Novelist, early feminist, wilful eccentric, public figure, scandalous trousered icon, lover of de Musset and Chopin, champion of the oppressed, chronicler of the peasantry. George Sands is Shine’s Woman of the Week.
George Sand is best known as a 19th century French novelist and essayist. She ‘shocked’ the high society circles by wearing male clothing in public and choosing to smoke like a man. As a socialist, she started her own newspaper that was published in workers’ co-operatives.
Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin was born on 1 July 1804 and became best known by her pseudonym George Sand. She is equally well known for her much publicised romantic affairs with a number of artists, including Polish composer and pianist Frédéric Chopin and the writer Alfred de Musset.
Sand married Casimir Dudevant at the age of 18 and had two children: Maurice (1823–1889) and Solange (1828–1899). But, citing her marriage to be ‘confining and boring’ she left her husband and entered upon a four or five-year period of “romantic rebellion.” In 1835, she was legally separated from Dudevant and took her children with her.
She also engaged in an intimate friendship with actress Marie Dorval, which led to widespread but unconfirmed rumours of a lesbian affair, although letters written by Sand to Dorval did made such references as “wanting you either in your dressing room or in your bed.”
Sand’s reputation came into question when she began sporting men’s clothing in public which she justified by the clothes being far sturdier and less expensive than the typical dress of a noblewoman at the time. In addition to being comfortable, Sand’s male dress enabled her to circulate more freely in Paris than most of her female contemporaries, and gave her increased access to venues from which women were often barred, even women of her social standing. Also scandalous was Sand’s smoking tobacco in public; neither peerage nor gentry had yet sanctioned the free indulgence of women in such a habit, especially in public!
These and other behaviours were exceptional for a woman of the early and mid-19th century, when social codes — especially in the upper classes — were of the utmost importance. As a consequence of the many unorthodox aspects of her lifestyle, she had to relinquish some of the privileges appertaining to a baroness.
Poet Charles Baudelaire was a contemporary critic of George Sand and said of her: “She is stupid, heavy and garrulous. Her ideas on morals have the same depth of judgment and delicacy of feeling as those of janitresses and kept women … The fact that there are men who could become enamoured of this slut is indeed a proof of the abasement of the men of this generation.”
Other writers of the period, however, differed in their assessment. Flaubert, by no means an indulgent or forbearing critic, was an unabashed admirer. Honoré de Balzac, who knew Sand personally, once said that if someone thought George Sand wrote badly, it was because their own standards of criticism were inadequate. He also noted that her treatment of imagery in her works showed that her writing had an exceptional subtlety, having the ability to “virtually put the image in the word”.
A liaison with the writer Jules Sandeau heralded her literary debut. They published a few stories in collaboration, signing them “Jules Sand”. Her first published novel, Rose et Blanche (1831), was written in collaboration with Sandeau. She subsequently adopted, for her first independent novel, Indiana, the pen name that made her famous – George Sand.
In addition, Sand authored literary criticism and political texts. She wrote many essays and published works establishing her socialist position. Because of her early life, she sided with the poor and working class as well as women’s rights. When the 1848 Revolution began, Sand started her own newspaper, which was published in workers’ co-operatives.
She was known well in far reaches of the world, and her social practices, her writings and her beliefs prompted much commentary, often by other luminaries in the world of arts and letters. A few excerpts demonstrate much of what was often said about George Sand:
S. Pritchett: “What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.”
Ivan Turgenev: “The most womanly woman.”
The most widely used quote of her own is: “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.”