Friday, October 24, 2008

George Sand's peasants - there is no language in which to express my conception of rustic simplicity

The peasants in The Devil's Pool do not sound much like peasants. They speak in long, flowing paragraphs, like they're in La Nouvelle Héloïse. George Sand apologized for this at the beginning of the marvellous appendix, and returned to the subject a few years later in another short novel, François le Champi / François the Waif (1850).

François begins with a long, curious dialogue between "George Sand" and a friend, which is mostly a dullish argument about the relationship bewteen nature and art. "Sand" says that she is constrained by French from depicting peasants in a truthful manner:

"'No,' I answered, ' for there is no form for me to adopt, and there is no language in which to express my conception of rustic simplicity. If I made the labourer of the fields speak as he does speak, it would be necessary to have a translation on the opposite page for the civilised reader; and if I made him speak as we do, I should create an impossible being, in whom it would be necessary to suppose an order of ideas which he does not possess.'" (Introduction, p. 138)

Sand's friend tells her that she did a pretty good job with the peasants in The Devil's Pool, but could do better. Sand agrees to try again; François le Champi is the result.

"'One moment.' said my severe auditor, 'I must object to your title. Champi is not French.'

'I beg your pardon,' I answered. 'The dictionary says it is obsolete, but Montaigne uses it, and I do not wish to be more French than the great writers who have created the language.'"

There are some things about French literature I will never understand.

Maybe I should say here that although I can recommend The Devil's/Haunted Pool/Pond without reservation, the same is not true of François the Waif, a story of an orphan and his foster mother that is by no means bad, but is pretty thin stuff.

Anybody want to champion other George Sand books? Here's Dorothy W., a couple of years ago, writing about Indiana; she convinces me that it's an interesting period piece, but not much more than that. Are the Consuelo novels good? It doesn't seem right that George Sand is now most famous for her romance with Chopin. But she wrote so many books that are so little read now, it's hard to know what to make of her.


  1. I admit, I haven't read any of Sand's novels. George Eliot was a fan, and Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote two sonnets to her, so in theory at least I'm giving her the benefit of the doubt...maybe one day.

  2. Remembered only for her affairs? No, she is also remembered for wearing pants and smoking. I'll admit I knew all of these things and couldn't name a work of hers.

  3. "Thou large-brained woman and large-hearted man,/ Self-called George Sand!" Makes her sound macroencephalic. Boy are those E. B. Browning poems not to my taste.

    More importantly - ha, I knew it! I was sure George Eliot knew Sand's work.

    I assume that most people know Sand through Impromptu. Is it worth seeing? It has Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset! Judy Davis, Emma Thompson, very promising.

    I also see (on that people actually used to make movies out of George Sand novels. Used to = 1920s. The Devil's Pool was filmed in 1923.

  4. Everyone should visit George Sand's chateau in Nohant (if you put a cross in the dead centre of France, that's about where it is). The dining table is set for dinner with place settings for Turgenev, Chopin, Balzac... And there's a wonderful small-scale home theatre, where they put on plays and puppet plays. There's a fantastic atmosphere. And, talking of being remembered only for affairs, all the bedrooms lead off a single connecting corridor, like the stage set of a French farce.

  5. French readers planning their George Sand vacation should go here.

    French non-readers can see photos of the house here.

    Amazing. Thanks, Neil. Yes, a must.