|George Sand, |
August Charpentier (1838)
|Fryderyk Chopin, c. 1849, by Bisson|
On British television, the reality dating show and pop-culture phenomenon ‘Love Island’ is nearing its finale this weekend. With over 6 million viewers, the programme places 20-somethings on the Balearic Island of Mallorca, in a converted farmhouse-villa decked out with neon signs and gaudy summer accessories. Yet perhaps few of the contestants or viewers know that tourism on Mallorca was kick-started almost two centuries ago by an earlier pair of celebrity, star-crossed lovers, in a remote lodging just a few miles away from the ITV villa.
In 1838, the ‘most famous woman in France’, the avant-garde, aristocratic, cross-dressing, best-selling novelist George Sand (Amantine Dupin) travelled to Mallorca with the Polish composer, pianist and political refugee Fryderyk Chopin. She was 34, a divorced mother of two, he 28. Sand claimed they were seeking solitude, where she could write and Chopin compose; they were likely also fleeing from the scandal their love affair had caused in Paris. Mallorca in the 1830s was heavily agricultural, with limited infrastructure for foreign visitors – the couple could not find a functioning hotel in Palma, and ended up renting a cell in an abandoned monastery, in the mountain village of Valldemossa. The lovers’ Mallorcan tryst was bitter-sweet. Chopin’s letters praised the natural beauty, calm and ‘poetic feeling’ of the island. Sand, however, grew disillusioned, and angry at the locals who disapproved of the unmarried lovers. She later vented her feelings in her famously acerbic
memoire A Winter in Mallorca.
memoire A Winter in Mallorca.
Sand’s book put Mallorca on the literary map. She joked that she had ‘discovered’ the island, and predicted that once international travel connections improved ‘Mallorca would soon prove a formidable rival to the Alps’, a new destination for the North European traveller. That prophecy was realised with the opening of an international airport at Palma in 1960, and the advent of mass tourism. Today, ‘Love Island’ producers distil Mallorca into its essential modern tourist image – turquoise waters, limestone coves, endless sunshine, endless swimming pools. Yet, as the 2019 contestants chat, court and argue on our screens, this social-media television spectacle still evokes the unquiet ghosts of Mallorca’s original, nineteenth-century ‘Love Island’ couple.
In their villa, the current ‘Love Island’ contestants are cut off from the outside world, kept well away from the locals. They can only imagine what is being written and tweeted about them in the outside world, or what fame or infamy will greet them on their return. They come to find love, or fame, or the £50K cash prize. Chopin and Sand, too, in their damp monastery sought total privacy, but wondered what the Paris papers were saying. And they too found that that a Mallorcan hideaway holiday had an ambiguous effect on their relationship. Chopin was in 1838 already ill with bronchitis or tuberculosis, and his love affair with Sand would break down in terrible, very public recriminations a few years later. The Polish pianist died in Paris in 1849; Sand did not attend his funeral. The Mallorcan interlude had proved productive for both their careers: Sand wrote her novel Spiridion in the monastery, and Chopin composed a number of pieces at Valldemossa. But the romantic happily-ever-after which the most gossiped-about couple of 19th-century Europe had sought in the Balearic sun had proved, ultimately, far more elusive.