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This work was written about 1848 and tries to capture the reality, not ideality of the underclass and rural people.
“The wealth of the soil, the harvests, the fruits, the splendid cattle that grow sleek and fat in the luxuriant grass, are the property of the few, and but instruments of the drudgery and slavery of the many.”
The author is frustrated by the assumption of the learned and wealthy of society that they are more important or even more “human” than the simple peasants. So she will tell this story of Germain, an elderly but still working peasant, to illustrate her point.
Ironically, in her righteous rebellion against the idealism of the past, Sand will present an opposite idealism of the peasant rather than of the rich, learned and artistic of the world.
Germain is almost 30. His wife’s dead and he has three young children. His father-in-law chides him, he must look for a new wife and his father-in-law has already selected the woman he thinks would be appropriate for him.
Germain had been married at age 20 and is the near perfect peasant and obedient to his elders. His father-in-law sends him off to meet the woman who the father-in-law wants to become Germain’s new wife.
However, young Marie, just 15 is going along since she is going to work at a near-by farm and Germain is assigned to take her there on his way.
Lots goes awry with the plan. Germain and Marie set out, but along the way Germain’s youngest son is hiding, wanting to go with “dad.” Germain is distraught and wants the youngster to return home, but Marie defends him and they end up taking him along. Much goes wrong and they get lost, but all the time Marie is simply the most charming and resourceful “woman” whom Germain has ever met, but he just sees her as this rather amazing young kid and not yet a woman.
Of all works I’ve ever read that are within the “Romantic” tradition, this seems to be the most idyllic and to be exactly what the textbooks on Romantic literature say it is. I sort of had the feeling that Sand was even satirizing the movement! It was just all too perfect to fit what later texts books would say about Romanticism in literature.
Soon, on this journey, Germain is completely taken with the young teen-age Marie, and actually suggests to her that she marry HIM. She laughs it off and says he’s going to meet a woman who wants a husband, and she, herself is going to interview for a job.
When they get to their destination, Marie takes the child with her and he goes to see the potential bride. Both have disastrous experiences and soon meet up on the road home, where a lecherous man is after Marie and Germain beats the fellow up.
Marie tries to avoid him once they get back but he keeps giving things to her, being very carefully not to alert their families.
After sometime and other attempts at marriage Germain is ready to give up. His parents beg him to do his own choosing and names Marie but he is sure that she will refuse. However, once she is sure this is a real offer and not sham she agrees.
Curiously after the drama is over, more in the sense of an essay than part of the story, Sand chooses to give a sort of sociological description of such a rural wedding.
In an 1852 intro George Sand indicates that she has helped several “waifs” in her life in order to better their lives. If left unaided, she argues, they are likely to grow up as some sort of outlaw simply by necessity.
“I, who am civilized who cannot enjoy by instinct alone and who am always tormented by the desire of giving an account of my contemplation, I am trying to find out what relation can be established between my intelligence which is too active, and that of the peasant, which is not active enough…”
Thus Sand draws a distinction between the primitive lived life and the artificially “understood” life. She and her friend wonder, who tells the truer story –
“A hideous realism” or “an embellished idealism?”
Her friend challenges her: Tell the story they each heard last evening from the peasants, but do so in ways the typical “learned” person could understand. She agrees to tell it and he will listen and criticize now and again.
I found this to be a fascinating hypothesis and, from this moment on, read the tale with this challenge and distinction in mind.
She also notes that “waif” is a proper term from old French “. . . the forsaken child of the fields.”
The waif in question is Francois. He has been sort of unofficially taken in by Isabelle Bigot, a desperately poor woman, but kind and generous.
When Francois is 6 he meets Madeleine, the local miller’s wife and she begins to help Francois as well. She is married to Cadet Blanchet, is very pretty and in her early 20s. However, Madeleine’s mother-in-law very much dislikes the young Francois, treats him badly and complains of Madeleine’s attentions to the boy.
Many thought that young Francois was very dumb, perhaps retarded, yet he could do many things. 4 years later when he is 10 he could DO lots of things, but showed little understanding. However, he got along marvelously with Jeannie, Madeleine’s son, who was several years younger than Francois.
The mother-in-law presses her son, and they are trying to force the Madeleine to take the boy back to the home. Madeleine saves him and “buys” him by giving the woman some money. Things are tense.
However, the mother-in-law dies and things settle down, but Blanchet starts living a much more rakish life, but calms down a great deal and sort of leaves Francois alone and allows Madeleine to continue to help and support him.
The boy learns to read and is very bright. He begins to work for the miller. He is about 12 after his mother dies and sort of on his own. Madeleine’s own child is 7. Francois asks why she never kisses him since she “is his mother” too (having brought him from his step-mother) and she does allow it, but one of the servants misunderstands and asks about it. She explains she is now his mother and kissing him is acceptable.
Because of his innocence and lack of experiences with people he arrived at age 15 a very innocent boy. She was 25 at the time.
Blanchet has a mistress, Severe. When Francoise is 17 she finds him quite attractive and makes a pass at him, but he simply turns her down. She’s furious and puts tremendous pressure on Blanchet to get rid of him, which he does. Madeleine allows him to leave in order to protect him, but she is devastated.
Madeleine falls into depression after Francois leaves, but when her husband’s relative dies, Blanchet agrees to take in a young girl relative, both for financial gain and in hope she will help Madeleine’s flagging spirits.
3 years pass, and Francois is 20. He is working for Jean Vertaud who is overwhelmed with Francois’s work and manner, as is his daughter, so he suggests Francois marry her, but the boy has explained his love for another, and that he is waiting for that woman’s husband to die.
When he returns to seek Madeleine as his lover, he overhears two women talking and they are convinced that he had already been her lover when he was just a child. But he remembers, of course, that they had not, but he acknowledges that as a very young man he had dreamed of being her lover and not her son, and he sort of feels guilt just based upon his wishes.
Strawberry was his family birth name and his birth mother had left him 4,000 francs. The priest who knows this finds Francois to tell him, however, he has to keep this secret.
In the end, Francois returns and with the help of Jean Vertaud and his daughter, and he finally convinces Madeleine that he loves her and they do marry.
However, there was always the ambiguity of their feelings for each other, and while Francois and Madeleine had never been lovers, there was a strangeness of their relationship.
The story is well told and like the other story in this volume the tale is romantic to the core. There is the idealization of the poor boy, the nearly saintly goodness of both Francois’s first “adopted” mother and then Madeleine herself. There was the sort of wicked and mean unfaithful husband of Madeleine and so on. There were the terrible odds of anything like this ever happening to a “waif” and the boy’s nearly saintly ways while remaining quite uneducated, sort of an idealized boy of nature.
The two novels together were just so surprising for me and for what I would have expected to read from the pen of the semi-notorious independent woman, George Sand.Bob Corbett email@example.com
Bob Corbett firstname.lastname@example.org