George Sand: Lélia

George Sand: Lélia | © Anika Rutkofsky

»Qui es-tu? Et pourquoi ton amour fait-il tant de mal?« – (Who are you and why can one not love you without pain?)

I fought my way through the thicket of the Don Juan mythos in the context of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Stories about this consummate womaniser are perennial favourites, yet female narrators are few and far between. A disparaging remark in the secondary literature about the diatribe ›Curse you, Don Juan‹, which goes on for several pages, led me to the novel Lélia. My experience was quite different from that of literary scholar Franz Rauhut. I was completely electrified by the ruthlessness with which George Sand speaks through her protagonist:

»Curse you, Don Juan! [...] Where did you get the nonsensical rights you live by? When and where did God say to you, ›See, the Earth is yours, you are lord and master of all families, all women are destined for your bed, all the eyes you smile into shall melt in tears. All morality shall be set aside when you say: I want her. When a father demands you give up his daughter, you shall stab your dagger in his miserable heart and spatter his white hair with blood and excrement. When an angry lover draws his sword to contend with you for his beloved, you shall mock his anger without ever questioning your actions. You shall stand firm as you await his attack, and stab him with no loss of composure.‹«

George Sand was an inspirational character who sadly only plays a subordinate role in today’s literary canon. At best, she is remembered as Chopin’s beloved – her social critique and political activism have long been forgotten. She lived from 1804 to 1876, at a time in which literary discourse was dominated by men. She was born Amantine Aurore Lucile Dupin de Francueil.  However, in order to make a living from her talent in public life, she adopted a masculine pseudonym under which she published some 180 books. She also adopted an external appearance intended to create an air of ›authorial dignity‹: many photos from that time show her wearing a suit and smoking a cigarette. Her fictional characters, Lélia among them, are mostly outsiders who break through the social limitations and taboos of their time. Sand’s language is poetically diverse, her style subversive, because she can use her supposedly masculine narrative voice to argue for the female side.  
Lélia, the novel’s main character, is both angel and demon and cannot be pigeonholed in categories such as ›fragile‹ or ›femme fatale‹.

An unconventional work which I warmly recommend.

Anika Rutkofsky, 20 May 2021