In a strange way, your novel Valentine (1832) made me feel at home. Not a home I currently inhabit, nor a place where I am particularly inclined to come back any time soon, but my first literary home: the books I used to read as a child; tragic stories, full of impassionate heroes who could not help but confidently march toward disaster.
The novel revolves around a forbidden love story set in rural France. The protagonist, Valentine de Raimbault, is a naive eighteen-year-old girl, born into an aristocratic family. When we meet her, she is betrothed to a man of high rank, a young diplomat named Évariste de Lansac. It is an arranged marriage, but Valentine is obedient enough to go through with the scheme of things.
We already know, however, that, despite her fortitude, she is bound to fall in love with a man everyone considered wrong for her. Bénédict Lhéry, the nephew of one of the chateau’s tenant farmers, is a 22-year-old educated peasant of some means, who had just returned from Paris. He had been sent there to study, and now he is engaged with his frivolous cousin, Athénaïs.
To make matters more complicated, we learn that Valentine had a sister, Louise, who had been cast off by her family after giving birth to a son out of wedlock. After an estrangement of 15 years, Louise is back, intent on meeting Valentine before her marriage to M. de Lansac. And, lo and behold: Louise will also become romantically attracted to Bénédict, who will then be torn between the love of three women.
This is a rather meaty material for drama, and you let the love quadrangle and the social class clashes unfold. The narrative is surprisingly engaging, full of sudden shifts at every turn of page. At first, the characters seem to be fixed stereotypes, but then they soon change into something else, or reveal some new side we didn’t know.
Take M. de Lansac, for example. Initially, he seems a good fellow, attentive to Valentine’s needs, polite and affable, even if a little boring. Two or three pages afterwards, however, we have a dissolute man who is only interested in Valentine’s dowry. By the end, he has become an indifferent husband, and I even started to find his cynical, matter-of-fact voice a refreshing interlude in the midst of so much drama. Louise is another character who undergoes abrupt and unexpected changes in our eyes. From a generous, modest woman who nurtured a great affection for Valentine, she turns into a jealous sister, just because of Bénédict.
The way you develop your characters was a bit disappointing though: either you keep some important feature hidden from the reader until a more convenient moment; or you convey a personality change in a brusque way. There is no subtlety here, and no ambiguity either. The characters go from one extreme to another, and we only have a brief glimpse at the complexity of the middle ground.
I confess that your ideas were more interesting to me here than the way you put them into fiction. For instance, you approach the topic of women’s lack of education and women’s diminished role in public life. Valentine voices her dissatisfaction with the fact that women are not given equal education; she fiercely opposes the fact that women are only trained in frivolous skills, as well as the fact that they are led to regard marriage as their only aspiration in life.
Furthermore, you convey the many ways women were impaired by the institutions they were forced to abide to. The novel is an open indictment of arranged marriages, as well as of rigid social norms and class prejudices. You point out to the hypocrisy of it all: while marriage based on love (as it would be between Valentine and Bénédict) is socially condemned and even forbidden, arranged marriages (like that of Valentine and M. de Lansac, made out of greed, social position or convenience) are not only accepted but encouraged.
You throw your heroine in the middle of a whirlwind: if she rebels against her family and her husband, she fears not so much to be turned into an outcast, but to breach a moral duty to her family; if instead she gives up her genuine love and gives in to society in the name of respectability, she will also breach a moral duty to be truthful to what she feels. There is no way out of this mess for our poor Valentine. The more she acts virtuously, the more she will be debased. As she will conclude later on, “they all treated my virtue with incredible levity. I alone, whom they all accused of guilt, had a true conception of the grandeur of my duties.” Under the guise of propriety and respectability, only ambition or dissolution were to be found. “They urged me to sin, and exhorted me only to make a show of virtue.”
There is also a subtle feminist undercurrent in the book. Both Louise and Valentine try to make their way as independent women: Louise, by bringing up her son alone; Valentine, by refusing to submit to both her husband and her lover. In the midst of a novel full of the expected elements of its genre, you subtly put forward a radical proposition: rather than in marriage, the characters find happiness in a new arrangement, a community built out of elective affinities; rather than conceding to the traditional family arrangement, you redeem illegitimacy.
Your novel is a difficult thing to define: if we dismiss it as romantic nonsense, we will be bypassing its social commentary. The book presents a strange combination of features: it has radical social ideas buried deep beneath a heavy blanket of conservative (sometimes even cheap) aesthetic elements. We have to bite into the superficial layer of romantic drama (full of attacks of hysteria and suicide threats; full of people hiding behind curtains and dying from sorrow), in order to come to the heart of the matter – the sharp social criticism that offers no easy answer to the questions it raises.
“The count was refined in manner, if not in heart. He could not at that moment avoid the reflection that the chaste and sanctified institution of marriage had been shockingly debased in its progress through the avaricious centuries of our civilization.” – George Sand, Valentine
“All this is sublime, my dear, but it is absolutely rediculous. You are very wrong; take a friend’s advice: a woman should never take her husband for her confessor (…). I have done enough for you, it seems to me, by closing my eyes; you have opened them by force. That being so, I must run away, for my position in relation to you here is intolerable, and we could not look at each other without laughing.” – George Sand, Valentine
“Every day, in the name of God and society, some clown or some dastard obtains the hand of an unfortunate girl, who is forced by her parents, her good name or her poverty to stifle in her heart a pure and sanctified love. And before the eyes of society, which approves and sanctions the outrage, the modest, trembling woman, who has been unable to resist the transports of her lover, falls dishonoured beneath the kisses of a detested master! and this must go on!” – George Sand, Valentine