Strong characters, classic plot by a French master

Good fiction, as well as a good motion picture, depends upon strong characters. The poignant story of a foundling eventually adopted by a miller’s wife, François le Champi , 1852 (literally François the Foundling), by the versatile and prolific author and one-time mistress of Chopin, George Sand, exhibits deep and well rendered characters. Considered one of her best works, this story, set in the the author’s native province of Berry in central France, also creates an autobiographical picture of the author and her agricultural society. Born Aurore Dudevant, she rebelled against the social strictures of her time and her status as a country wife and became George Sand.

When François is found at a fountain on the the  estate of Blanquet the miller, his wife Madeleine eventually takes over his care, training and education with as much mother’s love as she has lavished on her own son Johnny. Blanquet is not nearly so good, kind or honest as she, but her kindness overcomes her strict husband’s domineering personality and control over her life.

The author Sand further develops the relationship between Madeleine and her adopted boy. While she tries to love her natural born son Johnny equally, she not only raises François, but also has the opportunity to mold him exactly as she likes, such that an unaccustomed respect for her and especially close and tender sentiments develop between the two. The author describes the feelings between the miller’s wife and the orphan in what the modern reader may consider too much detail. In this example, she creates strong characters by probing into their motives to stimulate our sympathy and understanding:

She always managed to help her neighbor, and when she lacked the means, she did the work of the poor with her own hands. She rescued them from illness, relieved their fatigue and kept them alive. She was so economical, she mended their clothes so carefully, one would have thought she lived really well; however, since she wanted through her charity to keep her people from suffering, she customarily ate almost nothing, seldom rested and slept as little as possible.

The foundling saw all this and simply considered it in keeping with his nature as well as the education he had received from Madeleine. He was inclined to the same opinions and the same duties, only sometimes disturbed by the fatigue the miller’s wife caused herself, and he scolded himself for sleeping and eating too much. He would prefer to be able to spend the night sewing and spinning in her place. When she wanted to pay him his charitable dole, which had mounted to about 20 sous, he was embarrassed to take it and obliged her to keep it in her hiding place. 

–Pp. 106-107 (French language edition, Editions Gallimard, 1973), my translation.

Blanquet also keeps a mistress, known as La Sevère; both are also strong characters. Belying her name, she leads him into debauchery and excess, which saps his prosperity and results in his financial ruin. As a final blow, the stern miller, led on by the lying La Sevère, suspects his devoted young wife of adultery with François, who has now grown into a handsome young man, the age of consent and his maturity. Blanquet ejects him from his estate over this false charge

François finds other employers, more disciplined and successful, and learns the business and management side of the miller’s trade. Throughout this apprenticeship he never forgets his devotion to his adopted mother and his great debt to her. After the miller’s death he returns to save the estate. He consults the wife of a friendly family in another town and confesses what he feels is a shameful romantic attraction to Madeleine. One suspect that Madeleine also, still a pretty young woman of 25, feels the same way. And Francois is of marriageable age, attractive to many of the eligible girls he has met. Where could this story go?

At first I thought I had never read a such a tale, and I wracked my brain for a similar story. Then a familiar question, posed by George Bernard Shaw in the narrative preface to his 1913 play, popped into my head: “Can Henry Higgins marry his Pygmalion?” I was reminded of the Greek myth of the sculptor Pygmalion: He fell in love with his own statue of a beautiful woman, who then came alive. Even in My Fair Lady, the play’s 1960 adaptation, Eliza Doolittle returns to Henry Higgins’s household as a companion and foil to the overbearing and misogynous professor yet leaves this issue unresolved.

George Sand, considered by some as the first modern, liberated woman, leaves this question unasked. However, she devotes her entire novel to showing that, compared with his other choices, Madeleine is a far better match for this fine young man, whose character she has helped to form. Yet how would the author end this tale, set in her conservative post-Napoleonic era? As I progressed toward the end, translating as I went along, I wondered what she dared to do.

Francois le Champi is available in paperback in its original French language edition or in English, as The Country Waif. It is well worth reading and studying for its fine development of strong characters.

Until next time good words to you,

Peter

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