If you live in Mallorca or you’ve visited Valldemossa, chances are you own a copy of George Sand’s A Winter In Mallorca (1842). You may have even read it. If you haven’t you’re missing out on a fascinating opportunity to get a taste of what it was like to visit mid-19th century Mallorca and perhaps understand more about the island today.
Like many of us since, the French writer George Sand – real name Amantin-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, although she was known as Aurore – made the mistake of thinking that winter in Mallorca would be warm and dry. She, and her lover, composer Frédéric Chopin, chose Mallorca because Chopin had either a weak chest, incipient tuberculosis or possible cystic fibrosis. They believed the climate would be good for his chest.
Sand’s affair with Chopin began in 1837, after she’d left her husband and embarked on a period of “romantic rebellion”. During this time she published her first independent novel Indiana. Previously she’d collaborated with her lover, Jules Sandeau, and the two writers had used the pen name ‘Jules Sand’. Indiana was published by Aurore under the name George Sand.
Uncivilised island or promised land?
From the start, Mallorca didn’t agree with the lovers and her children. Sand wrote, “As the winter advanced, the gloom froze all my attempts at gaiety and calm…We felt like prisoners, far from any enlightened help of productive sympathy.”
(Having said this, Joni Redan, writing for literarytraveler.com quotes from a letter Chopin wrote in mid-November: “The sun shines all day and people are dressed as in the summer time, because here it is hot.” Writing to Carlotta Marliani, Sand is in raptures. “The nature, the trees, the sky, the sea, the monuments surpass all my dreams: this is the promised land!” Their mistake was to leave Palma for the mountains, with their more changeable climate.)
Apart from the cold and the wind, the fact that a doctor in Palma had diagnosed Chopin with TB – an illness Mallorquins were deeply wary of – made things even worse. Sand and Chopin were kicked out of a house they were renting and had to find sanctuary in an deserted Carthusian monastery in Valldemossa.
While she loathed the Mallorquins, calling them “monkeys”, she did at least appreciate the view from the monastery down to the sea. She writes: “It is one of those views that completely overwhelm one, for it leaves nothing to be desired and nothing to the imagination. All that a poet or a painter might dream of, Nature has created here.”
(Don’t forget, the name Valldemossa derives from Wade Musa or valley of the muse.)
But, as things went from bad to worse, Sand writes “So you are left to contemplate the scenery either in expectation of death or in hope of a miracle”.
If you do decide to visit the appropriately named “cells” occupied by Chopin, Sand and her children, it’s worth remembering that you’re not seeing the same view that they did. As Jackie Waldren writes, in her excellent book Insiders and Outsiders
They had two rooms on the north side of the monastery which were very dark, damp, and sparsely furnished. The present rooms are on the south side of the building and open onto lush gardens through long windows which shower bright light onto the entire space.
Incidentally, the Mallorquins detested Sand right back. According to Jackie, a popular journalist of the time wrote that, to them, she “was the devil’s own hand-maiden’.
An alternative view
As you might expect, Robert Graves, saw the story of Sand, Chopin and Mallorca somewhat differently from the orthodox version. Graves translated and annotated an edition of A Winter in Mallorca. According to Mary Ann Sieghert, writing in the Independent, Graves believed that the reason Sand hated Mallorca was because
her daughter, Solange, resented Chopin’s dalliance with her mother. So, when they were lodging in the monastery, she dressed up as a monk and appeared to him as a ghost. Chopin was so disturbed by the apparition that he went to the sacristan and asked for absolution. This was granted, on condition that he stop having sex with Sand. They never slept together again.
I have no idea where Graves might have got this from, perhaps local rumour or gossip from his friends in Paris. Does it matter? It’s a wonderful story and it gives the reader of A Winter in Mallorca a little more sympathy for Sand.
Like all of us who spend any amount of time in Mallorca, Sand grew to admire, if not love, aspects of the island, especially its physical beauty. It has to be said that, although Chopin’s sojourn in Valldemossa is a major selling point for the village, the Mallorquins have never grown to love Sand.
But that’s fair enough. One of the great things about living on this island is realising that, under all the layers of expat and Spanish culture, the living, breathing heart of Mallorca doesn’t forget. In so many ways, the past is not history here. It’s alive.