrift for the rest of her life, despite the attempts to throw herself into a new existence. She could never sufficiently detach herself from her mother, or the ravages of their relationship which tainted and trapped all and everything.
The atmosphere at the family home continued, as it always had, to thrive on creative, cultural and intellectual exchange and the overall hum of domestic life. This was cultivated by Sand who possessed an inborn instinct to feed and enrich all around her, in every sense. Just as her energy and zest for life that seemed to know few bounds, her generosity spread itself as she nourished everything that came into her contact. Over the years Nohant would receive many guests, both long and short term. Friends and acquaintances would spend months in the Sand domain, able to escape the rigour and routine of Parisian existence in this country haven, in the excellent company of their hostess and her domestic entourage.
Yet this giving, enriching territory not only fed the love of friendship and lovers, it also provided fertile ground for a host of other sentiments. Most of the seeds of these emotions had, of course, been sown long before and were simply waiting to germinate, which they invariably did. The irony in this inevitable process was that at the root of this disharmony were often a generosity and maternal instinct that were fundamental to George Sand's character.
Throughout her life, Sand actively sought to banish the flaws and vulnerability in others through an almost over-generous solicitude. Her giving nature meant that she would instinctively reach out and draw in those around her, absorbing them almost to the point of possession. However, she did not occupy this key matriarchal position from the desire to have a blind, tyrannical hold over another being, but in order to nurture. Protégés were regularly taken in, and sheltered under the ample wing of this mother figure.
These maternal relationships beyond the family circle often had a negative effect on those within it, namely Sand's own children. Already of a jealous disposition, such arrangements could only have exacerbated Solange who was, yet again, obliged to acknowledge that she would never be sole beneficiary of her mother's attentions . This disapproval in no way deterred Sand from welcoming into the home a number of young girls, to whom she taught basic skills and simple etiquette.
The fear of one's mother's affections being usurped by such unworthy outsiders did not just affect Solange. This misplaced maternal instinct created resentment in Maurice which was more spectacular still.
Amongst the stream of visitors to Nohant were invariably young artists, occasionally introduced by Maurice himself. The ambiance at Nohant was certainly attractive to any newcomer and was treasured by George Sand herself. The games and intellectual conversation around the dining table could perhaps match any to be found in the Parisian salons of the day. Guests would be entertained, amused and stimulated by this unique cultural environment. The most illustrious of such visitors included Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, Franz Liszt, Alexandre Dumas, Gustave Flaubert, Prince Jérôme Napoléon and Turgenev. When Maurice's friend, the young engraver, Alexandre Manceau entered this setting in 1849, he immediately felt at home as he and Maurice set about creating the marionette castelet and stage. The more he was engaged in the practical running of Nohant, the more Manceau seemed to occupy a central role in the domain.
Manceau not only engraved Maurice's illustrations for Masques et Bouffons, he also took on secretarial work for the estate and assisted George in the writing of her journals. Meanwhile, the theatrical work of the comédie à l'impromptu began to play an increasingly important role in the life of Nohant. From 1854, there were regular performances that enabled Sand to test her playwriting and find greater inspiration for future pieces. As the political climate had affected the Press, she turned more and more to theatre work - François le Champi being the first of many plays. In this manner, the puppets developed the plays and vice versa.
Maurice, as man of the house, was probably a little displeased by Manceau's growing significance in the household. When his young friend became his mother's live-in lover, the tension rose considerably. Here, indeed, was a case of déjà vu that recalled the worst of the Chopin period.
Until the appearance of the composer, Maurice had enjoyed almost exclusive rights to his mother's care and attention, as a child who periodically needed to be nursed. He naturally resented time lavished on Chopin and felt ousted by this sulky, demanding enfant gâté. A similar situation of quasi sibling rivalry resurfaced during Sand's relationship with Manceau, which again deprived 'child' from mother. As Sand was able to share the artistic worlds firstly of the composer and secondly the engraver, Maurice must have felt that the artistic universe that he shared with his mother was being taken away from him. Even worse, it was being consumed by usurpers which drained the life sap from those around them, much like the illness that ravaged them.
Manceau, like Chopin before him, suffered the debilitating effects of tuberculosis and required increasing amounts of time and care until his death. When Maurice dismissed his former friend from the service of the house, it was ostensibly in order to protect his own family from contamination, having already lost a baby son. He was, however, also making a final gesture of condemnation and rejection. Whilst Sand had abandoned Chopin to meet the early grave that awaited him in the aftermath of the Clésinger drama, she stayed with the consumptive Manceau and simply abandoned the home at Nohant instead.
Indeed, despite Maurice's protestations, Alexandre Manceau was to spend fifteen years with Sand. The atmosphere at Nohant became so strained that the lovers were obliged to take exile at the village of Gargilesse in the Berry region and Plaiseau, near Paris. For all his amenable characteristics, Maurice was capable of being most hostile towards those who encroached on his universe, and the elements that were integral to it. To share his mother with a man of his own age was simply intolerable.
Given to fits of pique and cold revenge, Maurice dealt back what he had received. Following Manceau's death, Maurice removed all traces of this imposter from his mother's existence when he transcribed her numerous journals for publication. Unable to evict this "Tartuffe" from his mother's life and bed when alive, he simply removed him surgically after death. And yet although Maurice's stance may have been excessive, perhaps he was rightly aware that the dynamics in his mother's relationships with lovers were largely odd, to say the least.
The inappropriate maternal love that Sand displayed as a mistress not only affected her direct family but ultimately had an adverse effect on her love affairs too. Despite her reputation as a sensual individual of unbridled passions and all-devouring sexuality, Sand's relationships with her lovers were generally of a rather more platonic nature. The passion of their excessive drama may not have been as smouldering on the sexual front as was believed. Perhaps her exalted, romantic vision as a young girl had led her to have exaggerated, unrealistic expectations of all matters of the heart, sexuality included. Certainly her first physical encounter as a newly-wed had been far from idyllic, but the situation did not seem to improve vastly with her numerous subsequent lovers either. She was able to love passionately, or give passionate expression to feelings, that much was clear, but this did not coincide with overwhelming sexual desire or satisfaction. If these conquests did initially satisfy, the feeling was short-lived and her imaginative tactics to maintain any frisson were powerless. The situation soon gave rise to the frustration of dashed expectations and perhaps boredom. The thrill of the challenge may have taken the place of true desire but the result was usually the same. As André Maurois wrote in his biography of 1953, Lélia ou la Vie de George Sand a "complete divorce had taken place between the body and the spirit" of this unique woman. Sand's expectations were not met on the physical front, and nor, it would seem, were her lovers'. The sex that should have been part of the process of getting closer to the individual, invariably became a barrier to intimacy.
Accused of nymphomaniac, vampirical tendencies, Sand would appear to consume, perhaps ever-hopeful of overcoming this obstacle, but ended up either jaded or dissatisfied as the dynamics of the relationship changed. There are frequent references to this in her own works, but principally in Lélia, where frigidity is explored in a telling manner. Although this was not necessarily a roman à clefs, this theme is again reflected in the letter that George Sand wrote to her lover Musset. Acknowledging that her physical love might not be the same as that to be found in more conventional, commonplace affairs, she justified herself against claims that she was clumsy and cold as a lover. Again and again, there appears to be a gap between love and its adequate physical expression. Les frères Goncourt wryly remarked of her that the "genius is male" but the rest was of a "hermaphroditic construction".
Vulnerable men of great artistic talent and intellect and an even larger artistic temperament attracted Sand. Perhaps she felt more comfortable in rather more asexual relationships where creative intellect and companionable 'mothering' could compensate for inadequacies elsewhere. With such artistic affinities, she could act as muse, companion and confidant to a man who could never dominate her or question her self-appointed role. Sand was thus unthreatened, largely in control of the situation and ultimately maintained the upper hand in such relationships.
This status quo also extended itself to her admiring entourage. Here too, any deviation from devotion was seen as an act of disloyalty or a questioning of her authority. The repeated absences from Nohant of one of Maurice's friends, the 'cat artist' Eugène Lambert, met Sand's cold disapproval as she took this as a personal snub. Like some wayward son, he was frostly received until he had learnt the error of his ways and duly repented. He rightly remarked of Sand that "Nobody knows how to love better, but nobody shatters faster what she has loved". Nevertheless, Lambert, like countless others, treasured the friendship of this great woman.
From Solange, this "bar of iron", there would be no such repentance. Appearing to reject the happiness of family life, as set by Sand, this daughter no longer found a place within the unit. Although Sand recognized that Solange was "of a difficult character, but had a good heart", she could not make allowances for her. Solange refused to bend to her mother's will, and was soon regarded as a dissenter. Here was a power struggle in which Sand, for all her apparent maternal warmth, could display a coldness of heart, just as she kept a cool head in passionate affairs. Sand, after all, believed that 'Mother knows best' and would stomach no anarchy in her ranks On returning home after the collapse of her marriage, Solange discovered that her bedroom had been transformed into storage space to accommodate Maurice's marionettes.
Of course, Sand was more than some scavenging bird of prey, hovering over weaker prey to satisfy her needs. She truly felt empathy with those suffering and expressed this in a practical way; nursing. As she herself had pointed out, referring to her night-time vigils over Maurice during periods of ill health; no one else could perform in this field as well as she did, having already carried out similar nursing tasks for her ailing grandmother. In that light it might seem natural that she should go on to express her love through this 'bed-side manner'. At a time when epidemics could wipe out swathes of the population and when the White Plague (TB) was rife, such skills were not negligible. The practicalities of nursing must have been a drain on Sand in every respect, whatever the supposed advantages were. Despite the hardship, she was prepared to assume these same responsibilities throughout her life, whatever the cost to her or her family. Amongst Sand's lovers, the most notable example of this capacity was, of course, her relationships with Musset, Chopin and Manceau.
A certain age difference was often present between Sand and her lovers. She thus assumed the role of the far more mature, and presumably more experienced lover, and as a term of affection the men in question were often referred to as 'children'. Musset, the romantic dandy drawn to debauchery, and periodically prey to hallucination was called "my child Alfred". Having already sensed a vital "weakness" within this troubled soul from the outset of their relationship, Sand was subsequently obliged to nurse him through dysentery during the stay in Venice. In Chopin she found another 'child' prodigy, one that demanded even greater care than Musset.
Although the composer had initially found something distasteful in Sand, he eventually succumbed to her charm, falling in love with her and falling into a role that he perhaps did not wish to occupy. Chopin was certainly not above throwing temper tantrums when neglected by this mother figure. However, when he finally referred to her as "the mother", it was with a certain bitterness. Not only was he jealous of her flesh-and- blood offspring, Maurice and Solange, he also regretted the infantile state that bad health and perhaps Sand's mothering had reduced him to. Sand partly explored and exposed this situation in Lucrezia Floriani, 1847. Chopin, apparently occupying the role of Prince Karol, found that the jealousy he displayed towards his lover's children would not be humoured by Lucrezia/ Sand. Indeed, such lovers were expected to show full filial devotion, knowing their place in the 'family' within the novel and in real life. Above all, they were taught to respect the natural hierarchy which invariably saw Sand occupy the dominant position.
Musset's betrayal of Sand during the Venetian sojourn and his calm avowal that he had been "mistaken" in his love for her, led Sand to promptly reconfigure the dynamics of their relations. Seeking consolation through an open affair with her lover's doctor, the young Pagello, she avenged this infidelity - a quasi 'matricide' - and set the situation on its head. In the subsequent ménage à trois, she referred to this doctor as the child between the adults, Musset and herself, and indeed regarded him as an infant to be dismissed once no longer required.
In spite of his relative youth, it was with Manceau that Sand appeared to find the greatest harmony in life. Like Maurice, this young man displayed loyalty and compliance, but in addition it was he who took care of her, and assisted in creative projects. Even if tuberculosis meant that she was called upon to nurse him constantly towards the end of his life, their relationship was built on mutual respect and complementarity.
Tellingly, remarkably few of the people who really knew Sand ever wholly abandoned her, or banished her from their lives. This was in spite of the spats and feuds that often punctuated these animated relationships. Those that did, still recognized the generosity and vitality of this woman.. The vast collection of correspondance that has survived attests the importance Sand attached to all the relations that she maintained throughout her life.
The acrimonious relations between Sand and her daughter, did not deter Solange from buying a house at Montgivray, near to that of her mother at Nohant. It should go without saying that no tie with Maurice could ever be cut. Even the bonds of marriage, secured in 1862, simply drew mother and son closer still. His Italian wife, Lina Calamatta, had herself been totally charmed by Sand and stated emphatically that she had married the son in order to be nearer the mother. The affiliation between the two women corresponded to all the expectations that Sand had clung onto when she had admitted her need for a (substitute) daughter. It was in her role as grandmother to two surviving children that Sand found the fulfillment and tranquility of mind that had alluded her in early life. Her advanced years added a certain serenity to her life, without taking away any of its vitality or creativity. She concluded that the two passions that had shaped and guided her life were motherhood and friendship; Nohant was the site that had favoured both in the final part of her life.
Through Nohant, and all that it represented, the direct and indirect influence of George Sand lived on. However, her absence was cruelly felt , to the point that inhabiting this "empty nest", as Maurice remarked, was unbearable. On his mother's death, he felt a desolation that could not be consoled and explained "I have lost more than half of myself". Losing the force in his life, he momentarily appeared to lose his mind through grief. Insane from his loss, he went through the family grounds, cutting down trees to mark his distress.
Unable to stay in Nohant , he extended visits to Paris, transporting much of his marionette collection for performances there. Nevertheless, Maurice and his family felt the pull of the family home and returned to occupy it, resolutely, just as they had in the face of advancing enemy troups of Prussians and the ravages of epidemic disease in the early 1870s. Maurice also remained steadfast in his dilettante ways, content to live for and through his numerous projects.
Nohant itself still exerted an immeasurable power of attraction over Solange too, even if she found it strangely amputated of its life-force without the "gigantic personality" of George Sand. Likewise, as adults, both of Sand's granddaughters, Aurore and Gabrielle, would ultimately return to this family haven, escaping brutish husbands and seeking succour in the ever-nurturing atmosphere of Nohant, resourcing themselves and protecting this precious estate just as Sand had done.
Part of the essence of George Sand appeared to pass onto her surviving descendants. Maurice continued all his cultural and creative undertakings, in addition to social concerns on becoming mayor and fireman. Lina supported her husband in all of these, and also assisted him in the preservation of Sand's literary estate.
Solange had inherited a degree of her mother's creativity, but followed the same tortuous path that she had set herself in early life. Despite a certain talent and wish to change the direction of her life her endeavours never reached fruition nor brought her any lasting success or happiness. Her novels sadly failed to draw public attention, just as her painting had met relative indifference. The salon that she hosted for Parisian literati and politicians met some acclaim, but ultimately faded out, whilst the planned biography of her brother regrettably never saw the light of day. Having lost her two children, and never finding durable love in any of her relationships, she sought solace in her extreme devotion to the Catholic faith. Yet in so doing Solange further distanced herself from her remaining family, all converted to Protestantism. and one can only wonder about her insistance on giving her mother a full Catholic funeral. Everything seemed to show how Solange would be the tragic victim to her own contrary nature to the very last.
Sand's direct blood line was to terminate with the two granddaughters, Gabrielle and Aurore, since neither had descendants. Although Gabrielle had died at Nohant at the relatively young age of 41 in 1909, Aurore lived to 95 years and continued to perpetuate the interests of her grandmother. Like her father and grandmother before her, she wished to see the folklore and art of the Berrichon region preserved and was involved in the local cultural association, Les Gâs du Berry. She inherited Nohant in 1940 and in a gesture that recalled the engagement of George Sand, used the house to take in refugees and help resistants during the war years, an act which merited her the Légion d'Honneur. In 1958 she also made of Georges Smeets-Dudevant-Sand her adoptive son and thus preserved the Sand lineage in a certain manner. In order to protect the Sand heritage and share this cultural treasure with the public at large, Aurore passed the house at Nohant over to the State in the late 1950s, along with all the rest of the Sand possessions. Many of these personal effects can be seen today at the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris. The widow of the Aurore's adoptive son, Christiane Smeets-Dudevant-Sand is actively involved in maintaining the honour of the family name.
For all her failings, George Sand was above all a woman of great humanity. All the facettes of her personality stemmed from her idealism and an essential generosity of spirit. She was a driven soul, striving to realise her vision. even if that entailed being selfish and/or callous in the eyes of others. Lambert, the young artist aptly pointed out how, in life, "One should love people more for themselves, and less for oneself", but Sand's egocentrism was an integral part of her altruism. She was no shrinking violet, ready to use typical feminine wiles to win her way in an alluring manner. Sand's approach was more direct, with a femininity that assumed a more masculine stance.
She was indeed larger than life, and certainly far larger in terms of character than many of the men around her in any social setting. Her forthright behaviour and striking appearance naturally favoured this tendency. Her detractors, needless to say, criticized everything in this lawless, emasculating being who belonged to some monstrous 'third sex'. The Goncourt brothers were particularly vitriolic in their criticism but their remarks generally underlined the uniform incomprehension and fear that Sand's persona had inspired from her early Parisian years. Despite this, many admired her steadfast 'male' qualities of discipline and determination and indeed Flaubert praised "the heart of this great man". In many ways, Sand truly was a patriarchal woman.
One of the greatest symbols of the life of George Sand, art and artist, are perhaps the marionettes themselves. These creations are not only a satire of all the ranks of society, worthy of the etchings of Goya or the writings of Rabelais, but also a vaudeville display of life and its fantasy, presenting a humane view of mankind and life itself. Sand, too, was a creation of her life's circumstances and the world she was born into. This complex individual seemed to defy definition and would readily take up new roles, and assume other characters. She was also her own creator, as she reinvented and redefined herself repeatedly throughout her life and writings. She edited the representations of herself through her journals and novels, trying to cast events and emotions in a different light to offer another slant to interpretation. Maurice would do much the same after Sand's death when selecting letters to form her Correspondances, largely excluding the communication between mother and daughter, just as he edited passages in her sentimental life. In so doing, he partly rewrote George Sand, the woman who referred to herself as his "author".
George Sand was not so much a self-deceiver who used language and literary means to lie to others and herself in the process (Simone de Beauvoir) as an individual in perpetual self-construction. Through the creative process, both mother and son reflected the defining symbol of the figure of George Sand; that of ouroboros - the snake devouring itself in order to turn into its own self (Anthony West Mortal Wounds 1973). In a circular, yet forward-thrusting movement, the symbolic creature bites its tail and absorbs all around it through a life force that drives it to become creator - to give life and create.
When observed from a wider perspective, Sand was far from being the puppet master of her own world, moulding, string-pulling and creating a narrative. She too was pulled by pre-existing forces that she could not govern; they were often an integral part of her. In this way, she too was a marionette. Like the head marionette Le régisseur Blandard, Sand could reign over her troupe and theatre, organising and improvising performances yet she would never break free of the internal script that dictated her every move. The complexities of her life gave rise to great creativity, directly and indirectly, within herself and beyond. Apart from the incredible volume of her writing, her opinions and politics, and her persona itself, she acted as a vital catalyst to the creativity of all those around her. Without Sand, there would surely have been no marionettes, certainly no Confessions d'un enfant du siècle (Musset) and it should not be forgotten that Chopin's best work was composed during his Nohant years. On her death in 1876, Victor Hugo wrote a eulogy about "La grande femme de ce siècle" - a most appropriate description.
I loved my trip to Nohant, not least because I stayed in the hotel situated next to the Nohant grounds and woke up to birdsong, with a view towards the house itself, and Chopin played during breakfast! Although adapted to receive visitors, the site is remarkably unspoilt by tourism and retains an intimate feel. There is a certain freedom to wander around the grounds, whereupon you come across the sombre plot, beneath imposing trees, where the Sand family lays at rest. During my visit, this was animated by clusters of butterflies, which were fluttering over from the gardens. Their delicate vitality seemed almost symbolic and I did wonder if these might be descendants of butterflies that Maurice had studied and breed.
A sense of living continuity is conveyed in a more concrete manner by the vast cedar trees in front of the house, planted by Sand herself to mark the birth of her two children, Maurice and Solange.
The marionettes, meanwhile, are caught behind their glass cabinets, looking on, waiting for their flesh-and-blood counterparts to bring them to life again.