George Sand was an incredibly prolific author, and published many varied works over her career. Leone Leoni, first published in France in 1835, was released in this particular English translation by George Burnham Ives in 1900. The novel – or, rather, novella – is set in the early nineteenth century, and focuses upon the title character, as well as a young Belgian woman named Juliette Ruyter, and her ‘protector, the noble Spaniard’ Aleo Bustamente.
Juliette and Aleo have arrived in Venice just before its annual carnival, and receive the news that Leone Leoni is in the city ‘with his wealthy playmates’. Juliette soon feels compelled to tell Aleo ‘the whole story of her progress of ruin and degradation at the hands of one of the most infamous and charming scoundrels of his time’. The blurb writes that Leone Leoni ‘tells of innocence trapped by debauchery in a dazzling round of intrigue, impersonation and emotional deception.’
Sand’s introduction to the volume has been included here, and immediately intrigues: ‘Being at Venice, in very cold weather and under very depressing circumstances, the carnival roaring and whistling outside with the icy north wind, I experienced the painful contrast which results from inward suffering, alone amid the wild excitement of a population of strangers.’ Clearly, this firsthand experience of the city which Sand had allows her descriptions of Venice to feel incredibly present and immersive. The novella’s opening sentence proclaims the following, in what feels like an echo of Sand’s introduction: ‘We were at Venice. The cold and the rain had driven the promenaders and the masks from the square and the quays… It was a fine carnival evening inside the palaces and theatres, but outside, everything was dismal, and the street-lights were reflected in the streaming pavements, where the hurried footsteps of a belated masker, wrapped in his cloak, echoed loudly from time to time.’
Leoni is cocky, and filled with his own self-importance, and delusions of grandeur. When Juliette tells Aleo of her history with Leoni, she describes the way in which she at first refused to dance with him at a ball, but was soon swept under his spell. At first, she is not at all happy with the way in which he deceives her mother, and pushes himself into their lives: ‘By such petty agitations did the coming of Leoni, and the unhappy destiny that he brought, begin the disturb the profound peace in which I had always lived.’ As time goes on, though, her feelings for him change: ‘I was dominated by his glance, enthralled by his tales, surprised and fascinated by every new resource that he developed.’
The novella is told from the perspective of Aleo at first, and much of Juliette’s later commentary is displayed in dialogue, thus allowing Sand to use a contrast of voices. These are perhaps not different enough, however, and do tend to blend a little, using similar phrases and exclamations. The real strength of Leone Leoni lies in Sand’s descriptions, which pick up on the minutiae of place, movement, and character. Of Juliette, for instance, she writes: ‘She rose and walked to the window; her white silk petticoat fell in numberless folds about her graceful form. Her chestnut hair escaped from the long pins of chased gold which only half confined it, and bathed her back in a flood of perfumed silk.’
The prose of Leone Leoni is rather melodramatic at times, although one can rather predict this if they are at all familiar with the period in which the story was written. Despite the sadness of her story, I felt no empathy whatsoever for Juliette, and the way in which she was treated; to me, she felt rather insipid, and seemed to spend most of her time swooning. Aleo was not much better. I found the plot of Leone Leoni to be rather predictable, and whilst the writing and translation are generally strong, I did feel rather disappointed with it overall.