Helynne's Reviews > Le Secrétaire Intime / Mattea / La Vallée Noire

Le Secrétaire Intime / Mattea / La Vallée Noire by George Sand
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Jun 16, 2011

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Read from June 16 to August 24, 2011

This 1833 novel carries many superlatives among Sand’s works. It is one of her earliest novels—published just after Indiana, Valentine and the first edition of Lélia. Also, the story is one of her most unique in terms of its mostly non-French characters and its exotic, semi-fictionalized setting. Furthermore, Le Secrétaire Intime is one of Sand’s lesser-known and most underappreciated novels, and one which, fortunately, has recently been reprinted and made more widely available.
The heroine, Quintilia Cavalcanti, an Italian princess, is far removed from the pitiable French heroines that typified Sand’s works thus far. The princess is a powerful and influential political figure, who exerts a “male” presence and speech while ruling benevolently over her own principality. “Quintilia, of course, was a heroic magnification of George Sand boldly brandishing the flag of feminine defiance,” states biographer Curtis Cates (George Sand: A Biography). The young Louis de Saint-Julien, through whose eyes the story is told, notes, “La princesse s’était fait homme pour lui parler.” Quintilia refuses marriage proposals that are inspired by men’s political agendas as well as their hormonal urging, and eventually resists a would-be seduction/rape by becoming aggressive--even violent—herself, and quickly dispatching the perpetrator.
Second, the Sand takes an entirely new approach to her protest against the marriage institution in the France of her day by describing an idealized marriage, which is preserved in a near-ideal state because of the artificiality of its setting; that is, the union is kept secret from the corrupting influence of society, which, naturally would spoil it.
Third, through the influence of E.T.A. Hoffman’s recently published and popular, bizarre and fanciful Tales of Hoffman, Sand indulged in some atypical characteristics for her novel –a setting removed from Code Civil France, to the kingdom of Monteregale near Venice. She also gives the text an atypical talky, teasing, and analytical approach to love, sentimentality, and sexual matters.
Le Secrétaire Intime would seem to be the story of the psychological awakening and maturing of the eponymous Louis de Saint-Julien of Normandy, who learns a difficult lessons about male desire, respect for women, an personal responsibility. However, the dominate character is Quintilia. Sand uses this hereoine to communicate her own passionate feminism and some ideal, albeit unlikely, circumstances to illustrate ideal love that is the main theme of the novel.
The story begins on a road from Lyon to Avignon where young Saint-Julien, after a falling out with his parents in Normandy, meets 30-year-old Princess Quintilia (some 10 years his senior) and her entourage on the way back from Paris to Monteregale. Julien quickly ingratiates himself with the princess, and and she gives him the comfortable and privileged post of secrétaire intime (personal secretary) at her estate. Quintilia smokes cigarettes (as did Sand herself), exhibits “une supériorité si mâle” (20) and takes on a male aura when she speaks to Julien. The young secretary is impressed with Quintilia’s efficient plans for the improvement of her community—hospitals, and other improvements for her people, as he had assumed she would have “le chaos d’une tête de femme” (56).
Quintilia’s position is the result of an arranged marriage when she was 12 years old to a much-older prince who wanted her family’s money. She married him by proxy with the agreement that he would share in her fortune if she would never have to meet him nor take his name. The proxy at the wedding ceremony was a child her own age named Max, who was given a post in the palace for the next four years, then mysteriously disappeared. Rumors are the widowed Quintilia became angry with him and had him executed. Now, though many speculate that she has lovers, details about her personal life during the 15 years since are scarce. “On croit aux intrigues de la princesse: c’est tout un, ” says the brash page Galeotto. “. . . car est-elle la plus austere ou la plus perverse des femmes, nul ne le sait, et nous n’en serons peut-être jamais” (79).
Julien, in turn, muses further about the princess’s seemingly male character. “C’est là sans doute une femme incapable de tout ce que j’aime dans une femme, mais propre à ce que j’admire dans un homme” (80).
Nevertheless, as six months pass, Julien, who was raised in Normandy by an austere Catholic priest, becomes increasingly dazzled by the princess.
At the ball, Quintilia fends off unwelcome political and personal attention from several heads of nearby principalities until a handsome stranger in an insect mask crashes the ball. A delighted Quintilia calls out the name “Rosehaïm,” and much to Julien’s distress, disappears with the unknown man.
At this same time, Julien bonds with a kind German stranger who calls himself “Spark,” and even gives Julien sage advice about respecting Quintilia and tolerating her idiosyncracies without trying to make their relationship overly personal. “Je ne dis pas qu[‘elle] ce soit un example à suivre pour les femmes qui ne veulent pas être calomniées et persécutés; mais pour un homme de cœur qui se moque de l’opinion d’autrui et qui ne s’en rapporte qu’à sa conscience, c’est une belle maîtresse à aimer toute sa vie” (132). Nonetheless, Julien, goaded by Galeotto, decides later to declare his love to the princess. At first, she tries to reason with Julien, but when he persists and tries to kiss her passionately, Quintilia does not hesitate to quite literally to go medieval on her secretary, pinning him to the bed with her knee on his chest, holding a dagger to his throat, drawing blood, then ordering her henchmen to haul him away to a dungeon.
Julien will not see the princess again, so completely is she offended over his behavior. She will, however, explain herself, by asking her friend, the professor Cantharide, to escort Julien to a marble tomb in the palace, where documents are kept in a heart-shaped box. The letters, as well as testimony from Cantharide, inform Julien of details of Quintilia’s carefully guarded personal life to date as well as the fact that Rosenheïm, Spark, and Max are the same person. At age 16 and newly widowed, Quintilia quarelled with her childhood friend Max, and he subsequently disappeared. Reunited by happy coincidence some eight years later in Paris, the two quickly married. The first paper Julien is exhorted to read is a five-year-old legal document of marriage between Quintilia and Max.
Julien reads the letters Quintilia and Max over the past few years of their marriage during which Max has spent his summers near her at the palace under different assumed names and she has spent winters in Paris with him. Since Max was poor and illegitimate (he surmises that he is the son of Quintilia’s late husband), he prefers that the marriage stay a secret, as he does not want it said that he married the princess for her money and title. Hence, Max’s assumption is exactly the opposite of the one that accompanies traditionap mariages de raison. Also, the political climate in Quinitlia’s country is such that she needs to give the impression that she is single. However, most important of all, Quintilia and Max both believe their marriage can remain pure and holy only if it is kept completely away from society. Their letters attest to the purity of their exalted love in this unlikely and artificial state.
The aura of Hoffman-inspired fantasy and the artificiality and fairy-tale quality surrounding the novel detract from some of its efficacy as a feminist statement and a ploy for marital reform. Nevertheless, Le Secrétaire Intime still marks a significant and optimistic trend for Sandian heroines and their marriages that was to become more prevalent her works in the late 1830s and 1840s.


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