January 2015 The Novel and Idealism: George Sand’s ‘



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27 January 2015

The Novel and Idealism: George Sand’s ‘Francois le Champi’ (The Country Waif)



Dr Belinda Jack

The New Year is a good time to think ‘idealistically’. ‘Idealism’ is a word that has lost its glamour! It tends to be used pejoratively at the moment, suggesting a starry-eyed, unrealistic view of how things might be. Tonight I want to make a case for its possible validity in the face of cynicism, pessimism, and self-interested laissez-faire policies. George Sand [slide 1] (pseudonym of Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin 1804 – 8 June 1876), wrote to make a difference. She wrote for her contemporaries not for posterity, unlike most of her male writer-friends – I am thinking in particular of Gustav Flaubert [slide 2], author most famously of Madame Bovary (1856). Sand wrote in the hope of changing things and I believe that reading great writing can be equally transformative. It changes our understanding of ourselves, of others, of life. T.S.Eliot wrote, “We read many books, because we cannot know enough people.” 



This academic year we have been exploring the idea of literary genre [a class or category of writing that has a particular form, content, or technique]. Different literary genres allow for different kinds of exploration – of different kinds of human experience. Briefly, we might agree that the novel may be the best genre for exploring people living in society, the tensions between the individual and the group and how people may or may not succeed in making a good life for themselves. One of my contentions in relation to the novel as a form is that it is wonderfully capacious and baggy – you can stuff all sorts of different things of different sizes and shapes into it.

The first work we explored last autumn was Johnson’s brilliant story, Rasselas and we considered the capacity of the novel to explore the morality of the pursuit of happiness. Is it incumbent on us to seek happiness? Rasselas and his sister and friends choose to leave the Happy Valley and journey extensively and meet many people. But at the end they return home to Abyssinia. Whether or not they return to the Happy Valley itself is left ambiguous.

Rasselas is about our propensity for restlessness and our desire to search for what there may be beyond our known environs – whether literal or metaphorical. I wonder was T.S.Eliot thinking of Rasselas when he wrote these lines in Four Quartets:

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” 
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets(1943)

[slide 3]

[I wanted to quote from Eliot in part to commemorate a great poet 50 years after his death].

We moved on to Stendhal’s Le rouge et le noir and considered the degree to which the novel can allow us to understand political history in ways which are distinct from the insights of political history proper. The Restoration in nineteenth-century France was a time of extraordinary stasis and stagnation. It was a time when all manner of subjects were taboo. In many ways it was also a period of artistic inertia. These antitheses - of events, lively debate and artistic innovation – are very difficult to convey within the constraints of politico-historical narrative. But the vagaries and acceptable ambiguities of literary narrative, on the other hand, allow for the creation of an immensely plausible social atmosphere which gives us a vivid sense of this peculiar moment in French social and political history. Reading Stendhal’s extraordinary novel we feel that we know what it would have been like to have lived then and there. Stendhal does all this with brilliant, ironic humour. And as a novelist he does not need to provide a convincing conclusion. By omitting the most important event of the year he claims to be chronicling – the revolution of 1830 – he avoids any suggestion that this was the pivotal turning point. We expect explanations and answers from historians; but not from novelists. Novels need satisfying endings, not convincing conclusions. It is a useful distinction: one is formal or aesthetic, the other is intellectual.

Tonight we will be considering George Sand’s novel, François le Champi, written in 1847, and finally published in 1848 in a Belgian edition, and in a French edition in 1850. This was because of the political upheavals of 1848. Sand lived through multiple political shifts and she took a great interest in them. Not only that, she was also very involved in the revolution of 1848. As well as writing novels and plays, she wrote essays and journalistic pieces. This range was highly unusual for a woman at the time. When I was writing my biography of her I was keen to try to explain what had made her so exceptional, and exceptional in so many ways. In the end I emphasised her unusual origins and upbringing. Her father was of aristocratic lineage and her mother, at best, an ‘actress’. Her father died very early in her life and her mother struggled to bring her up. Aged four she was given to her paternal grandmother, and she moved from Paris to the country, to her grandmother’s estate at Nohant [slide 4] in the Indre Department of France. Her grandmother was a grande dame of the eighteenth century, well-read, highly principled and formal. The adjustment cannot have been easy but her grandmother was a great admirer of Rousseau and believed in giving Aurore immense freedom to roam the estate and to mix with the peasants who ran things. She listened to their stories by the fireside and learnt berrichon, the local patois, or dialect [In the 19th c. at least 50 major dialects in France]. She had started her life being read fairytales by her mother and then, at Nohant, lived between the formal and intellectual world of her grandmother and the intimate, homely world of the peasants on the estate. At the same time she moved between two languages – formal French and berrichon. As she reached adolescence her grandmother thought she had become somewhat wild and sent her to an English convent in Paris – another shock to the system. She married young and unhappily and decided to head for Paris to make her own way. And she soon discovered that writing was one of the few means of earning her living. She also discovered that she wrote with relative ease. There isn’t time to continue with her life-story. I hope what I have already said gives some idea as to why she may have lived the life she did, why she cared about the impoverished, why she had such a good ear for language and perhaps why she was a natural story-teller.

But I do not just want to talk about Sand tonight, I also want to talk about ‘The Novel and Idealism’. What do I mean by ‘Idealism’? I categorically do not mean philosophical idealism. In philosophy, idealism, as I understand it, is the group of philosophies which assert that reality, or reality as we can know it, is fundamentally mental, mentally constructed, or otherwise immaterial. I would like to propose a definition of Idealism formulated by Pierre Leroux [slide 5], who was also a Christian Socialist or Utopian Socialist. He was a close friend of Sand. In 1841 he had established the Revue indépendante, with her help, and he exerted considerable influence over her. He r Spiridion(1839), was dedicated to him, and Sept cordes de la lyre (1843), Consuelo (1843), and  La Comtesse de Rudolstadt (1843), were all inspired by his Humanitarian Socialism.

Leroux’s definition of Idealism is as follows:

Let us call Idealism the belief in the power and the benevolence of ideas. An idealist will be someone who believes in tomorrow, that is, who believes that today’s reality is the result of yesterday’s thought and that tomorrow’s reality will be the result of today’s thought. [Oeuvres, p. 149]

Leroux – and George Sand – believed in the power of ideas to effect change. Today’s derogatory connotations of naïve and impractical beliefs in some unspecified but better world are not those of Sand and Leroux’s Idealism.

So what are the ideas explored in Sand’s story?

Like her grandmother, Sand was influenced by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rouseau’s theories of the happiness of primitive man as well as Leroux’s socialism. François le Champi can be read as an empirical exploration, an experiment, in social conditioning. The subject of Sand’s experiment is the title’s eponymous François who arrives in Cormouer, a small village in rural France. He is a champi, a child who has been abandoned in the fields; derived from the noun un champ, the French for ‘a field’. Some historians have estimated that the pressures of economic deprivation and the stigma associated with illegitimacy contributed to some one in thirty babies being abandoned in France at this point. [Fermigier’s preface, pp.20-29]

So here is a character who has not been influenced in any way by industrial, urban society – or indeed any society at all - but rather by Nature. At the very beginning of the novel François’ illegitimacy is underlined. The heroine of the story, Madeleine Blanchet, the miller’s wife, meets François, at the lavoir or public clothes washing place:

‘Comment t’appelles tu? Reprit Madeleine Blanchet… [What’s your name?, Madeleine Blanchet continued]



  • François, répondit l’enfant [François, the child replied.]

  • François qui? [François who ?]

  • Qui ? dit l’enfant d’un air simple. [Who ? said the child naively]

  • A qui es-tu fils ? [Whose son are you ?]

  • Je ne sais pas! [I don’t know !]

  • Tu ne sais pas le nom de ton père ! [You don’t know your father’s name?]

  • Je n’en ai pas. [I don’t have one.]

  • Il est donc mort ? [So he’s dead ?]

  • Je ne sais pas. [I don’t know.]

A little later François says, ‘Vous demandiez comment je m’appelle ? On m’appelle François le Champi’ (Live de poche (ldp), pp. 32-35.) [You were asking me what I am called. I am called François le champi.]

In the nineteenth century champis were social outcasts, presumed to be liars and thieves. One of the main ideas, that is explored in Sand’s novel, is the notion that if cared for and loved, Champis can become good members of society like other children.

The reader of Sand’s novel is told early on that François is ‘un être pur’ (‘a pure being’). When Madeleine realises that the boy has a fever she washes him and leaves him sleeping while she returns home with half her load of washing, intending to return to the boy and the second half of her load. François wakes before she has returned and his ‘natural instinct’ is to find his ‘mother’. He picks up the shawl Madeleine had wrapped him in, her washing beater and her soap, and finds her. When he returns her things Madeleine says, ‘tu n’es pas si bête que je croyais, toi, car tu es serviable, et celui qui a bon cœur n’est jamais sot…’ [Sand’s ellipsis; You’re not as stupid as I thought, you, because you’re helpful, and anyone with a good heart is never dumb.]

In the provincial French context, we know that goodness equates with intelligence; the opposite pairing is ‘bête et méchant’ (‘stupid and bad’). Madeleine goes on to support François - and Isabelle (the impoverished neighbour who has taken François in, in part for the small financial return that this brings). Later he becomes part of the Blanchet household. Madeleine teaches him to read, has him prepared for his first communion and watches him grow into a decent, strong, fine-looking young man.

The Miller has a mistress and she stirs up her husband’s jealousy by insinuating that Mme Blanchet and François have an adulterous relationship – which they do not. François is forced to leave, not knowing the reason for his expulsion but believing what Madeleine tells him, namely that he has reached an age when he must now go out into the world and make his own way. After his departure both Madeleine and François fall ill – symptomatically - but are not wholly incapacitated. The implication is that their separation is damaging to their physical and mental health. In other words it is an ‘unnatural’ way for them to have to live.

Their separation lasts three years and twists in the plot make his return to the mill plausible. By this point the miller has died and Madeleine is in need of help. François is in a position to repay the kindness she showed him as a boy.

The reader is well- prepared for the quasi-Oedipal – or recognition – scene as François has, ‘par la volonté du Bon Dieux’ [By the Grace of the Good Lord] over-heard two other characters explaining the reason for his original expulsion from the mill, ie the allegation that he and Madeleine are lovers.

Et voilà que tout d’un coup François la vit toute jeune et la trouva belle comme la bonne dame, et le cœur lui sauta comme s’il avait monté au faîte d’un clocher. Et il s’en alla coucher dans son moulin où il avait son lit bien propre dans un carré de planches emmi les saches de farine. Et quand il fut là tout seul, il se mit a trembler et à étouffer comme de fievre. Et si, il n’était malade que d’amour, car il venait de se sentir brûlé pour la première fois par une grande bouffée de flamme, ayant toute sa vie chauffé doucement sous la cendre.’

[And then suddenly François recognised that she was a young woman and found her as beautiful as the Virgin Mary, and his heart leapt as though he had climbed to the pinnacle of a bell tower. And he went off to sleep in his mill where he had his clean and tidy bed made out of planks among the bags of flour. And when he was there, quite alone, he started to tremble and to struggle for breath, as though feverish. And yes, he was only lovesick, as he had just been burnt for the first time by a great flame, having all his life kept warm gently under the cinders.]


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