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Two Women – Same Town - a World Apart

Updated: Dec 20, 2020

This oil is so offensive that every house, man and carriage on the island and even the air in the countryside is saturated with its stench.”

Can you guess what indomitable woman thus described her first impression of one of Mallorca’s main industries, its olive oil? Correct! It was George Sand, also known as Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, in her 1841 book, A Winter in Majorca.

A winter in Majorca - George Sand

A quick poll of 10 of my long time Mallorcan friends, locals and expats, reveal that only two of them have read it, and then only “a long time ago.”

One mentioned how Sand had been unfairly treated and discriminated against by the “close minded” Mallorcans, but I wonder how many other agrarian people on the outskirts of 1838’s Europe would immediately accept a woman like Sand; a cigar-smoking, trouser wearing, jobbing author although famous; a separated but still married woman travelling openly with her lover, even if that lover was the cherished composer Frédéric Chopin?

Sand didn’t seem to care nor understand that people outside her bohemian Parisian milieu would do some heavy lifting of eyebrows at her unorthodox lifestyle.

After the publication of A Winter, she was also astonished that the Mallorcans didn’t take kindly to being described as unbelievably slow, stupid, stubborn, backward, smelly, evil and ignorant, and intransigent.

In her book she expresses incomprehension and anger when her party of four, one (Chopin) already quite ill with tuberculosis, isn’t welcomed with open arms into every upper-class household in Palma.

She scoffs at the backwards peasants who told her they were afraid that consumption was contagious, calling them “superstitious.”

George Sand with Chopin
Sand with Chopin who she referred to as 'our invalid'

In one passage she begrudgingly admits that people were probably telling her the truth when they said there wasn’t a spare room or bed to be had on the island, seeing that Spain was in the middle of a civil war (The Carlist War, 1833 – 1843) and the then remote outpost of Mallorca was being flooded with refugees.

But still, how dare they? Didn’t they know she came from Paris and that they should be lucky to house her?

After reading the book in two sittings and frequently chuckling at Sand’s snide remarks and waspish put-downs of the locals – it really is a very amusing book which is also historically edifying – I thought I would travel to Valldemossa to see the “cell” in the monastery where the little group finally ended up after weeks of searching for shelter.

When you think of a monk’s cell, don’t you picture a small dark dungeon, straw for a bed and with a tiny window, if any?

I know I do. But the Sand group – in fact throughout the book, Sand refers to Chopin only as “our invalid” – were given a relatively spacious three-room apartment in Cell number 4 in the ‘Charterhouse’, a monastery for Carthusian monks that had recently been vacated. That is to say, the monks had been kicked out because the Spanish state wanted their property.

The Chartehouse - Valldemossa

What a stroke of luck for Sand & co, who had travelled south for the sake of Chopin’s health, only to see it deteriorate further in the cold and damp of the Mallorcan winter. In her book, Sand complains bitterly about being snubbed by the Mallorcan elite: “in Palma, one has to be recommended and introduced to twenty illustrious persons and kept waiting for several months, if one wishes to avoid sleeping in the open fields.”

Not only did the cell provide some privacy and a place to put Chopin’s piano, imported from Europe and painstakingly carried up to Valldemossa which at the time didn’t have road access*, it also sported a wondrous garden lovingly tended by the last monk, overlooking the valley and with the Mediterranean glittering in the distance.

Garden in the Charterhouse Valldemossa

This vista is one of the few things about Mallorca George Sand finds favour with: “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.”

Most man made things on the island, on the other hand, are in for a lot of criticism, but she eventually sees there is no point in complaining, for “Bad luck to anyone who isn’t happy with everything in Spain! The slightest grimace you make on finding bugs in the bed or scorpions in the soup will invite the greatest scorn and rouse universal indignation against you.”

It’s fair to assume that any woman who acts like Sand did in the year 1838 is not averse to attracting attention, and looking at the museum, the book and the way the Mallorcan people react when you mention her, one may say that she got her wish, especially seeing her visit lasted only four short months.

But is her image everywhere on the island, embedded as a plaque on every house wall in Valldemossa, for example? No. No cigar chomping, adultery and trouser wearing could have prompted such acts of adoration even if the Mallorcans hadn’t been “backward and close minded”. For that to happen, one must act like a saint and in fact be a saint, such as Santa Catalina Thomas. Patron saint of Mallorca.

She was born in Valldemossa only a few steps away from the Charterhouse where the Sands spent their freezing and rainy winter months, but 305 years earlier. Walking around the little mountain town you will immediately notice that almost every house displays a little ceramic tile depicting the young saint, sweet and innocent looking and dressed in traditional Mallorquin garb with white headscarf and striped skirt. On some of the plaques she is shown sitting demurely clutching her rosary, on others she has already ascended to heaven surrounded by angels or standing with St. Peter himself, but each plaque bears the same inscription: “Santa Catalina Thomas, pregau per nosaltres” – Saint Catherina Thomas, pray for us!

George Sand mentions Santa Catalina in her book, which really is a smorgasboard of interesting historical tidbits I recommend that you read:

The story has some delightfully naïve features. God, so the legend runs, had blessed His handmaiden with reasoning far beyond her years, and she was seen as rigorously observing days of fasting long before reaching the age at which the Church ordains such observance. From her earliest infancy she abstained from having more than one meal a day. […] Her love for seclusion and her enjoyment of religious exercises, coupled with a dislike of dances and other worldly amusements, soon won her the name of Beateta (Little Saint.)”

Santa Catalina died in 1574, but having been beatified in 1792 and canonised in 1930, she is still very much a presence all over the island; having churches built in her name, being celebrated with festivals and what not. So being saintly is probably the way forward if one wants eternal fame.

On the other hand, a hell of a lot of people (until Covid 19) have been paying 4 euros to take a look at Cell 4…

*In addition to the cold and wet weather making Chopin’s condition worse, he had to put up with the indignity of having to spend most of his time in Mallorca practicing and composing on a crappy old out of tune piano.

The piano he ordered from Europe got caught up in red tape at the port – surprise! – and only arrived three weeks before the Sands took their leave.

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