Indiana by George Sand (1832, Translated from French by Sylvia Raphael, 271 pages, Oxford World Classics, with introduction by Naomi Schor)
Indiana was George Sand's (Amandine Aurore Dupin) first novel written without a collaborator. Sand is now much more known about than read. She was the daughter of a countess and was the wife of a Baron. She dressed largely in the clothing of men of her class, had affairs and relationships with numerous literary, artistic and musical figures. Her most famous romance was with Frederic Chopin. In a marvelous coincidence just as I completed Indiana the movie Impromptu based on the romance of Chopin and Sand was show on Sky Cable here in Manila. The movie is a comedy of sorts but it was a lot of fun to see Sand on screen. There are unverified to this day rumors of romantic relationships with other women also.
Indiana is set partially in Paris and partially on Reunion Island, a French possession (now legally part of France and in 1832 known as Bourbon Island) in the Indian Ocean about four hundred miles east of Madagascar. The island was populated by African Slaves, Chinese, Malays, and French Emigrants. It is a small island under 1000 square miles. In the 1830s it was important as a stopping off point for ships going from India to Europe. I was very interested to see the treatment and view of French people born on the island was very much like the view of English people born on Jamaica held by native Englishmen as seen in Wide Sargasso Sea. They were called creoles and the suggestion throughout Indiana is that creoles were more given to excesses than native Frenchmen and women. There also is an undercurrent in this book that creole women are more passionate than European French women and a further part of the attraction of island life for the men is the ready access to women of color.
There are six central characters in Indiana. Indiana is an attractive creole woman married by arrangement to a much older man, Colonel Delmare, a retired army officer. Indiana's cousin Ralph, close to her age, has been in love with her since they were children. He was married to Noun, a maid of Indiana who became like a sister to her. In a smaller role is the mother of Ralph. Indiana has a lot of themes. One of the strongest themes is a protest against the marriage laws of France which made a wife a virtual slave of her husband. Sand in her narrative voice makes some very powerful for the time (and now) statements for the rights of women and the alteration of marriage laws. Indiana is also about slavery which was practiced on Reunion Island as part of the sugar plantations. Again there are strong ties here with the world of Jamaica in the setting of Wide Sargasso Sea. Sugar plantations needed slaves to be profitable. There are a lot of dramatic (some would say over dramatic scenes) in Indiana, lots of passionate speeches and narrative theorizing and social commentary.
Indiana was my first George Sand. You can see it is a first novel as it is told in a self conscious fashion as if Sand were struggling with how to narrate the novel aside from going into a "dear readers let me tell you what happens next mode". For about the first half of the novel I was enjoying it and it was very interesting to me to read about life on the Island and see how Sand was using the novel as a vehicle for her ideas on women, marriage, and slavery. Then as I passed the mid-point of the novel somehow I did begin to see it as work of real brilliance. I am not sure if it is because Sand was learning as she was writing or if it was me learning how to read Sand. There are passages in the second half of the novel that are simply amazing. George Sand, it appears to me from quick research, never went to Reunion Island but her descriptions of the Island make us feel like we are there. We can feel the contrast of the tropical island with its at the time very exotic natives to Paris of the 1830s. The lush beauty and volcanic nature of the islands is dramatically conveyed. At one point I really felt like I was sitting on the veranda of a big house on a sugar cane plantation drinking what had to have been delicious locally grown coffee feeling the breezes from the high volcanic mountains flow over me while pushing to the back of my mind what the human cost of this leisure might have been.
George Sand (1804 to 1876) had a very interesting life. Wikipedia has a good article on her that goes into all her relationships with the famous and does talk about the evidence for her being a GLBT author. Sand had a huge literary output, writing well over sixty novels. I am including this book among my readings for the Women Unbound Challenge for its treatment of French Marriage Customs and slavery issues related to women on Reunion Island.
I will read other works by Sand. I would say be patient and opened minded and Indiana will well repay your reading time. The introduction to the book spends a lot of time relating the novel to 20th century theories of feminism and colonialism.