Becoming George Sand: A Novel by Rosalind BrackenburyBecoming George Sand: A Novel by Rosalind Brackenbury

Becoming George Sand: A Novel

byRosalind Brackenbury

Paperback | July 6, 2010

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about

Maria Jameson, an Edinburgh academic, is passionately involved with a younger man and married to a steady, reliable husband with whom she has two children. She wonders: Is it possible to love two men at the same time? And must she feel guilty?

For answers she reaches across the centuries to the life story of George Sand, the maverick French novelist whose many lovers included the composer Frederic Chopin. While researching a book about Sand — and enduring bitter disappointment — she moves toward understanding how best to live her life.

This is a richly detailed novel that explores past and present, the personal and the historic, and sensuality, responsibility and the mystery of love. Sharply insightful, it is a deeply engaging examination of two women's minds, hearts and homes.


From the Hardcover edition.
Rosalind Brackenbury is the author of several novels, books of poetry and short stories. She was born in London, England and also lived in Scotland and France before settling in Key West, Florida. Ms. Brackenbury earned a history degree at Cambridge University, speaks French fluently, and has been a teacher, journalist and deck hand on...
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Title:Becoming George Sand: A NovelFormat:PaperbackDimensions:304 pages, 7.95 × 4.9 × 0.85 inPublished:July 6, 2010Publisher:Doubleday CanadaLanguage:English

The following ISBNs are associated with this title:

ISBN - 10:0385666209

ISBN - 13:9780385666206

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Reviews

Rated 2 out of 5 by from Could have been better Married Maria is having an affair with Sean who is also married. Each time they meet in the bookshop where she is obsessing about George Sand. Suddenly she decides to write a book about her idol when her husband confronts her about her affair. Soon her life is in free fall and she wonders how different life today compared to the sexually free time period of George Sand. At times this novel is a beautiful memorial to the famous writer but then if digresses to the maudlin. And Maria is such a lack luster character - things just keep happening to her and she does nothing but read George Sand's letters and biography!
Date published: 2013-08-02

Read from the Book

1SecretMaria crosses the street, where the cars are parked under their bonnets of snow, and only the swerving tracks of tires have left their ribbed marks. She’s a little early, but in a couple of minutes the one o’clock gun from the castle will sound across the city, and wherever he is, still in his lab feeding his mice before shutting them up for the day, or hanging up his lab coat, reaching for his thick tweed overcoat, he’ll hear it and think, she’ll be there, she’ll be waiting.Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh, Scotland. A Friday in December. Friday afternoon. She’s been longing for it all week. She peers in through the glass door, and pushes against it so that a bell rings her arrival like in an old-fashioned grocery shop, and she comes in with clumps of wet snow on her boots to melt on the doormat, and a sense of having reached the next, important stage of the day. She breathes out, a long sigh that nobody should hear.At first glance it looks as if there’s nobody in the shop, but she feels rather than hears a slight flurry out of sight and then sees the bookseller at the back, bent over and sorting books. There are boxes stacked, and the woman is unpacking them to put out on the shelves. She comes out, straightening herself, pushing back a strand of her hair. She has the slightly anxious look of a shy person who’s afraid that what she says and does may not be appropriate. She also shows for an instant that she knows Maria, but she hides this knowledge, personal, even embarrassing, behind her professional manners. Maria is wearing the long dark blue coat she usually wears, still flecked with snow. Snow melts on her hair and her gloved hands – she’s kept her gloves on, so that her skimming of pages where she stands, at a shelf of books that have been laid face up for easy examination, looks more like passing the time than any real curiosity. She looks up from the book she isn’t reading, a collection of Maupassant stories, and smiles.“Hi.” She knows that the woman knows she’s waiting.“Good morning.”“Sorry if I startled you.”“Oh, no, that’s fine. Just, I didn’t really think anyone would come in today. Who would have thought it, more snow.”“Mmm, it was forecast, though.”Maria keeps her conversation to a polite but distracted murmur to indicate that she has come in here to find something she has not yet quite thought of. Bookshops are places where you can take your mind off waiting. Her hands hold the book as if it were a passport, one gloved finger dividing pages.She says vaguely, “I wonder if you have any George Sand?”The bookshop is a small independent one tucked away in an alley at the back of Buccleuch Place, not the larger, brighter, newly chained university bookshop where students mostly go to order the books they are going to be made to read. It specializes in French literature and books in translation. You can get yesterday’s Le Monde here, and even Libération. Maria sometimes wonders how it can keep going, but then there are all the guidebooks too, and books about how to buy houses in France, how to cook like a French person, how to stay thin, and Peter Mayle.“Oh, yes.” The woman seems relieved to be asked about an actual book. “There’s a course, isn’t there, the French Romantics. I have some of the novels in stock, and the letters to Musset. That’s all for now. But you know the big new letters to Flaubert will be out soon? It’s being translated, I believe. Are you teaching Sand?”“No, but I’m reading her. I’m thinking of writing about her. I’d like to order the Flaubert letters, but I want them in the original.”“Right, well, I can do that.” The woman goes off to look on the computer behind her desk, runs her eye up and down the screen, her hand competent on the mouse. She has grey-brown hair, most of it scraped back, and a profile that belongs on a Greek coin, Maria thinks, very pure and classical. She knows from the woman’s glance at her that she knows. There’s an odd tension between them, as if both are wondering together, will he come?Maria stands there, snow turning to damp stains on her coat and in her dark hair. The bookseller is placing her order.“Excuse me, your name? I know you, of course, you’ve been in here before, but.”“Maria Jameson. Like the whisky.”Then the door swings open with the clang of the bell again and he comes in, cold air rushing in with him. On the street, a dark day, white gulls swooping white between the granite buildings, falling and rising in the gusts of snow. His coat flies open, he’s blazing, in spite of the cold, and the red scarf at his neck flies out like a flag. His glance goes straight to Maria – who still stands with the unread book in her hands, any book will do, as a passport, an alibi, she’s put down the Maupassant, picked up something on Derrida – and then quickly scans the bookshelves, the carpets, the woman bending as if to hide herself behind the computer. Then he looks at Maria again. The challenge of him: I’m here. She drops the book back into a pile, as he puts out a hand to touch her arm, meaning, let’s go. She’s moving towards him as if pulled by magnets, in spite of books and furniture, as if no mere object can stand in her way.The bookseller says mildly, “There, that’s done, you should have it in a week at the latest. Can you leave me a phone number? Or I can send you an e-mail?”Maria scribbles her address, e-mail and phone number, no longer thinking about Flaubert’s letters to George Sand and hers to him; those will have to wait. The bookseller retreats to her stack of cardboard boxes, to count books. She almost scuttles. Maria pays no more attention to her except to say a cursory, “Goodbye, thanks so much,” because he is here, tall and eager and thin, with snow on his curly dark hair and his cold bare hands. She ’s flowing towards him, they have this brief time in the middle of the day, and it’s all they have, the clock has begun to tick already. The woman in the bookshop is neither here nor there; she was an intermediary, a necessary stage on the way; later Maria will come back here alone and check on the other books she needs to order, but now she is going ahead of him out of the shop, into the street, into the blowing snow, between the iron-grey of walls and in the flurry of flakes flying sideways blown by the wind, forging her necessary way. The streets and sidewalks are icy beneath the latest fall of snow. But they stride together as if the day were warm, the air benign, the ground sure beneath their feet; they walk close, she looking up at him, laughing, he bending close to say something into her ear. They pass before the glass windows of the bookshop’s front and are gone.––She opens the front door with her own key and they both go in, she leading the way. She picks up damp mail from the inside mat, places it on the hall table; even now she has the impulse to tidy things, even with him coming in close behind her like a tall shadow in his dark coat, even with the burning feeling she already has inside. The house is silent, with the dense silence of having been empty of its occupants for several hours. She feels it instantly, its moods and atmospheres. There’s clutter in the hall, boots kicked off – Emily’s old ones – too many coats hung on the back of the door, a sports bag nobody has claimed. There’s still a faint smell of breakfast, old toast and coffee. The cat comes running, wiping herself around their legs. Edward left early this morning to go to the Department, and the children are at school till late afternoon, after which both of them are going to friends’ houses for tea. Edward has a meeting and will then play squash, then bridge, with his friend Martin. She turns to smile back at the man coming in after her, yes, come in, it’s safe, it’s fine. They collide in the hall as she turns to shut the door, he holds her arm, it’s all right, relax, we are here. The house is their space for now, and they have time. It’s Friday, their best day, their longest, freest, the day to which all others bear no comparison. Friday, and she will soon have everything she wants, it will all begin to happen again.They have driven here in her car, so that his can stay visible in the university car park, and hers, her five-year-old Renault, parked outside her own house, will not arouse any suspicion. Before he followed her into her house, he had to give a quick glance up and down the street, to be sure. Edinburgh may be a capital city, but it’s still a small town, and people know him; he’s been here for long enough and been involved in things for long enough – the church, the university, parents’ groups, football matches, he’s for Celtic and goes most Saturdays – for people to notice and remember him. He’s also an unusually tall man, noticeable wherever he is. He comes into Maria’s house cautiously, it’s on a side of town and a street where he doesn’t feel immediately at ease; something to do with class, with its associations, the New Town as opposed to the Old, nineteenth-century pretensions that still hang on in the size of the houses, the size of the rooms. He doesn’t leave his coat in the hall – with its mosaic stone floor and the high ceiling of Victorian bourgeois Edinburgh houses, terraced houses yet too tall, overbearing he thinks, houses built with little notion of comfort but plenty of assumptions about superiority – but shrugs out of it as he goes, and carries it into the spare bedroom; there will be no outward signs, somebody coming in unexpectedly will not have the chance to wonder, whose coat is that? He hangs it on the back of the door in the bedroom, on top of a limp dressing gown that already hangs there. There’s a high double bed made up for guests, the cover pulled tight.She bends to turn up the heating. She switches on a light beside the bed, for the day is dark. She pulls the tall wooden shutters half shut, to exclude what light there is and give privacy – from what, the garden, the pale sky? The outside world. Something ticks in the house: the fridge, the electricity. Something else hums. She lives in a house full of electric gadgets which have their own lives, their own schedules, ticking and whirring when there is no one home, more permanent, she sometimes thinks, than any of the inhabitants. On the bedside table there’s a large digital clock Edward bought, which gleams green and flashes numbers at her, and she turns its face to the wall. She wants neither time nor machinery to intrude.Sean sits down on the bed at last and begins to pull off his shoes, large rather grubby trainers like the ones her son wears, which remind her of the age difference between them. He pulls his sweater off over his head, followed by his shirt and the off-white T-shirt that in summer he wears on its own. She, meanwhile, pulls off her boots – black, which she wears with her good black trousers, their uppers now stained with snow – and begins unbuttoning her own shirt. They do not undress each other, and she rather regrets this, as it always has erotic potential for her. Their undressing is almost businesslike in its swiftness and self-absorption, it’s about getting naked rather than the performance of turning each other on. She watches him, though, as he unbuckles his leather belt and unzips his sagging jeans, which slide over his skinny hips, and reveal a white, flat stomach below a very faint tan line left from summer, and the beginnings of a pathway of black hair. He glances at her, grins. She’s undoing her bra – and she wants him watching now, and he does, as her breasts fall forwards and the bra drops to the floor – a new bra, but white, not the black she prefers, as she has picked up that he likes a virginal look, or at least a practical one, in underwear. He sees her, and she sees him, just enough now, as his underpants slide off, and so do the rather prim white knickers she has on today, and both are kicked to one side; and then they are together, touching all the way down the length of their naked bodies, that first contact she loves, cool flesh warming fast, nipples rising to the chill air in the room – why does central heating never really warm these tall rooms? – and the weight of his cock rising against her, its thickening and lengthening as she holds it against her stomach. Such an extraordinary thing, that root of a man’s cock under your fingers, the way it grows dense and solid; when she moves away, its tip is already gleaming. They fall to the bed, and hold each other again, but differently this time, because there’s only one thing each of them wants, and that is to be inside and outside each other respectively, and for the miracle to begin again.He is tall, taller than Edward, and his long pale legs go all the way to the end of the bed, and he pushes her head up against the wall as he rocks her, so she wants to push down, and her hand is on his buttocks, she pushes herself down to meet him so that their pubic bones meet, and she thinks of two flints rubbing together to make sparks, because they are both bony and it isn’t entirely comfortable; and then he licks all around one of her nipples and begins to suck, pulling the reddened nipple up into a point, playing with it, sucking some more; she can’t wait, it all begins to unfurl and open up, it, she, whatever she is, this body, this flesh, and as she begins to come, he follows, and there has never been anything quite like it, for her, anyway, and she is turning herself inside out, shedding skin, unravelling is how she feels it, becoming nothing, and then again, starting again, the mounting, mounting, and the long descent into what feels like annihilation, that makes her scream, only he has a hand on her mouth, shh, shh, darling; and the way he carries her then, where to, away, somewhere else, somewhere with no return, is what makes it impossible to be anywhere but here, now, and know that she is alive.Darling, darling, the way he says it, the Irish softness of his voice, and yet she hardly knows him, not in the ordinary way you know people; she knows him completely, in this other way, the one nobody talks about, where you do this and you are together and love is in what you are, on the surfaces, in the depths. They rest, lying against each other, laughing with surprise, the way they always laugh with surprise, because it’s astonishing, isn’t it, the way this happens, the way they are together, this ease.She’ll never be able to give him up, because he shows her herself, the self she’s never seen, because he opens her up to herself so that she’ll never be the same. And he? He loves this, and fears it. She doesn’t see what he fears, and if she does, if she sees it sometimes in the too-quick way he glances at himself in the mirror afterwards, the thoughtless hurry with which he ties his shoes, one foot raised on to the side table beside the bed, then the other, laces knotted and tugged tight, she doesn’t register it, because there’s nothing to be afraid of now, is there, life has opened itself up completely and shown itself, there are no corners, nothing left over, excluded, nothing to dread. Dread belongs to the future, and together they have wiped out the future, they have established themselves together, here, now, forever in this present.Of course, the hours pass as if clocks are being wound faster and faster, and it’s soon time for him to look at his watch, which he has taken off and laid beside hers on the bed table; and outside the light has nearly gone, and if they stay any longer they will be in danger of losing everything. Beneath them the sheet is sticky and cooling, and she feels herself soaked between the legs, and they get up to wash each other in the second bathroom, where there is a big old tub with huge taps, left from the last century, in which they can both fit while the rush of hot water heats the cold white depth of it, and there’s nothing of hers and Edward’s, just some old bath salts and soaps that her mother left here last time she came to stay, and an old sponge – whose? – to squeeze water over each other’s shoulders and heads, in the steam that rises. They wash each other, serious and careful, cherishing flesh. The kindness of skin. The crevices, where tenderness grows. But by now they know the time, so they are slightly brisk too, like kind nannies with children who want to linger, and they are the nannies and their bodies the children, lazy, grumbling, making up another game to make the adults stay. At last, he’s fastening his shoes, yes, the way he always does, as if he were about to run somewhere, and she’s barefoot on the carpet, her fingers on his face, wanting her touch to remember this, his fatigued eyelids, the scratch of stubble, the wide soft contours of his mouth. Such a beautiful mouth. It will be with her, on her, now forever. She is all gratitude and calmness now, and it isn’t she who will have to shrug on an outdoor coat and go out into the snowy cold of the street, and hail a cab to go back to the university car park; she can stay in her house, musing and amazed as women have been over the centuries, slow and a little forgetful, pottering and tidying and covering the traces of this time, so that her husband and children can come in innocent and unaware, to what is after all their home.When he has gone – a kiss at the door, a running of his fingers across her face, a rumpling of her hair, a touch which remembers, which creates memory – she goes back into the bedroom, strips the bed. She bundles up the sheets and shoves them into the washing machine with some other clothes and their towel, and switches the machine on. She opens the shutters halfway so that the indigo sky shows between dark trees, she tugs back the curtains. She walks around, sniffing, and then sprays air freshener, though she hates the smell. She sprays perfume on herself, a sharp lemony Armani perfume that Edward likes. She goes down to the kitchen in the basement, switches the kettle on, and makes toast, two slices laid in the flat metal toaster on the AGA, so that the house smells warm and inhabited, and she sits on a stool in the kitchen eating a slice covered thickly with butter and honey, with a mug of tea in which a tea bag still leaks. Imagines them coming in – Why am I eating toast?Well, I just felt like some, would you like some too?Did George Sand, she wonders, have to go in for all this subterfuge? How was it possible, in the nineteenth century, to handle all those comings and goings, all those men? There must surely have been a code, a way of going on; the servants, they would have noticed, what did she do about them? Or was it all conducted with such sangfroid, such aplomb – all those words which you could hardly even use in Scotland – that nobody could ever be sure? Chopin, Alfred de Musset, Michel de Bourges, Prosper Mérimée, Jules Sandeau; and the husbands, or near-husbands, Casimir Dudevant, Manceau. Marie Dorval? Not Pauline Viardot, whom she nevertheless adored. With Chopin, Musset and Casimir, she travelled. Mérimée was (she said) her worst mistake. With Sandeau, it was as two writers together, sharing a nom de plume to create a novel, with sex almost an aside. But he once climbed out of her window at dawn – having crept past the dogs and her sleeping husband – a happy, exhausted man. George Sand wanted men – and occasionally women – and she had them. She was someone who knew the secret that Maria is beginning to know. But how, for God’s sake, did it translate into her everyday life, as mother, grandmother, writer, even wife? Of course, it wasn’t just her. Other women, Louise Colet, who was Flaubert’s lover, and had been Musset’s too. The women who had been grand courtesans, and the ones who were grand revolutionaries. It was the time they lived in, it must have been; it was France, post-revolutionary, rationalist, pragmatic France moving into the era of romanticism, of the sublime, the picturesque; the passions of young Werther in Germany meeting Rousseau’s noble savage, wild landscapes and wild passions being de rigueur. It may not have been easy, thinks Maria in the twenty-first century, but at least it was all possible.Inside her still there beats the rhythm of his blood and hers, the throb and seep of his semen; she is still open, still aware. Her skin feels raw, porous. Edward will come into the house and look for her, and she’ll be in the kitchen, perfumed, edgy, eating toast and honey at five o’clock in the afternoon. No, better if she were in her study, drinking a glass of wine. Reading George Sand, making notes. What can seem ordinary, now? She has no idea. She has arrived somewhere where she doesn’t know the customs, can’t read the signs, and there is no one, except a dead French writer, to give her a clue.She never set out to be unfaithful to Edward, it’s as if Sean has come up behind her, wrapped his long arms around her, closed his fingers across her eyes and held her still. The game of Grandmother’s Footsteps: you can’t move, you are captured, you should have heard the stealthy quiet approach, now it’s too late. She knows this doesn’t exonerate her; but somehow exonerating isn’t yet the point. She has been offered something very beautiful that she never expected to have, and she is not about to start feeling guilty about it. You can love two people, Maria thinks. You can make love with two people, and because it is so different, there is no connection. It’s having two different conversations; it’s not about competition. In her bones, in her innermost mind, she knows now this is so. Thousands of people would disagree with her, try to prove her wrong. Let them. She feels, at this moment, that she has been allowed to understand something rare and essential which cannot be explained.All her life there has been an inner sense of absence. Surely there is something on the inside of reality, something hidden, like a stone in a fruit, that must begin, grow outward and inform all the rest? She has felt the longing for it all her life. It. What she has never been able to name. A desire that has no object but only life itself, its kernel, its sweet nut.When she touches Edward, his thick white skin, his blond smoothness, his so-English blandness, he sends her back to herself without mirroring her, just absorbs her. He is like blotting paper, unreflective, soaking her up. But he is also there, solid, she has never in all their years together imagined life without him. It’s just that people are so unaware of the way they are. Edward is Edward, he is the way he is, and he can’t touch her, not the way Sean can, and it’s nothing to do with love or moral worth or character or any of the things that are so important; it’s subtle as a leaf on a pond with a slight wind blowing it, it’s surely something nobody can control.Perhaps in another generation, in another century, this will once again be accepted and understood. In a hundred years, once again, nobody will think it strange.It’s only a year since she first met him at the university, where she teaches French in the Modern Languages Department, and where, she discovers, he is doing research for a PhD. Sean, tall like a striding stork, with a crest of wildly curling dark hair – as soon as she saw him she knew something would happen. There would be change.She was in the same little bookshop behind Buccleuch Place, which a few years ago replaced the ancient dark second-hand one with the dust and cobwebs and vandalized paperbacks with their spines cracked that was here for as long as anyone could remember. The newer one is called Le Pont Traversé – a monument, someone has said, to francophilia. She was reading the first pages of a new novel, in the hope that this time, this author would bring her closer, give her a glimpse, of the hidden thing at the centre of life. She skimmed the first pages. The clue would be in the space between sentences. If there was no space, no place for her to fall in and be led somewhere, she would close the book and put it back on the shelf. She was on page three when he came up behind her. He was heading past her, through the narrow space between bookshelves towards the back of the shop, as if looking for something. She glanced up. She knew that he had followed her here. He glanced down.When she left the shop, the novel unbought (there was no space between sentences, no sense of a hidden clue), he followed her out. He looked at her sideways as he caught her stride and came up beside her, as if he had known her for ages. His hand out to introduce himself, his “Would you like to have a cup of coffee?” She knew that he had been watching her, that she was in his sights, and that what had not been in the book she’d been skimming might well be in the steps he took beside her, the gap between the two of them, the one that would narrow and shrink as they grew closer, but never entirely be filled. He gave back; she saw it at once. He set something moving that went back and forth between them, whether they were talking or not; and talk they did, urgently, amusedly, he in his Irish voice, she becoming more definitely Scottish than she ever was at home. Something had been started, a flicker of life, a small fire. She walked with him, almost without thinking, as he set going a fast banter of questions and asides, as if to keep them going, keep up the tempo, get them to where they wanted to be. Was she newly back in Edinburgh, where had she come from, ah, England, and how was it, and was she happy to be home? And what was it she taught, French, well, he should have guessed it, seeing it was a French bookshop, and was she bilingual then, and how did she learn such good French, in Paris was it, well, great, that must have been, a great city, only he doesn’t know it well. So.Just up the street from the bookshop, they drank their coffee and smiled at each other across a small table in what had once been a hippie café with anti-war posters and sheets of paper pinned up for people to sign for trips through to Faslane and down to Greenham for protests against nuclear weapons, she remembered, and ads for health foods, and babysitting, and a book group for women only. Now it was painted in the colours of a Bonnard painting and nothing was pinned or stuck on the walls. The table was painted yellow and the chairs green. She noticed everything, the brown fleck in one of his hazel eyes, like a fault, the exact texture of the skin where he must recently have shaved. Everything very sharp and exact and just how she knew it must be, even down to the shape of her own gloves laid palm up on the table, the fingers curled.“I used to come in here a lot, years ago. It was different then. A sort of feminist-stroke-anarchist place.”“Ah, things change. I remember it. I used to come here too, when I was a student. Did you go on the protests much? Were you a political girl?”“I once went to a die-in at Faslane. We nearly froze to death. And of course, I went down to Greenham. But then I went to France, to the Sorbonne.”He was too big for his chair and sat on it as if he were in kindergarten, hunched over the table. The coffee was now caffe latte, rather than the bad old grey coffee she remembered, and they ordered croissants, not scones, and picked them apart and left crumbs behind them when they went. It was only going for a coffee, it was only half an hour out of both of their lives, but it was the start, they both knew it, and they were as harmless and happy as people setting out on a walk together, without knowing where it might lead. She was not surprised when he left a note for her in her pigeonhole, which she found next time she went to class. She put it in her pocket and all through the undergraduate class she was teaching, it was there, unopened, its secret still inside, the first clue.She was teaching Marguerite Duras, and was answering a young man’s question about the Chinese lover. How had he got away with seducing so young a girl? Were there parallels with Lolita, did she think? The note rustled, folded in her pocket, and she said smoothly that part of the answer lay in the whole social situation in Indochina at the time and the way a young European girl was seen. The young man frowned. Surely immorality was immorality, child abuse was child abuse, wherever it was found and no matter how beautifully it was described? Well. She wondered if she should give him Barthes to read: the body as text, disconnected from social values. But no, it would only confuse him further.On her way out of the building, Maria unfolded her note and saw for the first time Sean’s tiny scrawl. They would move on to e-mail, of course, and to text messaging, and handwriting would not play a part again in their affair. But it mattered, somehow, that he had written it hastily, nervously, in black Biro, and that she could tell from looking at it, the pressure of pen on paper, the shape of the letters, exactly how he felt. Not only in the words “I think you are beautiful,” but in the downstroke of the I, the squiggle of the you, the way he said it, and made her repeat it to herself, beautiful, beautiful, as if in his own voice.She’d had the books for several years already, had lugged them up here with the rest of their large library from the house in Cambridgeshire where they had lived their married life, she and Edward. A tall furniture van with big green letters on it had stood in the street outside their new Edinburgh house, and out of the back of it had come all their furniture, the boxes of cooking pots and clothes and toys and the equipment of a family’s life, and of course, the books. When they were first married, all they had had was books. Edward had put up shelves made of blocks and planks, the way everybody they knew did, and their books had gone with them from place to place, always the first things to be unpacked and placed on view. So, her five leather-bound volumes of George Sand’s Histoire de Ma Vie, found on a market stall in Paris when she had been on one of her trips to work on translations with Marguerite, had been brought out of the back of one more furniture van, and carried, with all the others in their containers, into the house. Where new shelves, bought at Ikea this time, had been installed to house them.There was one volume missing; that was why they cost only twenty-five euros, she supposed. But she did not mind. It was like owning something of beauty that has an essential flaw. There would be enough in five volumes, she soon saw, to describe a life. Why George Sand? She could have found another writer in five volumes, she could have carried another writer, Zola or Balzac or even Jean Genet, home across the channel through Customs, and into her own life. But something spoke to her from the first volume, making her hold on to it and then ask for all the others, making her hand over her money, giving her the weight of all those words to carry through the market and show her friend Marguerite – “Look what I found! Such a bargain!” Why George Sand? Well, because of chance. Because of being there that day, at that stall, not another, and because of whatever it is that makes you stretch out your hands for one thing and not another, makes you open up your wallet and pay gladly, makes you convinced you have done the right thing. A vague feeling that you have found something you need, that will have meaning in your life, that may even last you years, carry you somewhere new.It was only later, when she began reading, that she felt the urgency and persuasion of that voice. Your life matters, as mine did. You have choices to make. What will they be?She remembers Marguerite saying, “You’ll have to come to the country with us, Marie, Jean-François’ family’s house is just down the road from George Sand’s.” That would be for another time, she couldn’t think when, when the children were old enough, when she could justify a trip down to the Creuse Valley. When life had moved on, the way it must, and she with it. Meanwhile, she would let that voice percolate through her own life, its vigour and its humour, its questioning of values, its humanity. Why George Sand? Well, because of who she was, Maria would have said, had anyone asked her at that time, which they did not. An answer presupposes a question. The question that she might dare to ask, at last, since the answer was there, waiting to be discovered.George herself has been lurking at the edge of her consciousness for some time, of course. She was there whenMaria as a student read Flaubert for the first time, she was there as writer of the series of Romantic novels, as Maria thought of them then, that had sold so well when serialized in the journals of the nineteenth century. You couldn’t avoid knowing that Flaubert and she had written to each other for years, and that her letters to him had been kept, even though he apparently burned all Louise Colet’s, along with her old slippers and the obligatory faded rose. (Was it because George had not been his lover, or because she was a far better writer than Louise, or because George would never have gone in for wearing a rose?) Louise Colet, who had slept with Musset, Vigny, Victor Cousin and Bouilhet, as well as Flaubert. Who had written poetry, novels and plays all her life, and lived the Romantic writer’s life as thoroughly as anyone. Who had never gained the stature of George Sand, although God and Flaubert knew, she had tried.You felt George coming at you from all corners of the nineteenth century, through her connections with all those others, from Dostoevsky to Turgenev, through Chopin and Liszt; you heard her revered, detested, feared, accused, admired. You knew she had somehow changed the face of literature, that she had been an early socialist, that her life was lived as a free, independent woman. But you didn’t know, until you read her Histoire de Ma Vie, just what she would mean to you, in the intimate way of one writer’s voice to another, in silence, over time, across the turning of pages. The conspiracy of words, across language, across generations. The phrases which would whisper in your ear and tell you how to live.Sean, at one of their early meetings, when coffee is still the order of the day, says, “So, who is this woman you’re reading? Sure, I’ve heard of her, but what’s special about her?”Leaning across the table, not daring to touch in public. He has this way of leaning on both arms, his head down, looking up at her in little flashes, there and then away. She longs to lay a hand on that wild hair.“George Sand? She was a great writer, she influenced a lot of people, she also had a lot of lovers in her life.”“Ah.”“But that isn’t the main thing about her.”“Only the one you’re most interested in now?” He laughs at her, and ducks his head again; he has this don’t-care-ish way with him, which provokes her. People will notice them, because of the way he is, people will hear.“Not necessarily, no.” But he catches her eye across the littered table, and she has to laugh. “But she was always looking for the perfect love. She didn’t just collect men. Each time, she believed that it was the real thing, at last. She was a real romantic.”He said, “And that’s what she wrote about?”“That, and social issues. She was a socialist, she believed in justice.”“She sounds like quite a girl. Oh, wasn’t there a film?”He pronounces it fillum. “About her and the composer? It rings a bell.”“There have been lots. It’s rather off-putting. But then, nothing’s new in this world, is it. The thing that intrigues me is really, what made her so brave? Whatever you think of her writing or her choice of men, she lived an authentic life. Reading her is like a conversation. It’s like you and me, sort of. Intimate.” She wonders if he knows what she means.“Are we being brave, then, are we being authentic, or are we just being eejits?”“Both, probably.”“I should go. Hey. Can I kiss you in here, d’you think, or will the morality police descend?”She goes in alone to the bookshop, another day, to ask about the other books; it’s a Wednesday, not a rendezvous day. She says, “Nice of you to order the letters for me – do you think it will take long?” She feels a need to apologize to the woman, for some reason, for some rudeness, some inattention on her part. The woman is wearing a beautiful brooch, she notices; scarred amber, dark as honey and big as a blackbird’s egg.“I ordered the Flaubert letters. Can I get you something else?”She has come in for the novels – Consuelo, François le Champi, La Mare au Diable, Indiana, Lélia, La Petite Fadette, Cadio, Nanon. Even though she’s read at least half of them before. The bookseller finds a surprising number of the books on the shelves and places an order for the others. Is someone, unknown to her, teaching George Sand?“You know, people were right when they accused her of potboiling. Some of them really aren’t any good, and she does repeat herself. She’s terribly patchy. Indiana is terrific, and so are Lélia and Jacques. Consuelo is probably the best. They’re all about how impossible marriage is, not only for women, but for men too.”“Do you want me to order her Histoire de Ma Vie? It’s just come out in a shortened version, in translation.”“No, no thanks, I have it. I bought the whole thing, in France. Six volumes, one missing. So there are some things I’m never going to know.” She laughs.The bookshop owner knows her name by now, because of all the ordering. Maria Jameson. Like the whisky. She uses her maiden name, Dr. Jameson. Dr. Huntley is Edward. But the days when she and the bookseller talk to each other are not the rendezvous days. When either she or Sean comes in first and they meet and stand, breathing cold like horses in a stable, fidgeting to be off, she notices how the bookseller goes immediately to the back of the shop and does some tactful rearranging of books.The snow falling this winter so continuously makes the time extraordinary. Everything is softened, wrapped around. Darkness comes early, is sometimes even present at midday, as if the world has forgotten to come awake. The white of the snow turns the sky dark as a plum.The bookseller gives Maria a sharp upward look. Whatever she was going to say remains unsaid; but something passes between them, so that Maria hesitates for a second, her eyes meeting the hazel-flecked ones of the bookseller, before moving away. Then she takes the heavy plastic bag with the George Sand novels in it, and heads to the university car park to find her car.“What’s your work about? What are the mice for?” She wants to know what he does when he is not with her. He has told her, sometimes he goes in the middle of the night, when he can’t sleep, to see the mice. She imagines him tiptoeing through a house full of sleeping children, out into the cold. Maybe it isn’t devotion to the mice that makes him go.“They’re telling me about the human immune system. I’m working on safety in food. Food allergies, how they develop, you know? Turns out, the only safe food is no food. Like sex, really.” It’s after they have been to bed together that he can say this.Tonight, she is filled to the brim with him. Her mind wanders, her skin sings. His hands have redrawn her to herself, and she sees him as he is when he lies poised above her, looking down. She sees the point at which they meet, the dark thickets they share, his body branching from hers as if they come from the same root. She hears his voice, which talks and coaxes her into wanting him again, the consonants so soft you can skid along them, absorb the meaning, drown in the sound. She has never been with a man who talks in bed, who bewitches her with words and phrases, stories and snatches of song. It’s a new kind of magic, which sometimes feels pleasingly childish, as if she should have found it long ago.From the Hardcover edition.

Table of Contents

1. Secret
2. The Bitter Paths of Majorca
3. Real Life
4. Corambé
5. The House on the Creuse
6. Consolation
7. The Owl

Acknowledgements


From the Hardcover edition.

Bookclub Guide

1. “She has arrived somewhere where she doesn’t know the customs, can’t read the signs, and there is no one, except a dead French writer, to give her a clue.” Can our own explorations of literature suggest ways to cope with challenging periods of our lives? How can something imaginary inform real life? Can other art forms (music, visual art, etc.) suffice?2. How does Ms. Brackenbury best evoke the French countryside, the hillsides of Majorca, the streets and interiors of Edinburgh?3. In what way does each setting match the inner life of Maria or George? Note the political climate in Scotland.4. “All her life there has been an inner sense of absence.” Does that justify Maria’s giving in to her romantic longings?5. “You can love two people, Maria thinks.” Is that accurate? Was Maria freed or trapped by the sensuality and secrecy of her affair?6. What would have happened to her marriage had she never experienced the affair?7. Maria longs for the freedom she sees in George Sand’s love affairs. Which of the two women is freer? Compare the responsibilities they bear.8. Maria and Edward’s children adapt to the family’s crisis. Is there something hopeful about this? Is it realistic? What strengths do children bring to such a situation?

Editorial Reviews

"Rosalind Brackenbury, writer of many novels and short stories, is above all a fine poet. If you love poetic prose, you'll savour her new novel, Becoming George Sand, phrase by delicious phrase."
— Winnipeg Free Press


From the Hardcover edition.