There is something wonderfully excessive about George Sand's life and writing. I was astonished and delighted when I first discovered her in my teens. She seemed a fantastically vampish yet androgynous figure, and her sexuality struck me as peculiarly intriguing. I found portraits of her: drawings, engravings, and paintings. She is beautiful only in some, but her eyes are always beguiling, disproportionately large, almost black, and invariably mysterious. The photographs of her in later life are full of character: there is remarkable strength in her face, but also the suggestion that she has suffered. Then there are cartoons, quite as vicious as today's cartoons of media figures caught up in scandal.
I wondered particularly about the hidden life of George Sand, who was born Aurore Dupin in 1804 and died in 1876. She is France's most famous nineteenth-century woman writer, but she is best known as the famous lover of the celebrated Chopin, and variously described not in relation to her writing but rather as a frigid, bisexual, nymphomaniac, or "Good Lady of Nohant." Were there not, the indignant primitive feminist in me asked, contradictions and prejudices to be explored and explained? And what inner compulsion explained her quite extraordinary productivity? How had she maintained her prolific writing while enjoying such an active, highly colourful, and daring private life? In short, the origin of this biography was my discovery, twenty years ago, of a possible role model, at once intriguing, inspiring, and subversive.
The woman I found out more about then is not the woman I know now. But the familiar caricature I had first encountered is not altogether fanciful: exaggeration lends itself naturally to parody and comic representation. And there is
something exaggerated about almost every aspect of her life. Her long love affair with Chopin was only one of a large number of affairs with well-known figures of her times, mostly writers, mostly some years younger than Sand. Indeed most of the notable artistic figures of her day became her friends, often despite themselves, visiting her at her glorious country estate at Nohant, in Berry, or in Paris. Most were surprised by the unassuming, positively shy woman who received them. A small but representative selection from the veritable roll call of famous nineteenth-century men who were her friends includes musicians, Franz Liszt most notably, French writers including Flaubert, Balzac, Baudelaire, Sainte-Beuve, Alfred de Vigny, Chateaubriand, and Zola, and writers from numerous other countries, Heinrich Heine, Henry James, Browning (and his wife), Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, as well as painters, Eugène Delacroix being the best known. The engraver Alexandre Damien Manceau, the last of her great loves, was unique in giving her both love and friendship: a combination no earlier lover had offered.
One of her most intense, abandoned, and desperate love affairs was, however, with a woman, Marie Dorval, one of the most famous and beautiful actresses of the Parisian stage. They met in January 1833, when Sand was in her late twenties and Dorval in her mid-thirties. Sand had seen her act, and experienced an uncanny sense of recognizing her own suppressed emotions in all of Dorval's movements, expressions, and tones of voice. It was as though her soul had materialized and appeared on the stage before her. The two women were opposites, and each was strongly drawn to the other. Sand wrote to Dorval. The love affair that followed aroused outrage and jealousy and, needless to say, excited widespread and malicious gossip.
Sand's dress also drew attention: this was not altogether her intention. She cross-dressed, sometimes for practical reasons, sometimes for fun, and sometimes to see the world, and be treated, differently. She also had a penchant for exotic costumes. Smoking was a pleasure that she indulged in public at a time when for women the practice was wholly unacceptable. She smoked cigars, for which she is famous, but also cigarettes, which she rolled with deft expertise, and she delighted in her beloved hookah. She became thoroughly tobacco-dependent: numerous letters testify to her fear of running out of stock.
Professionally, Sand participated in a wide range of activities: journalistic, political, theatrical, and literary. Her involvement goes beyond that of other nineteenth-century women: she not only wrote for the press but was the only woman on the staff of the Figaro.
After the Revolution of 1848 she acted as minister for propaganda.
Her literary production is vast. Honoré de Balzac was deemed phenomenally productive: Sand was mocked for her output. There was an implication that such a stream of works was unfeminine in its proportions. She wrote a huge number of novels and plays, a massive two-volume autobiography, stories, essays, and articles. And her letter writing was quite as prolific as that of other writers of the time: her published correspondence comprises twenty-five volumes. She was a skilled draughtswoman and painter: her work, on permanent display in the Musée de la Vie Romantique in Paris, is highly accomplished. Her domestic life was also full: she educated her children, and was later deeply involved in the lives of her grandchildren. She showed real concern for the lot of her servants and neighbours, and she was a keen and knowledgeable gardener. She felt none of the contempt for home life so often displayed by successful women. She felt soothed by needlework, and adored jam-making. Even in this she displayed her characteristic tendency to overdo, producing ludicrous quantities. The length of her life too is something of an affront: despite her excesses, she outlived almost all of her contemporaries, stretching into her eighth decade and continuing to bathe regularly in the River Indre, strictly against the advice of her doctors.
It is a life "writ large," but the pun of my title both points to the scale and fullness of her life and allows for a blending-together of her life and her writing. She wrote a great deal from personal experience, but more unusually she tested out, in her fiction, possibilities for life which she then had the courage to live out, after the writing event.
Life gives rise to stories, but writing can also shape life. There is no doubt that her affairs fed her writing, but equally and more unusually, the chains of events that she also invented in her fiction were sometimes tested out in life. She explored feelings and ideas that motivated experience.
It was the writer-explorer in Sand that drew so many people to her. She was loved for her courage, her determination, her refusal of hypocrisy and compromise, her desire for equality of all kinds, her acts of kindness. As a writer she was enormously popular because of her ability to fashion, out of the muddle of her experience, writing that was passionate, full of conviction, and full of compassion for people. She was highly successful commercially because of the compelling texture of her work, but also because her writing is brimming over with the same pithy, often shocking subject matter that was part of her life. Sex, sexuality, incest, and cross-class relationships are some of the recurrent themes of her fiction, sometimes clearly visible, sometimes tantalizingly half-submerged, as they are in the life.
Only when I began to read George Sand's novels did I become uneasy with my image of her as a somewhat monstrous public figure, one which suggested a self-seeking, unreflecting, and egotistical inner self. What I encountered reading her was a quite different presence. Her voice can be intimate, unpretentious, gentle, sympathetic, and disarmingly honest. Reading George Sand's novels, you hear her tone: anguish, suffering and hope, frustration and yearning, despair and courage, tenderness are all written in. There is remarkably little anger, and great compassion. On the other hand, her insight into people, combined with a recognition of the injustices and hypocrisy of society, suggests a capacity to manipulate others with subtle skill. And her astute awareness of the way in which women collude in their own unhappiness, because of a lack of courage to take control, reveals a deep frustration with women whose solution is to assume the role of victim. She considered marriage a primitive institution and looked forward to a time when another kind of arrangement would allow for the coming into the world of children without forever shackling the freedom of their parents. She believed in the essential equality of women and men, despite their differences. These did not imply a spiritual or intellectual feminine inferiority. Vanity alone, she believed, explained men's adherence to an unjust social order.
The more I found out about Sand and the more I read of her writing, the more I began to wonder about the effects of her deep unhappiness as a child. To what extent had the vigorous contempt for compromise which she developed in her late teens compelled her to take risks and to keep going, however seemingly impossible life became? Would slowing down, even stopping, have forced her to live in the presence of a gnawing and intolerable pain? Great pain had been inflicted on her as a small child, and it gradually became an ache, sometimes acute, sometimes closer to numbness. Had she sought to cure this inner legacy of suffering by loving, and being loved? As a child she had longed to be tucked up close to her mother, and the need for physical closeness never went away. She never gave up her search.
From the moment of her birth, on 1 July 1804, she was muddled up in complex and antagonistic family passions. She was born Amantine-Aurore-Lucile Dupin. She was always known simply as "Aurore," the third Aurore in her family.
Marie-Aurore de Saxe, the second "Aurore" (later Mme Dupin de Francueil), Sand's grandmother on her father's side, became Châtelaine of Nohant. She was the granddaughter of the King of Poland. His wife was the first "Aurore," de Königsmarck. Mme Dupin's son, Captain Maurice François Dupin, married Antoinette Sophie-Victoire Delaborde, a former prostitute, and their (only just) legitimate daughter was baptized in Paris the day after her birth. Sand's parents had married by civil ceremony less than four weeks earlier. There is no known illegitimacy on the maternal side, but there is a long history of bastardy on the grand paternal side.
Sand's grandfather had been the proprietor of a billiards hall and had sold birds, canaries, and goldfinches on the streets. His daughter, Sophie-Victoire, had grown up in poverty, making a little money herself by the only and obvious means possible, as a common prostitute. Knowing what Mme Dupin's reaction to his lowly love would be, Maurice kept the marriage secret until after the baby's birth.
Sand's parents' families could hardly have been more different. Her background was one that would allow her to develop precocious insights into the complexities of class and the respective lots of men and women in society. As a small child she moved freely among very different social groups, some humble, some grand. This was a freedom she lost, but which with enormous determination she regained, in order fully to explore, and later communicate in her writings, her fluid and changing vision of what life was about, and, more importantly, how life might be made better -- for women, and men.
I have often been disconcerted, while writing this life, by a sense that Sand had not one but many lives. Sand herself came to believe in the notion of the self as multiple and constantly changing. At the end of her life she had formulated a typically modern notion of the self as fundamentally unstable: "It seems to me that we change from day to day and that after some years we are a new being."
These were ideas that she discussed at length with Gustave Flaubert, the giant of the nineteenth-century French novel and famous misanthropic recluse. Sand constantly looked for ideas in which she could believe. Flaubert advertised his cynicism with panache. He had confessed to Sand that he had, while a young man, decided to run away from life. Sand was shocked by the terrors of human existence when a small child, but she decided to confront life with all the energy and determination that she could summon.
It is telling that a man like Flaubert should have become both an intimate companion and an admirer of her life. His suspicion of sentimentality is legendary, but he confessed after her death to the equally broken-hearted giant of the nineteenth-century Russian novel, Ivan Turgenev: "At her funeral I cried like an ass."
Excerpted from George Sand by Belinda Jack. Copyright © 2001 by Belinda Jack. Excerpted by permission of Vintage, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.