Two Georges

In France and England, on the trail of the extraordinary 19th-century female authors Sand and Eliot.


July 10, 2005|By Susan Spano | By Susan Spano,LOS ANGELES TIMES

One was a convent-bred beauty with melting black eyes who abandoned her husband and ran away to Paris, where she went through lovers like handkerchiefs.

The other, homely and bookish, devoted her prime to theology, then scandalized Victorian London by living with a married man.

In France and England, they led superficially different lives but were, more profoundly, like two sides of a reversible garment. When they started writing novels -- a vocation that eventually made them celebrated touchstones for their era -- both took male pseudonyms.

So, it is by plain, straightforward George that we know the Frenchwoman Amandine Aurore Lucile Dudevant (1804-76), aka George Sand, author of voluminous essays, letters, plays and novels; and her English counterpart, Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), who signed her extraordinary books George Eliot.

Like many fiction and travel lovers, I sometimes am compelled to see the places that inspired and shaped great authors. It is a way of expressing expressing appreciation, of better understanding the wise, deep lessons drawn from their novels and lives. So, early this spring I followed a trail of ink drops to the homes of Sand and Eliot, whose writings are imbued with a sense of place.

Today, Sand's reputation rests as much on her extraordinarily eventful life as on her novels. She thought love should be a matter of passion, not duty, that relationships between husband and wife, mother and child, mentor and protege were too singular and varied to be scripted by convention.

The same cannot be said of Eliot. She never intended to flout convention, and her Middlemarch, published in installments in 1871 and 1872, is widely considered the apogee of the British novel. I first read it in college, captivated by its protagonist, the young gentlewoman Dorothea Brooke, who makes many mistakes while earnestly trying to find the right way to live.

I sought out the Georges in Paris and London, where they broke with their narrow upbringings to become writers. Then I went farther afield, to their native landscapes: Sand's beloved house at Nohant in central France and Eliot's childhood home near Coventry in England's Midlands. The first is far better preserved than the second, although neither is a major tourist attraction.

Finding them required detection and imagination, because time has turned bucolic 19th-century villages into bedroom communities, country lanes into highways, pastures into shopping malls.

Both writers lived through a time of transformation, as industrialization supplanted agriculture and country folk moved to the city. Traveling widely, they saw cultural, political and technological upheaval firsthand, but took a long, tolerant view of it, believing that what was truly good was bound to endure.

Literary pilgrimage

It took the young Sand as long as three days to travel the 180 miles to Paris from Nohant in a horse-drawn carriage. By the time she was in middle age, she could get there by train and buggy in 24 hours.

I made the trip from Paris to Nohant by car in an afternoon. There was urban sprawl around Orleans but fields and forests beyond. When I got off the highways, a tracery of country roads led me to Sand's village, a cluster of warm brownstone cottages, surrounded by farm fields and overlooked by a Romanesque church. It has a tourist office, a souvenir shop and an accommodating inn, L'Auberge de la Petite Fadette, named for one of Sand's novels.

Everything here is just as a literary pilgrim would wish it. Heavy drapes, beds with domineering headboards, patterned wallpaper, solid bureaus and cabinets recalling the style of the Second Empire (1852-70), when Sand's friend and admirer Louis Napoleon ruled France as Napoleon III.

The fresh smell and the scratchiness of the towels suggested they had been dried outside on a line.

Meals in front of the fireplace in the old-fashioned dining room were rich and varied evening entertainments. One night, I had the Chopin menu, with shrimp in a pastry shell, then chicken bonne femme in wine sauce, local cheeses and apple tarte Tatin, served to the strains of a nocturne by the Polish composer who was Sand's lover.

In the seven summers that Frederic Chopin spent with her at Nohant, he composed half his oeuvre, basking in Sand's care and encouragement. But the affair that had set Paris gossiping ended acrimoniously in 1847 because of family squabbles, Chopin's hypochondria and Sand's need to move on.

Sand's walled 18th-century chateau across the square from the inn, now a historic monument administered by the French government, can be toured. The writer was raised here by her grandmother after the death of her father, a dashing army officer, and desertion by her mother, a pretty camp follower.

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