George Sand knew how to make people talk. Ever since she strutted onto the French literary scene, everyone in Paris turned their eyes toward this charming, strangely dressed woman of veritable artistic talent. She had a two-pronged approach: her conduct would gain the immediate attention of her peers, and her talent would sustain it. Her strategy, buoyed by her robust and wise talent, has been successful to this very day.
George Sand's Early Life and 'Affairs'
George Sand, called by her family Aurore before she decided on her masculine pseudonym, was born to aristocratic wealth and privilege. Her father died in a riding accident when she was five, and she was raised in large part by her grandmother. It was through this grandmother, a thoroughly 18th-century woman, that Sand was educated in the liberal enlightenment ideals of Rousseau and Voltaire and was encouraged to think freely.
Sand went to a convent in her early teens. She enjoyed it well enough, and would have become a nun were it not for the urging of the convent leaders and her grandmother. At the age of 16, she relocated back home, where she read books, hunted with her tutor, and socialized with the peasant children, reinforcing a sympathy for the laboring class that she would carry all her life.
In 1822, she married Casimir Dudevant, with whom she had two children. In 1831, she left him with her son and daughter to live openly in Paris with her lover, Jules Sandeau, from whose surname Aurore borrowed to finally become George Sand.
This affair did not last forever, and Sand moved on to others. She had a talent of provoking French society through the openness with which she dealt in paramours. She linked up with the poet Alfred de Musset, the dramatist Prosper Mérimée, the actor Bocage, and leftist politician Louis Blanc, among others. She incited considerable gossip with her homosexual affairs, a notable one being with the celebrity actress Marie Dorval. But her most famous relationship was her eight-year, largely platonic liaison with Frédéric Chopin. It provided the sickly composer with strength and granted Sand stability.
Perception of George Sand in Person and in Print
Sand also liked to wear men’s pants and clothes, and already her freedom from the typical confines of sex and gender infuriated onlookers, even those of the Parisian intelligentsia. "She is stupid, heavy and garrulous,” said Charles Baudelaire. “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." The press was sometimes cruel and skeptical too, with one cartoon depicting Sand holding a whip as miniature men and rats scurried from the wanton destroyer of masculine power.
Indeed, reading Sand’s work shows a sensitivity and humanity that contradicts the egotistical, scandal-baiting woman her detractors made her out to be. Instead of this imagined self-regarding personality, Sand biographer Belinda Jack wrote that “Her voice can be intimate, unpretentious, gentle, sympathetic, and disarmingly honest.”
The proof of her wisdom and kindness may be found in the many friendships she had, and from the many admirers who were magnetized by her spirit and vitality. (Her collected correspondence, if it’s any indication of her virtuous companionship, comprises 25 volumes.) The painter Eugène Delacroix captured her affectionately immersed in one of her favorite hobbies, lacemaking. Writers of her own milieu, like Zola, Balzac, and Flaubert, unabashedly praised her, as well as writers around the West, including Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Dostoevsky, Turgenev, Henry James, and Walt Whitman. Flaubert, not exactly remembered for being sentimental, reflected, “At her funeral I cried like an ass.”
Luckily for English readers, many of her novels, like Indiana, Mauprat, and Lelia, have gone into recent translation. Still, it may take some time before her prodigious oeuvre is adequately represented in bookstores and conversation...more time for more people realize that Sand's writing is like being spoken to by a very good friend.