December 15, 2017
George Sand, Chopin
On this day in 1804 George Sand (Aurore Dupin) was born. Sand was as popular in revolutionary France as her contemporary, Charles Dickens, was in Victorian England, and even more prolific: over seventy novels, two dozen plays, and published correspondence which runs to twenty-five volumes. But if Dickens remains well-known because of his characters, it is the dare of Sand's own life that now attracts most attention -- her cross-dressing, her cigars, her feminism, her bisexuality, her relationships with Chopin and other leading figures (de Musset, Delacroix, Flaubert, Balzac, Liszt) in literary-artistic Paris.
"He is France, life, the future," wrote Matthew Arnold of her, and as if knowing that the future would be snapshots and sound bytes, Sand's novels and autobiographical writings are in a style which accommodates:
Accordingly, it is Sand's life that has been turned into books, plays and movies, especially the years with Chopin. The 1991 film, Impromptu covers their first meeting, as the recent Chopin's Funeral unravels their estrangement; in her own A Winter in Majorca, Sand has written of the relationship's most famous high-note, a four-month island retreat undertaken so that Chopin's tuberculosis might improve, and that he might work in peace. Sand has a reputation for adding a romantic novelist's polish to her autobiographical writing, but the facts make for an evocative tale: fearing contagion, the local authorities banished the couple to an abandoned hill-top monastery; Chopin's health steadily deteriorated in the cold, damp climate; he was forced to compose on a cheap, untuned local piano, while waiting for his to arrive from Paris, the delicate Pleyel hauled in an unsprung cart over the last five miles of mountain road; the desperate flight home in February, the couple and the piano now on a cargo boat of pigs, Chopin coughing "basins of blood." During their stay, Chopin composed at least some of his Preludes; here is Sand's account of No. 15 in Db major, traditionally entitled "Raindrop":
- "Life is a novel that each of us carries within us."
- "Excessive work, like excessive pleasure, brings perfect death."
- "If they [women] are ignorant, they are despised, if learned, mocked. In love they are reduced to the status of courtesans. As wives they are treated more as servants than as companions. Men do not love them: they make use of them, they exploit them, and expect, in that way, to make them subject to the law of fidelity."
- "I ask the support of no one, neither to kill someone for me, gather a bouquet, correct a proof, nor to go with me to the theater. I go there on my own, as a man, by choice; and when I want flowers, I go on foot, by myself, to the Alps."
There is one that came to him through an evening of dismal rain -- it casts the soul into a terrible dejection. Maurice and I had left him in good health one morning to go shopping in Palma for things we needed at our "encampment." The rain came in overflowing torrents. We made three leagues in six hours, only to return in the middle of a flood. We got back in absolute dark, shoeless, having been abandoned by our driver to cross unheard of perils. We hurried, knowing how our sick one would worry. Indeed he had, but now was as though congealed in a kind of quiet desperation, and, weeping, he was playing his wonderful Prelude. Seeing us come in, he got up with a cry, then said with a bewildered air and a strange tone, "Ah, I was sure that you were dead...." His composition of that night was surely filled with raindrops, resounding clearly on the tiles of the Charterhouse, but it had been transformed in his imagination and in his song into tears falling upon his heart from the sky.