HomeEnglish LanguageEnglish LiteratureThe autobiographical novels of two French writers in love with the same...

The autobiographical novels of two French writers in love with the same man

George Sand (1804–76) and Louise Colet (1810–76) would seem to have a lot in common. Both were highly esteemed, bestselling and controversial writers. Both pursued radical ideals and championed socialist causes. Both defended women’s struggles to live, work and love independently. Both had to contend with being vilified for producing work about free love and sex. Both had supportive male friends in the literary establishment who admired and defended their achievements. Both have also been relegated to the footnotes of literary histories, their Romantic mode of writing superseded by the realism developed by Gustave Flaubert and Émile Zola. As part of their near obliteration, both are remembered largely for their erotic associations with famous men, Sand with Frédéric Chopin and Colet with Flaubert.

The 1990s saw these two writers receive fresh scrutiny outside their native France. Belinda Jack’s biography George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large (1999) re-established Sand as an original, pioneering writer whose novels explored human (often but not always female) subjectivity in the light of prevalent double standards for men and women. Laws concerning slavery, domestic violence, property and politics were all applied differently to women than to men. A few years earlier Francine du Plessix Gray’s Rage and Fire (1994) had rescued Colet from her continuing status as “the Muse”, the nickname given to her by the Flaubert coterie, pointing out that she was a famous poet who won the prestigious Académie Française prize four times. Her output ranged from an epic poem cycle on the female condition to a children’s book,Enfances Célèbres (Famous Childhoods), which remained in print well into the twentieth century.

Despite all they had in common, the two women did not become friends. Their differing degrees of radicalism seem to have played a part in this. Sand was already famous when Colet sent her the manuscripts of her (never performed) plays on Charlotte Corday and Madame Roland, which explored their roles as Girondin leaders in the French Revolution of 1789. Sand replied with the authority of seniority, criticizing what she saw as Colet’s siding with the Girondins’ semi-royalist compromises. In response to Colet’s poems on beaten-down working-class people, Sand upbraided her for condescension. Du Plessix Gray translates and quotes from Sand’s letter questioning Colet’s description of “that oppressed class which you show us to be so mean, so ugly, and so stupid … you might have a bit too much disgust for those who are poor in spirit”. Sand remained interested enough to send Colet “many thoughtful, pedagogic letters”, but socially she held aloof. Perhaps, like her good friend Flaubert, she found Colet’s writing often too facile and glib, but, unlike Flaubert, she refrained from telling her so. Flaubert did admire Colet’s La Paysanne (The Peasant Woman), hailing it as a work of genius while also offering editorial advice.

The literary differences between Sand and Colet are intriguingly showcased in their respective novels Elle et Lui and Lui, translated for Dedalus by Graham Anderson as This Woman, This Man, and This Was the Man. Both novels sparked literary scuffles on their original publication, since they both explore their authors’ love affairs with Alfred de Musset. Indeed, the poet had got in first: in his autobiographical La Confession d’un enfant du siècle(The Confession of a Child of the Century, 1836), Musset had given his version of his time with Sand. Belinda Jack conveys Sand’s response in a letter to a close friend: “I started to cry like a child when I finished the book. Then I wrote to the author, to say I don’t know what: that I had loved him a great deal, that I had forgiven him everything, and that I never wanted to see him again.” De Musset died in 1857, and Sand quickly published Elle et Lui, which explores their tempestuous love affair, but this time awards the palm to the heroine. The novel sold well, but the flames of publicity were also fanned by Musset’s brother Paul, who published his own take on the affair, Lui et Elle (He and She), in 1859. Something approaching a full-on literary scandal was emerging, fuelled too by Colet’s Luithe same year, in which she delivers her own irrepressibly partisan view. Gaston Lavalley, a well-known hack, even produced a mocking version of the literary affair and its competing testimonies, entitled Eux (Them), and a spate of scathing cartoons and articles appeared in the press under the title Eux Brouillés, which could both mean “They’ve Had a Falling Out” and work as a pun: “Scrambled Eggs”.

Sand’s and Colet’s novels are fascinating when read in conversation. Sometimes they dance in harmony, sometimes they duel with one another, not just in their portrayal of the central couple, but in their views of love and its meanings. Their appeal to a contemporary audience is heightened by Anderson’s lively translations, which capture the mood of mid-nineteenth-century Paris, yet also make the books seem acutely up-to-date. He is not averse to rearranging long, winding sentences, and often finds images in English that exactly and inventively render the French ones. For example, where Sand has “C’était un enfant plus enfant que Laurent lui-même; elle ne savait quoi imaginer pour lui arranger une existence où il ne sentirait pas le pli d’une feuille de rose”, Anderson cuts the sentence in two: “She became more playful and childlike than Laurent himself. She could barely think of enough ways to make his life a bed of roses.”

The Sand-Musset romance reached a climax in Venice and involved a third party, the young doctor Pagello, who was summoned to care for Musset when he fell gravely ill and later became Sand’s lover. (She produced one of her most enchanting books, Lettres d’un voyageur (Letters of a Traveller), about her experiences at this time in the Veneto countryside.) Sand’s narrative focus in Elle et Lui tilts back and forth between the heroine, Thérèse, a young, beautiful, independent artist, and her suitor, Laurent, an equally gifted artist held back by his moody, unstable temperament and penchant for debauchery. Onto the scene comes the Pagello character, here an American named Palmer. Witty dialogue halts to allow for aria-like monologues. Sand sketches a plot of secret marriages and lost children, but is most concerned with charting the flow of thought and feeling between Thérèse and Laurent, the power play of desire, avowals, misunderstandings and quarrels. A modern reader may consider that Sand somewhat idealizes and romanticizes sex. When Thérèse risks being condemned as a fallen woman and gives herself physically to Laurent, she cannot admit simple desire, but codes this as sacrificing herself to save him from further degradation. If, however, we read Sand on her own terms, we see that Thérèse, despite her high-flown language, is asking for reciprocity and equality, for a complete union of souls as well as bodies.

According to Francine du Plessix Gray, Musset had passed Colet “confidences” about Sand. In Lui Colet uses these to shocking effect. Her portrait of the Sand figure, here named Antonia Black, narrated in the first person by an unnamed Musset figure, emphasises the writer’s independence, her ferocious commitment to her work, her professionalism, her maternal care of her lover. At the same time, however, the presentation allows the Musset figure to complain that Antonia is “ice-cold, impenetrable”, disgusted by the physical side of love, a hypocrite who uses and dominates men, then banishes them. The novel is meticulously constructed, boxing the central story inside another inside yet another. Hovering beyond the masquerade whirl is an aloof character we never meet, Léonce, an ascetic writer who shuns humanity in order to produce his masterpiece. This is Flaubert, Colet’s lover. In one sense Lui is a love letter addressed to him, a cry of love, rage and loss.

None of the affairs, romantic or literary, ended well. Sand felt hurt and betrayed by Colet’s caricature of her. Colet felt hurt and betrayed by Flaubert’s eventual mining of their intimacy for his portrayal of Madame Bovary. Sand and Flaubert had the best of it in the end, literary friends who were never lovers, content with writing dazzling letters to each other.

Michèle Roberts is Emeritus Professor of Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia. Her most recent novel is Cut Out, 2021

Browse the books from this week’s edition of the TLS at the TLS Shop

The post Romantic fictions appeared first on TLS.

Rizwan Ahmed
Rizwan Ahmed
AuditStudent.com, founded by Rizwan Ahmed, is an educational platform dedicated to empowering students and professionals in the all fields of life. Discover comprehensive resources and expert guidance to excel in the dynamic education industry.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

Most Popular

Recent Comments