Tuesday, September 25, 2018

What George Sand Offers Twenty-First Century Feminists

When George Sand is remembered in the anglophone world, a rare occurrence to begin with, she is often evoked as a feminist figure, a woman who wore pants and smoked cigars, left her husband, enjoyed many love affairs, and supported herself and her children with her writing. It is this figure of social transgression, rather than her novels, her criticism, or her ideas that are remembered, this figure that gets cinematic treatment, for instance in Impromptu, in which she pursues her affair with Chopin, and in Children of the Century, in which she pursues her affair with Alfred de Musset. Sand's literary reputation in English has declined because shockingly few of her books are translated, most of those translations are only available in expensive editions published by academic presses, and, whereas during her lifetime any educated English-speaker had working knowledge of French, today French is no longer considered requisite for a good education.

As a result, Sand's reputation as a feminist lies almost exclusively on the way she has been represented, as a figure that anticipates many later feminist concerns. However, in her own time, Sand was controversial, not only for her personal life - including a much publicized separation from her husband, which made her the object of scandal, mockery, and severe censure - but for her novels. In Lettres d'un voyageur, a set of letters she chose to publish, some of them revisions of private missives to friends like Liszt and others meant as public avowals, the twelfth and last is addressed to a critic who, while praising her style, denigrated what he saw as the message of Sand's oeuvre: a condemnation of marriage.

Sand takes umbrage at this accusation. She insists that she does not condemn marriage as such, but rather that "Every kind of marriage will be intolerable so long as custom persists in showing unlimited indulgence to the errors of one sex while the austere and salutary rigour of past ages is retained solely to judge those of the other." In other words, Sand's critique of marriage is not an attempt to destroy the institution of marriage, but rather an insistence on marriage as a partnership rather than a system in which men take ownership of women from their fathers. So far, so modern! However, Sand's defense of such a vision of marriage rests on a foundation that we are less likely to recognize as feminist in twenty-first century terms. Rather than both sexes being granted the same indulgences and freedom, she contends that both sexes ought to be held to the same high moral standards that women alone were held to. For Sand, inequitable marriage customs corrupted marriage, by permitting licenses to the husband alone. Society's moral laxity is at fault, and the men who gleefully profit by it, but marriage could be re-sanctified under more rigorous moral conditions.

Sand agrees that novels, like fables and fairy tales, ought to have a moral: "I'd have thought that, since frivolous stories have to have some kind of moral, one might do well to adopt this one: 'Women's misconduct is very often the result of men's savagery and infamy.' Or this: 'Lying is not virtue: cowardice is not abnegation.' Or again, even this: 'A husband who light-heartedly neglects his responsibilities to indulge in blasphemy, merriment and drink is sometimes less excusable than the woman who betrays hers in tears, sufferings and propitiation.'" Marriage as a state is characterized, ideally, by mutual responsibility, respect, and selfless virtue. Far from hostile to marriage and domesticity, Sand instead exults them as ideals, but deplores the reality, which falls so astonishingly short of the ideal.

We often claim that a person of the past whose values at least superficially echo our own as being ahead of their time. This assumes that all history tends towards our present moment and inevitably develops towards a more perfect moral system, which assumes that the past is always inferior, and we are forever attaining the best of all possible worlds. It seems easy to call George Sand a woman ahead of her time - she had love affairs! she spent part of her life as a single mother! she earned her own living! she wore PANTS! However, that is an assessment that ignores the nuance and exactitude of her thinking. She hardly thought her status as a single mother, churning out upwards of ninety novels, thirty-some plays, and huge amounts of miscellany, was a liberated or happy one. Again and again, Sand attacked what she saw as the root of women's misery: the moral corruption of men, poisoning the very institutions that ought to have been the fortress of virtue. Divorce is a means of undoing damage, not granting freedom. In Indiana, the titular heroine's marriage is bad because her husband is an old man and she is only just of age and in Valv├Ędre, adultery with an adored lover is rendered bitter and hateful because it is merely another state of mutilated morality, in which loss and sin destroy ephemeral happiness. Divorce could avert tragedy, but only because the original marriages are morally corrupt. For Sand, the reform to be made is not just the legalization of divorce, though that's certainly a start, but rather a revolution in marital custom. Marriage ought to be based on both a reasonable assessment of how well-suited the prospective pair are in terms of age, temperament, and interests, and a response to the emotion we now take for granted in such relationships: do they love each other?

Thus, to merely claim George Sand as modern feminist lost in the nineteenth century is a shallow co-optation of a writer who, far from anticipating contemporary demands, represented an alternative to our own way of thinking, certainly contingent on her own historical moment, but one that might be worth revisiting, if only to force us to consider where our own values and notions of reform might be lacking.

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