When I was in my late teens/early twenties, and during my first flush of feminism, I came across a book that was to be pivotal in my development as a reader – “Literary Women” by Ellen Moers, a chunky blue volume published by The Women’s Press. The book was an eye-opener to an avid reader, full of information about a huge range of women writers I’d never heard of. At the back was a long checklist of writers and their books, which I credit with sending me off to read Virginia Woolf, Colette et al, and giving me a life-long love of those wonderful women. However, one of the writers covered was George Sand, a pioneering women from the past, and although I was keen to read her, the books just weren’t accessible at the time. So somehow I never got round to reading Sand – until now! One of her novellas, “Lavinia”, has just been published by Michael Walmer, who was kind enough to provide a review copy.

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Wikipedia tells us: “Amantine (also “Amandine”) Lucile Aurore Dupin  (1 July 1804 – 8 June 1876), best known by her pseudonym George Sand, was a French novelist and memoirist. She is also equally well-known for her much publicized romantic affairs with a number of celebrities including Frédéric Chopin and Alfred de Musset.”

Sand’s life was somewhat scandalous – in her taste for dressing in men’s clothing and reported lesbian affairs, she might be seen as a precursor of Colette – but I wanted to approach her work without preconceptions. I had always had the impression that her books were dense doorstops, so the fact that “Lavinia” is a novella of some 70 pages meant that it was probably the ideal volume to help me find my way into her work!

The Lavinia of the title is a well-bred Portuguese beauty, loved in her early youth by Sir Lionel Bridgemont, a wealthy young English rake. However, Lionel abandoned her ten years ago, and after a period travelling Europe and generally enjoying life, he has decided to settle down and is engaged to Margaret Ellis, a beautiful Englishwoman with a dowry. When Lavinia, having heard of his impending marriage, offers to meet with him so that they can return each other’s letters, Lionel cautiously agreed. Postponing an outing with Margaret, he heads off with his chatterbox friend Sir Henry to meet up with Lavinia for one final time. But how will their reunion go, and who will be the most emotionally affected?

For such a short book, “Lavinia” certainly delivers plenty of food for thought! This is a portrait of society people, living in a world where status is all and there are strict rules and regulations dictating conduct. As Lavinia was abandoned, she has never quite recovered her standing in society, despite an advantageous marriage to the older Lord Blake (now deceased). Despite her fortune, her title and her circle of admirers, there is still a stigma attached to her because of Lionel’s behaviour. He returns to her expecting emotion, expecting to be the dominant one of the pair, but he is shocked and surprised – Lavinia has matured, learned how to play the society game and control her emotions. It is Lionel who begins to behave in an irrational and unacceptable way, much to the alarm of Henry!

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This is a remarkably clever novella; Sand seems to delight in turning the tables on the arrogant Lionel, having him meet his match in the new Lavinia and being prepared to fall at her feet. However, Sand is a wise enough writer not to opt for the happy ending; she seems to celebrate passion and real emotions, recognising that Lavinia has had to crush her natural feelings so much to fit in that she can no longer love – and certainly not Lionel.

So my first George Sand book turned out to be a really enjoyable, thought-provoking read – Lavinia was a lovely, feisty heroine and if this is any guide to Sand’s writing, I want to read more!

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