George Sand defends women from the lines of “Indiana”

themes: periods: people:

The Mad Hatter, as everyone knows, is a very snarky character and, as all irriverent do, he appreciates his own.
One of his favourite characters is a woman with a mentality way out of her time.

I’m talking about George Sand, nom de plume of Aurore Dupin (1804-1876), a great writer, a very famous woman known for her many love affairs and important friendships (Franz Liszt, Frédéric Chopin, Honoré de Balzac, Eugène Delacroix, just to throw around some names), but above all a formidable intellectual, respected even in the highly misoginist setting of XIX century’s Paris.


George Sand portrayed by Nadar (1864)

Just today, when I went to the Mad Hatter for tea – as always, I was perfectly on time: it’s “always tea time” -, I caught my friend with his nose in a novel. As soon as he left the book unguarded to put the kettle on, I peeked at the pages and found out that it was “Indiana” (1842), the first of a long series of literary successes by George Sand.

Between the novel’s pages I found this underlined passage, a perfect example of the unruly temper of the author who, in an open challenge to her period’s social duplicity, she dares to denounce the ruthless indifference towards the condition of women:

“Do you know what do you mean, in the country, with “a honest man”? It’s the one who doesn’t trespass his neighbour’s field, who doesn’t ask his debtors for more than they owe him, who takes down his hat for everyone who greets him; it’s the one who doesn’t violate wenches on the public road, who doesn’t set anybody’s barn on fire, who doesn’t rob passerbys on his park’s corner. If he respects the life and the purse of his fellow countrymen, nobody will ask him to be accountable for nothing else. He can beat his wife, abuse his servants, ruin his children, that is nobody’s business. Society doesn’t disapprove acts that don’t concern it: private life is out of its jurisdiction.”

George Sand was touching a sensitive subject.
At the times, it wasn’t possible to arrest and punish people for the many abuses happening behind closed doors, just because they weren’t considered “detrimental” to society. Laws and regulations, often sanctimonious, moralistic and always unstoppable in judging someone’s behaviour, never peeked inside the windows. An abused wife couldn’t ask anybody for help, because domestic violence was “a private matter.”

Winterhalter dettaglio
Winterhalter, Louis-Philippe receives Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at d’Eu Castle (1846, detail)

A strong woman like Sand, who had ran away from bed and board, and an alcoholic husband, to follow her dream of a free and independent life, had decided to entrust her novels with the social messages she felt close to her heart.

Some told me they find George Sand’s novels unreadable.
This hasn’t surprised me, as it didn’t surprise me that, on the other hand, her personal correspondence and memoirs were widely appreciated.
To face the language of this woman’s work we have to consider that it is a direct child of the Romanticism, a cultural movement of which she had been one of the most important characters, and that has a deep difference of points of view and expressive style than modern novels.

Personally, to get ready to start reading Indiana, I tried to make an imagination effort and to put myself in a woman of the times’ shoes, forced in a corset to the brink of asphyxiation and tied to a man I didn’t love – that I even despised. This is the starting condition of Indiana, but this was the condition of many women of the time.
It had become easy, then, understand how such a work could make the victims of those “invisible” abuses that the novel report feel less alone.

Nohant’s Dining Room, George Sand’s house in Berry.

I think that, rather than pure entertainment, Sand’s novels today have to be considered more like a medium to understand a period.
We could then let ourselves be marveled by the freshness of some incredibly actual ideas, and we could grasp the difference between George Sand, who wrote to sell books and create hubbub, and Aurore, who poured her inner workings in heart-breaking letters and diaries full of poetry that reveal the depth of her spirit and the turmoil of her feelings.

(To know more about the brave choices of this tireless writer which earned her the respect of her peers, read George Sand: writing women are dangerous)