Outside of France, not so many people know about George Sand, a woman whose 19th century celebrity sounds like something right out of this year’s gossip pages.
She was a hugely popular novelist in her time, beginning her writing career when she was in her 20s. And that’s in Paris — and after she’d taken her two children and left her husband, a baron.
Back up a little. George Sand was the most famous pseudonym of Aurore Dupin. She was born to a military father with an aristocratic background and a mother who was “low-born” (and often described as simply a “bird fancier”). She was born a month after her parents were married, which was not so unusual at the time. Contrary to popular lore, pregnancies outside of marriage were pretty common in the 18th and 19th centuries.
Her dad fell off a horse and died when she was about four years old, and Aurore was given over to her paternal grandmother, who lived on an estate in Nohant, France. One gets the impression that grandma was pretty strict; she wouldn’t allow Aurore’s bird-loving mother onto the estate, in fact… not classy enough.
So Aurore grew up in the country with a harsh grandmother (and we can only guess what grandma thought about a child who was half low-born). When Aurore was 13 she was sent for further education at a convent.
When Aurore was 17, her grandmother died and she inherited the estate at Nohant — complete with the deal that Aurore’s mother was still cut out of guardianship.
When Aurore was 18, she married the son of a baron, another baron named Dudevant. They had two children, but it wasn’t a great marriage… Aurore took on some lovers, blah blah blah. By 1831 they’d separated. The way things were in those days, her ex got the estate (!) and Aurore was given an allowance.
She took her kids and moved to Paris. Her allowance wasn’t much, and in Paris in the 1830s, to be out in society as a woman required a lot of money. To dress in men’s trousers, not so much.
But it might be good to remember that even men weren’t all that used to dressing in trousers at the time. Trousers in Europe were a poor man’s costume until the French Revolution. After the 1790s, it became more fashionable to wear trousers as a mark of solidarity with the working man.
Aurore Dudevant found it much easier to move about in Paris while dressed in men’s clothes, and it was obviously more than a fashion statement or a pathway to a cheap wardrobe. The simple fact was that if she masqueraded as a man, she got more out of life.
So there she was, in Paris in the 1830s, with two kids and not a whole lot of money. Somehow she started writing for journals, and somehow she hooked up with Jules Sandeau, a writer who we could call a poet — but it seems just about everybody wrote poetry in those days, so let’s just say he was a writer. Jules and Aurore co-wrote a novel, under the name of Jules Sands.
After that, she adopted the pen name J. Sands, then G. Sand, then Georges… finally George Sand. Records show that her lover Frederic Chopin called her Aurore. In the papers she was known as “Monsieur Sand.” Her daughter called her George. She was sometimes called Amandine (or Amantine).
By all accounts George Sand was a devoted mother — although her daughter, Solange, is known to have held some bitterness toward her mother later in life. Imagine that.
By way of her writing — or force of personality? — she associated with all kinds of famous guys, from Gustave Flaubert to Franz Liszt (and a whole lotta others you’ve never heard of, but who were pretty durn famous at the time). She must have been a piece of work.
Naturally, she had her detractors. The poet Charles Baudelaire called her “a latrine.” Many years later, Fridriech Nietzsche called her “a writing cow.”
Her various love affairs were scandalous at the time, but it’s hard to know what to make of them now. Was it about the hot sex? It doesn’t really sound like it. It sounds like she kept her various lovers at arms’ length and liked to mentor and/or mother them. Did she use them for career advancement or artistic inspiration? Did she hasten Chopin’s death, or did her care for him prolong his life?
All in all, hers is a fascinating story. Fascinating even if you ignore that she lived and thrived in the 19th century. For four decades she was a very popular writer, despite — or because — of her controversial lifestyle. In the history of French literature, she’s way up there, among all those other guys we don’t read any more.
Read more about her in the Who2 biography of George Sand.