World Literature

George Sand

 

BORN: 1804, Paris, France

DIED: 1876, Nohant, France

NATIONALITY: French

GENRE: Fiction, nonfiction

MAJOR WORKS:

Consuelo (1842)

The Devil's Pool (1846)

La Petite Fadette (1849)

She and He (1859)

Le Marquis de Villemer (1860)

 

 

George Sand Mansell. (Time Life Pictures / Getty Images)

 

Overview

George Sand was a celebrated yet controversial French writer whose personal life oftentimes overshadowed her creative production. Known for its blend of romance and realism, her writing was effortlessly spontaneous and prolific without sacrificing style and form. Sand stated that the primary happiness in life was to be in love, and so she focused on relationships in most of her novels as she tackled the complexities of politics, society, and gender.

 

Works in Biographical and Historical Context

Aristocratic Upbringing in Berry. Sand was born Armandine Aurore Lucille Dupin in Paris on July 1, 1804, to parents from very different backgrounds. Her father, Maurice Dupin, was an aristocratic soldier, while her mother, Sophie Delaborde, was the daughter of a bird trainer. After her father's death, the four-year-old Sand was entrusted to her paternal grandmother at the family estate of Nohant in Berry, a historical region in France that would later be the setting of several of her novels.

Reached Maturity in Paris. When her grandmother died, Sand, then seventeen, was reclaimed by her mother and taken to Paris. At eighteen, Sand married Casimir Dudevant, a local army officer, and later gave birth to two children. Unmoved by her coarse, unromantic husband, Sand grew restless and left her husband and children in 1831 to pursue aspirations of a literary career in Paris. Because divorce in France was illegal at this time, she battled in court for a legal separation that included property rights and custody of one of her children. She eventually prevailed, and Michel de Bourges, who advised her during her legal proceedings, became her lover. Supportive of her strength of character, Bourges persuaded Sand to express herself politically. His influence colored the remainder of Sand’s writing, which increasingly reflected her feminist and political concerns.

The failure of the 1830 revolution in France had coincided with the failure of Sand’s marriage. The three-day 1830 revolution saw the removal of King Charles X, an ultraroyalist who had ruled since 1824. Charles wanted to restore the absolute powers of the monarchy and the supremacy of the Catholic Church. Leftist forces allied with the upper bourgeoisie to replace Charles with Louis Philippe of the house of Orleans as a ‘‘citizen-king,’’ who agreed to be ruled by the desires of the rising industrial plutocracy.

An Unconventional Woman. Free from the social restrictions of marriage, Sand actively pursued life as a writer, moving in literary circles, selling articles, and being mentored by writers, such as Henri de Latouche and Charles Sainte-Beuve. Sand began an affair with Jules Sandeau, a young intellectual who embraced an exciting life that took advantage of Paris’s cultural offerings. Encouraged by her daring partner, Sand began dressing as a man to gain access to venues that were usually closed to women.

Though the identity of the young cross-dresser was soon public knowledge, Sand enjoyed shocking the Parisian cultural scene and continued to elicit gossip with her dress and her habit of smoking in public (considered scandalous for a woman). While these actions endangered her reputation, they also gained her literary and social fame. Inspired by Sandeau’s own literary output, she continued to write, collaborating with Sandeau and eventually publishing her first solo novel, Indiana (1832), under the male pseudonym George Sand.

Failure in Love Affects Writing. Jealous of her success, Sandeau broke with Sand, who was thrust into a period of despair. Disillusioned with men and love, she wrote Leila (1833), a novel exploring women’s inability to follow their true desires. Soon after, she began a relationship with a young poet, Alfred de Musset, and joined him in his travels throughout Italy.

Sand, a would-be anarchist, candidly admitted that she hated all political factions and said that had she been born a man, she would be dangerous. Shortly after the failed 1830 revolution she wrote Une Conspiration en 1537, in which she dramatized the anarchist she herself could not be: the Renaissance prince Lorenzo de Medici, who assassinated his cousin Duke Alexander de Medici of Florence in 1537. When Sand gave Musset Une Conspiration en 1537as a gift in 1833, Musset rewrote the play into his masterpiece, Lorenzaccio (1834), preserving Sand’s main characters and events.

Lovers Abroad. Though her liaison with Musset ended when she fell in love with the doctor who was tending to Musset during an illness, Sand’s time in Italy with Musset sparked her first autobiographical writing, a series of Italian travel vignettes published as Letters of a Traveler in 1847. With a talent for observation, Sand explored the nature of travel and the customs of Italy through a series of vivid portrayals of cultural life abroad.

For nine years, Frederic Chopin was Sand’s next famous lover. During Sand and Chopin’s time together in relative seclusion in Majorca, Spain, both artists enjoyed a period of great creative productivity. Sand completed another novel before turning to a literary investigation of socialism, a growing movement in the nineteenth century that criticized the Industrial Revolution for creating inequality and poverty while advocating for the even distribution of wealth. Her dream for a more egalitarian society was reflected in Horace (1842). Sand, who believed that country people had a better understanding of democracy, idealized provincial life, an approach that would influence writers from Thomas Hardy to Leo Tolstoy. However, her provincial idealism also gained criticism for its patronizing tone and its rustic, historically inaccurate portrayals.

Autobiographical Novel. Sand’s next work demonstrated a more autobiographical feel. Though she denied it was drawn from her own life, her 1859 novel She and He depicts her tumultuous relationship with Musset. The work was immediately attacked for its depiction of Musset, who had died two years earlier, and Sand was criticized for using men to her advantage. She and He even provoked Musset’s brother to write a novel in response, and Lui et Elle (He and She) appeared just six weeks after Sand’’s book.

Though Sand was criticized for her “unfeminine’’ affairs and her carefree, dismissive attitude toward convention, she was still held in high regard, and her 1860 novel Le Marquis de Villemer appeared to great fanfare. Along with several of Sand’s other works, it was later adapted for the stage. As a result, Sand began writing plays with rustic settings, creations that were extremely popular and reinvented Sand in the eyes of French society.

Retired to Nohant. After her 1872 retirement from the world of Paris theater, Sand settled at the family estate in Nohant. There, she spent time caring for her granddaughters, for whom she wrote several stories and novels emphasizing self-confidence, acceptance, and change. She grew less concerned with politics, preferring to enjoy the company of family and friends, including authors Gustave Flaubert and Ivan Turgenev. After suffering from a stomach ailment that was most likely cancer, Sand died in her bedroom on June 9, 1876.

 

LITERARY AND HISTORICAL CONTEMPORARIES

Sand's famous contemporaries include:

Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880): Author of Madame Bovary (1856), the story of an adulterous woman in provincial Normandy, this French novelist carried on a lengthy correspondence with Sand.

Jenny Lind (1820-1887): Lind was a Swedish opera singer known as the ''Swedish Nightingale.'' Her first acclaimed role was Agathe in Weber's Der Freischutz at the Swedish Royal Opera in 1838.

Matthew Brady (1822-1896): The celebrated American photographer is credited with the creation of photojournalism. He took famous photographs of the American Civil War as well as well-known people of the era.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902): Stanton was the leader of the early American women's rights movement as well as a social activist. She wrote the ''Declaration of Sentiments," which was read at the first women's rights conventions in 1848 in Seneca Falls, New York.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875): Bizet was a French composer and Romantic pianist. He wrote the opera Carmen, which premiered in 1875.

Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881): This Scottish writer was famous for his work The French Revolution, a History (1837). He also wrote Past and Present (1843) and Frederick the Great (1858-1865).

 

Works in Literary Context

Social Explorations. Sand is best known for bold statements about the rights of women in nineteenth- century society, her exploration of contemporary social and philosophical issues, and her depiction of the lives and language of French provincials. Each period of her literary career focused on specific themes and had its own set of influences. Her rustic novels are perhaps the truest representation of her form as an author.

Rebellion Against Marriage. The works of her first period reflect her rebellion against the bonds of marriage and deal largely with the relationships between men and women. Clearly influenced by English poet Lord Byron and French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Sand wrote romantic novels full of passionate personal revolt and ardent feminism, attitudes that went against societal conventions and outraged her early British and American critics. These early novels, including Indiana, Lelia, and Jacques (1834), were extremely successful and established Sand as an important literary voice for her generation.

Philosophical Concerns. The works of Sand’s second period—such novels as Consuelo (1842-1843) and The Miller of Angibault (1845)—reveal Sand’s increasing concern with contemporary social and philosophical problems. These novels were strongly influenced by French philosopher and politician Pierre Leroux and deal specifically with humanitarianism, Christian socialism, and republicanism. Considered by many to be her least credible works, their tone is often didactic and their plots obviously contrived.

Pastoral Novels. Sand’s pastoral novels, which depict rural scenes and peasant characters, form the last phase of her career. Set in Berry, where she grew up, The Haunted Marsh (1846) and Francis the Waif (1847-1848) were inspired by her love of the French countryside and her sympathy with the peasants. Realistic in background detail and distinguished by their gentle idealism, these pastoral works are considered by many critics to be Sand’s finest novels. Although she continued writing until her death, few of the works written after her pastoral period are remembered today.

Influence. Sand’s work is recognized as an important step in the development of the French novel, influencing writers like George Eliot and Thomas Hardy with their provincial idealization and portrayal of rustic lifestyles. An admired colleague of Victor Hugo and Alexandre Dumas, Sand was also an inspiration to Gustave Flaubert, with whom she had a meaningful literary friendship. Opposites in most every regard, she and Flaubert shared ongoing intellectual arguments over their conflicting literary philosophies.

 

COMMON HUMAN EXPERIENCE

Sand's novels idealized country life as simple, democratic, and egalitarian. Here are other works of literature and art that explore pastoral life:

Lyrical Ballads (1798), a poetry collection by William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Wordsworth and Coleridge were major figures in the Romantic movement. Romantic poetry often featured pastoral figures such as milkmaids and shepherds.

So Big (1924), a novel by Edna Ferber. Ferber's novel, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1925 and has been adapted for film multiple times, follows the life of a young woman of Dutch descent living in an Illinois farming community.

Sunrise (1927), a film by F. W. Murnau. This movie shows a man's reconciliation with his country wife after his affair with a city woman.

 

Works in Critical Context

Considering the moral climate during her lifetime and her open defiance of social standards, it is not surprising that Sand became better known for her personal life than for her literary accomplishments. From the onset of her career, Sand’s flamboyant lifestyle colored serious critical evaluation of her work. Reception to Sand’s literature was oftentimes hostile, with critics dismissing her ‘‘adolescent” work based on what they perceived to be her lack of morality.

Criticism through the Years. When several of her novels were adapted for the stage, Sand enjoyed great popular success, and many of her books were reissued to a receptive audience. In spite of this, much of Sand’s work was dismissed as autobiographical and beneath literary notice. After her death in 1876, Sand’s literary popularity declined. There is evidence that Sand’s most ardent attackers could have been motivated by gender bias, professional or personal jealousy, or genuine aversion to her art and politics. Whatever their driving force, Sand’s critics succeeded in diminishing her accomplishment, and she fell into obscurity. Sand’s work was rediscovered in the 1950s and began to receive serious attention from feminist critics who have since redefined her place in the French literary canon.

Indiana. Marked by Sand’s critique of marriage and her incipient feminism, Indiana outraged some early British and American critics, but was extremely popular with the general reading public, prompting early reviewers to speculate about the author’s sex by identifying both masculine and feminine qualities in the novel’s language and characterizations. More recently, critics have argued the extent to which Indiana can be interpreted as a feminist novel, and many have studied Sand’s manipulation of conventional gender categories through her transformations of Ralph and Raymon. The work has also been read as a critique of bourgeois domesticity and its circumscription of women within the household or private sphere. Modern scholarship has also noted that Sand crafted the central personalities in Indiana from stock characters of romance. Raymon, for example, is a Don Juan type.

Many critics have offered interpretations of the novel, including Carol V. Richards. In George Sand Papers: Conference Proceedings, 1978, Richards interprets the novel as ‘‘not the failure of love ... but the triumph of an ideal love which wins for the heroine the happiness she missed in her loveless marriage.’’

 

Responses to Literature

1. Sand’s scandalous personal life often influenced public reception of her novels. Can you think of other public figures who are known more for their lifestyles than their work? Write an essay that compares such figures to Sand.

2. Sand’s childhood in rural France doubtlessly influenced her pastoral novels. In what ways does Sand’s work fit into the broader tradition of pastoral art? Create a presentation that demonstrates this link.

3. Though Sand publicly denounced marriage and scorned tradition in her personal life, she was ambiguous as to whether women should have the right to vote. In a paper, address the following questions: Do you think this fact influences whether Sand should be considered a feminist writer? Why or why not? What reasons can you think of for Sand’s ambivalence in regard to this monumental issue in women’s rights?

4. Sand’s pen name was adopted from the last name of her lover. Research the origins of other famous pen names such as Lewis Carroll or Mark Twain. Create a pseudonym for yourself and explain why you chose that particular name in a paper.

5. Sand’s personal relationships with literary and cultural figures influenced her work and life. In an essay, address these questions. Can you find common characteristics that her lovers shared? Why do you think Sand seemed not to stay in love with one person for long? How is such behavior classified in the realm of psychology?

 

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Books

Crecelius, Kathryn J. Family Romances: George Sand’s Early Novels. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987.

Dickinson, Donna. George Sand: A Brave Man, the Most Womanly Woman. Oxford, U.K.: Berg, 1988.

Richards, Carol V. ‘‘Structural Motifs and the Limits of Feminism in Indiana.’’ In George Sand Papers: Conference Proceedings, 1978. Edited by Natalie Datlof et al. New York: AMS Press, 1982.

Schermerhorn, Elizabeth W. The Seven Strings of the Lyre: The Romantic Life of George Sand. Whitefish, Mont.: Kessinger, 2003.

Seyd, Felicia. Romantic Rebel: The Life and Times of George Sand. New York: Viking, 1940.

Web Sites

The George Sand Association. Retrieved March 16, 2008, from http://people.hofstra.edu/david_a_powell/gsa.