“Your novelistic language annoys us”: George Sand, Indiana

My intrepid book club, which followed up Madame Bovary with Julian Barnes’s Flaubert’s Parrot, decided that our next step would be something by George Sand. We settled on Indiana because it was the most readily available (there’s a nice Oxford World’s Classics edition, with a “new” [1994] translation and an introduction by eminent literary scholar Naomi Schor). We thought this would be an interesting choice because Sand is more or less the anti-Flaubert: sentimental where he is relentlessly not, idealist where he is realist, not much esteemed (or at least read) today–note, again, the date of that “new” translation. His name is a byword for literary seriousness: he is the Father of the Modern Novel. And George Sand is … something else.

Before reading Indiana I knew George Sand mostly from Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s sonnets about her, which I routinely assign in my seminar on the Victorian ‘woman question.’ “Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,” begins “To George Sand: A Desire”:

Self-called George Sand! whose soul, amid the lions
Of thy tumultuous senses, moans defiance
And answers roar for roar, as spirits can…

The sonnets celebrate the power of Sand’s voice and her defiance of convention, particularly her attempt to transcend the limits of her sex. “To George Sand: A Recognition” ends with a vision of her spirit finally set free of such limits:

Beat purer, heart, and higher,
Till God unsex thee on the heavenly shore
Where unincarnate spirits purely aspire

Yet even as the poem seems to reach in those lines towards an idealized androgyny, it also insists that her attempts to deny her “woman’s nature” are vain:

                                      that revolted cry
Is sobbed in by a woman’s voice forlorn,
Thy woman’s hair, my sister, all unshorn
Floats back dishevelled strength in agony,
Disproving thy man’s name…

Together, the sonnets are a moving tribute from one woman writer to another and a fascinating example of the complexity of working out the role of ‘woman writer’ at a time when gendered expectations shaped and limited women’s literary ambitions in so many ways.

Indiana is the only novel of Sand’s I’ve read, so I am in no position to generalize. However, based on this one example at least, EBB’s hyperbole suits her subject. Tumultuous senses, moaning defiance, aspiring spirits, revolted cries: this is the stuff of which Indiana is made. And I admit, though I chafed at Flaubert’s implacable objectivity, the rushing emotionalism of Indiana was even harder for me to take. I know enough to recognize that it belongs, self-consciously, to a tradition that includes its own most conspicuous intertextual reference, Paul et Virginie (which I read years ago for a graduate seminar), and which is not the tradition of either historical or social realism. And I learned from Schor’s boosterish introduction that there are terms for reading Indiana better than I was able to:

no analysis…of Sand’s work can proceed without taking account of her … idealistic aesthetics, without rethinking idealism, idealism being understood here both as the heightening of an essential characteristic (the pretty and the beautiful, but also the ugly and the stupid), and the promotion of a higher good (freedom, equality, spiritual love).

Schor suggests that the opening of the novel is a kind of feint in the direction of Balzacian realism but that the novel moves towards idealism and, more particularly, towards allegory: “each protagonist incarnates an abstraction”–and she has plenty of suggestions about how to read the allegory. With hindsight, I see that it makes sense to read the novel in this way, as a philosophical exercise as much as an aesthetic one. It does read that way, in fact, with both narrator and characters prone to long disquisitions and high-falutin’ pronouncements.

Now, any fan of Middlemarch is in no position to object to philosophical fiction or long disquisitions. And anyone who has complained that Flaubert is all head and no heart probably shouldn’t turn around and complain about a novel that oozes heartfelt emotion from every painfully sincere sentenceBut here I go: Indiana is pretty dreadful. (Alternatively, I did a dreadful job reading Indiana.) The construction was so clumsy I swear sometimes I could actually hear the plot creaking; the elements of that plot range from bizarre to absurd; the paragraphs just go on and on and on; and the characterizations are at once laboured and strangely insubstantial.

If Indiana is meant to be read as an allegory, of course, then complex characterization would be out of place–but that impulse towards realism in the opening of the novel persists throughout, so that while at times people sort of fall into place and what seems to matter is the pattern they make, at others the book gives off every impression of at least trying to be significantly believable. Trying…and failing. My most frequent marginalia is The Exclamation Mark of Disbelief, as in, I can’t believe what just happened, or I can’t believe someone just said that! The love scenes are tedious to the extreme, and a lot of the rest is (inadvertantly, I’m pretty sure) weirdly hilarious. At one point Indiana tests her lover’s faithfulness by giving him what she claims is a clump of her hair, except that it’s actually someone else’s–why does Indiana have a stash of someone else’s hair in a box in her room?  He fails to recognize it as the hair of Indiana’s maid, whom he seduced and then abandoned. “Don’t you recognize that hair, then?” Indiana demands;

Have you never admired it, never caressed it? Has the damp night air made it lose all its fragrance? Haven’t you one thought, one tear, for the girl who use to wear this ring?

Just possibly, the hair has lost its fragrance because its original owner has been dead for some time. But such practical details aside, who makes up a scene like this and gives it to us to read? A trial by hair? The lover is a manipulative jerk, but at this point I sympathized when he “shuddered from head to foot and fell to the floor in a faint.” I think it was his organ of plausibility that shorted out there. (There’s a  great deal of fainting in the novel, just by the way, by men and women alike. It’s because they really, really feel everything, very, very deeply. All that emotion makes it hard to stand up.)

The novel culminates in a a suicide pact which brings Indiana and her faithful swain (not the manipulative jerk, but the pathetic one who has mooned around in the background for the entire novel) literally to the brink. Once there (after a four-month sea voyage, which you’d think might give them time for second thoughts, but no…) they talk for about THREE HOURS and then [SPOILER ALERT! IF ANYONE IS ACTUALLY PLANNING TO READ INDIANA AND WOULD LIKE TO BE SURPRISED, STOP HERE!]  finally jump, much to my great delight. I thought they were never going to get around to it! Except that, quite inexplicably, they didn’t, and they turn up a few pages later living in contented isolation having somehow (!!!) MISSED THE CLIFF IN THE DARK. Or something–even the would-be jumpers aren’t entirely sure what happened. Maybe they got dizzy and “mistook the direction of the path,” or maybe an angel saved them. Whatever.

Like poor Emma, Indiana got her romantic ideas from novels and imagines that love is all you need–provided it’s true love, perfect love, romantic love. “A day will come when my life will be completely changed,” she gushes; “it will be a day when I shall be loved and I shall give my whole heart to the man who gives me his.” While she waits for love, she is literally dying for lack of it: “An unknown sickness was consuming her youth. . . . her silent broken heart was still seeking a young, generous heart to bring it back to life.” At least in Madame Bovary the author knows his character’s fantasies are just that, but Sand throws herself, or at least her novel, wholeheartedly behind Indiana’s dream, even though it makes her vulnerable to the wiles of the manipulative jerk and completely ineffectual at everything else in her life. Sand is also fine, apparently, with the real true love being a fraternal figure to Indiana who eventually admits to having coveted her since she was about seven. But don’t worry: he “didn’t commit the crime of hurrying on by a single day the peaceful course of [her] childhood.” Whew! He would just “bathe [her] little feet in the pure water of this lake,” watch her sleeping, and “lift up [her] fine, silky hair, and kiss it lovingly.” That’s OK, then.

I thought (because it says so on the cover blurb) that Indiana was going to be “a powerful plea for change in the inequitable French marriage laws of the time.” It’s true that Indiana’s husband is a jealous, controlling jerk, that their marriage has nothing to do with love, and that when he discovers in her journals and letters the truth about her (unconsummated) affair with the other jerk, he “grabbed her by the hair, threw her down, and kicked her on the forehead with the heel of his boot.” It’s not hard to put together a plea for change based on the ingredients of the novel–but I had a hard time reading it as being primarily about that. Indiana doesn’t really spend much time realistically trying to get out of her marriage, and periodically she defends her husband and seems willing to conform to expectations. After the kicking-in-the-head scene, the narrator tells us that the husband is “certainly not a bad-natured man” but has just acted rashly out of “the feeling of the moment.” Indiana is intermittently eloquent about her legal subordination:

The law of the land has made you my master. You can tie up my body, bind my hands, control my actions. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it. But over my will, Monsieur, you have no power. God alone can bend and subdue it. So look for a law, a dungeon, an instrument of torture that gives you a hold over me! It’s as if you wanted to touch the air and grasp space.

But it didn’t seem to me that political liberty is what she really wants. She’s pining for her dream of love, and resents marriage primarily as an obstacle to that imagined fulfillment, not as a contradiction to some more fundamental right. She comes across as someone in the grip of an adolescent delusion who is too ignorant and selfish to focus on anything except her own immediate impulses. Her political speechifying is opportunistic and incidental (to her–it is thematically tied to the novel’s critique of slavery and political oppression, so less peripheral at that level).

Sand seems to be appealing to a Rousseauian ideal of a state of nature in which such impulses can flourish uninhibited (the moral we are offered, at the end of the novel, is “respect [society’s] laws if they protect you; value its judgments if they are fair to you. But if some day it slanders and spurns you, have enough pride to be able to do without it”). But I’m afraid I didn’t want Indiana to flourish. She had no sense of duty, no sense of loyalty, no self-awareness–in short, she was no Maggie Tulliver. If Madame Bovary made me yearn for the balance of intellect and emotion, philosophy and art, that is Middlemarch, this tedious novel about a girl’s passionate and self-indulgent quest for the perfect love and the resulting clash between her and Society made me appreciate all the more the moral complexity (not to mention the artistry and humor) of The Mill on the Floss.

You know what other book it made me appreciate? Madame Bovary. Huh.