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  • Ghosts in the Nursery: My Mother, My Subject, Myself
  • Elizabeth Harlan

It has come to the point where Sol[ange] only inspires pity in me as a rational creature who’s called my daughter, but who doesn’t exist in reality. Not feeling her pain, I wonder if she isn’t a dream in my life, the shadow of something that I thought I brought into the world that remains but a fantasy. (Correspondance X, March 1852, 790)

—George Sand, 1804–1876 1

If I had George Sand’s talent, I could begin all my letters like J.-J. Rousseau: “Miserable human beings that we are!” But I am not George Sand. (D’Heylli 1900, 71).

—Solange Sand, 1828–1899

— November 1991. My mother and I go out to dinner to celebrate the contract I’ve just signed to write a biography of George Sand. We spend the meal discussing the sale of my mother’s house, my brother’s illness, my two sons: everything but my success. 2 When we go to the ladies’ room to refresh our lipstick, my mother brings up George Sand for the first time. She asks if I’ve ever seen the 1944 movie, A Song to Remember. Even though I say I’ve seen the film, she launches into a detailed description of Merle Oberon’s “stunning” outfits. Not wanting to make waves, I don’t tell my mother how much I hated this film in which Oberon—haughty, aloof, unsympathetic—plays Sand as indifferent to the poor and disempowered against Cornel Wilde’s humbled, proletarian fantasy of Chopin. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Deep in sympathy with my subject, I feel my defensive dander rising.

Snapping her compact closed, my mother declares, “George Sand was certainly quite the snob.” I seethe with resentment that my mother, so sure of herself, gets Sand so wrong. Even the irreverent Oscar Wilde acknowledged that [End Page 417] Sand was deeply affected by “the democracy of suffering” and pronounced her “the most altruistic . . . of all the artists of this century” (Cate 1975, xvi). But I don’t want to act know-it-all and superior, to upset the delicate balance of my mother’s and my fragile bond.

Instead of arguing, I take out a brush and begin brushing my hair, hard. My mother’s expression suddenly turns wistful. “I’ve always wanted swingy hair that moves, like yours.” She shakes her head to demonstrate, but her silver-white curls stay stubbornly in place. “Isn’t that silly?” She giggles, making light of the confession I’ve never heard before. As we leave the ladies’ room, she comments that the dress I’m wearing, a paisley shirtwaist of blue and maroon silk, would go better with navy pantyhose. I feel gloomy when I get home. I go to my study and try to settle down to work, but my mind wanders and I can’t sit still.

I carry the stepladder from the kitchen into my bedroom and take down from the upper-most shelf of a cabinet a carton marked in heavy pen, “Miscellaneous Writings.” I rummage around among old papers and folders until I find what I hadn’t even realized I was looking for: my unpublished manuscript of an autobiographical novel called “Still Life.” On a quiet Sunday afternoon in late fall, southern light streaming through my study window that overlooks rooftops, exhaust pipes, a water tank, rereading the words I wrote years ago, I become a small child again, a little girl deep in love and envy of my mother:

The tile is bright white all around me, across the floor and up and down the walls of my mother’s bathroom. I trace the light grey grout lines with my toe while sneaking glances of my mother’s naked body in the tub. From the window behind where I sit on the closed toilet, early morning sunlight seeps through the blinds, casting striped shadows across the floor. I am an explorer. My mother is a lush landscape, an island rising from the sea. I watch her limbs lying long and splendid in the soapy foam. She drizzles water from...

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pp. 417-436
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