• David Rickeard

Female Aviators and Winter with Chopin in Majorca

Life has changed for all of us during the lockdown. While many of us would like to be out there helping in active ways, for many of us, staying at home is our way of supporting our key workers. The pace of home life has certainly slowed and allowed more time for quiet contemplation. Our garden has never been so well tended and there is time to catch up on music, reading and just resting. My thoughts and reading have wandered over the past few weeks, in a way, this is a story of the "fundamental interconnectedness of all things", or at least, how one thought leads on to another, sometimes in unexpected ways.

I was listening to the BBC's "Transatlantic Sessions" where traditional musicians from both sides of the Atlantic join up to make music together and in particular to Mary Chapin Carpenter singing her song "Transcendental Reunion". It's a song that atmospherically evokes the other-worldliness of long distance air travel (remember that?) and the rituals of arriving and meeting friends and family. It's a lovely song and even better with such sensitive musicians as Jerry Douglas, Aly Bain and their team in support. There is a tinge of sadness in Transcendental Reunion as there is "no-one to meet me", which sent me revisiting Joni Mitchell and her song "Amelia". This is a haunting song, written on a desert drive across the USA in the aftermath of the break-up of a love affair, with Joni lamenting that perhaps she is incapable of finding true love - everything is just a 'false alarm'. The Amelia evoked by the song is Amelia Earhart, famous aviator of the 1930s and another woman who lived her life on the edge, eventually losing her life doing what she loved, on a round-the-world flight which was lost over the ocean. It's worth looking up the story of Earhart's life and final journey and the challenges of navigation in the days when today's technology was not available. It's rather evocative of the explorations in sailing ship days, both for the prowess of those who made the journeys and the all too often failure to learn from past experience.

And in a strange way, this chain of thoughts brought me back to another author I have been reading and revisiting over the winter. Another woman who punched above her weight, a complicated character, who challenged and scandalised conventional society, wrote prolifically and well through the mid-19th Century and while she was driven to give and receive love, never seemed to find satisfaction. She is George Sand, a fiercely independent thinker, impatient with the restricted role of women in society and a campaigner for the poor and working class. Although married, she left her husband and lived openly in Paris with a succession of (mostly famous) lovers, notably Chopin whom she nursed through his tuberculosis, paying her way through life by her writings. She was gifted with the ability to pour out vivid and fluent prose, apparently without effort. She drew attention and sometimes scandal for her cross-dressing, smoking and often the views expressed in her writings.

At the moment I am reading "Lélia", her fourth publication, but not so much a novel as a philosophical discourse, and with some quite original views that provoked strong criticism when it was published in 1833 - not a very easy read, I have to say! Perhaps a better place to start is Indiana (1832), her first novel under her own name and a big success. It's a story of love and marriage, of a young woman and her desires amid the class constraints and social codes of 19th Century France. Sand is best know in the UK for her "romans champêtre" or bucolic novels. She was brought up in the country region of Berry and as a child played with the children of the village and came to know and admire the colourful and expressive idioms of the Berrichon dialect, which she endeavoured to include in her novels in a way that would still be understandable to the Paris intelligentsia. Like her other writings, implicit criticism of social norms is never very far away. The Devil's Pool (La Mare au Diable) is the first of these country novels and a story of simple and virtuous country folk, particularly a young couple who get lost in the woods. Little Fadette (La Petite Fadette) is a more complex story of twin brothers born to a respected farming family who both fall in love with the waif, Fadette. It has deeper layers where love and courage triumph over superstition, prejudice and the conventions of society. Or, if you prefer something more factual, how about a character assassination of the people of the Balearic Islands? A winter in Majorca is a factual (although perhaps not entirely impartial) memoire of a winter spent in Majorca by Sand and Frédéric Chopin and the tribulations they experienced - quite an eye-opener!

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