Lyrical and idealistic are epithets which a critic is tempted to affix to the novels of George Sand; but from her early lyrical manner she advanced to perfect idyllic narrative; and while she idealised, she observed, incorporating in her best work the results of a patient and faithful study of reality. A vaguer word may be applied to whatever she wrote; offspring of her idealism or her realism, it is always in a true sense poetic.
LUCILE-AURORE DUPIN, a descendant of Marshal Saxe, was born in Paris in 1804, the daughter of Lieutenant Dupin and a mother of humble origin—a child at once of the aristocracy and of the people. Her early years were passed in Berri, at the country-house of her grandmother. Strong, calm, ruminating, bovine in temperament, she had a large heart and an ardent imagination. The woods, the flowers, the pastoral heights and hollows, the furrows of the fields, the little peasants, the hemp-dressers of the farm, their processes of life, their store of old tales and rural superstitions made up her earliest education. Already endless stories shaped themselves in her brain. At thirteen she was sent to be educated in a Paris convent; from the boisterous moods which seclusion encouraged, she sank of a sudden into depths of religious reverie, or rose to heights of religious exaltation, not to be forgotten when afterwards she wrote Spiridion. The country cooled her devout ardour; she read widely, poets, historians, philosophers, without method and with boundless delight; the Génie du Christianisme replaced the Imitation; Rousseau and Byron followed Chateaubriand, and romance in her heart put on the form of melancholy. At eighteen the passive Aurore was married to M. Dudevant, whose worst fault was the absence of those qualities of heart and brain which make wedded union a happiness. Two children were born; and having obtained her freedom and a scanty allowance, Madame Dudevant in 1831, in possession of her son and daughter, resolved upon trying to obtain a livelihood in the capital.
Perhaps she could paint birds and flowers on cigar-cases and snuff-boxes; happily her hopes received small encouragement. Perhaps she could succeed in journalism under her friend Delatouche; she proved wholly wanting in cleverness; her imagination had wings; it could not hop on the perch; before she had begun the beginning of an article the column must end. With her compatriot Jules Sandeau, she attempted a novel—Rose et Blanche. "Sand" and Sandeau were fraternal names; a countryman of Berri was traditionally George. Henceforth the young Bohemian, who traversed the quais and streets in masculine garb, should be GEORGE SAND.
To write novels was to her only a process of nature; she seated herself before her table at ten o'clock, with scarcely a plot, and only the slightest acquaintance with her characters; until five in the evening, while her hand guided a pen, the novel wrote itself. Next day and the next it was the same. By-and-by the novel had written itself in full, and another was unfolding. Not that she composed mechanically; her stories were not manufactured; they grew—grew with facility and in free abundance. At first, a disciple of Rousseau and Chateaubriand, her theme was the romance of love. In Indiana, Valentine, Lélia, Jacques, she vindicated the supposed rights of passion. These novels are lyrical cries of a heart that had been wounded; protests against the crime of loveless marriage, against the tyranny of man, the servitude of woman; pleas for the individualism of the soul—superficial in thought, ill-balanced in feeling, unequal in style, yet rising to passages of rare poetic beauty, and often admirable in descriptive power. The imagination of George Sand had translated her private experiences into romance; yet she, the spectator of her own inventions, possessed of a fund of sanity which underlay the agitations of her genius, while she lent herself to her creations, plied her pen with a steady hand from day to day. Unwise and blameful in conduct she might be for a season; she wronged her own life, and helped to ruin the life of Musset, who had neither her discretion nor her years; but when the inevitable rupture came she could return to her better self.
Through André, Simon, Mauprat—the last a tale of love subduing and purifying the savage instincts in man—her art advanced in sureness and in strength. Singularly accessible to external influences, singularly receptive of ideas, the full significance and relations of which she failed to comprehend, she felt the force of intelligences stronger than her own—of Lamennais, of Ledru-Rollin, of Jean Raynaud, of Pierre Leroux. Mystical religious sentiment, an ardent enthusiasm of humanity, mingled in her mind with all the discordant formulas of socialism. From 1840 to 1848 her love and large generosity of nature found satisfaction in the ideals and the hopes of social reform. Her novels Consuelo, Jeanne, Le Meunier d'Angibault, Le Péché de M. Antoine, become expositions of a thesis, or are diverted from their true development to advocate a cause. The art suffers. Jeanne, so admirable in its rural heroine, wanders from nature to humanitarian symbolism; Consuelo, in which the writer studies so happily the artistic temperament, too often loses itself in a confusion of ill-understood ideas and tedious declamation. But the gain of escape from the egoism of passion to a more disinterested, even if a doctrinaire, view of life was great. George Sand was finding her way.
Indeed, while writing novels in this her second manner, she had found her way; her third manner was attained before the second had lost its attraction. La Mare au Diable belongs to the year 1846; La Petite Fadette, to the year of Revolution, 1848, which George Sand, ever an optimist, hailed with joy; François le Champi is but two years later. In these delightful tales she returns from humanitarian theories to the fields of Berri, to humble walks, and to the huts where poor men lie. The genuine idyll of French peasant life was new to French literature; the better soul of rural France, George Sand found deep within herself; she had read the external circumstances and incidents of country life with an eye as faithful in observation as that of any student who dignifies his collection of human documents with the style and title of realism in art; with a sense of beauty and the instincts of affection she merged herself in what she saw; her feeling for nature is realised in gracious art, and her art seems itself to be nature.
In the novels of her latest years she moved from Berri to other regions of France, and interpreted aristocratic together with peasant life. Old, experienced, infinitely good and attaching, she has tales for her grandchildren, and romances—Jean de la Roche, Le Marquis de Villemer, and the rest—for her other grandchildren the public. The soul of the peasant, of the artist, of the man who must lean upon a stronger woman's arm, of the girl—neither child nor fully adult—she entered into with deepest and truest sympathy. The simple, austere, stoical, heroic man she admired as one above her. Her style at its best, flowing without impetuosity, full and pure without commotion, harmonious without complex involutions, can mirror beauty as faithfully and as magically as an inland river. "Calme, toujours plus calme," was a frequent utterance of her declining years. "Ne détruisez pas la verdure" were her latest words. In 1876 George Sand died. Her memoirs and her correspondence make us intimate with a spirit, amid all its errors, sweet, generous, and gaining through experience a wisdom for the season of old age.