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Edging Toward Japan: Before Perry's Black Ships, an amazing woman set sail to a wild island

George Sand

By Damian Flanagan

During some recent holidays, I spent two weeks traveling around the Mediterranean island of Mallorca. For many British people, this is the very first place they visit when they venture overseas, but it took me a few decades to make the pilgrimage.

Unquestionably the most famous couple to have ever resided in Mallorca were the French novelist George Sand (1804-76) and her lover, the pianist Frederick Chopin (1810-49) who visited the island between November 1838 and March 1839. Sand's account of her travels, "A Winter in Mallorca" (1842), is sold throughout the island in a variety of languages.

"Winter in Mallorca" is considerably different to what you might expect. For one thing, Chopin is never actually mentioned, only obliquely referred to as Sand's sickly companion. Secondly, Sand is coruscating and often hilariously rude about the Spanish in general and the Mallorcans in particular, about whom she has scarcely a kind word to say.

Mountains in Majorca.

Sand depicts the whole island as riven with corruption, cronyism and the psychological imprint of medieval practices.

It might sound as if Sand simply rucked up in Mallorca and spewed out invective in all directions, but in fact there was a greater architecture of ideas at work. Sand believed passionately that France had evolved through the Revolution and the Napoleonic years into a socially advanced state that was far superior to Spain, still striving to free itself from the oppressions of the Inquisition, which had been abolished only a few years earlier.

From a historical perspective, it's revealing to understand that a cultural and developmental chasm divided France and Spain back in 1839, only 14 years before Perry's "Black Ships" arrived in Tokyo Bay. When we think today of European and American colonialism of the 19th century, fanning out around the world, we tend to think of these nations as imposing themselves on other continents by virtue of industrial technology.

But if you read "Winter in Mallorca," then it's plain to see that huge "development gaps" existed at the heart of Europe itself -- Sand regards the large island of Mallorca, only 250 miles off the French coast as an uncivilized, savage place.

Sand was an extraordinary woman. Married and with two children, she left her husband and embarked upon some "wild" years, before hooking up with Chopin. She sometimes wore men's clothes and smoked cigars.

She did not shy away from criticizing ignorance and superstition for fear of offending sensibilities. It's a curious paradox that she appears in many ways more "liberated" than many of us today, required to be far more cautious about speaking our mind.

@DamianFlanagan

(This is Part 21 of a series)

In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.

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Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master's and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of "Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature" (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).

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