Monday, May 20, 2019

George Sand: Indiana

The colorful life of George Sand (1804-1876) is perhaps better known than her writing. Her name conjures the image of the pants-wearing, tobacco-smoking gender nonconformist who counted among her lovers Chopin, the author Alfred de Musset, and the actress Marie Dorval. She was the friend of Liszt, opera singer Pauline Viardot and the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, and corresponded with Balzac, Alexandre Dumas fils, and Flaubert.

She was also, of course, an astonishingly prolific writer who produced five dozen novels, two dozen plays, hundreds of pages of essays and at least 20,000 letters (Flaubert began each of his letters to her with the salutation Chère Maître (Dear Master)). For some time I had been curious about her work and what had made her such a popular writer, but the sheer volume of her output was daunting: where to begin? Then I serendipitously came across her late novel Marianne (1876) in a used bookstore, and thought the time was right to begin exploring. I wound up reading backwards through her work, starting with Marianne, continuing with the mid-period novels Consuelo (1842) and Lucrezia Floriani (1846) and then ending (at least for now) with the first novel she wrote as sole author, Indiana (1832).

The birth of George Sand

In January 1831 the 26-year-old Aurore Dudevant, unhappy wife and mother, negotiated a partial separation from her incompatible husband and travelled to Paris to be with her much younger lover, Jules Sandeau. This was the Paris of Henri Murger's memoir-novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème, which later became the basis of Puccini's opera La Bohème. There was political ferment in the air and unrest in the streets of the bohemian quarter; the July Revolution that had overthrown Charles X had taken place only six months earlier. Authority—of all kinds—was being questioned.

Aurore Dudevant; portrait by Candide Blaize, 1830 (detail). Image: Musée Carnavelet

Aurore needed to find a means of supplementing the meagre allowance her husband provided her, and together with Sandeau began writing anonymous columns for the newspaper Le Figaro. But Aurore had literary ambitions beyond journalism. Writing articles covered her daily expenses, but she wanted to write fiction (which was also better-paid). She began to dress in men's clothes; they were much more practical, in particular, for theater-going. Wearing a suit and metal-heeled boots she could buy a ticket for the parterre (main floor) where the audience stood or sat on benches; women, with their voluminous dresses, had to sit in the roomier boxes, which were much more expensive. Dressed as a man Aurore was able to fully indulge her love of theatre and opera. She wrote a friend, "When one wants to write, one must see everything, know everything, laugh at everything. Ah, believe me, vive la vie d'artiste! Our motto is liberty!" [1]

George Sand in men's clothes; portrait by Eugene Delacroix, November 1834. Image: Musée Delacroix

Among the performers she witnessed was Maria Malibran as Desdemona in Rossini's Otello: "She made me weep, shudder, and suffer as though I had been watching a scene from real life. This woman is the foremost genius of Europe, as lovely as a Raphael Madonna, simple, energetic, naïve, she's the foremost singer and the foremost tragedian. I'm mad about her." [2]

Maria Malibran as Desdemona; portrait by François Bouchot (1834). Image:

Malibran inspired Aurore and Sandeau to write La Prima Donna, a short story which was published in April 1831 in La Revue de Paris under the joint pseudonym Jules Sand, although it was probably primarily Aurore's work.

Image from; original from Princeton University

It is the tragic tale of a star opera singer who is forced to retire from the stage after her marriage. She is languishing away when her husband finally relents. Her return to the stage in a performance of Romeo and Juliet is greeted rapturously by the public, but at the conclusion of the opera she collapses and dies. (It's an eerie coincidence that Malibran herself would collapse onstage at the end of a concert in September 1836 and die a week later; at the time of her death she was only 28.)

Aurore's fascination with Malibran is also apparent in Rose et Blanche, a full-length novel about two convent girls, one of whom becomes an opera singer and the other of whom becomes a nun.

Image from the Internet Archive (

Although written collaboratively with Sandeau, the narrative obviously drew heavily on Aurore's experiences of attending a convent school between the ages of 13 and 16 and also on her love of opera. Published in five volumes in December 1931, it appeared under the name J. Sand.

Aurore was under no illusions about the literary quality of Rose et Blanche—she called it "a wretched novel of no consequence" [3]—but she had another novel in mind that would be more personal. This one she wrote entirely on her own, and although she offered to issue it under the name J. Sand, Sandeau refused to be associated with it because of its scandalous themes. So Aurore devised a new pseudonym for herself: G. Sand.

Image from French Wikipedia (

No one has failed to point out that Indiana was about me and my life. That is absolutely untrue.
—George Sand [4]
Sand's claim is scarcely credible. Many of the characters and incidents in Indiana seem drawn directly from her life; she wrote autofiction before the word was invented.

Indiana is a young woman (19 when the novel opens) trapped in a loveless—and probably sexless—marriage with the much older Colonel Delmare. She falls in love, passionately but chastely, with her dashing neighbor Raymon de Ramière. She and Raymon meet when she tends to him after he is wounded by Delmare while climbing the wall into their garden late at night for an assignation with Indiana's creole servant Noun. Meanwhile, Indiana's reserved, taciturn cousin Sir Ralph Brown immediately perceives what is going on between Indiana and Raymon, and goes to extraordinary lengths to try to protect her from Raymon's selfish desires, her husband's jealous anger, and her own self-destructive impulses.

The unconsummated love affair between Indiana and Raymon seems to combine two situations from Sand's past. At age 17 Sand had emerged into social life after several years in a convent school. She quickly fell in love with a new acquaintance, the 30-year-old infantry lieutenant Prosper Tessier. But she was shocked when one day he suggested that their relationship should move beyond the platonic to the carnal. For him, meaningful glances, billets-doux and long horseback rides together evidently weren't sufficient manifestations of her love. An outraged Aurore rejected his proposal. As Indiana tells Raymon when he tries to seduce her, "'The insensitivity of your romantic and guilty plan wounded me very deeply. I believed then that you loved me—and you did not even respect me!'" (Ch. XII)

Perhaps, then, Aurore was on the rebound when, a few weeks later, she accepted the marriage proposal of another man. Ex-officer Casimir Dudevant was unprepossessing in appearance and almost a decade older than Aurore. He didn't offer Aurore love, but rather "eternal friendship"; he thought she would be a good match for him because of her "good and reasonable air." After their marriage in September 1822—she was 18, he was 27—it quickly became apparent that they were not well suited. As Sand describes Casimir Dudevant's fictional counterpart Colonel Delmare, "He treated all delicacies of the heart as feminine puerilities and sentimental subtleties. [He was] a man devoid of wit, tact, and education. . .His was thus the most antipathetic nature, the heart least made to comprehend, the mind the least capable of understanding his wife." (Ch. X)

Increasingly frustrated in her marriage, Aurore embarked after a few years on another platonic romance. Aurélien de Sèze was engaged to another woman, but he and Aurore exchanged murmured endearments, clandestine embraces, semi-chaste kisses and impassioned letters, all with Casimir's unhappy awareness and reluctant acquiescence. The meetings of Indiana and Raymon, where he is all impetuous desire while she, with ever-weakening resistance, insists on remaining physically faithful to her husband, probably draw heavily on these experiences.

Indiana is ultimately disappointed in both her lover and her husband.  Neither of them treats her as anything more than a means of gratifying his own needs; neither takes Indiana's thoughts and feelings into consideration, or thinks of her as his equal. Indiana writes to Raymon, "You [men] think yourselves masters of the world; I think you are only its tyrants" (Ch. XXIII). And when one day on her return from Raymon's her husband demands to know where she spent the previous night, she refuses to tell him: "You have no right to ask me that question. . .I know that I am the slave and you are the master. The law of the land has made you my master. You can bind my body, tie my hands, govern my acts. You have the right of the stronger, and society confirms you in it; but you cannot command my will, monsieur." (Ch. XXI)

Only the quiet, dependable Sir Ralph (who providentially turns up to rescue her in every moment of crisis) treats Indiana with respect.  He has loved her silently since they grew up together on Île Bourbon. Ultimately, in retreat from the crushing sorrows occasioned by her husband's cruelty and her lover's betrayal, Indiana returns there with Sir Ralph to try to find some residual traces of happiness from their bucolic childhood together.

The novel originally ended with Sir Ralph's confession of his love, followed by a double suicide. In the final version the two are discovered years later living together, sequestered from the world in a remote hut. Either version seems to point to the impossibility of woman's happiness and fulfillment within conventional marriage, a theme that Sand would return to repeatedly in her later novels.

Indiana was widely praised and became a huge success. Sand's literary future, at least in the near term, was assured. But as she embarked on her new novel Valentine over the summer of 1832, "working like a horse," it was becoming clear that Jules Sandeau lacked both her drive and her talent. [5] He had provided a reason for separation from her husband and had been a useful entrée into the Paris literary world, but he had become a financial and artistic burden rather than a collaborative partner. While Sand retained affection for him, she no longer needed him and did not lack for other admirers. Her next great love would be a man who was more her equal in literary talent: Alfred de Musset. In the meantime she would enjoy her fame and her sexual freedom. Henceforth her motto would indeed be "liberté!"

For further reading: George Burnham Ives' serviceable translation of Indiana.

Other posts in this series:  

  1. Quoted in Curtis Cate, George Sand: A Biography. Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 177. 
  2. Quoted in Cate, p. 178.
  3. Quoted in Cate, p. 191. 
  4. Quoted in Elizabeth Harlan, George Sand. Yale University Press, 2004, p. 143. 
  5. Quoted in Cate, p. 208.