Tuesday, June 13, 2017

What if Charlotte Bronte had met George Sand?

Charlotte in 1845, age 29, and the portrait by her brother, Branwell in 1834, age 18
When I read, I usually go down one track for quite awhile until I am sated, and am seduced into another direction, usually by the offhand comments or recommendations made by the current author I am reading.

Recent binges have included Truman Capote, Oscar Wilde, Charlotte Brontë and George Sand.

Truman Capote recommended many writers, including Eudora Welty, Elizabeth Haskell's biography of Charlotte Brontë (not Charlotte Brontë herself, which was interesting), George Sand, Willa Cather, and Oscar Wilde's Letters. Just the letters!

Oscar Wilde recommended no-one but himself.

Charlotte Brontë recommended George Sand.

A true binge is when you read everything you can get your hands on about and by an author, including letters. Especially letters, if they are available.

My last year of binges began with Capote and may end with him, as I want to reread his letters again. 


While reading Elizabeth Gaskill's biography of Brontë, I discovered Charlotte's admiration for George Sand and her disinterest bordering on dislike for Jane Austin, who she thought led a sheltered life which she wrote about in precious ways.  Austin wrote the "Novel of Manners," realistic stories that concentrate on customs and conversation. She appreciated Austin's powers of observation, but little else. On the other hand, she practically worshipped William Makepeace Thackeray, author of Vanity Fair, (1848) perhaps the ultimate Novel of Manners.

Charlotte Brontë was not a fan of Jane Austin's work
I found it most fascinating that she admired George Sand, a woman who seemed the opposite of Charlotte Brontë down to the last external detail. 

What did Charlotte see in George Sand, a cross-dressing libertine and fierce feminist? George Sand was more than that, of course -- a loyal friend, a lover of nature, a disciplined writer, and a passionate believer in the power of love. Her mother was a prostitute, her grandmother an aristocrat who raised her around privilege. 

George Sand inherited her grandmother's house, and lived there on and off until her death. She shared it at different times with her family, her lovers, (such as Chopin) and her literary circle.

George Sand's home at Nohant, France

Though she loved many, it is possible she herself was never truly loved, and this motivated many of her books. George Sand was born into exciting, post-revolutionary France and considered herself a bohemian, a breaker of rules and strictures around gender and roles. She was well-traveled, sophisticated, and surrounded by intellectuals, artists, writers, and musicians.

Charlotte was the daughter of a conservative Anglican clergyman. Her mother died when she was five. She watched her three sisters and only brother die unpleasant deaths at young ages. All but Anne Brontë were buried inside the family vault inside the church across the road. 

The outside graveyard, a mere stones-throw from the front door of the parsonage where the family lived, was overpacked with bodies (40,000 had been buried there over the years, I seem to remember). It was uphill from the town of Haworth, and thought to leak bodily fluids into the water supply from the constant burials, so that there were frequent outbreaks of typhoid and typhus in the town. 

Proximity of the Parsonage where the Brontë sisters and brother were raised to the old, overcrowded graveyard

The moor that surrounded them was bleak, cold, and windy. Life expectancy was short. Women led extremely confined lives and were disregarded entirely in any role outside the home. The three Brontë sisters figured out early that they would get farther in their literary aspirations by taking on men's names, 
Currer, Ellis and Acton Bell. 

Jane Eyre first edition with Currer Bell indicated as the author.

George Sand did the same thing. Her real name was Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, but she referred to herself as a man throughout her life. 

Charlotte Brontë, who was known to be disinterested and clueless around children, died pregnant, a year after she was married to a curate, at age 38. She was the firstborn child and last to die, succeeded only by her father.

George Sand had a daughter and a son who grew to adulthood and furnished her with loving grandchildren. She had a full family life, a garden she loved, and freedom to go where she pleased, with whomever she pleased. She took this freedom. It wasn't necessarily offered.

So, what if Charlotte Brontë had gotten the chance to meet George Sand? What would they have thought of each other? Charlotte was not widely travelled. Except for a few years in Brussels where she studied French, the farthest reach of her exposure to cosmopolitan life and culture was London, where she met Thackeray.

I believe George Sand would have breathed some life, strength, and hope into Charlotte, and that George Sand would have felt the overpowering sadness of Charlotte's life. It would have affected both of their writing, and perhaps built a bridge between two cultures of women that were very different -- ruthlessly repressed England and more liberal, sexual, and perhaps more fatuous France. Though they were so different in circumstance and upbringing, I believe they were essentially soul mates. 

Perhaps there's a book in there, somewhere.

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