Tuesday, November 27, 2012

George Sand's Indiana

Detail from the oval Charpentier portrait of 1835


The celebrity of George Sand (1804-76) has travelled across both Channel and Pond. But her books haven't, really.  She wrote sixty-nine novels, but Penguin Classics have never published a single one of them .The only book of hers that appeared in that list (briefly, in 1988), was Lettres d'un Voyageur, impressions of  Paris and of time in Italy with Musset.

But I'm showing my age here. Once again it's Librivox I have to thank for introducing me to Indiana (1832), with Mary Herndon Bell doing an excellent reading job. But in younger circles Sand's work (especially this first novel Indiana) is certainly being studied and read, as the numerous reviews on GoodReads testify.

Why wouldn't it be?  Sand was a pioneer feminist and novels like Indiana are way ahead of the Anglophone world in the radicalism of their analysis of marriage and society. Anne Brontë's Tenant of Wildfell Hall, published sixteen years later, started to come close - and was considered outrageous - though of course it has very little of Indiana's awareness of sexual psychology and behaviour.* Think of the scene, in Chapter 7, where Raymon takes his "dishevelled Creole" (Indiana's maid, Noun) to have intoxicated sex in Indiana's maidenly bed; his erotic enjoyment of the double betrayal, followed the next morning by briefly troubled reflection on his own detestable image.

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I can't find much info about this portrait on the internet (though it's widely copied) - anyway, it shows Sand (Amandine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin) when still a girl, maybe 18-ish. 

*

"Ile Bourbon" is the older name for the island subsequently known as Réunion, where Indiana and Noun were born. As such they are both described as Creole - the term does not in this case imply anything about ethnicity. Later in the novel we visit the colony. Sand's realization of Ile Bourbon is very skilful, but she had never been there, and she took her information from a friend's travel book.

*

George Sand dressed as a man

The best things in the book, probably, concern Raymon and the claustrophobic feeling of Indiana being trapped by his relentless pursuit. As we read, we are impressed again and again by Raymon's actions being natural and unthinking, from his own point of view;  yet ingeniously manipulative, i.e. to us who see Indiana's peace of mind being constantly eroded.

One of the things that makes Sand's analysis so devastating is the credible way in which she persuades us that neither the unprincipled Raymon nor the brutal Col. Delmare are really evil people but, on the contrary, rather ordinary. So the repulsion we experience is not an indictment of imaginary individuals, but of a real society's structures and values.

Many readers consider that the narrator is portrayed as definitely (not just grammatically) male, and that he expresses patriarchal and misogynistic attitudes that Sand doesn't intend us to accept. I think that this interpretation misses the narrator's irony. You will see that I am taking Sand and the narrator as being essentially the same person. (Perhaps this is because I have been listening to the book read aloud by a woman.)

This interpretation lands me in an apparent difficulty. The Conclusion, which takes the form of a letter to a certain J. Nébaud, is explicitly written by a young gentleman, and recounts his meeting with Ralph and Indiana in the wilds of Ile Bourbon. This young gentleman is presented as sympathetic but conventional and (in his wordy descriptions) a little ridiculous. At one point he seems to show cognizance of, if not take responsibility for, the previous chapter: "Sir Ralph... me raconta son histoire jusqu’à l’endroit où nous l’avons laissée dans le précédent chapitre." - By implication, then, you might assume that he is the narrator of the whole novel. Against this is the Conclusion's headnote, which clearly marks it off as a separate piece of writing.

But it is hard to recognize the novel's narrator in this young fellow. If he now knows nothing of Sir Ralph beyond what he is told by the islanders, how does that square with the earlier narrator's omniscience e.g. about Raymon and his political career, or the discussions between him and Ralph? Besides, isn't it primarily this earlier narrator who voices the book's most unexpected psychological insights? Some examples:

1. How Indiana moves automatically from an ultra-authoritarian father to an ultra-authoritarian husband, the way she repeats her pattern. This is traced in beautiful detail in the passage where it's pointed out that Indiana's sense of slavery is the very thing that Delmare can't stand, though he constantly creates the conditions of slavery. That another woman would "manage" Delmare easily enough.

2. After the affair between Raymon and Noun, whenever a servant speaks of Noun, Indiana notices that soon afterwards he finds himself driven to mention Raymon (though in another connection). The untold secret exerts an unconscious pressure that must be vented. 

3. The inner compulsion that Raymon feels - when he has ceased to love Indiana and has freed himself from her -  to exercise his power by writing a letter that subtly misrepresents their parting and emphasizes the intensity of a love that he doesn't feel. (Indiana "sees through all this".  But it does her no good,  what reason says is irrelevant, the letter does its work anyway.)

I don't know enough about French literature to know how original these kind of observations of behaviour were at the time Sand wrote them down; observations that seem to depend on an awareness of the life of the unconscious and its consistent but often counter-intuitive logic compared to the life of reason. In British literature there is not much of this until, I don't know, Woolf? i.e. when Freud's ideas began to percolate through, almost a hundred years later.

Indiana must be one of the first books to prompt the startling thought that all love is abuse. This isn't what Sand really believed (her most famous quote is about how the only worthwhile thing is to love and be loved) but as you read Indiana the thought comes into focus anyway. (For me it continues to resonate disquietingly through the first couple of books of Anna Karenina. The image of Vronsky shimmies and, for a few seconds, transforms into Humbert Humbert.)

Some commentators have argued that the ending is not happy and that Ralph is as oppressive as Raymon or Col. Delmare. You can understand this. I think Sand meant Indiana's occlusion in the final pages to testify to her power in private life, a power beyond the mundane (inevitably society-coloured) material of narrative. Nevertheless, it's easy to feel in a troubled way that she is merely eclipsed. But whatever the merits of this view, it misrepresents the book, because Ralph is never a wholly credible character in the way that Raymon is, and he is not presented as a case that typifies a corrupt society; in fact he is a sociopath. No, the devastating insights are all around Raymon. In the book's final third, when Ralph starts to become more central to the action, we've said goodbye to all those devastating insights, it's more a matter of emblem, a picture of two troubled souls who can meet each other in love but only by escaping the pressures of civilisation.

I am generalizing a little too much. Sand has one remarkable insight about Ralph, too: she sees how his benevolence and self-abnegation are intimately linked to his egotism: in fact, these elements of his personality all developed at the same time - as the elements of a personality usually do.

What of Indiana herself? The logic of the story tends to emphasize the extent to which she is a passive and innocent victim worn down by those two malign grindstones, her husband and her lover. That makes her sound pitiable but potentially dull. If that was Sand's plan, then she wrote better than she planned. As in (1) above, Indiana is neither altogether passive nor altogether innocent because she has a well-developed victim psychology. And we should not patronize her. She miraculously escapes having sex with Raymon - this was perhaps a sacrifice to convention, avoiding a "ruin" that would be regarded as intolerable in a heroine who is to find happiness - but if the plan began as a sacrifice to convention then Sand makes a virtue of it. She splits her woman victim in two, i.e. into the unfortunate, sensual Noun and the unfortunate, but redeemed, Indiana. One upshot of this is that Indiana emerges as a personality who is psychologically frighteningly intense but is sensually tepid. Her "Creole" innocence can switch into a magnificent literalism that appals Raymon - he takes refuge in feeling bored by her. Indiana finds numerous and quite surprising ways to tolerate, justify, even celebrate, Noun's tragic demise. Though Indiana's character is not the centre of the book's interest, it quite thoroughly transgresses convention.


George Sand, aged 6



* The Brontës' adoption of male pseudonyms was apparently suggested by George Sand's example. It seems likely that Sand's early novels were among the books mentioned by Charlotte as being sent over from Gomersal in 1840. She called them "clever wicked sophistical and immoral" but Charlotte learnt natural French conversation from them and she was certainly influenced by them; perhaps Anne was too.

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