One was a convent-bred beauty with melting black eyes who abandoned her husband and ran away to Paris, where she went through lovers like handkerchiefs.
The other, homely and bookish, devoted her prime to theology, then scandalized Victorian London by going to live with a married man.
In France and England, they led superficially different lives but were, more profoundly, like two sides of a reversible garment. When they started writing novels -- a vocation that eventually made them celebrated touchstones for their era -- both took male pseudonyms.
So, it is by plain, straightforward George that we know the Frenchwoman Amandine Aurore Lucile Dudevant (1804-76), a.k.a. George Sand, author of voluminous essays, letters, plays and novels; and her English counterpart, Mary Ann Evans (1819-80), who signed her extraordinary books George Eliot.
Like many fiction and travel lovers, I sometimes am compelled to see the places that inspired and shaped great authors. It is a way of expressing appreciation, of better understanding the wise, deep lessons drawn from their novels and lives. So, early this spring I followed a trail of ink drops to the homes of Sand and Eliot, whose writings are imbued with a sense of place.
Today, Sand’s reputation rests as much on her extraordinarily eventful life as on her novels. She thought love should be a matter of passion, not duty, that relationships between husband and wife, mother and child, mentor and protege were too singular and varied to be scripted by convention.
The same cannot be said of Eliot. She never intended to flout convention, and her “Middlemarch,” published in installments in 1871 and 1872, is widely considered the apogee of the British novel. I first read it in college, captivated by its protagonist, the young gentlewoman Dorothea Brooke, who makes many mistakes while earnestly trying to find the right way to live.
I sought out the Georges in Paris and London, where they broke with their narrow upbringings to become writers. Then I went farther afield, to their native landscapes: Sand’s beloved house at Nohant in central France and Eliot’s childhood home near Coventry in England’s Midlands. The first is far better preserved than the second, although neither is a major tourist attraction. Finding them required detection and imagination, because time has turned bucolic 19th century villages into bedroom communities, country lanes into highways, pastures into shopping malls.
Both writers lived through a time of transformation, as industrialization supplanted agriculture and country folk moved to the city. Traveling widely, they saw cultural, political and technological upheaval firsthand, but took a long, tolerant view of it, believing that what was truly good was bound to endure.
A French life
It took the young Sand as long as three days to travel the 180 miles to Paris from Nohant in a horse-drawn carriage. By the time she was middle-aged, she could get to there by train and buggy in 24 hours.
I made the trip from Paris to Nohant by car in an afternoon. There was urban sprawl around Orleans but fields and forests beyond. When I got off the highways, a tracery of country roads led me to Sand’s village, a cluster of warm brown stone cottages, surrounded by farm fields and overlooked by a Romanesque church. It has a tourist office, a souvenir shop and an accommodating inn, L’Auberge de la Petite Fadette, named for one of her novels.
Everything here is just as a literary pilgrim would wish it. Heavy drapes, beds with domineering headboards, patterned wallpaper, solid bureaus and cabinets recalling the style of the Second Empire (1852-70), when Sand’s friend and admirer Louis Napoleon ruled France as Napoleon III.
The fresh smell and the scratchiness of the towels suggested they had been dried outside on a line. The house aperitif -- a flute of sparkling white Vouvray wine with a hint of Benedictine -- was delivered to my chamber on a tray decorated with forsythia blossoms.
Meals in front of the fireplace in the old-fashioned dining room were rich and varied evening entertainments. One night, I had the Chopin menu, with shrimp in a pastry shell, then chicken bonne femme in wine sauce, local cheeses and apple tarte Tatin, served to the strains of a nocturne by the Polish composer who was Sand’s lover.
In the seven summers that Frederic Chopin spent with her at Nohant, he composed half of his oeuvre, basking in Sand’s care and encouragement. But the affair that had set Paris gossiping ended acrimoniously in 1847 because of family squabbles, Chopin’s hypochondria and Sand’s need to move on.
Sand’s walled, 18th century chateau across the square from the inn, now a historic monument administered by the French government, can be toured. The writer was raised here by her grandmother after the death of her father, a dashing army officer, and desertion by her mother, a pretty camp follower. Later, Sand lived in the house with her husband, Baron Casimir Dudevant, a country gentleman who preferred hunting to music, art and literature. The marriage dissolved in 1836 over the boorish manner of Dudevant’s philandering and the baroness’ growing belief that women should enjoy the same sexual freedom as men.
For the rest of Sand’s life, the house was a music- and laughter-filled refuge, where the novelist worked, entertained and raised her son, Maurice, by Dudevant, and her daughter, Solange, generally assumed to have been fathered by Sand’s first lover, Jules Sandeau.
Two cedar trees, planted for each of her children, frame the front entrance of the gracious two-story house. It is surrounded by stables, lawns, gardens and a romantically overgrown park.
In bosky dells here, Sand trysted with Sandeau, a handsome young man from the nearby town of La Chatre, with whom she wrote a novel published in 1831 under the collective pseudonym J. Sand. She spent much of that year with Sandeau in Paris, where she wore men’s clothes, developed a taste for cigars and found a publisher for another book, written on her own.
The acclaimed “Indiana,” about an unhappily married woman jilted by her lover, was the first novel to appear under the name George Sand. Inside the house, visitors see the boudoir where she wrote “Indiana” and the kitchen where she made preserves, a task as serious, she said, as writing a book.
In the salon, she entertained a stream of neighbors, relatives and famous guests, including composer Franz Liszt, novelist Gustave Flaubert and painter Eugene Delacroix. She turned one room into a theater, where her plays and puppet shows were staged.
As Sand aged, she devoted herself to her grandchildren and wrote many of the 20,000 letters that show off her fluid style at its best. Habitually clad in a black mantilla, she looked increasingly like Queen Victoria.
By the time of her peaceful death at age 72, in the blue canopy bed upstairs, she had reversed her views on the role of women, who she thought were too ill-educated to vote and fit only for marriage and motherhood, and had become a thickly varnished feature in the world of French letters.
I was happy to discover that you could still follow walking paths from one village to the next, as Sand did when visiting friends. She used the 15th century fortress in nearby St.-Chartier as the setting for “The Master Pipers,” and La Chatre has a small museum with a room dedicated to her.
Of course, Sand also spent considerable time in Paris, occupying more than 25 apartments. One was in the hilly 9th arrondissement on the Square d’Orleans, a fashionable address for writers and artists at the time.
Nearby on the Rue Chaptal, the Musee de la Vie Romantique, or the Museum of the Romantic Life, displays plentiful Sand memorabilia, including a model of her elegant hand.
Sand rests in the family cemetery at Nohant, her tomb decorated with floral tributes from admirers.
Fewer devotees visit Eliot’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, a few Tube stops north of central London. When I paid my respects, there was only a gardener, with an annoying weed whacker.
The neo-Gothic cemetery, founded in 1839, is full of weeping stone angels, overgrown woods and mossy headstones leaning on one another like old friends. I was delighted to find that the novelist rests beside her dear friend and companion, George Henry Lewes, who first encouraged her to write fiction. He negotiated book deals for her, kept negative criticism away from her over-sensitive eyes and gave her the George half of her nom de plume. The Eliot half was plucked out of thin air, “a good mouth-filling, easily pronounceable word,” the novelist said.
After my visit to Highgate Cemetery, I headed north for Eliot country. Her Midlands family disowned her in 1854 when she went to live with Lewes, a believer in free love who had condoned his wife’s liaison with another man, thereby abnegating his right to divorce her. Thus outcast and settled in London with Lewes -- a devoted married couple in all but name -- the writer could go home only in her imagination.
It takes about two hours to drive from London to the Midlands, much of which is now uninterrupted urban sprawl. But you can still see the spire of Holy Trinity Church in central Coventry, where Eliot lived in her dour, spinsterish 20s, ministering to her ailing, widowed father. She was befriended by a group of freethinkers there, read books that debunked the Bible and ultimately renounced organized religion.
Solidly working-class Nuneaton, where Eliot spent her youth, is about 10 miles north, with streets lined by rows of attached terrace housing and pubs named for her novels, such as the Felix Holt in the marketplace.
There used to be a statue of Nuneaton’s famous daughter nearby, but when I visited it had been taken away for repair after a truck backed into it.
Scholars do research in the Eliot archive at the Nuneaton Library, and a pretty park in the center of town bears her name. There is a museum with a gallery devoted to Eliot, where visitors can see her piano and writing desk.
Her father was the estate agent for Arbury Hall, outside Nuneaton. The writer was born in a cottage there, but the family soon moved to Griff House, an eight-bedroom Georgian farmhouse on Nuneaton-Coventry Road, surrounded by 280 acres of fields, gardens and orchards. For more than 20 years, Griff and its environs were Eliot’s world, the remembered-from-a-distance setting for her first fiction, “Scenes of Clerical Life,” published in 1858.
Alas, Griff is now a steakhouse and motel on a busy roundabout. A wing of chockablock rooms has been added, and from the window in the attic where Eliot played as a girl the view is all fast-food eateries and industrial estates. Traces of the original building are apparent only in the southern facade and flagstone entrance.
Here, I met Bill and Kathleen Adams, chairman and secretary of the George Eliot Fellowship, respectively. They have served at the organization’s helm for almost 40 years, organizing literary luncheons, laying wreaths on Eliot memorials and helping biographers. Several times a year they lead bus tours of Eliot country, giving aficionados the chance to see important outlying sites related to the writer, such as Arbury Hall.
The stately Gothic revival mansion, surrounded by a 4,000-acre estate, is the home of Viscount and Viscountess Daventry, open to the public infrequently during the spring and summer. But the Adamses had obtained permission to show me around the grounds, which are carpeted with bluebells in the spring. We stopped outside the library where Eliot was allowed to read and drove past South Farm, her birthplace.
The Adamses also took me to Chilvers Coton church in the Nuneaton suburbs, where Eliot worshiped as a girl.
Along the way, they quoted pertinent passages from her books and reminded me that, despite her controversial private life, she was admired by the straight-laced Queen Victoria
Later, I went for a walk in the countryside north of Nuneaton, where I met an old man with a dog who might have stepped out of “Middlemarch.” I followed a dirt lane over Coventry Canal and some train tracks, evidence of technological development that changed life and the landscape in her time, even as it changes ours now. But I felt less bothered by it, because I could, at last, feel Eliot’s presence in the smell of freshly turned earth, in the grazing sheep and in the old man patting his dog and saying, “Come on, mate. Let’s go home.”
Sand and Eliot were right; good things may not be easy to find, but they endure.