Chopin’s relationship with the writer George Sand has always provoked curiosity. When she first met him, in 1836, her novels were attracting notoriety for their advanced social ideas, particularly on the emancipation of women. She wore men’s clothing and smoked cigars – outward symbols of equality.
Some biographers have seen Sand as a wholly negative influence. But she gave Chopin exactly the right domestic environment in which to compose and she cared for him at a time when his terminal illness had already begun to eat away his lungs.
When Sand planned their madcap adventure to Majorca in the winter of 1838-39, she thought only to escape the rigours of the Paris climate and expose Chopin to some warm Mediterranean sunshine. She knew very little about the island, its inhabitants, its climate, but its mystery was all part of its appeal.
Chopin’s first sight of the island enchanted him. ‘The sky is like turquoise’, he wrote, ‘the sea is like emeralds, the air as in Heaven.’ The pair found accommodation in a deserted monastery in Valldemosa; part of the monastery is now a Chopin museum, and you can still see his Pleyel piano (shipped out from Paris) and some of his manuscripts.
Chopin completed his 24 Preludes, Op. 28 at Valldemosa, although not without difficulty. Paradise had meanwhile turned into purgatory: the damp winter weather had set in. Chopin began to cough blood and his doctors spread gossip that he was consumptive. The local community grew hostile and villagers refused to serve Sand with essential provisions – she had to make nightmare journeys to Palma pushing a handcart along primitive roads.
After ten weeks the couple left Majorca in the worst of weather, and Chopin was seasick all the way back to Barcelona. What should have been a romantic episode had turned into disillusion. Sand later took her revenge on the Majorcans. She gave a withering account of ‘this stupid, thieving and bigoted race’ in her book Un hiver à Majorque, 1838-39. As for Chopin, it was one of the most unproductive periods in his life.
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