This morning’s Radio 4 Lord Bragg show about George Sand took me back to my first university year, when someone on my staircase had a sophisticated American girlfriend with a drawl that might have been Charleston, Boston or Vivien Leigh in Gone with the Wind.
When asked what she had planned for the long vacation, she replied “Why, Nohant, and the George Sand trail.” Marrakesh was no answer to that.
In the intervening decades I have made a few literary probes in Flaubert’s Normandy and Pagnol’s Provence. There was always a sense of inadequacy, that the George Sand trail had been left undone …. until last year when I finally knocked it off. Scratched its surface, at least.
George Sand, by Delacroix (1834)
Truth be told, I have never done more than dip into George Sand. Most of what I know about her proto-feminist novels comes from the Wikipedia crib sheet. She’s one of those 19th century cultural figures who is more interesting – more fun, at least – than her work, isn’t she? A kind of Grayson Perry, de leurs jours.
One of my long bike rides through France took me through George Sand country, an out of the way corner of the Berry, at the very heart of France, without much pulling power apart from the Good Lady of Nohant. Following the river Vauvre through her beloved Vallée Noire (‘abime de sombre verdure‘) gave good cycling and a simple hotel in La Châtre gave a comfortable bed. The annual George Sand music festival was on at the time but after a long day in the saddle supper had greater pulling power than a Chopin concert. In the morning we by-passed Nohant, I’m ashamed to say, but when driving back through France last April I decided to make good the omission.
Nohant church and George Sand’s house
Nohant is 6km north of La Châtre, and the sight to be seen there is George Sand’s house. More manoir than château, it is enchanting in every detail. The dining room table is laid for a party, with place names for Chopin, Flaubert and Delacroix. The writer’s table is set in a bedroom upstairs where GS scribbled through the night. A small theatre where her son Maurice staged his puppet shows is beautifully presented. Examples of George’s Sand’s writings are on sale in the shop, but there are none in English translation; my excellent guide spoke no English, nor did she have English-language notes to hand out to visitors. Nohant and George Sand simply aren’t on our radar, it would seem.
George Sand’s house: the theatre
Getting into the spirit of the place, I spent the night on her doorstep in the predictably twee Auberge de la Petite Fadette and visited the Moulin d’Angibault (7km west of Nohant) before supper. It was the setting for Sand’s novel Le Meunier d’Angibault and is said to be the last operating watermill on the Vauvre – un coin de paradis sauvage, she called it. Evidence of operation was hard to detect but at least the mill is still standing – a typical Vallée Noire vignette, and a pastoral scene that might have appealed to Constable. There isn’t much to see, as is often the case with literary locations, especially if you haven’t read the book. It would make a nice picnic spot in summer.
The Judas Kiss. 12th century fresco, St Martin de Vic church
In the morning, after inspecting the wonderful frescoes in Nohant Vic’s church, I was on my way out – next stop Ouistreham. for the afternoon sailing to Portsmouth – when I saw a sign (‘sur les Pas de G Sand’) to La Mare Au Diable. The devil’s pool, a key George Sand location if ever there was one.
Being in no particular hurry I followed it and soon found a lay-by and another sign directing me down a cart track into the woods. A few minutes’ walk brought me to a muddy crater full of leaves with a wooden cross at the far end. An information panel confirmed that this unspectacular terrain feature was indeed the famous literary pool.
Reading on, I learned that Germain (a character in the novel, obviously) encountered an old woman here who told him about the drowning of a child, and advised him to throw three stones into the pool with his left hand while making the sign of the cross with his right, or risk misfortune.
I looked around for some stones. Finding none, I walked back to the car and found a few bits of gravel on the carpet in the footwell, doubtless picked up from the Auberge car park; made my way back to the dry pool and carried out the old woman’s instructions to the letter.
All this must have taken me a good half hour, but still, I had plenty of time and felt in no need to flog the old car, a good servant with 150,000 miles on the clock and a tendency to object if pushed past 70.
Before long, on a whim, I surprised myself by stopping for a coffee, and it was then that I noticed a text message from Brittany Ferries had come in at some point during the morning, probably while I was searching for stones to throw in the so-called pool. It informed me that my afternoon sailing had been moved from Caen to Cherbourg; same departure time.
Bloody hell! A glance at the map told me that I had an extra 120km to drive, none of it motorway. If I swapped the Route Nationale for the motorway and put my foot down flat, begging the old bus to forgive me for ignoring the self-imposed 70 limit, we might just make it to Cherbourg in time. And so we did, last car onto the ferry.
While driving like Jehu, I had plenty of time to reflect that had it not been for the old lady of the lake and her instructions for avoiding misfortune, I would surely not have seen the Brittany Ferries text message until it was too late. And had I not found and thrown the bits of gravel, who knows what terrible calamity might have befallen me?
So next time you’re passing Nohant and the devil’s pool, don’t forget to take three stones with you. You won’t find any in the woods – they’ve all been thrown in the pool, like coins in the Trevi fountain.
In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) website – podcast and meaty reading list
PS One of the academics on the Bragg show suggested that the spelling of George without an S was one sign of gender ambivalence; and the fact that Flaubert wrote to GS as Chère maître was another. I don’t find either suggestion remotely convincing. He was nearly 20 years her junior, and he would hardly address her as Chère maîtresse, would he?