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Henry James

Jeanne Delbaere-Garant

French novelists

George Sand

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  • 1 Notes on Novelists, p. 153.

For the case was definitely a bold and direct experiment, not at all in “art,” not at all in literature, but conspicuously and repeatedly in the business of living.1

1In everything he wrote James always showed a special concern for the feminine character: his best creations are heroines, his more regular correspondents were women, and it is to the feminine characters that he devoted the best of his criticism when he discussed the works of other novelists. This curiosity for, and attraction to, the feminine nature probably also accounts for his lifelong interest in George Sand both as a person and as a writer. He wrote more pages on “dear old George” than on any other novelist, and though critical of her art in later years, he never ceased being impressed by her character.

  • 2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 122.
  • 3 Ibid., pp. 124-125.
  • 4 James may have remembered Hawthorne’s distinction between novel and romance: “When a writer calls (...)

2As far back as 1868 James had reviewed Mademoiselle Merquem for the Nation. The book had just been translated in America, and James remembered the time when George Sand’s first novels began to appear in his country and were received there with an eagerness that was for the most part a succès de scandale. They were considered as dangerous and seditious. To read George Sand in America “was to be a socialist, a transcendentalist, and an abolitionist.”2 James was struck by the credit attached to George Sand’s philosophical pretensions and shocked by the general indifference to her more interesting qualities, her imaginative and descriptive powers. He had read all her books and was one of her great admirers. In his review he emphasizes her extraordinary facility in composition, the grace and lightness of her style. Comparing her to English writers such as Thackeray and Dickens, he stresses her far wider range of interest: whereas the English writers “express in a satisfactory manner certain facts, certain ideas of a peculiar and limited order, Madame Sand expresses with equal facility and equal grace ideas and facts the most various and the most general. The things which we can imagine Thackeray and Dickens attempting to say will be found on reflection,... to be but so many variations of a small number of stock ideas and images.”3 He admires her restless, capricious, but also inexhaustible imagination, her seriousness, her grace, her charm, and the variety of her interests. He goes so far as to say that she can be compared with Balzac and that an intelligent reader of both will find it difficult to choose between the two, Balzac being a novelist and George Sand a romancer.4 In 1868 James was still up to his eyes in Romanticism. He had a moral passion rather than a passion for observation and in this he was not very different from Hawthorne and from the Transcendentalists of Brook Farm who had made themselves intimate with George Sand’s works. He wrote according to “the truth of the human heart” and did not aim at representing the real with minute fidelity. He even distrusted observation, which meant to him isolation and contraction, as appears from his comment on George Sand’s description of mountain scenery in Teverino:

  • 5 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 126.

The mind producing it seems not to have isolated and contracted itself in the regions of perception, but to expand with longing and desire.5

3He was himself a romancer rather than a novelist, and the influence of George Sand is discernible in his first tales. Later on he will have no difficulty in choosing between her and Balzac.

4In 1876 James mentions George Sand in an article devoted to the Goncourts and to some minor novelists such as Erckmann-Chatrian, Gustave Droz, Edmond About and Victor Cherbuliez. Twenty-five years have elapsed, he says, since the time when George Sand was the first of French romancers, and she is still unsurpassed. None of the younger romancers have the fertility of her mind:

  • 6 Ibid., pp. 163-164.

Each of the novelists I have mentioned can do something which she cannot; but she, at her best, has resources which exceed the total aggregation of theirs. (I say advisedly at her best, for between her best and her second best there is a gulf.) She has the true, the great imagination—the metaphysical imagination. She conceives more largely and executes more nobly; she is easy and universal and—above all—agreeable.6

  • 7 Parisian Sketches, p. 183.
  • 8 Ibid., p. 184.

5The parenthesis introduces a reservation which James had not voiced. 1876, the year he spent in Paris, was also the year of George Sand’s death. One of James’s letters to the New York Tribune is entirely devoted to her as a last homage. He calls her an improvisatrice, a nightingale, and her work one of the great literary achievements of the time. Her narrative, he says, “is a sort of general emanation, an intellectual evaporation.”7 She changed her mind more than once, but each time her conviction was strong and the way she expressed it particularly eloquent. This, James writes, “proves her, doubtless, to have been a decidedly superficial moralist; but it proves her to have been a born romancer.”8 She is romantic, and it is by its romantic aspect that her work will live. If The American, which was written at that time and was to appear the following year, still had a strong romantic element in it, James was unaware of it and he was convinced that he was as realistic as could be. A change has now occurred in his attitude. He has become acquainted with the French realists and has learnt that some qualities, lacking in George Sand’s works, are indispensable in a novel:

  • 9 Ibid., pp. 185-186.

They are not exact or probable; they contain few living figures; they produce a limited amount of illusion.
Mme. Sand created no figures that have passed into common life and speech; her people are usually only very picturesque, very voluble, and very “high-toned” shadows. But the shadows move to such a persuasive music that we watch them with interest.9

  • 10 Ibid., p. 186.

6James saw her by turns as a schoolmistress who often let her attention wander and was careless in her choice of subject, a philosopher who changed her mind according to her fancy, a moralist who had no sense of the difference between good and evil, a novelist who turned her back on exactness and could only produce shadows. Yet James liked her; he admired her style, her narrative art, the multiplicity of her interests, and the very quality of her imagination that made the unreal credible; he felt that she held in her hands “a stringed instrument composed of the chords of the human soul.”10 In short, he fell in love with her and willingly submitted to her charm.

7He was under the spell again when he perused her Dernières Pages, in which she related the history of her famous puppet show. In his review of it for the Nation (1877) he advises his readers to read it and learn the lesson:

  • 11 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 130.

Or must we be French and frivolous to care about ingenious and artistic pastimes? We should almost recommend that the article be translated, and circulated as a tract, for the benefit of domestic circles infected with what Matthew Arnold calls “dreariness.”11

8Her charm and lightness are the charm and lightness of France. To James she is the living image of the country he loves, and he likes to evoke her graceful image as she stands there with her puppets in front of an Anglo-Saxon public who drop their lids for fear of scandal.

  • 12 French Poets and Novelists, p. 197.

9James considers the “case” more seriously and more objectively in an essay written the same year and reprinted in French Poets and Novelists. He continues to admire George Sand’s style, but he resents her shortcomings more keenly than before: the lack of moral taste and discretion, the want of veracity, the absence of form. He still sees her as the great improvisatrice, as the writer “who best answers to Shelley’s description of the skylark singing ‘in profuse strains of unpremeditated art’.”12 She wrote as a bird sings and like birds she had never learned how to do it. She had theories, opinions and convictions on every subject (for, James adds, she was French and the French mind must theorize), but she had nothing to say on the writer’s art. She was not “literary” and never postured as a woman of letters. Like Goethe, what induced her to write was a personal and moral, not a literary impulse, but in her case the incident happened to be always of the same kind. She always described a passion and did it in such a way that discretion was simply non-existent. If discretion does exist in English literature, passion is hardly ever described at all. Jane Austen, Walter Scott, Dickens, Thackeray, Hawthorne, and George Eliot have all depicted young people in love with each other; but these writers deal with sentiment rather than with passion proper so that, James writes, if they have spared their readers much that is disagreeable they can also hardly be resorted to for information about the ardent forces of the heart. Like Musset, George Sand can teach something about these to the colder, more respectable, Anglo-Saxon public, of which James himself was obviously a member:

  • 13 Ibid., p. 219.

It is George Sand’s merit that she has given us ideas upon them—that she has enlarged the novel-reader’s conception of them and proved herself in all that relates to them an authority. This is a great deal. From this standpoint Miss Austen, Walter Scott and Dickens will appear to have omitted the erotic sentiment altogether, and George Eliot will seem to have treated it with singular austerity. Strangely loveless, seen in this light, are those large, comprehensive fictions “Middlemarch” and “Daniel Deronda.” They seem to foreign readers, probably, like vast, cold, commodious, respectable rooms, through whose window-panes one sees a snow-covered landscape, and across whose acres of sober-hued carpet one looks in vain for a fireplace or a fire.13

  • 14 Hawthorne (London, 1879), p. 66.
  • 15 French Poets and Novelists, p. 236.

10But by this time James had grown weary of romance, and he deemed George Sand’s lack of veracity an artistic weakness. On this point his criticism on the French romancer is parallel with that on Hawthorne, of whom he said about the same time: “Hawthorne... was not in the least a realist—he was not to my mind enough of one.”14 Realism had taught James to make more of the external aspect of things and people, and to insist on a closer representation. George Sand never described the actual. She possessed the faculty of looking within but seemed unable to look without: she was contemplative without being observant. Even when she looked within she had such a taste for “arranging” things—generally to her own advantage—that she could hardly ever be trusted. The figures she created in her novels were often vague in outline, deficient in detail. Her idealism, her optimism, James says, may be very beautiful but “we suspect that something even better in a novelist is that tender appreciation of actuality which makes even the application of a single coat of rose-colour seem an act of violence.”15 James confesses that he has lately tried to read her romances again but that he has been unable to do so because of their formlessness. A book cannot become a classic unless it has form. George Sand’s novels have style but no form, whereas Balzac’s have form without a shred of style. Balzac’s will last but George Sand’s probably will not. James wonders whether posterity will still read her works except for their antiquated charm, and he finds it difficult to imagine the readers of the future travelling with them in their trunks.

11Twenty years later James asks the question again and wonders whether people—apart from young ladies studying French with La Mare au Diable and a dictionary—still read George Sand’s works. The article (1897) was prompted by the publication of George Sand’s letters to Alfred de Musset in the Revue de Paris. James examines three particular problems in connection with this publication: the relation between experience and art, the conflict between the private life and the public, and the personality of George Sand. It is interesting, James says, and the more so as it is not always possible, to compare the crude primary stuff and the finished work. A comparison between the letters and Elle et Lui throws light on the process by which private experience gets aesthetically assimilated and transmuted into a work of art.

12It may be objected, of course, that, Elle et Lui being a minor work, it is a waste of time to study the process in so slight a performance. But James does not mind: his attitude in this case—as in so many others—proves how difficult it is to distinguish in him between the novelist and the critic. If the latter has no longer anything to say, if it is no longer a question of service rendered to art, it is still worth while for the novelist because such a figure as George Sand is interesting in every one of its manifestations.

  • 16 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 158.
  • 17 Ibid., p. 159.
  • 18 Ibid., p. 162.
  • 19 Ibid., p. 160.
  • 20 Ibid., p. 163.

13Before coming back to the “great magician” of his youth James opens a large parenthesis on a problem that receives his constant attention, not only in his criticism but also in his fiction: the “quarrel beside which all others are mild and arrangeable, the eternal dispute between the public and the private, between curiosity and delicacy.”16 For him it is indecent that the episode related in the letters should have passed into the common fund of literary gossip. It brings him to question Zola’s statement that the truth is never ridiculous and that the way to a better life lies through telling it. James does not agree with this and attributes it to an obvious confusion between “truth” and information. He takes little interest in the new scientific methods of investigation. The critic has no need for biographical details that do not help him to understand better the mind of the writer. What most matters to him is “the true thing we have most use for, and there are surely many occasions in which the truest thing of all is the necessity of the mind, its simple necessity of feeling.17 There is certainly a lack of dignity in the way those lovers appear “naked in the marketplace and perform for the benefit of society,”18 for, he says, there are “secrets for privacy and silence.”19 In spite of this, he is rather mystified. George Sand is, after all, a magician and she succeeds in making the graceless facts disappear behind the graceful spirit. Thanks to her rich personality and above all her “tone,” “the misery, the levity, the brevity of it all, the greatest ugliness in particular that this life shows us, the way the devotions and passions that we see heaven and earth called to witness are over before we can turn round.”20

  • 21 Ibid., p. 167.

14From now on, her personality is what most matters to James. George Sand has ceased to count as a writer but she still remains an interesting case for all those who make human nature the field of their investigation. She behaved like a man rather than like a woman, and the history of her passions makes us think of the chronicle of the ravages of some male celebrity. James remarks ironically that a sense of duty was perhaps the real mainspring of her behaviour, the duty “of avenging on the unscrupulous race of men their immemorial selfish success with the plastic race of women.”21 What most strikes James in her case is the impunity with which she gave herself to that kind of life, and as he reflects on the question he gives his own answer and explains how it is that such a romantic being could both “live most” and “live longest”:

  • 22 Ibid., pp. 168-169

Nothing perhaps gives more relief to her masculine stamp than the rare art and success with which she cultivated an equilibrium. She made from beginning to end a masterly study of composure, absolutely refusing to be upset, closing her door at last against the very approach of irritation and surprise. She had arrived at her quiet elastic synthesis—a good humour and indulgence that were an armour of reproof. The great felicity of all this was that it was neither indifference nor renunciation, but on the contrary an intense partaking imagination, affection, sympathy and life, the way she had found for herself of living most and living longest. However well it all agreed with her happiness and her manners, it agrees still better with her style, as to which we come back with her to the sense that this was really her point d’appui or sustaining force.22

15Her style was her secret and served her in the art of living even more than in the art of writing. It is what appears again from Madame Wladimir Karénine’s Life of George Sand, which James reviewed in 1899. She is, he says, the most interesting character of her whole production, and her style saves her adventures from being mere comedy:

  • 23 Notes on Novelists, pp. 160-161.

She had all the illumination that sensibility, that curiosity, can give, and that so ingeniously induces surrender to it; but the too numerous weaknesses, vulgarities and penalties of adventure and surrender she had only in sufficient degree to complete the experience before they shaped themselves into the eloquence into which she could always reascend.23

  • 24 Letter to Bruce L. Richmond, 19 December 1913, Letters, II, 363.
  • 25 Notes on Novelists, p. 172.

16The third volume of Mme Karénine’s Life of George Sand first appeared in 1912, and in 1914 James wrote his last essay on the lady of Nohant. Many years before he had said that her books were not likely to have a very great future because they lacked form and plastic intensity; now his prophecy appears to have come true. If he comes back to her it is not to discuss questions of art but because of the old impression and because of her still interesting “case.” She is “as a fictionist too superannuated and rococo at the present time to have much bearing on any of those questions pure and simple.”24 What attracts James now is her being “a supreme case of the successful practice of life itself.”25 She used her magnificent style to perform the very act of life and it served for her own adventures no less than for her Lelias and Mauprats. She managed to eat her cake and have it, to pay nothing for the immense amount of buying and borrowing. The way she acted herself out in real life was also an improvisation as admirable as her creative activity as a writer. But it is because she had such breadth of rendering at her disposal that she could afford to “live” exactly as she chose. A letter written to Mrs. Wharton at the time this third volume appeared may also serve to illustrate James’s state of mind and reaction to George Sand’s life:

What a crew, what mœurs, what habits, what conditions and relations every way—and what an altogether mighty and marvellous George!—not diminished by all the greasi-ness and smelliness in which she made herself (and so many other persons!) at home.

17With a mixture of irony and admiration he goes on to speak of her amours:

  • 26 Letters, II, 235-236.

To have such a flow of remarks on that subject, and everything connected with it, at her command helps somehow to make one feel that Providence laid up for the French such a store of remarks, in advance and, as it were, should the worst befall, that their conduct and mœurs, coming after, had positively to justify and do honour to the whole collection of formulae, phrases and, as I say, glibnesses—so that as there were at any rate such things there for them to inevitably say, why not simply do all the things that would give them a rapport and a sense? The things we, poor disinherited race, do, we have to do so dimly and sceptically, without the sense of any such beautiful cadres awaiting us—and therefore poorly and going but half—or a tenth— of the way. It makes a difference when you have to invent your suggestions and glosses all after the fact: you do it so miserably compared with Providence—especially Providence aided by the French language: which by the way convinces me that Providence thinks and really expresses itself only in French, the language of gallantry.26

  • 27 Ibid., p. 426.

18James associates George Sand with France itself as he had done in his youth. In spite of the ironical tone of his remarks in the passage above, we realize that he is still trying to penetrate the secret of the French art of living and that he is looking for the answer in George Sand’s own life. Far more than as a novelist she interests him as a representative of French manners and genius. That is why she accompanied him from the very beginning to the end of his long literary career. He read her as a young man and even underwent her influence when he wrote his first tales; he evoked her in his maturity, now using an article on Musset to make a long digression on the episode in Italy, now regretting that Sainte-Beuve should only have half rendered her justice, now motoring to Nohant with Mrs. Wharton. He still remembered her during the war when he reproached Edmund Gosse for not having added, in his comparison of the present war with that of 1870, “a touch or two about dear old George Sand, holding out through the darkness at Nohant, but even there giving out some lights that are caught up in her letters of the moment.”27 By 1914 James had travelled a long way from the time when he wanted to equate truth with goodness and was convinced that literature could not do without a strong moral basis:

  • 28 Notes on Novelists, p. 193.

If we put ourselves questions we yet wave away doubts, and with whatever remnants of prejudice the writer’s last word may often have to clash, our own is that there is nothing for grand final rightness like a sufficiently general humanity —when a particularly beautiful voice happens to serve it.28

19Beauty is enough and is its own justification. James, who had once objected to his great magician’s private life, ultimately proclaims her right for having been a magician at all.


1 Notes on Novelists, p. 153.

2 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 122.

3 Ibid., pp. 124-125.

4 James may have remembered Hawthorne’s distinction between novel and romance: “When a writer calls his work a Romance, it need hardly be observed that he wishes to claim a certain latitude, both as to its fashion and material, which he would not have felt himself entitled to assume, had he professed to be writing a Novel. The latter form of composition is presumed to aim at a very minute fidelity, not merely to the possible, but to the probable and ordinary course of man’s experience. The former—while, as a work of art, it must rigidly subject itself to laws, and while it sins unpardonably so far as it may swerve aside from the truth of the human heart—has fairly a right to present that truth under circumstances, to a great extent, of the writer’s own choosing and creation. If he think fit, also, he may so manage his atmospherical medium as to bring out or mellow the lights, and deepen and enrich the shadows, of the picture.” Hawthorne, The House of the Seven Gables (Everyman’s Library, 1962), Preface, p. xi.

5 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 126.

6 Ibid., pp. 163-164.

7 Parisian Sketches, p. 183.

8 Ibid., p. 184.

9 Ibid., pp. 185-186.

10 Ibid., p. 186.

11 Literary Reviews and Essays, p. 130.

12 French Poets and Novelists, p. 197.

13 Ibid., p. 219.

14 Hawthorne (London, 1879), p. 66.

15 French Poets and Novelists, p. 236.

16 Selected Literary Criticism, p. 158.

17 Ibid., p. 159.

18 Ibid., p. 162.

19 Ibid., p. 160.

20 Ibid., p. 163.

21 Ibid., p. 167.

22 Ibid., pp. 168-169

23 Notes on Novelists, pp. 160-161.

24 Letter to Bruce L. Richmond, 19 December 1913, Letters, II, 363.

25 Notes on Novelists, p. 172.

26 Letters, II, 235-236.

27 Ibid., p. 426.

28 Notes on Novelists, p. 193.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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