“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.

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

  1. September 17, 2012 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

    So maybe no one at all reads Indiana anymore. But then how does Oxford keep the book in print?

    It has always sounded like a period piece to me, much like Paul et Virginie, more important to know about then to read. You have only reinforced that idea. But I am glad to now know more about the book!

  2. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    September 18, 2012 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

    We wondered about the OUP logic during our book club discussion. (There was at least one person in the group who wholeheartedly enjoyed the novel, just by the way. Most of us were more ambivalent, though everyone found it interesting to discuss.) My theory was that it’s a useful teaching length and probably works well in courses with an intellectual history / revolutionary philosophy angle, where the allegorical and political elements would, presumably, be contextualized. I read Paul et Virginie for a course of that kind, as I recollect–so, more, as you suggest, as a period piece, representative of a set of ideas and ideals, and less as an example of high art.

    Though I’m in no hurry to read more Sand, I’m going to keep Consuelo in mind, so thanks for that tip. Any writer beloved of EBB and George Eliot deserves a second chance. On the other hand, Eliot loved Sir Charles Grandison

  3. September 18, 2012 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Well, umm, at least it DID make you appreciate Madame Bovary, so that’s a sort of shaky tick in a box, right? I used to teach George Sand and I found her novels interesting as quite complex portraits of politicised gender relations way way back in the 1830s. What always makes me laugh when I read your posts about books you’ve read and I’ve had to teach is the way that when I read them all those years ago, it never occurred to me to ask myself if I LIKED them. I was just interested in knowing whether I could say something interesting about them. If I could then they were good cannon fodder and I appreciated them for fulfilling their purpose. I do wonder whether this says something very odd about me indeed. Well, in case you are interested, I posted a review of this quite a while back, and it’s essentially the line I used to take when I taught it: http://litlove.wordpress.com/2006/10/31/george-sands-indiana/

    If you ever feel you could face her again, my own preference is for Mauprat, a sort of proto-feminist rewriting of Beauty and the Beast, in which a young woman ‘tames’ her wild cousin and forces him to get an education so that he is worthy of marrying her. Oh and then they all end up in the American War of Independence, I think. Still a bit random, still troubled with idealism, still an odd romp in places, but more coherent than Indiana is.

  4. Rohan's Gravatar Rohan
    September 18, 2012 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    Litlove, thank you so much for the link to your post — I learned so much from it, much more than I did from whisking through the rather more dense and abstract introduction to my edition. I didn’t realize the Slaves had read this! 2006 is before I had even started my own blog: that’s how behind I am (or how advanced you all were).

    You are spot on, of course, about the difference between reading something for teaching and reading something and asking if you like it. I think when we work on books that we find interesting, we often do end up liking them, or at least liking them much better than we would if we hadn’t found out so much about them. But at least initially, the two questions (is this interesting? do I like this?) are not at all the same thing, are they? I let myself off the hook here and just went with my gut reaction–which is the great fun of a blog. But at the same time I couldn’t help but be aware that it is possible to be much smarter and less snarky about this strange novel.

  5. September 18, 2012 at 10:48 pm | Permalink

    litlove’s post (which I wish I had read before) shows that the issue is much deeper than liking or disliking the book. You, litlove, write a fine precis on what the novel is about – “this is a text about” and so on, but you write little on what I conventionally think of as the art of the novel. Thus no need to give any examples of the actual text. Summary – a complex summary – is sufficient.

    And then if you want the close reading is presumably the next step – the art of the novel’s rhetoric or how the allegories are constructed or something like that.

    I am just saying, if what is most interesting about a novel is its subject or, I don’t know, ideology, you approach a book from one direction; if the most interesting thing is how it is written, you come in from a whole ‘nother side.

  6. September 19, 2012 at 4:43 am | Permalink

    Rohan, I completely agree that the do I like it/ is it interesting approach is very much an either/or option and if you don’t have to teach a book it can be really hard to get into. Take Holocaust literature, for instance, which I used to read fairly unproblematically back in the day. Now, I find I’m loathe to go near it, because I’m not insulated by the sort of critical distance I employed to read-for-teaching, and can’t seem to summon it up.

    Then as Tom says, there are other approaches, like the close textual one. What seems to emerge from this is that unwittingly we always choose a perspective when we read, and whilst that perspective opens us up to a whole host of things, it inevitably closes us down to others. We’re always choosing, and we never get to see it all. And that gives us the happy option of returning again and again to a book, and getting more out of it.

    I confess, Tom, that I am such a verbose person with so much to say that I tend to avoid quotation as it uses up too many words I want for myself! And then I just like to talk about what happens in the book and what I think it means. I’m simply not so sensitive to questions of artistry.

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