La Daniella (by George Sand, 1857).
The novels of George Sand are seldom entertaining; and the last she has written, La Daniella is perhaps less entertaining than any of its predecessors. Whatever may be the merits of the writer, it is hard work reading through two thick volumes of a fiction where there is scarcely any plot—where the characters are sketched faintly, and hinted at rather than fully delineated—and where there is little to startle, amuse, or touch us. La Daniella has the great fault which marks all the recent productions of George Sand—it is very much too long. It is spun out with an audacious prolixity, as if the writer were amusing herself with seeing how much she could make the public read. Perhaps this prolixity may arise from a wish to meet the demands of the publisher for a two-volumed story; or, possibly, it springs from what is a very prominent characteristic of the writer's mind. George Sand is essentially reflective and self-contemplative—she writes because she feels, and as she feels. It is the world within, and not the world without, with which she occupies herself. Being, however, of an impulsive and passionate nature, certain subjects, such as the problems of social life and the range of artistic excitement, have taken a deep hold on her imagination. While these subjects were new to her, she worked them with a spontaneous life and freshness which enabled her in a great measure to dispense with action and incident in her fictions. Now that she has grown calmer, sadder—in one word, older—she gives us reflections as original and as suggestive as ever, but which, from the very fact that they are truer to life and nature, more soberly expressed, and more patiently elaborated, have less to stimulate and fascinate the reader. It is not that her powers have decayed, but their maturity itself makes her productions less effective. Secure of an attentive audience, she goes on page after page writing whatever comes uppermost, without regard either for those whom she addresses, or for the puppets of her romance. But, although La Daniella, in which she has indulged her genius to the uttermost, is tedious, spiritless, and flat, it bears abundant traces of a master-hand. It contains many passages which no one but George Sand could have written—passages full of subtlety, of a nobleness of aspiration, and of nice observation, and expressed with that wonderful grace, ease, and abandon, the command of which is the greatest of her gifts.
A reflective story-teller is never without a specific purpose. In inferior hands this purpose degenerates into a moral or religious lesson, which the story is supposed to teach. But, with a great writer, it is nothing but the outpouring of the particular thoughts which happen to fill the author's mind at the time of composition. There is no distinction between the two, except in the degree of individuality and originality with which the writer approaches the subject. The theme of La Daniella is "all for love." The book is an echo of the cry which we hear arising from the lips of so many of the leaders of thought in France, who are appalled at the growing taste for material happiness—at the ignorance, baseness, and poverty of soul which follow in the train of national avarice. M. de Montalembert has recently made a spirited appeal to his countrymen against this, the greatest of moral curses that can beset a people, with the one exception of religious fanaticism—of the evil of which it falls short, because the weakly good recoil from avarice, but are attracted by bigotry. "Even in romances," says George Sand, " which would seem to be the proper home for an ideal more pure than that of the share list and the Bourse, I often see the expression of an impetuous desire for a treasure like that of the grottoes of Monte Cristo, and am neither astonished nor scandalized at it. I see that in a society so uncertain and troubled as ours, while Europe trembles with fear and hope, between dreams of a fabulous prosperity and of a universal social cataclysm, men of vivid imagination rush into that terrible determination 'to be rich or to die.' It is one of the evils of our day, and we bring on ourselves an infinity of misery because we wish to build a big ship when we really need nothing more than a little boat." It is the object of La Daniella to show that the man who builds the big ship sails through life distracted, anxious, and in danger, while the owner of the little boat has a tranquil, safe, and happy voyage.
In England, we never disconnect individual improvement from the scheme of constituted society. The virtue that is to be encouraged must be a virtue that will fit into the established order of public and religious life. The means to be adopted must be means which would practically answer in the case of men and women holding a certain position in English towns and counties. In France it is not so. The individual is not asked to take his proper place in the fabric of the State, to fall into the groove of patriarchal respectability, or to harmonize his thoughts with the influences of a recognised religion. The appeal is only to himself. He is asked to look into his own heart—to find out when and why he is best—to give free play to his generous emotions—to accept honestly the unalterable facts of human life. In La Daniella, a poor French artist, trained simply, and of a noble, quiet, thoughtful disposition, goes to Italy, and there is invited to visit the family of an English nobleman, to whom he renders assistance against a sudden attack of bandits. In the house of this nobleman, Valreg, the artist, meets a niece of the nobleman's wife, Miss Medora, and also Miss Medora's Italian lady's-maid, La Daniella. With the eccentric insolence of British wealth, Miss Medora makes violent love to the artist, who receives her advances with the utmost coldness. He greatly prefers Daniella, who is consequently sent away by her jealous mistress. She meets Valreg again, when chance takes him near the village where her family resides. The end of it is, that she returns his passion, and, as she modestly expresses it, se passant de pretre, flies to his arms. He is touched by the generosity of her sacrifice and the nobleness of her character, falls seriously in love with her, and marries her. He refuses the offer of a competency made him by his rich friends, and leads the life of a poor artist engaged in the decoration of a palace situated in the village where Daniella lives. Different circumstances arise to call out and strengthen the better qualities of the lovers. Valreg, as a husband and father, finds in his family the sphere which best admits of his becoming all that he aspires to be; and Daniella, heartily repenting a fit of furious jealousy to which she on one occasion gives way, learns to moderate the violence natural to an uneducated Italian. A companion of Valreg, an ambitious, needy, daring adventurer, tries to win the hand and wealth of Miss Medora; and it is in the contrast which this couple, with their folly, pettiness, and selfishness, present to the peaceful dignity of Valreg and his wife, that the moral of the story is to be found.
To English readers the moral is absurd. To tell a young Englishman, whom we wanted to improve, that the best thing he could do would be to make first a mistress, and then a wife, of an Italian lady's-maid, would be simply ridiculous. The whole thing is quite out of the range of English family life. We immediately begin to think how the young couple would be tabooed. No cousin would write to them. No maiden aunt would leave them a legacy. But if we get rid altogether of these very sensible considerations, leave England and English society entirely out of sight, and think merely of the course to be taken by an individual whose moral growth was not supported by external props, we find there is some meaning in La Daniella. Valreg and Daniella are thrown together—they are fond of each other, and their passion leads them on. Up to this point there is no lesson whatever. Very natural circumstances lead to very natural results. But immediately after this point is attained, the crucial test of Valreg's conduct begins. He is struck by the greatness of what Daniella has done for him—he finds in her the seeds of a noble character. Shall he give way to this emotion? Perhaps no question could be raised better fitted to try the worth of worldly notions, and to elicit the difference of opinion between the author and her adversaries. The more we consider it, the more shall we find that behaving well to a woman who is in our power goes down to the root of all that excellence which man, when looked on as isolated from society, can display.
The scene of the story is laid in the vicinity of Rome. There are many authors who can describe scenery more distinctly and effectively than George Sand; but there is no one who can surpass her in the power of giving an impression of the deep feeling with which the scenery described has possessed itself of the mind of the writer, or who more thoroughly carries the charm of personality, and of a subjective richness of meaning, into representations of the external world. She has a singular facility m marking out some features of what she wishes to paint, which stamp the scenery portrayed for ever in our recollection. The general description of the Campagna affords an excellent example of this:—
‘There is a sort of failure in the effect produced by the plain of Rome. This arises from a want of proportion—the plain is too great for the mountains. It is a vast picture with a tiny frame. There is too much sky, and nothing is so formed as to arrest the attention. All is solemn, but tiring, like a sea in the level of a calm. The very civilization of the country is so managed as to spoil it; for it just suffices to prevent the sensation of loneliness and the awe of real solitude.’This appears to us in the best style of subjective landscape-painting. And George Sand has two faculties which connect her with the more external view of nature, and give body to all she writes on the appearance of natural beauties. She has the eye of a colourist, and she has the most lively interest in the various forms of animal life around her. Thus, in La Daniella, when she has to describe an old ruin where Valreg passes much of his time, she makes her sketch distinct and real, by noticing the animals which Valreg saw around him. She speaks of the little serpents, and of the way they crawled, of the kid and the rabbits which he fed, of the abundance of scorpions, and of the curious rarity of butterflies. "I know by sight," says Valreg, "everything that grows and flies in the places where I have lived some time." The author is speaking here herself, and it is her own tastes that she records. Nor is this less so in a passage where she describes the instinctive manner in which an artist gathers into his range of sight, and treasures up in the storehouse of his memory, every striking effect of form, of light and shade, of depth and harmony of colour, whatever may be the thoughts that otherwise occupy his mind, and however great may be the pressure which adverse external circumstances are exerting on him at the time. But although there are many fruits of this artistic sensibility scattered through the work, it is not these fruits that constitute the chief excellence of La Daniella. It is in the analysis of the less obvious relations of the sexes—of the treacherous delights of female friendship, and the rough differences of married lovers—that George Sand shows the full scope of her genius. La Daniella has much of this analysis wherewith to reward the patient reader. As a novel, it can never be popular; but it is not without importance as a sample of French literature, and it cannot fail to interest all who wish to watch the course through which so remarkable a mind as that of its author is carried in the progress of its developement.
Saturday Review, September 12, 1857.