When I was looking for suggestions for books to read for the Women’s Classic Literature Event, Camille de Fleurville suggested the French author George Sand (a pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin) and pointed me in the direction of her 1837 novel, Mauprat. Having never read George Sand before, I had no idea what her books would be like, but whatever I was expecting, it wasn’t this!
The novel begins with a description of Roche-Mauprat, an abandoned château in the French countryside, once home to Bernard Mauprat, an orphan raised by his wicked grandfather and violent, brutal uncles:
On the borders of La Marche and Berry, in the district known as Varenne, which is naught but a vast moor studded with forests of oak and chestnut, and in the most thickly wooded and wildest part of the country, may be found, crouching within a ravine, a little ruined château. The dilapidated turrets would not catch your eye until you were about a hundred yards from the principal portcullis. The venerable trees around and the scattered rocks above bury it in everlasting obscurity; and you would experience the greatest difficulty, even in broad daylight, in crossing the deserted path leading to it, without stumbling against the gnarled trunks and rubbish that bar every step. The name given to this dark ravine and gloomy castle is Roche-Mauprat.
Mauprat is set in the eighteenth century, in the years leading up to the French Revolution, and in Varenne an ancient feudal system is still in place with the peasants living in fear of the powerful Mauprat family, who rule over them with tyranny and corruption. One night Bernard’s uncles take a young girl captive in the woods and bring her back to Roche-Mauprat. Her name is Edmée and she is a cousin of Bernard’s belonging to another, more civilised branch of the family. Instantly attracted to his beautiful cousin, Bernard helps her to escape, but not before making her promise to marry him in return.
Unfortunately for Bernard, he didn’t specify exactly when Edmée will have to marry him. Once she is free of Roche-Mauprat, she insists that she cannot possibly become Bernard’s wife until he proves himself worthy. And so Bernard begins a seven-year struggle to gain an education and transform himself into the sort of respectable, well-mannered man Edmée is happy to love. How much of a man’s character is due to heredity and how much to the way he has been brought up? In Mauprat, we see that even a man who has had the roughest of upbringings has the opportunity to change through love, guidance and his own desire to improve.
The novel is narrated by a much older Bernard, who is entertaining some visitors with the story of his life, but apart from the first chapter, the book is structured as a straightforward first person narrative. We are with Bernard through every step of his journey, from his flawed younger self – rough, impulsive, passionate and uneducated – to the more refined, cultured man he becomes after being shaped by Edmée’s influence. Along the way Bernard encounters several other men – from the reclusive philosopher Patience and the mole-catcher Marcasse to the Abbé Aubert and the American soldier, Arthur – all of whom provide help and advice and teach him some important lessons.
We see Edmée only through Bernard’s eyes and this makes it difficult to understand her motives. I had a lot of questions about Edmée as I read. Why was she determined to keep Bernard waiting for so many years? Did she truly love him – and if so, at what point did she begin to love him? And if you love someone, shouldn’t you be prepared to accept them for what they are? Some of these questions are answered, to some extent, by the end of the book but Edmée still intrigued and frustrated me.
Mauprat is also interesting from an historical perspective. Bernard spends some time in America fighting in the Revolution (this is where he meets Arthur, the soldier and natural scientist who becomes his friend and helps to continue his education), while France is also on the brink of revolution and society is already beginning to change:
The poor have suffered enough; they will turn upon the rich, and their castles will fail and their lands be carved up. I shall not see it; but you will. There will be ten cottages in the place of this park, and ten families will live on its revenue. There will no longer be servants or masters, or villein or lord.
As I’ve mentioned, Mauprat wasn’t quite what I’d expected (the Gothic atmosphere and the amount of melodrama surprised me) and I don’t know whether it’s typical of George Sand’s novels, but I did enjoy it. Sand herself sounds like a fascinating woman too. I would like to read more of her books, so any recommendations are welcome.
Finally, I should point out that I didn’t read the edition pictured above, but it was the only decent cover image I could find. I read the free version available through Project Gutenberg, translated by Stanley Young.
22 thoughts on “Mauprat by George Sand”
I’ve only read Indiana by George Sand, but there was a bit of melodrama in that as well, so maybe it’s the way Sand writes.
Yes, I think it probably is. I’m looking forward to reading more of her books…maybe I’ll read Indiana next.
I’ve only read one George Sand, which I really enjoyed, but yes, it was much more melodramatic than I had expected!
Until I read this book George Sand was an author I had heard of but knew nothing about. I was pleasantly surprised (and I do like a bit of melodrama sometimes) so I’m sure I’ll be reading more!
George Sand was one of the Romantic writers, and they were very much into melodrama!
I think what really surprised me about this book were the gothic elements (dark forests, ruined castles, ghostly figures and mysterious monks). I hadn’t expected that at all!
Yes, it sounds like she is trying to write in the Gothic genre. Maybe it was an early book? I have only read one by her, and all I remember about it was it had lots of heart rendings in it.
Ooo this sounds quite good! Love me some melodrama.
Yes, me too! This book was much more enjoyable than I’d thought it would be.
I’ve never read George Sand, and i don’t think I could even have named one of her novels. This sounds a bit too Gothic & melodramatic for my tastes though.
Maybe one of her other books would be a better choice for you. It sounds as though the melodrama might be a common theme in most of them, but probably not the Gothic bits.
If you are willing to know more about the life of George Sand, or a recreation of her life anyways, you could read The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg, which prompted me to buy her Collected Works on Amazon.
Another one George Sand’s novels is Indiana.
Thank you, Carmen. I’m definitely interested in learning more about George Sand, so I’ll think about reading The Dream Lover.
I also have never read George Sand nor had I heard of the Elizabeth Berg book, Carmen. It all sounds intriguing.
George Sand doesn’t seem to be very widely read these days, which is a shame. Based on this book, I think she’s definitely worth reading. And yes, the Elizabeth Berg book sounds very intriguing!
I have never heard of George Sand before either – I definitely like the sound of this though; with it’s abandoned château in the French countryside and Gothic atmosphere 🙂
Before I read this book, I had heard George Sand’s name but knew nothing about her books or what type of writer she was. I was surprised, but in a good way. I love anything atmospheric and gothic. 🙂
I love George Sand – used to teach her at university. Her basic premise is that a good, equable society would be analogous to a good, equable marriage. In fact, they go hand in hand. If the personal is working, then the political is working too. Mauprat is essentially Beauty and the Beast, and Edmee’s education of Bernard lasts so long because in narrative at this time (and almost any time), a woman’s adventures and her individual significance only last until she is married. And indeed, once they finally marry, Edmee disappears from the story. Remember also, at the time this novel was written, the novel itself was only just coming into being, and so it was often a mishmash of all the genres previously available – the adventure tale, the fairy story, the melodrama. Sand was also a political idealist, and so she set this novel before the French Revolution much in the way we nowadays set novels before the Second World War, so we can see the portents coming. Sand herself was a really interesting woman, and there’s a very good biography of her by Belinda Jack (I think!).
Thanks for that – you’ve given me a few things to think about there, particularly regarding Edmee’s role in the story. I’ll keep the Belinda Jack biography in mind, though I think I would like to read a few more of Sand’s novels first.
I just finished “Mauprat,” and you raised the same questions I had about the inscrutable Edmee. While those questions were somewhat answered by the end of the novel, it felt like a tidy little wrap-up you might find in a play. Really enjoyed your review and your thoughtful insights.
Thank you, Laurie. Edmee was certainly an intriguing character, even though I didn’t fully understand her. I agree with you about the ending!
One thing is certain…it’s a book I won’t forget 😉