Georges Sand: The Maternal Vision

Georges Sand’s literary works are revolutionary expressions of her convictions.  This iconoclastic novelist is revered as one of the most influential French writers of the nineteenth century.  Sand’s ability to articulate her experiences as a woman, writer, and mother enabled her to capture the dynamic nature of motherhood on paper.  Like all timeless collections of literature, her novels exist today as tangible, beautiful representations of truth.  In her venerated work of fiction Valentine, Sand explores the full influence that traditional gender roles had on her writing.  Her novel Consuelo, A Romance of Venice delves deeper into the powerful relationship between motherhood and the writer.  Georges Sand wrote with the honest wisdom that she accumulated through a lifetime of experience in all her female roles.  These novels reflect a point of view that was impossible for male writers to conceive. The female characters embody a visionary image of womanhood that includes realistic characteristics; the women are pragmatic, courageous people who struggle with all the harsh realities of lust, hate, and the inescapable influence of a mother’s love.  Sand proved that mothers are not saints; moreover, they are simply human beings.  These mothers have varying maternal experiences and affect their children in different ways. 

Sand’s novel Valentine features an unforgettable, daring female heroine.  The title character, Valentine, is established as one of literature’s most versatile personalities; moreover, she is as relevant today as she was in the year of the book’s release, 1832.  In this work of literature, Sand manipulates a polemic mixture of revolutionary concepts.  Valentine, an aristocrat, falls in love with a farmer from a lower social class.  Her love for this man, Benedict, transcends material trappings like socioeconomic status in an age when most relationships were sanctioned by strict traditions.  Another layer of this scandalous story is the fact that Valentine is engaged to Monsieur de Lansac, a wealthy courtier, when she falls in love with Benedict.  Her decisive nature and unwavering sense of initiative are considered wholly masculine traits at this time.  In endowing Valentine with the courage to honor her convictions, Sand created a more complete image of femininity that included the capacity to gain respect as a peer in romantic relationships.  This argument is confirmed in literary criticism that references the female characters in Sand’s novels: “Sand continually uses the image of the woman/slave in her correspondence, autobiography, and later novels.  Valentine, Leila, and Consuelo all protest against the humiliating state of women in a patriarchal system, as does Sand in reference to her own situation” (Rogers 31).  Sand’s female characters struggle to gain equality in a society that is dominated by male supremacy; moreover, these women work to free themselves from the confines of a patriarchal world where they are subjugated by men.  They demand fair treatment in all aspects of life, including romance.  Despite the fact that Valentine and Benedict have experienced extremely different lives, they accept each other as equal partners in their fight against the current values of society:

But society stood between them and made their mutual choice absurd reprehensible, impious.  Providence created the admirable order of nature, men have destroyed it; whose is the fault?  Must we part with every ray of sunlight in order to assure the solidity of our walls of ice? (Sand 137)


Valentine’s decision to pursue a relationship with Benedict enables her to sustain the same unyielding resolve in all other aspects of her life.  This impressive bravery in the face of conflict is most obviously displayed in Valentine’s relationship with her mother, Comtesse de Raimbault.  Sand constructed these opposing characters in order to create a literary parallel between her novels and the actual social revolution she was experiencing. During Sand’s lifetime, a rising group of empowered women were beginning to deviate from time-honored ideas of class etiquette, in direct opposition to the older generations that cleaved to the traditional social norms. 

Comtesse de Raimbault is portrayed as a cold, unforgiving woman.  With this character, Sand showed that not all mothers act as their daughters’ allies.  Her extreme lack of humility is a glaring example of how women adhered to the traditional morals standards and made it difficult for each other to attain autonomy.  Madame de Raimbault’s hostile nature is the direct result of the intense pressure placed on her as a young woman.  Her own stepmother forced her to marry a man she did not love.  The vicious cycle of destruction is evident:

At thirty-five she had been forced to open her eyes to the nothingness of human affairs, and that was a little late for a woman who had wasted her youth, unconscious of its passing, in the intoxication of trivial pleasures.  She grew old of a sudden.  Not having been cured of her illusions one by one by experience, as is ordinarily the case, she knew nothing of the decline of life save regret and ill humor.  From that time her life was a never-ceasing torment; everything became a subject of envy and irritation to her. (Sand 100)    


With these shared character experiences, Sand emphasized the need for feminine solidarity. The fact that Valentine acts against the will of her mother totally redefines the filial dynamic within the novel.  Because Valentine breaks the chain of obedience, the mother is no longer omnipotent figure in her child’s life.  This entire notion is one that Sand purposely projected in her writing in order to express a realistic fact of life: mothers and daughters disagree. 


                                                                                                                   George Sand portrait by Auguste Charpentier in 1837.

            Georges Sand’s most popular novel, Consuelo, A Romance of Venice, is an empowering saga that clearly conveys the author’s concept of a heroine.  The story centers on the adventures of the brave Consuelo.  This female character is not defined by the environment in which she lives; she develops her marked ambition and courage by emulating the independent women she encounters throughout her travels.  The most important figure in Consuelo’s life is her mother.  From the start of the tale, Consuelo’s mother is an influential part of this main character.  Consuelo inherits her mother’s ethnicity and low social status, and experiences the stain of otherness beginning early in her childhood:

She was of good Spanish blood—doubtless with a tinge of Moresco; and though somewhat swarthy, she had a tranquility of manner which was quite foreign to any of the wandering races.  As she was growing rapidly and as her mother was very poor, her clothes were always too short, which gave to her long legs of fourteen years’ growth, accustomed to show themselves in public, a sort of savage grace. (Sand 6)


Consuelo’s mother is an impoverished artist who travels with her daughter in search of work to regions like “Spain, St. Petersburg, Constantinople, Mexico, and Archangel, before eventually arriving in Venice” (2).  Although other Bohemians steadfastly respect this nomadic lifestyle, the juvenile Italian aristocrats at school immediately reject Consuelo; moreover, these spoiled classmates taunt her with names like “gypsy” and treat her as a social pariah (5). Consuelo’s youthful experiences as a social outcast instill in her a deep-seated desire to escape her ethnic origins and economic status.  Sand’s literary catalyst for this socioeconomic elevation is the death of Consuelo’s mother.  She includes this touching scene as a bridge between Consuelo’s adolescence and the next era in her adult life as a betrothed woman.  This mother’s dying wish is for Consuelo’s fiancé to protect her now “orphaned” daughter:

Some months before the close of her life, the unhappy creature, broken down by her sufferings, and vanquished by the filial piety of her daughter, felt her soul opened to milder emotions.  She habituated herself to the attentions of Anzoleto, who although little accustomed to the acts of friendship and self-denial, displayed a zealous kindness and good will toward the feeble sufferer.  His perseverance toward her and Consuelo at length won her heart, and in her last moments she made them promise never to abandon each other. (Sand 38)


Despite the fact that the character of Consuelo’s mother is minimally developed, her maternal influence guides her daughter throughout her life.  Her death is not a complete severance of all mother-daughter ties; moreover, it merely enables Consuelo to assume a new identity that is free from the indelible stain of poverty.  She is able to retain the unconditional love and support that her mother once provided while simultaneously shedding the socially marring aspects of the connection they shared.  Consuelo even subconsciously adopts her mother’s adventurous spirit and spends her entire life traveling the world. During these travels, Consuelo encounters a poor woman with her child.  The powerful emotions that this sight evokes in Consuelo remind her of the essential power of her own mother:

On the first day of their new journey, as our young travelers were crossing a small river by means of a wooden bridge, they saw a poor beggar woman, who held a little girl in her arms, seated upon the parapet and extending her hand to the passers-by for alms.  The child was pale and ill, the woman was shaking with fever.  Consuelo was seized with a deep feeling of sympathy and pity for those unfortunates, who recalled to her mind her mother and her own childhood. 

(Sand 505)


In this passage, the strong narrative voice of Sand is particularly important.  She is emphasizing the value and importance of maternal love that is inevitable and enduring.  In a mature stage of life, leagues away from her former identity, Consuelo is still overwhelmed by memories of her mother. 

             The distinctly opposite representation of motherhood is also displayed in Consuelo.  The character of Corilla is introduced as a contrast to the loving portrayal of Consuelo’s mother.  Corilla is an arrogant, amoral woman whose primary concern in life is to promote her musical career.  Sand writes her into the story and burdens her with an unplanned pregnancy to portray a selfish mother.  Corilla is a realistic person whose complete apathy toward motherhood is all too common outside of the realm of literature.  The most obvious expression of her indifference with respect to children is her first act as a new mother:

Consuelo held the child toward her, expecting some expression of maternal tenderness, but Corilla had a very different idea in her thoughts.  She pitched her voice in ut major, and gravely went through a gamut of two octaves.  Corilla horrified her.  She committed the child to the care of the servant, who had just entered.  (Sand 547)


In this instance, Corilla’s egomaniacal nature prevents her from exhibiting any maternal tenderness; instead, she chooses to once again show off her impressive vocal range.  Consuelo’s opinion of Corilla’s behavior is extremely significant.  Consuelo’s disdain for this new mother’s lack of tenderness is an indicator of just how powerful her own maternal nature is.  Consuelo’s instinctual desire to protect and care for the baby serves as a foil to Corilla’s nonexistent sense of obligation.  The scope of Corilla’s disgusting performance as a mother is revealed soon after the baby’s birth.  She places her son in a monastery under the care of a local priest.  This hateful woman completely abandons her child in an effort to rid herself of such a pronounced hindrance to her musical career.  Corilla feels that she is not inherently linked to her child in any way; therefore, she can liberate herself from him without the slightest pang of guilt.  Consuelo, however, is a deeply caring person who appreciates and respects the maternal bond. 

Another fascinating portrayal of motherhood in this novel is seen in the relationship between Consuelo and her late husband’s Aunt.  Upon the death of Consuelo’s beloved husband, Albert, it becomes painfully evident that his aristocratic family is disgusted by her ignoble origins.  Consuelo seeks maternal comfort in Albert’s aunt because of her established status as the family matriarch.  She tries to make a sincere connection with this woman, only to be rejected based upon her unfavorable socioeconomic rank:

I could not do it without our secret being betrayed or guessed, which is the same thing, and I know that the honor of your family is dearer to you than life.  Allow me, by tearing myself from your arms without hesitation, to render you the only service in my power. (Sand 794)


 The family’s negative response eventually serves to liberate Consuelo.  No longer does she feel the need to wander the earth in search of a love comparable to the maternal warmth she once knew.  Without the unwavering support of her mother and husband, she is forced to take responsibility for herself: “Consuelo, finding herself at perfect liberty, passed the day in wandering about the chateau, the garden, and the environs, in order to revisit all the places that recalled to her Albert’s love” (795).  Consuelo realizes that she does not need the approval of a maternal figure in order to find happiness in the world.  This revelation is not painful for Consuelo; on the contrary, she is finally able to accept her fate and move forward in life. 

            Georges Sand had an unfailing ability to capture the fundamentals of human interaction on paper.  The core of her writing was focused on real women who struggled to maintain their own individuality.  Every person’s self-image begins and ends with her mother.  Valentine works tirelessly to escape the iron fist of her mother; in contrast, Consuelo spends countless years and travels many miles searching for enveloping maternal love.  Instead of negating the importance of mothers or denying their existence altogether, Sand’s writing focuses on this issue. She purposely constructed stories about women in order to reveal all of the intricacies that are woven into female interactions.  Some women with five children are heartless and uncaring; moreover, Sand’s novels show that maternity can be a vital aspect of a childless woman’s life.  When many Victorian writers wrote about motherhood as a sacred, private rite of passage, Sand developed characters with multidimensional maternal experiences.  The qualities of a mother are greatly influenced by her own, preexisting personality traits.  A selfish woman does not usually undergo a profound change of her moral fabric after giving birth to a child.  Through her novels, Sand proved this very point: mothers are diverse human beings who are central figures in ever person’s life. 




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