Thursday, November 22, 2018

6 Novels for Fans of George Sand

The work of George Sand can seem virtually inexhaustible: she wrote two to three novels every year of her adult life, more than ten volumes of memoirs, many plays, and countless articles, letters, and other miscellany. Sand cultivated a robust sense of wit and regional humor, and even more robust sense of social purposefulness, attacking injustice vigorously, especially that of the inequality of the sexes under the law and the exploitation of the peasantry. Sand, being French, naturally enough wrote in French, and her work is not as widely available in English translation as her stature would lead one to expect. Though translations continue to be published, often by academic presses, the impassioned reader of George Sand may conceivably run through Indiana, The Miller of Angibault, LéliaConsuelo, etc., and be left looking for more. Here are six novels to fill the gap:

Shirley - Charlotte Brontë
The most socially invested of Charlotte Brontë's novels, Shirley follows its titular heroine's efforts to enact labor reform by reforming the labor practices on her own land. Shirley is in the unusual position of  being a young woman of independent means, no guardians, and a will to forge her own individual destiny. In contrast, the local mill owner, Robert Moore, is eager for progress obtained by any means, no matter how ruthless, whom Shirley hopes to reform and her friend Catherine, a beautiful orphan, hopes to interest in more romantic pursuits. The novel unites serious-minded inquiry into social reform, a vision of romance as the partnership of equals, rather than the domination of a man over a woman, and lush descriptions of pastoral and agricultural Yorkshire life; it is, thus, a fitting companion to George Sand's work, both her romans  champêtres ('rural novels') and her critiques of marriage, such as Indiana or Valvèdre.

North and South - Elizabeth Gaskell
Gaskell, too, explores the intersections of labor, reform, class, gender, and romance in the story of Margaret Hale, a young woman whose cleric father's spiritual crisis throws her into the turmoil of a Manchester-like factory city. Furious at the conditions under which the mill workers suffer, she sets herself against the hard indifference of John Thornton, the mill's owner and a man who knows nothing, and wants to know nothing, of charity. North and South dramatizes the opposition of true virtue and its mere appearance, as demanded by morally vacuous social norms. Like Sand, Gaskell portrays friendships across class, and even marriages across class, visions that may not strike us as utopian now, but that were downright radical in mid-nineteenth century Europe.

The Return of the Native - Thomas Hardy
Thomas Hardy, perhaps more than any other writer, French, English, or otherwise, is George Sand'a literary heir. He, too, wrote 'rural novels' and in them directed a near ethnographic eye on the customs of pastoral life that would disappear with the coming of the railroad, the tractor, and the urban boom. He, too, wrote novels that ostensibly take place in the world in which he wrote, but that nevertheless had a slight fairy touch of enchantment as eerie as it is charming. In Return of the Native, one of his greatest novels, Clym Yeobright returns to his native Egdon Heath from Paris and the diamond trade, where he is entranced by the witchily gorgeous (and exotic - she's half-Italian) Eustacia, but while he returns to what he sees as an idyll, all she wants to do is escape to the glamorous continent. Both a full-blooded melodrama and an incisive critique of the social ramifications of unbending marital and sexual mores.

Manon Lescaut - Antoine François Prévost
This novel inspired one great opera, by Massenet, and a very good one, by Puccini. It tells the story of the teenage Manon, lovely enough to inspire self-sacrificing adoration on the part of the Chevalier des Grieux, a disinherited aristocrat, and the lust of the wealthy M. G... M..., eager to pay for her services with jewels, gowns, delicacies, and whatever debauched fun she can invent - with the sole exception of the one she wants most, the attentions of Des Grieux. In other words, Manon is a doomed heroine the second she lets the veil covering her blue-eyed beauty drop away. Though nearly as salacious as Laclos's Les liaisons dangereuses, Manon Lescaut is far less cynical in its treatment of love. Its tragic denouement is equally one of redemptive catharsis. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin - Harriet Beecher Stowe
Like Sand, Stowe believed that social and moral change for the better could be best argued for through novels that dramatized the suffering of the innocent, the villainy of those who sustain and profit from injustice, and the way forward through both legal reforms and adopting a socially invested ethics. This novel, though rarely read today, has fallen into disrepute, due to the co-optation of its characters in racist minstrel shows, and it is undeniably old-fashioned in its lauding of Christ-like self-sacrifice and silent suffering as an ideal, but it is also one of the more nuanced abolitionist treatises written by a white person in the nineteenth century and remains a moving work of fiction.

Maria, or the Wrongs of Woman - Mary Wollstonecraft
Though George Sand was ambivalent about women as political actors (despite her own notable political activity during the 1848 Revolution), she was staunchly in favor of equality before the law and, like Wollstonecraft, argued that the problem with marriage was the near total tolerance of extreme abuse on the part of men and zero tolerance for women who committed the slightest transgression. This unfinished novel, a companion piece to her landmark A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, is about a woman whose brutal husband has her incarcerated in a mental asylum, though her 'insanity' is actually her objection to his lecherous extra-marital affairs and frittering away of their fortune. Lest the modern reader find this premise absurd, consider this: not only was this egregious practice entirely legal; it was common enough to be frequently cited by early feminists as an unassailable case of the injustice of inequality before the law.