Becoming George Sand
Rosalind Brackenbury; Random House
Excerpt:

1

Secret

Maria 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 oldfashioned
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 offwaiting. 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 offto
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- yearold
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 offhis
shoes, large rather grubby trainers like the ones her son
wears, which remind her of the age difference between
them. He pulls his sweater offover his head, followed by his
shirt and the off- white T- shirt that in summer he wears on
its own. She, meanwhile, pulls offher 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 offand 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, ration -
alist, 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.
rosalind brackenbury