Thursday, 20 April 2017

George Sand's Comical Evisceration of Mallorca

Over Easter I spent two weeks travelling around the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. For many British people, this is the very first place they visit when they venture overseas, but it took me a few decades to make the pilgrimage.

Unquestionably the most famous couple to have ever resided in Mallorca were the French novelist George Sand (1804-76) and her lover, the pianist Frederick Chopin (1810-49) who visited the island between November 1838 and March 1839. They eventually moved to the monastery in the beautiful mountain top town of Valldemosa, today a mecca for tourists. Sand's account of her travels, "A Winter in Mallorca" (1842), is sold throughout the island in a variety of languages.

Such vintage travel books can often be a considerable bore, but I thought I would give George Sand - whom I knew little about - a go and I am glad I did: "Winter in Mallorca" is a gem, a true travel classic. However it is considerably different to what you might expect. For one thing, Chopin (pictured right) is never actually mentioned, only obliquely referred to as Sand's sickly companion. Secondly, Sand is corruscating and often hilariously rude about the Spanish in general and the Mallorcans in particular, about whom she has scarcely a kind word to say.

In Sand's depiction, the Mallorca of 1838 is a savage, primitive place where the locals can be sniffed before they appear as they reek of olive oil and garlic and where the only thing that is cultivated properly on the island are the pigs (the only livestock allowed to be exported). There are no lodgings at all to be found in the capital Palma (population 36,000) because tenants have to provide their own windows which take six months to make.

The Mallorcans are depicted as keen to fleece foreigners of every penny they have and very reluctant to offer any hospitality, despite constantly pretending otherwise. Sand caustically writes,

"One cannot look at a picture, touch a piece of material, or lift up a chair, without being charmingly told: 'Esta a la disposicion de Usted.' [It is at your disposal'] But beware of accepting so much as a pin, for that would be an intolerable indiscretion."

Arriving at the hill-top monastery (pictured from approach road, left), Sand's most complimentary words are reserved for the housekeeper who she remarks "had once been good-looking". But the chambermaid is "the arch-witch of Valldemosa" and another young girl "a dishevelled little monster".

At the beginning of this book - which is today enthusiastically promoted in tourist outlets across the island - Sand tells us that, "The Spaniard is ignorant and superstitious; consequently he believes in infection, fears illness and death, lacks in faith and charity. Being miserable and overburdened by taxation he becomes greedy, selfish and deceitful in his dealings with foreigners."

As for Mallorca, the whole island is riven with corruption, cronyism and the psychological imprint of medieval practices. "When one asks on what a rich Majorcan spends his income in a country lacking all luxuries and temptations, the answer is to be found in a specially set aside wing of the house, filled with good-for-nothing loafers of both sexes, who after spending a year in service to their master, have the right to be lodged, clothed and boarded for the rest of their lives."

From the above, it might sound as if Sand simply rucked up in Mallorca and spewed out invective in all directions, but in fact there was a greater architecture of ideas at work. Sand believed passionately that France had evolved through the Revolution and the Napoleonic years into a socially advanced state that was far superior to Spain, still striving to free itself from the oppressions of the Inquisition, which had been abolished only a few years earlier. She saw France as a land of forward-looking art and industry, and Spain as a land of peasant superstition and corruption. Her greatest contempt is reserved for the unthinking or venal servants of the Catholic church in Spain, the hypocrite monks or blood-thirsty priests.

From a historical perspective, it's extremely revealing to understand what a cultural and developmental chasm divided France and Spain back in 1840. When we think today of European colonialism of the 19th century, we tend to think of the European nations as imposing themselves on other continents by virtue of industrial technology. But if you read "Winter in Mallorca", then it's plain to see that huge "development gaps" existed at the heart of Europe itself - Sand regards the large island of Mallorca, only 250 miles off the French coast as an uncivilized, savage place.

But instructive as Sand is about history, she is also insightful about so many universal constants of life. When Sand asks herself, "Why travel?", she provides this response: "Who amongst us has not, at some time, selfishly dreamed of forsaking his affairs, his habits, his acquaintances and even his friends, to settle in some enchanted island and live without worries, without responsibilities, and above all, without newspapers?"

Sand was of course a most extraordinary woman. Married and with two children, she left her husband and embarked upon some "wild" years, before hooking up with Chopin (statue of Chopin in front of the old monastery at Valldemosa, above). She sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars. Her affair with Chopin came to a nasty Woody Allen-Mia Farrow style end ten years later when she accused Chopin of having long been in love with her daughter (Sand had travelled to Mallorca with her two children and Chopin). In her life she found time for affairs with a host of famous artists including Jules Sandeau, Prosper Merimee, Alfred de Musset, Pierre-Francois Bocage, Charles Didier, Felicien Mallefille, Louis Blanc...

But what would Sand (pictured left) have had to say to our current age, as we often shy away from criticizing ignorance and superstition for fear of offending sensibilities, even if the result is chronic social oppression? Sand was quite happy to have the grandest historical monuments torn down if it meant that in doing so people were eternally freed from the tortures - both of body and mind - of the Inquisition. We perhaps in the world today need more fearless free-thinking women like her.

No comments: