I’ve been struggling to come up with something to say about Mauprat that’s not completely obvious for a while now. But here’s the thing: this book is completely obvious. Theres no ambiguity; no “showing, not telling”; nothing obtuse or inconclusive. It’s utterly transparent. The author tells us what happens in definite terms, and then she tells us how to interpret it, and then she tells us how we should feel about it. Sand had a point; a message about feminine value and feminine strength, about the complex relationship between nature and education in the formation of human character, which she wanted to convey to readers, critics, and very probably her soon-to-be ex-husband, loud and clear.
In Mauprat (1837), George Sand relates the life story young Bernard de Mauprat, tracing his progress from a busque and villainous youth, to a respectable and worthy gentleman. The novel adopts elements of many popular genres–its a gothic novel, a romance, a history, an (almost) murder mystery, and at its core, a coming of age story.
Like many novels of the same period and genre, Mauprat employs a nested story structure which lends itself to that uniquely 19th century combination of first person narration and omniscient soap boxing. Sand narrates the tale in the voice of an aged Bernard de Mauprat, relating his life-story to a pair of younger men over the course of two evenings spent before the fire at his home.
Bernard was born the grandson of an infamous noble tyrant and was, after the death of his parents raised by his grandfather and his eight brutal bachelor uncles in their deteriorating castle, Roche-Mauprat. He was brought up to a life of violence, indulgence, and oppression by a group of men who robbed, murdered, fought and drank, seizing what they wanted from the peasantry at will, abused by the old patriarch, and eager to treat anyone weaker than themselves in the same style.
Then, we meet the girl. The uncles bring her back to Roche-Mauprat after one of their marauding trips, having evidently discovered her lost in the woods after becoming separated from a hunting party and tricked her into believing that they would help her home. Of course, she’s beautiful. Somewhat less predictably she’s also their cousin. It seems that a lesser branch of the Mauprat family lives nearby, a cousin of the head of the house, and his daughter. This is the daughter, Edmee. She’s given to Bernard by his uncles, the first woman he’s ever had. Bernard is possessed by an instant passion, but can’t bring himself to rape the girl then hand her over to his uncles. Instead, he extracts an as-it-turns out, unfortunately unspecific promise of love, and the two escape to her home, where her father (his great uncle) receives Bernard joyfully. Safe at home, Edmee explains herself more fully: she’s not going to “give herself to him” immediately as payment for her life (which is what he expects), but she will marry him if he becomes educated. To be clear, Edmee is not asking Bernard to read a few books and learn to add; she’s speaking of a moral, social and philosophical education.
What follows his a seven-year courtship during which Bernard discovers, through painful trial and error, what it means to care for and think about others, to take responsibility, to exercise self control. He travels the world, fights in the American Revolution, make real friends, becomes a whole person. This provides Sand with a wealth of opportunities to discourse on the subjects of love and human nature.
There is, she tells us,
reason to believe that we carry within us from our earliest years the seeds of those virtues and vices which are in time made to bear fruit by the action of our environment.
A man cannot change the essence of his nature, but he can guide his divers faculties towards a right path; he can almost succeed in turning his faults to account
Her advice, then, is:
Do not believe in any absolute and inevitable fate; and yet acknowledge, in a measure, that we are moulded by instincts, our faculties, the impressions of our infancy, the surroundings of our earliest childhood–in short, by all that outside world which has presided over the development of our soul. Admit that we are not always absolutely free to choose between good and evil, if you would be indulgent towards the guilty…
Bernard credits Edmee and his love for her with the evolution of his character, “from a wolf into a man.” She is not, however, a female pygmalion. Sand is very clear about this. Edmee, we are told, loved Bernard from the instant they met. She would not degrade herself by surrendering to him while he was so unworthy, or endanger herself by placing her person and property in his care while he was so incompetent–but she always loved him. She didn’t carve a statue and then fall in love with it; she fell in love with the block of marble and but refused to compromise her own principles or well being, until eventually it carved itself.
In this way, Sand gives us a three dimensional heroine; a woman who is both passionate and sane (is there anything more rare in gothic fiction?); a woman who is thoughtful and intelligent, but still gets angry; a woman of principal and integrity, who has weaknesses, but doesn’t give in to them.
Channeling her own voice through her characters, Sand asserts,
Men imagine that a woman can have no separate existence of her own, and that she must always be wrapped up in them; and yet the only woman they love deeply is she whose character seems to raise her above the weakness and indolence of her sex…
A spirit of independence, the conception of virtue, a love of duty, all these privileges of lofty souls are essential…in the woman who is to be one’s companion through life; and the more your mistress gives proof of strength and patience, the more you cherish her, in spite of what you may have to suffer.
Sand executes a neat trick in writing this novel from Bernard’s perspective, appropriating the authoritative voice of an elderly wealthy landed nobleman and using it to endorse a controversial message of gender and class equality. This approach also has a tempering effect on the feminist novel format. This is no hopeless, soul sucking Kate Chopin sob-fest. There’s no lonesome Margaret Fuller austerity. No one goes swimming with a pocket full of rocks. The men in this book are universally (with the exception of the Mauprat uncles and few other stray villains) estimable, offered up as examples of the solution, not causes of the problem.
Though not frequently read today, Mauprat has an important role in the literary discusion of education. In it, Sand replies to Rousseau’s Emile (1762) and borrows from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The novel exudes an air of La Belle et Bete (1740). Its easy to imagine Charlotte Bronte drawing upon Mauprat for Jane Eyre (1847).
Man is born with more or less of passions, with more or less power to satisfy them, with more or less capacity for turning them to a good or bad account in society. But education can and must find a remedy for everything.
(quotes are from the free Kindle version)