Chateaubriand's memoirs, XLII, 7

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XLII- Chapter 7
Madame Sand

I thanked Madame Dudevant, otherwise known as George Sand, for having mentioned René in the Revue des Deux Mondes; she did not reply. Some time later she sent me Lélia, and I did not reply! Soon a brief exchange, in the form of an explanation, took place between us.

‘I dare to hope that you will forgive me for not having replied to the flattering letter you were so good as to write me when I mentioned René, on the re-publication of Oberman. I know not how to thank you for all the kind expressions you have employed in regard to my work.
I have sent you Lélia, and sincerely hope that she will gain from you the same protection. The greatest privilege of an accepted and universal fame such as yours is to gather together, and encourage the debut of, inexperienced writers for whom there is no lasting success without your patronage.
Accept the assurance of my deepest admiration, and believe me, Monsieur, one of your most loyal followers.

At the end of October 1834, Madame Sand made me the present of a copy of her new novel, Jacques: I accepted the gift.

‘30th October 1834.
Madame, I hasten to offer you my sincerest thanks. I will read Jacques in the Forest of Fontainebleau or by the seashore. When I was younger, I would have been less brave; but my age will defend me from solitude, without detracting from the passionate admiration I profess for your talent and which I conceal from none. You have, Madame, given new prestige to that city of dreams from which I once left for Greece with a world of illusions: returning to his point of departure, René lately, on the Lido, paraded his regrets and his memories, between Childe-Harold who had vanished, and Lélia who was about to appear.

Madame Sand possesses a talent of the first order; her descriptions have the verisimilitude of Rousseau in his reveries, and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre in his Études. Her clear style is not flawed by any of the faults of the day. Lélia, painful to read, and lacking the delightful scenes of Indiana and Valentine, is nevertheless a masterpiece of its kind: extreme in nature, it is without passion, and yet disturbs one like a passion; soul is absent from it, and yet it weighs on the heart; depravity of maxim, abuse of moral rectitude, could go no further; but over this abyss the author casts her talent. In the vale of Gomorrah, dew falls by night over the Dead Sea.

Madame Sand’s works, her novels, the poetry of matter, are born of the age. Despite her superiority it is to be feared lest the author has, by the very nature of her writings, limited her circle of readers. George Sand will not suit all ages. Of two men, equal in genius, of whom one preaches order and the other disorder, the former will attract the greater audience: the human race denies universal applause to whatever harms morality, the pillow on which weakness and justice can rest; the books which cause our first blushes, and whose text has not been learnt by heart on emerging from the cradle, will hardly be associated with all our life’s memories; books only read in hiding, which have not been our sworn and cherished friends, which are part neither of the candour of our feelings, nor the integrity of our innocence. Providence has enclosed that success which does not have its source in the good, in narrow limits; and given universal glory to whatever encourages virtue.

I reason here, I know, as a man whose narrow-minded view fails to embrace the vast horizon of Humanity, as a man of the past, attached to a risible morality: an obsolete morality of long ago, at very best suitable only for unenlightened spirits, in society’s infancy. A new Gospel is constantly being born far beyond the commonplaces of that conventional wisdom which arrests the progress of the human species, and prevents the restoration of that impoverished body, so calumniated by the soul. When women run about the streets; when it suffices, for a marriage, to open a window and call God to the wedding as witness, priest and guest: then all modesty is destroyed; espousals will be everywhere and people will rise, like doves, to the heights of nature. My criticism of the genre in which Madame Sand writes has no value then, other than as part of the vulgar order of things past; thus I trust she will not be offended by it: the admiration I profess for her must excuse remarks which owe their origin to the misfortune of my age. In the past I would have been swept away more by the Muses; those daughters of heaven were once my sweet mistresses; today they are no more than old friends: they keep me company of an evening at the fireside, but leave me swiftly; because I go to bed early, and they go to watch over Madame Sand’s hearth.

Doubtless in this way she will display her intellectual omnipotence, and yet she will please less because she will be less original; she will think to augment her power by entering the depths of reveries beneath which we lie buried, we, the vulgar and deplorable: but she will be wrong: since she is far above that extravagance, that vagueness, that presumptuous nonsense. At the same time as a rare, but over-flexible, skill should be alerted to superior folly, it should also be warned that the penning of fantasies, intimate portraiture (as the jargon has it), is limited, that its source is in youth, that every instant its flow reduces, and that after a certain number of works, one ends in feeble repetition.

Is it so certain that Madame Sand will always take the same delight in what she now creates? Will not the merit and understanding of the passions of twenty be lowered in her estimation, as the works of my own youth have depreciated in mine? Only the works of the ancient Muse never alter, sustained as they are by a nobility of manners, beauty of language, and majesty of feeling belonging to the whole human race. The fourth book of the Aeneid will remain forever open to human admiration, because it is suspended in the heavens. The fleet which brings the founder of the Roman Empire; Dido the founder of Carthage stabbing herself after having predicted Hannibal’s birth:

‘Exoriare aliquis nostris ex ossibus ultor;
From my bones may some avenger rise.’

Love making the rivalry between Rome and Carthage spurt from his torch, then setting fire with his flame to the funeral pyre whose blaze the fleeing Aeneas saw reflected on the waves, is all quite different from a dreamer walking through a wood, or a libertine vanishing by drowning himself in a lake. Madame Sand will, I hope, wed her talent one day to subjects as durable as her genius.

Madame Sand will only be converted by the preaching of that missionary with the bald head and white beard, called Time. A less austere voice currently holds the poet’s ear captive. Now, I am persuaded that Madame Sand’s talent is partially rooted in corruption; she would be commonplace if she were modest. It would be otherwise if she had permanently resided in that sanctuary unfrequented by men; her power of love, restrained and hidden beneath a virginal fillet, would have drawn from her breast those seemly melodies which belong to woman and the angels. However that may be, audacity in doctrine and voluptuousness in morals represent ground not yet tilled by a daughter of Adam, who, given over to feminine culture, has produced a harvest of unknown flowers. Let us suffer Madame Sand to give birth to such perilous marvels till winter approaches; she will sing no more when the North Wind blows; while waiting let us hope that, less lacking in foresight than the Cicada, she will make provision of her glory for the day when a dearth of pleasure strikes. Musarium’s mother told him: ‘You will not be eighteen forever. Will Chaereas always remember his vows, tears, and kisses?

Furthermore, many women have been seduced as if transported by their youth; nearer autumn, retreating to the maternal hearth, they have added a sombre or plaintive string to their cithara with which to express religion or misfortune. Old age is a traveller by night; the earth is hidden from it, it only sees the heavens glittering above its head.

I have not met with Madame Sand dressed as a man, or wearing the blouse and carrying the iron-shod staff of a mountaineer: I have not seen her drink of the Bacchantes’ cup, or smoke indolently while seated on a sofa like a Sultana: natural or affected idiosyncrasies which for me add nothing to her charm or genius.

Is she any more inspired, when she makes a cloud of vapour rise from her lips to wreathe her hair? Did Lélia escape from her mother’s brain as a puff of smoke, as Sin emerged in a wreath of flame from the head of the guilty Archangel, according to Milton? I do not know who passes to the sacred courts; but down here, Nemea, Phila, Lais, the spiritual Gnathene, Phryne, who made Apelles despair of his brush, Praxiteles of his chisel, Leaena who was loved by Harmodius, the two sisters surnamed Aphyes, because they were small and large-eyed, Doricha, whose hair-ribbon and scented robe were consecrated in Venus’ temple, all those enchantresses, in the end, knew only Arabia’s perfumes. Madame Sand, on her side, has, it is true, the authority of the Odalisques and young Mexican girls who dance with cigars between their lips.

What effect has the sight of Madame Sand had on me, following that of the few gifted women, and many delightful women whom I have known, following that of those daughters of the earth, who like Madame Sand said with Sappho: ‘Come, Mother of Love, to our delicious banquets, fill our cups with the nectar of roses?’ In my addressing now fiction now reality, the author of Valentine has made on me two very different impressions.

Regarding fiction I shall not speak, since I ought no longer to understand its language; regarding reality, as a man of mature age, cherishing notions of propriety, attaching as a Christian the highest value to the virtue of modesty in women, I have no idea how to express my unhappiness at such qualities bestowed on those prodigal and faithless hours that are consumed only to vanish.