LÉLIA, by George Sand, 234 pages
Translated with an introduction by Maria Espinosa
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Indiana, 1978
Dostoevsky called Lélia “Sand’s immense ethical quest.” It is the most self-revealing of her novels. Published in 1833, it shocked the public by advocating the same standard of morality for both sexes. She later published an expurgated version of the novel.
“Maria Espinosa’s translation . . . is remarkable for coming very close to the resonant vocabulary and its extraordinary images.”
—V.S. Pritchett, The New York Review of Books
“I thought your translation excellent. I hope you go on.”
—V.S. Pritchett, personal note to Maria Espinosa
Spurred on by my inability to find the work in English, I translated the original text.
In my introduction I note that, “although this is not the first French novel in which a writer dared to deal explicitly with problems of female sexuality, Lélia was probably neglected by Victorian translators precisely because of Sand’s frankness regarding sex and her very emancipated ideas about the relations between men and women. I suspect that the violent reaction the book aroused among its contemporaries was due not only to the sexual content . . . but also to the woman’s examination of her emotional incapacity to love. Woman as nun, woman as whore—both sustained women’s position within society. Neither of these alternatives was perhaps so frightening to the consciousness of Sand’s time as woman as complete human being . . . spiritual and carnal who reflects and questions.
“It is primarily a spiritual novel, brooding and tormented, not particularly well-constructed nor easy to read.”
Here are several excerpts from Lélia:
To be lover, courtesan, and mother . . . these are three conditions of a woman’s fate which no woman escapes, whether she sells herself in a market of prostitution or by a marriage contract.
I remember the burning nights I passed against a man’s flanks in close embrace with him . . . I sensed one could simultaneously love a man to the point of submitting to him and love oneself to the point of hating him because he subjugates us. . . when he had broken me in ferocious embraces, he slept brusque and uncaring at my side, while I devoured my tears so as not to awaken him. . . . However . . . the more he made me feel his domination, the more I cherished it. But I also began to curse my slavery . . . . One day I felt so worn-out with loving that I stopped suddenly. When I saw how easily this bond was broken, I was astonished at having believed in its eternal quality.