Faced with the enormous number of George Sand’s novels, literary critics quickly moved to divide them into categories. The traditional categories include feminist novels, socialistic novels, and rustic novels. While this oversimplification is inaccurate, it does help the reader to identify the major themes that recur in most of her novels.
Valentine is a good example of the critics’ dilemma. The novel recounts a love story of a married noblewoman and an educated peasant that ends tragically with the death of the lovers. The plot is a Romantic one, both in the sense of “a love story” and in the literary-historical sense of the term, for it contains several of the essential themes of French Romanticism: the passing of time, the passing of love with time, and a search for the meaning of the universe beyond the limits of human life. In Valentine, Sand’s Bénédict is a melancholy, meditative person who resembles ChateaubriandFrançois-René de’s René. He is killed accidentally by a jealous husband, but Valentine, the heroine, dies from sorrow soon after his death. At first reading, the novel seems to be primarily Romantic, yet Valentine’s fruitless attempts to find personal happiness and satisfaction, despite her financially arranged marriage and her indifferent and absent husband, suggest classification among the feminist novels. The beautiful descriptions of the Berry countryside and details of the daily life of the peasants are characteristic of her rustic novels. The love affair between two people of different social classes suggests classification as a socialistic novel. The conclusion is obvious: Most of Sand’s novels contain Romantic elements, Romanesque elements, feminist elements, rustic elements, and socialist elements.
The novels that contain the highest percentage of feminist elements are the early ones. Clearly, Sand’s unhappy personal experiences were reflected in novels such as Indiana, in which the heroine leaves her despotic husband, is betrayed by her lover, and ultimately finds happiness with her cousin, who serves as a father figure for her and becomes her lover on a lush tropical island in a primitive paradise that owes something to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jacques-Henri Bernardin de Saint-Pierre. Sand’s feminist novel par excellence is Lélia, which reinterprets the metaphysical dilemma of the Romantic hero in feminine terms.
Sand’s socialistic novels are generally less successful artistically than her work in other genres, perhaps because her theoretical digressions are not well integrated into the plots. One exception, The Companion of the Tour of France, was reedited by the University Press of Grenoble in the late 1980’s and then began to receive long-overdue critical attention. In addition to its story of the love between the lady of a manor and a carpenter-artist, the novel contains a study of secret trade guilds and a portrait of the daily life of workers—a class that was neglected by Balzac in La Comédie humaine (1829-1848; The Comedy of Human Life, 1885-1893, 1896; also known as The Human Comedy, 1895-1896, 1911). The Miller of Angibault is also a successful socialistic novel, but it contains many elements of the rustic novels as well. The Sin of Monsieur Antoine and La Ville noire expose the problems of factory workers, making Sand the only French novelist before Émile Zola to analyze seriously the effects of the Industrial Revolution.
Sand’s experiments with the rustic novel began with Jeanne, whose peasant heroine is compared to Joan of Arc and Napoleon. In the rustic novels, Sand saw herself as an intermediary between Paris and Nohant, between bourgeois and peasant. She hoped to bring about a reconciliation between the two by portraying the best qualities of the country folk to make them acceptable to urban readers. She did not, however, neglect the very real problems of rural life. Her peasants are often hungry and overworked, but they have a noble character that enables them to conquer all obstacles and a resourcefulness that comes from living in harmony with nature.
Sand never claimed to be a realist, even though she documented her novels carefully. There are realistic elements in her psychological analyses, in her landscapes, and in her portrayal of the everyday life of workers and peasants. Nevertheless, what counted for Sand, as she states in the introduction to The Devil’s Pool, was “ideal truth” rather than “a slice of life.” She wanted to inspire readers to live up to their potential, in contrast to the productions of the realist and naturalist schools, which, she felt, depressed people by showing the ugly side of life. In her autobiography, she quotes Balzac as saying to her, “You search for man as he should be, while I take him as he is. Believe me, we are both right.”
Lélia is a flawed masterpiece. Its lyric tone and mystical examination of God, love, the universe, and the nature of truth make it both a profound philosophical work and a difficult novel for most readers. The characters tend toward allegory: Lélia represents doubt, according to a document published in Sketches and Hints (1926); Trenmor, expiation and stoicism; Sténio, poetry and credulity; Magnus, superstition and repressed desire; and Pulchérie, the senses (as opposed to the mind or soul). They also represent different aspects of Sand’s own personality. She wrote in Journal intime (1926; The Intimate Journal, 1929), which was published with Sketches and Hints, “Magnus is my childhood; Sténio, my youth; Lélia is my maturity; Trenmor will perhaps be my old age. All these types have been in me.”
When Sand published Lélia in 1832, it had a succès de scandale. A novel by a woman treating explicitly the problem of female frigidity, briefly touching on lesbian sexuality, and creating a superior heroine to rival melancholy Romantic heroes (Chateaubriand’s René, Étienne de Senancour’s Obermann, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s Werther, and Benjamin Constant’s Adolphe) was more than even Paris was prepared to accept. Sand’s passionate cry of suffering was so revealing, however, that Musset and many of her contemporaries called her “Lélia.”
Sand, who ordinarily did not rewrite novels, rewrote Lélia, cutting out the sexually explicit passages and transforming its profoundly skeptical and pessimistic tone into a more positive and progressive one. The second version, published in 1839, was chosen by the author to be included in an edition of her complete works. After that, the 1832 edition disappeared from view until André Maurois titled his 1952 biography Lélia: Ou, La Vie de George Sand (Lélia: The Life of George Sand, 1953). Maurois asserted that the first Lélia was, with Indiana and Consuelo, one of Sand’s finest novels and artistically superior to the 1839 version. In 1960, Pierre Reboul published the text of the 1832 Lélia, and scholars now generally agree with Maurois. Ósten Södergård published a comparison of the two editions in 1962 and showed how and why Sand changed her novel.
In the first Lélia, the heroine is presented to the reader as seen from afar by the young poet Sténio, who worships and fears her. The question the first part of the novel asks is whether Lélia will be able to love Sténio. Trenmor, a rehabilitated gambler resigned to a calm philosophical life, says no. Lélia is older and wiser than Sténio and so frustrated by unsatisfying love affairs that she is no longer capable of physical love. She proposes a more spiritual love, but the poet insists that ideal love unites the senses with the spirit. After many vain power struggles, Lélia leaves Sténio with her courtesan-sister Pulchérie, with whom he makes love, believing her to be Lélia. In this way, Lélia hopes to teach him that sensual love is unreliable. Instead, Sténio, disillusioned by the experience, decides that pleasure alone is real and throws himself into debauchery. Finally, he drowns himself in a lake; while Lélia weeps over his body, she is strangled by Magnus, a priest who has become an atheist and has been driven insane by his desire for Lélia. At the end, Lélia and Sténio, the lovers who could not agree on earth, are united as stars in Heaven; and the philosopher Trenmor continues his pilgrimage alone.
The love story at the center of Lélia is less important than Lélia’s desperate search for God, herself, and truth—what Maria Espinosa, the translator of the original version of Lélia into English, calls the “spiritual odyssey” of Lélia and, of course, of Sand herself. Lélia searches for a man who is perfect, like God; not finding one, she makes a god of the man she loves. When she realizes her mistake, it is too late for her ever to obtain the fresh, pure love of which she dreams. She has lived too much without enjoyment, and her fantasies surpass any possible realization. This makes her doubt God and hate herself while she is filled with a burning and insatiable physical desire. Seeking relief in a year’s voluntary claustration, Lélia waits in vain to achieve the stoic resignation of Trenmor, who is emotionally dead. Since, for her, physical love represents a submission of the woman to the man, she finds it distasteful and tries to solve her dilemma by taking the dominant male role in love scenes. For this reason, she treats Sténio like her son and loves him most when he is passive—sleeping or dead. Unable to find a solution to her problems, Lélia is finally content to be killed by Magnus.
In the 1839 version, Lélia becomes a nun who teaches girls how to resist men and reforms the Church. Trenmor becomes a reformed murderer and acquires a secret identity as Valmarina, a benefactor of the poor and needy as well as the head of a mystico-political secret society somewhat like the Italina Carbonaros. Even...
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