It was just before noon on a May morning in 1845 when George Sand finished her packing. Then, gathering her family together, she prepared to set sail on a long sea voyage to foreign parts.
In reality, the voyage was only a day trip and the family consisted of her son, Maurice, twenty-three, an art student. The schooner waiting to transport them to distant isles turned out to be a humble sapin-"pine box" in local slang, the hired horse-drawn cab that carried Parisians from one part of the expanding city to the other.
Her journey across Paris today, with its "tease" of an opening-the conceit of a sea voyage to distant climes-is a classic journalists' ploy, intended to hook the reader by throwing her off guard. (Is this a parody of travel writing or the real thing?) The article in question was commissioned by the publisher of a deluxe album to be called Le Diable �� Paris (The Devil Visits Paris). Contributions by famous writers and artists, Sand and Balzac among them, depicted Parisian life in its picturesque reality: courtesans and rou��s, beggars and con artists, the weird and exotic-like the "wild Indians" in their midst.
Sand was traveling light, but the contents of her single bag-glass beads and other cheap jewelry wrapped in a length of red cloth-hinted at her destination. From her apartment on the rue Saint-Lazare the cab threaded through busy Right Bank traffic, stopping at the Salle Valentino on the rue du Faubourg Saint-Honor��. Over the years, the cavernous colonnaded galleries have housed tenants of every type, animal and human: an exclusive men's riding club, a visiting circus, an all-night dance hall.
For the last months, the Valentino has served as theatre, art gallery, and hostel for a troupe of Native Americans, of the Ioway tribe of Plains Indians, brought from London to Paris by the American painter George Catlin. From the walls, chiefs and young warriors, along with their wives and children stared down, unsmiling, a fraction of the hundreds more Catlin portraits of Plains Indians in tribal settlements the length of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. The remaining wall space was hung with ceremonial artifacts: feathered headdresses, beadwork, rattles, and tomahawks.
In her article "An Account of a Journey to the Savages of Paris," Sand invites readers to shudder in horror with her as she points out bits of human scalp, strands of hair still attached and clinging to the hatchets' gleaming blades.
Before daring to enter, visitors peered warily through the flap of a teepee made of painted animal skins that rose at one end of the long central space. Portraits, artifacts, teepee-these exhibits were a prelude to the main event, the attraction that for weeks now had lured Parisians to pay an unheard-of six francs a ticket: Twice a day, fourteen Ioway warriors reenacted ceremonial dances, miming buffalo hunts and battle scenes (including scalpings). Then, the galleries echoed with the sounds of drumming, chants, and war cries.
George Sand had seen the performance several times; on each occasion, she had brought friends, among them Chopin and Delacroix. Each visit left her more ecstatic. But this was her first appointment backstage. Armed with a long list of questions, she came as both guest and reporter. Earlier, Monsieur Catlin had advised her what to bring, and she now presented the gifts sure to please her hosts: the red cloth they prized above all other white man's manufacture, the glittering beads, and the bright trinkets.
White Cloud, the star performer, was also prepared. He had been told that Madame Sand was no ordinary journalist, but a famous writer and the most celebrated woman in Europe.
Like her fellow Parisians flocking to see the "live savages" (the spectators included King Louis-Philippe, who invited the troupe to perform at his castle in Saint-Cloud), George Sand was fascinated by America, especially its native people. As a girl, she had wept over the poignant love story of the doomed Indian maiden in Atala, by Ren�� de Chateaubriand, and had devoured the "Leatherstocking" novels of James Fenimore Cooper, probably in the original language. Alone among her literary contemporaries, she read and spoke English-the legacy of two years in a convent school run by an Anglo-Irish order of Augustinian nuns.
A keen student of history and politics, Sand had done her homework. Before her first sight of the Ioways, she had read widely on the vexed question of Indian relations with the white man's government in Washington, their lands taken by his broken treaties, their ancient tribal wars made deadlier by his gunpowder, their settlements decimated by his diseases: typhoid and smallpox.
It had been fifteen years since George Sand's first published piece-an unsigned newspaper column-appeared in Le Figaro. Since then, she had mined her every interest, observation, passion for her writing. Theatre, music, politics, poetry, Paris, her native province of Berry, her friends and lovers (barely disguised by the fig leaf of fiction), all found their way into topical articles, literary criticism, political commentary, memoirs, stories, and novels. The last category of works, numbering almost ninety by the time she stopped writing and published in eagerly awaited installments, had made her a best-selling author and a rich woman. Still, she always needed money. With two establishments, Paris and Nohant, in rural Berry, many "causes," eleven dependents, she always spent more than she earned, and never turned down an assignment.
An incurable romantic about men, George Sand always loved a hero, and White Cloud, the star of the Ioway troupe, was the hero of her piece. His bronze torso, bared for the performance, linked him to warriors from classical antiquity, she noted, but unlike his man-made image, White Cloud was all movement, an embodiment of the power and grace but also the ferocity of his people.
His life story, inseparable from the story of his tribe, was the stuff of novels, and Sand the novelist delighted in every chapter. Following a narrow escape after his father's overthrow and murder, White Cloud, renouncing vengeance and burying the tomahawk, was elected chief of the tribe. No sooner was the young leader pledged to a new era of peace than he was captured in a raid by the Sauk, the tribe's sworn enemy. While a prisoner, he fell in love with a Sauk maiden, abducting her in the course of a daring getaway. O-Kee-Wee-Mee became his third wife, but her husband was exceptional among his people. His bride, Sand tells us, was the "exclusive object of his love." Meanwhile, as chief of the Ioways, White Cloud's official visits to Washington convinced him that the Native Americans must adopt the ways of the white man or perish. This message caused dissent within the tribe. In view of enhancing his prestige, he decided to study white civilization across "the great salt pond." Accompanied by his family and other tribal worthies, he left for Europe. Either before their departure or soon after their arrival, White Cloud and his wife were converted to Catholicism. Like the recusants of old, however, they had to practice their religion in secret.
At least, this is the version of their story that White Cloud (through an interpreter) related to Sand in the course of several "intimate conversations." She accepted his account as consistent with her own mythologies. A "modern Jason," she christened him. White Cloud was an emissary of all that is beautiful and majestic in his culture: The white man's prejudices about display meant nothing to him. "Robed in his most splendid costume, his face gleaming with precious vermillion paint, he sits, like the prince he is, among his proud acolytes, solemnly smoking his pipe. He gives thanks to the Great Spirit for having led him safely to these white peoples whom he esteems and admires, commending them and his own to heaven." Following this "affectionate and noble discourse," he ordered, first, a war dance, then a gentler one of the peace pipe. He seized a tambourine or a rattle and, "in tones both sweet and guttural, joined his own voice to the chant of his comrades. The fearsome warriors, graceful children, grave and chaste women, leapt and ran in a circle around him; occasionally, he succumbed to their transports, and remembering his home, the glory of his ancestors, and his love for his native land, he rose and joined the dance."
Sand, too, was transported; she recalled nothing less than a mystical experience in which both performers and spectators were joined in a state of sublime understanding and love: When the dancing stopped, the audience-"moved from fear to sympathy"-mingled with the performers. Artists were the first to draw closer, Sand reported, "to admire the beauty of the dancers' bodies and nobility of their faces, while the more generous spectators jostle one another to offer little gifts, both from a wish to pay their respects, and to give pleasure to those poor exiles, offerings accepted with dignity; more rounds of tumultuous applause-the universal language understood by all peoples-follow; then the same hands reach out to greet and touch the visitors from far away."
Even as Sand put forward this stirring account of the Ioway's performance as a kind of love-in, she noted dissenting views among her fellow Parisians. There were stories of the troupe's exploitation for the profit of a mysterious "middle man" and by Catlin himself; their ignorance of what it meant to be "exhibited" for six francs a show-like wild animals or displays in a waxworks museum. Indeed, no one really knew how a tribal chief had been persuaded to perform in what was the first Wild West Show.
For White Cloud and his family, the journey was cursed by tragedy. Before leaving America, he had suffered the deaths of two of his children with O-Kee-Wee-Mee. Then, months after their tour of Britain began, their third and youngest child, a three-year-old boy, had sickened and died in the north of England. The father, Sand tells us, proved no less heroic in tragedy than he had been in battle or captivity. With each loss, which was "felt bitterly as with all Indians," he made a deep incision in the flesh of one thigh to appease the wrath of Manitou, the Great Spirit, and to bear witness to his love for the three dear creatures who left them. On the death of their last little boy, he had held the small body in his arms for forty-eight hours. He had heard that the white man treated his dead without respect, and the thought of his beloved son falling into the hands of a medical student was unbearable. Finally, he allowed the child's lifeless form to be embalmed and placed in a cedar coffin, which he entrusted to a Quaker gentleman bound for America. The sympathetic stranger promised to return the remains to the tribe to rest among the bones of their ancestors.
O-Kee-Wee-Mee, the young mother, would not be consoled. She wept without stopping, refusing food and water. Her kinsmen despaired of her life. When Sand first saw her, she lay on a pallet on the floor, her head pillowed by her long, coiled braids. Her face was still lovely, Sand wrote, "but the tawny complexion has taken on the grey-green pallor of death. Her husband never moved from her side except when he must perform. He stroked her head as a father would his child's showing her the gifts he has received, happy when he can make her smile."
George Sand returned once more to the Salle Valentino. This time she went straight to the empty room where O-Kee-Wee-Mee lay. Kneeling on the floor, Sand placed a white cyclamen in the still hands that tried to close over the stem. The dying woman seemed to rally; she told her visitor of vast meadows near the Missouri River where the cyclamens grow wild. A man can walk for several days and nights through the flowering plants, which grow to the height of his knees. Sand's offering had come from a Paris hothouse. But suddenly, the writer was carried back to the one time when she, too, saw cyclamens growing wild in an Alpine meadow; she was so ravished by the sight, she dreamed about the flowers for nights thereafter. But to O-Kee-Wee-Mee, with the petals lifted to her face, Sand had brought the perfume of home.
In reporting on her visits to the Salle Valentino, George Sand, the woman and the writer, bursts upon us like a bareback circus rider bounding through a hoop of flame, a figure in perpetual motion. How did she stay still long enough for Nadar to fix the famous image on his glass plate?
She was never a mere observer, describing people and events. One of the first reporters to interview her subjects, Sand engaged with her contemporaries in a spirit more attuned to our own times than to her own, each encounter an exchange: Curiosity, energy, imagination-her qualities as a writer are inseparable from the woman. She took it for granted that through human sympathy, strangers recognize each other. She became the men and women-fictional or living-who enthralled thousands of readers. In the process, she discovered, and recovered, her own feelings as a child, lover, wife, parent. Talking with the Ioway visitors, as they huddled together in exile and mourning between performances, she revisited her own early memories of separation: from beloved faces and surroundings, grief made worse by the need to hide it. In her adult life, those who touched her heart did more than trigger ghost pains of loss. Moved by need, by affliction, by powerlessness, by talent crushed in poverty, she reached out to inform the world, but also to encourage, to console, or to help, or simply to make a fellow creature feel less alone.
Her birthright was the clash of opposites, at least in Sand's later telling of her life. On her father's side, a line of bastard aristocrats led back to Augustus II, king of Poland, and earlier elector of Saxony. His affair with a beautiful, black-eyed Swedish noblewoman, Aurore de Koenigsmark, the first Aurore in the writer's family, produced in 1696 an illustrious son, Maurice de Koenigsmark, who later became the Mar��chal de Saxe, Napoleon's most brilliant field marshal and George Sand's great-grandfather. The Mar��chal, hero of boudoir and battlefield, fell in love with a bewitching courtesan of lowly origins, Marie Rinteau, who had rechristened herself Mademoiselle de Verri��res de Furcy. Their daughter, Marie-Aurore de Saxe, Sand's grandmother, made a brilliant second marriage to Maurice Dupin de Franceuil, a royal tax collector. Thirty-three years older than his wife, Maurice, on his death, left her a large fortune and a young son. With her husband's gold salted away with the family silver, Marie-Aurore managed to escape the Terror, buying the property of Nohant in Berry, the remote center of France.
Antoinette-Sophie-Victoire Delaborde, Sand's mother, was a pure-blooded daughter of the proletariat. She came from that race of Parisians too humble for genealogy and whose names emerge briefly from the anthills of poor neighborhoods to register, erratically, an apprenticeship, a marriage, a birth, a baptism, but most reliably, a death. Her father, Antoine Delaborde, Sand's maternal grandfather, had first tried tavern keeping; then, moving outdoors, he sold canaries, golden finches, and other songbirds on the quays of the Seine. Neither work raised him or his family from poverty. But his stubborn insistence on self-employment and his trade (unlike that of butcher or fishmonger) suggest a love of nature and its creatures and the same mix of poetry and grit notable in his famous granddaughter. The elder of his two daughters was born in 1773 with the ambition lacking in her parents. Alluring and clever, Antoinette-Sophie-Victoire's hard little face, in her one surviving likeness, also announced a determination to rise in the world through the only means available to a poor girl: men.
In George Sand's thousands of pages of autobiographical writings, no subject seethes with the contradictions and inconsistencies, with shifting versions of fact, as do her mother's early years. No relationship caused such bruising pain-on both sides. For all her notorious affairs with men, Sand's passionate and unrequited attachment to her mother is the real love story of her life. In all her accounts of Sophie Delaborde (early on, Sand's mother dropped the other two names), accusation and defense collide. For her "little Mama," the adult Sand claimed both respectability and heroic outlaw status, along with pity, censure, and admiration for this parent, who was both victim and tormentor.
When her mother was barely a teenager, Sand tells us, she was cast out into the world, to become "the lowest kind of actress" in a theatre that was little more than a brothel; its stage served to display the sexual charms of child performers to potential "protectors." At this same time, Sand claimed, Sophie married and gave birth to a son. Records of the father's name survive, but there is no evidence of any legal union with the mother, and the child-like so many other unwanted infants-simply disappears from the record. Then five years before Sand was born, Sophie gave birth to a daughter, Caroline, of father unknown.
Excerpted from Naked in the Marketplaceby Benita Eisler Copyright © 2006 by Benita Eisler. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.