In 1821, aged 17, Aurore Dupin tried to kill herself by riding her horse into a deep river. Twenty-eight years later, Landry, a character in La Petite Fadette, a novel written by Dupin under her pen name George Sand, thinks about drowning himself in the river. By this time Sand’s readers would have been familiar with the suicide option. In her first novel, Indiana (1832), a serving girl drowns herself in a millpond while her mistress, the eponymous heroine, is saved from submerging herself in the Seine by her cousin Ralph, only for the two to plan a joint suicide years later. In Sand’s most scandalous novel, Lélia (1833), the poet Sténio, the main male character, drowns himself, while in Jacques (1833) the story’s eponymous hero chooses to disappear into an Alpine crevasse. A similar destiny awaits the mad old explorer Nasias in Laura: A Journey into the Crystal (1864). Between 1832 and her death in 1876 Sand published 58 novels; a full list of the suicides and attempted suicides would be long.
In her new biography of George Sand the French critic Martine Reid observes that the causes of depression were not well known in the early 19th century. But when Sand wrote La Petite Fadette (she was then in her early forties), she seemed perfectly clear about the causes of Landry’s desperation. He is a twin who grew up on a small farm in affectionate symbiosis with his brother, Sylvinet. But after Landry, the stronger twin, gets a job on a neighbouring farm, makes new friends and develops new skills, Sylvinet feels betrayed, falls into a depression and does all he can to make his brother feel guilty. Landry is torn between the desire to keep his idyllic childhood relationship with his twin and the urge to be independent and free. To raise the stakes, Sylvinet deliberately disappears when Landry comes home to see him. Landry is afraid his brother has drowned himself in the creek. Unable to find him, unable to move forwards or backwards in life, he begins to see suicide as a solution.
Sand experienced a similar inner conflict. Born in Paris in 1804 to Sophie Delaborde, a poor woman of uncertain reputation, and Maurice Dupin, a ‘terribly spoiled’ army officer and aristocrat, Aurore followed an illegitimate half-brother on her father’s side, and an illegitimate half-sister on her mother’s. Two children born to the couple had died soon after birth, while they themselves had married without the knowledge or consent of Maurice’s controlling widowed mother, Marie-Aurore, only a month before Aurore’s birth. When she was four her mother gave birth to a boy who died at three months. Just a few days after the baby’s death, her father was killed in a riding accident: clearly this was a dangerous world. Maurice hadn’t recognised or given any attention to Aurore’s half-brother, Hippolyte, who lived on family charity but as an outsider. Now, however, she became an ‘apple of discord’, fought over by her lowly mother and aristocratic grandmother, who despised each other. ‘My two mothers … ripped my heart to shreds,’ she wrote. She loved her mother better, but her grandmother had the money and the class position. Eventually, Sophie handed her daughter over to Marie-Aurore in return for a generous allowance and the understanding that she would live in Paris while Aurore grew up on the Dupin family estate in Nohant, Berry, two hundred miles to the south. Aurore felt as if she had been sold. In the novel Mauprat (1837) she would write of a grandfather so determined to take possession of his grandson that he kills the boy’s mother; from this point on she was determined not to become someone else’s possession.
Marie-Aurore was so obsessed by the likeness between her granddaughter and the son she had recently lost that she began referring to the girl as ‘her son’, dressing her in boys’ clothes, calling her Maurice and making her, not Hippolyte, heir to the estate. It was the beginning of the gender reversal that would be so fruitful in Aurore’s life but it came with an imposition of discipline and upper-class etiquette that made the girl miss her mother’s ‘passionate hugs’ all the more. ‘For as long as I live,’ her grandmother told her, ‘I’ll celebrate your birthday as long as you console me for losing the man to whom you owe your life; and I hope to receive that consolation in the form of your efforts to develop your talents, your good behaviour and your gratitude.’
Aurore developed her talents under the guidance of Jean-Louis-François Deschartres (who had also been her father’s tutor), a man of ‘all-encompassing competence’, Sand later wrote, ‘and a degree of smugness close to delirium’. Finding his lessons confining, she escaped into the fields to play with the village children. When, in adolescence, she spoke of going back to Paris to live with her mother, her grandmother decided to share with Aurore ‘certain details’ about Sophie’s relations with men: ‘My mother was a lost woman and I a blind child who wanted to throw herself into an abyss.’ Reid argues that the revelation plunged Aurore into a volatile state typical of the heroines of Sand’s early novels, ‘one minute … utterly dejected, and the next giddy with excitement’. It was time to send her to a convent.
In the care of the English Augustinian sisters in Paris, the 13-year-old Aurore at first joined the more rebellious girls, the ‘devils’, who defined themselves in opposition to the obedient girls – ‘dummies’ – until, after a year or so, overcome by a ‘feeling of terror and rapture’ one evening in chapel, she experienced a religious conversion. ‘I needed to love someone beyond myself,’ Sand would write in her autobiography, and God, as an object of love, did not imprison or suffocate as grandmothers and tutors did. Rather, he represented ‘an ideal of justice, love and holiness’. The energy that had previously been channelled into rebellion was now exercised in ‘composing charades, theatre sketches and morality plays’. Reconciling independence and obedience, Aurore was suddenly popular with everyone – devils, dummies and nuns. ‘The convent had become my paradise on earth. There I had absolute liberty within walls that I cherished.’
Reid never attempts to identify what was behind Sand’s attempts to become an independent figure within an appreciative and protective community, although she does have interesting things to say about the link between Aurore’s religious experience and her invention of a godlike, genderless hero for the ‘scores of novels’ she was already writing in her head. Named Corambé, this figure, as Sand put it in her autobiography, combined Jesus, Orpheus, Ulysses and Tasso’s warrior heroine Clorinda, someone who ‘endlessly consoled and made things right’. Again and again in Sand’s mature fiction we find a character, male or female, closely allied with the author, who is absolutely determined to overcome hostilities and misunderstandings in order to achieve a happy ending.
Her grandmother, who was worried by talk of a religious vocation, decided to bring her home, and began looking for a respectable husband for her. She was 15. Aurore once again descended into ‘pathological hopelessness’ and, in response, embarked on a voracious programme of reading and study (her old tutor Deschartres was her ally) as well as writing a stream of letters to her convent friends. The private letter would always be an important resource for Sand: there are 19,600 extant letters in her hand. ‘No real friendship without absolute liberty,’ she would write to Flaubert in 1866. Another of her pleasures was to dress in men’s clothes and ride through the countryside (only men could ride alone). But perhaps doing this only made her more aware of her dependence; it was on one of these rides that she tried to drown herself.
Her grandmother’s death in December 1821 brought Aurore a considerable inheritance and placed her, at last, under the guardianship of her mother. She was soon disenchanted. Like many of the heroines of her novels, she had simply exchanged one prison for another. And like those heroines she initially imagined escape coming in the form of a ‘liberator’, a ‘Messiah’, a man who would love her. By September 1822 she had married Second Lieutenant Casimir Dudevant, nine years her senior, and shortly before her 19th birthday in June 1823 she gave birth to a son, Maurice. Letters suggest she approached the marriage with the best of intentions, but in the spring of 1824 she again fell into a profound depression, and felt ‘ravaged by weariness and woe’. ‘The beards have all the power,’ she wrote to a friend. ‘I can scarcely find an hour or two to read come evening.’ A trip to the Pyrenees in 1825 helped, particularly when she met Aurélien de Sèze, a young lawyer who was also on holiday there. She called him her ‘guardian angel’, mixing, as she so often would, ideas of romance and protection. A few months later her affections switched to a former tutor in natural history called Stéphane Ajasson, and an affair began. In December 1827 she invented a health problem that needed attention, allowing her to spend some time with Ajasson in Paris. Nine months later, back in Nohant, a daughter, Solange, was born. Her illegitimacy would be a closely guarded secret. Husband and wife slept in separate rooms.
All Sand’s energy was now directed towards becoming independent. She wrote travelogues, then a novel. She rented an apartment five miles away in La Châtre, where she could entertain artistic people. But she didn’t feel attractive: ‘My physiognomy is cold … my manners are neither easy nor graceful. I am not shy, but I don’t like people to get inside me and pass judgment.’ In July 1830, when she was 26, she met Jules Sandeau, a handsome 19-year-old who wanted to go to Paris to become a writer. Aurore went with him, leaving her children behind. Very soon the two were writing articles together, then a novel. The publisher suggested they use the name Jules Sand, since it sounded a bit English and English writers were popular. Two years later Aurore wanted to use the pen name for her own first novel, Indiana, but Sandeau refused and the publisher proposed a compromise: an imaginary brother. The name eventually chosen, George Sand, became another way for Aurore to have all the independence that men enjoyed and women did not. She wrote in the first person as a man, and one feels her enthusiasm for and enjoyment of the male posture – when Sand begins to pontificate on women, distinguishing their qualities from those of men, it’s almost always in terms of polarities such as strength and weakness, courage and fear: ‘Women rarely have the physical courage which consists in offering the resistance of inertia to pain or danger,’ he/she writes in Indiana, ‘but they often have the moral courage which attains its climax in peril or suffering.’ Or again: ‘Men, especially lovers, are addicted to the innocent fatuity of preferring to protect weakness rather than to admire courage in womankind.’ As Reid acknowledges, Sand often accepts and even insists on traditional perceptions of the differences between men and women. She seems to have enjoyed occupying both sides of the divide, or oscillating between them, often referring to herself as two separate people, by day a woman in society, by night a man writing into the early hours. In any event, Sand did not drop her pseudonym when, before long, her cover was blown, but instead revelled in her double identity. In 1833 she had a brief affair with the actress Marie Dorval and by 1834 she was signing her personal letters ‘G’ rather than ‘A’.
Reid presents Sand as a major writer deprived of glory by male prejudice and resentment. Certainly, the stupidity and chauvinism of many of the men she quotes beggars belief, though others – Sainte-Beuve, Balzac, Hugo – were quick to recognise her talent. Nevertheless, this approach perhaps obscures the factors other than her gender that led writers and critics to prefer Balzac and Flaubert. Indiana, for example, is an extraordinary novel. Many of its plot turns are unrealistic and the dialogue wants to explain too much; yet the underlying psychology of the book is absolutely convincing and delivered with marvellous intensity. Essentially, three men are contending for the heart of a woman. At no point does the narrative envisage the possibility of Indiana’s surviving without one of the three; in Sand’s work solitude is as much a prison as a dominating parent or husband. To escape her loveless home, Indiana dives into marriage with the much older, authoritarian Colonel Delmare. The dashing young intellectual who promises to rescue her from the living death this marriage soon becomes is a minor aristocrat, Raymon de Ramière. Indiana’s stolid cousin Ralph has always loved her but is chronically unable to declare himself. The vagaries of the plot are beyond summarising, but at the core of the book are two tantalisingly drawn-out scenes where Indiana hovers on the brink of giving herself to Raymon only to draw back at the last moment, his ensuing exasperation exposing him as an opportunist and predator. Yet Sand does not make him merely evil; her understanding of her characters is lucidly systemic; they act towards each other the way society has taught them. So ‘the emotion that [Raymon] felt at the sight of Indiana may be compared to that of an actor thoroughly imbued with the spirit of his role, who finds himself in the presence of the principal character of the drama and can no longer distinguish artificial stage effects from reality.’ Even more in thrall to the automatisms of cliché, Indiana’s husband is ‘so exclusively’ governed by public opinion that ‘common sense and argument counted for nothing in his decisions.’ Such conventional men fall into confusion when dealing with a woman who doesn’t keep to the script; Raymon in particular seems to lose all identity in a turmoil of contradictory impulses. By sharp contrast, when Ralph and Indiana decide not to kill themselves and become a couple, their superiority lies in breaking entirely with society; they ‘loved each other in perfect security’, we are told, ‘despising public opinion’.
Sand, who became a literary celebrity overnight, would spend the next decades attacking restrictive social codes in her stories, plays and novels, while at the same time seeking an ideal lover who could protect her from the fallout without imprisoning her. While facing violent criticism for Lélia in 1833 she abandoned the relationship with Marie Dorval and started one with the poet Alfred de Musset. Sand had identified ‘absolutely and totally’ with Lélia, a heroine who burns with desire, but finds herself incapable of physical love because of the male domination it implies, occasionally trying to solve the problem by adopting an aggressive male stance herself. The novel’s chief quality, Sainte-Beuve cautiously observed, was its ‘daring’. In December 1833 Sand distanced herself from the flack by moving to Venice with Musset, again leaving her children behind, then surprised everyone by declaring her love for a young Italian doctor who came to treat Musset when he caught typhoid fever. For a while she juggled the two men, ‘constantly turning her experiences’, as Reid writes, ‘into discourse, text, novels’, then in 1835 lived for some months ‘like a monk’ while she tried to convince a court in La Châtre to grant her a legal separation from her husband and possession of her estate in Nohant. ‘Superb and unabridged independence’, Sand called it when the decision went her way.
‘The men that Sand loved,’ Reid observes, ‘all had a certain physical resemblance … fragile, slight and a bit reserved.’ Unthreatening, in short. Above all, they were younger than her. Sandeau, Musset and then, for the nine years between 1838 and 1847, Chopin, were all six years her junior. Sand confessed that she tended to mother them. Typically she would seek to retire with them to some protected place where they could form part of an ideal community, taking a stand against conservative society. Often this meant Sand’s estate in Nohant, but it could be elsewhere: she set up house in Mallorca with Chopin and her children in the winter of 1838-39. The exact nature of these relationships is hard to define. Chopin was suffering from tuberculosis for much of their time together and after he left her in 1847, Sand spoke scathingly of living, ‘seven years … like a virgin with him and the others’, the others being her would-be lovers, of whom Chopin was fiercely jealous. It’s hard to imagine Sand would have accepted this passionate celibacy for so long had she not found it, as her novels hint, to some extent congenial.
In Reid’s highly readable biography the contradictions in Sand’s behaviour, though faithfully reported, are hurried over, as if they detracted from her greatness, rather than illuminating her novels. Chopin left Sand after taking her daughter Solange’s side in an argument with her mother. At the same time Maurice, Sand’s son, now 25 and still living at home, was irritated at having to share the management of Nohant with Chopin. Sand wrote about freedom while she sought to control her children, checking up on their partners and intervening in their marriage plans. Maurice obeyed, calling off his wedding at the last minute after his mother discovered that his fiancée was illegitimate. He lived with Sand in Nohant, illustrated his mother’s books, collaborated in the theatricals she put on, shared the intermittent enthusiasms for mineralogy and natural history that had her and all her guests exploring the countryside with butterfly nets and geological hammers. Solange rebelled, married against her mother’s wishes, fell into debt and generally kept her distance from her mother, provoking Sand’s bitter resentment. The call of the conventional life clearly remained powerful in Sand’s mind. As she wrote in an 1842 preface to Indiana, she very much wished to reconcile ‘the welfare and the dignity of individuals oppressed by … society without modifying society itself’. It is the attachment to conservative social arrangements combined with the determination to be free that gives her writing its exciting instability; Sand believed there was a solution to her conflicting desires and thought that novels were one way of discovering it. In that sense, her aesthetic is quite different from that of Balzac or Flaubert; beyond and beneath the misogyny, the academy’s hostility towards her is very like that towards D.H. Lawrence, an uneasiness in the presence of an artist who puts life before art, and the second at the service of the first.
The 1848 Revolution marked a turning point. Sand threw herself into political activity. Believing that women shared common cause with the proletariat, she founded a newspaper, La Cause du peuple, and drew widespread condemnation when she proposed that the results of the April elections be ignored if they were too favourable to the bourgeoisie. Disgusted by the conservative backlash and the violence that left thousands dead, she withdrew to Nohant, largely abandoned public life and further complicated her domestic situation by beginning a relationship with her son’s friend Alexandre Manceau, 14 years her junior. It wasn’t a brief affair. For the next 16 years, Manceau would write down everything noteworthy Sand said, keeping a diary of all her activities and making sure that paper, pens, tobacco and sugar water were ready for her late-night writing stints. In 1858 the two bought a cottage in the Creuse valley, forty kilometres from Nohant. By all accounts they were extremely happy until Manceau, like Chopin, fell ill with tuberculosis. In 1863 Maurice finally asserted himself by demanding that his friend leave Nohant and in 1865 Manceau died in Paris.
Sand’s creativity didn’t wane. The group of so-called rustic novels, part realist and part fairy tale, that Sand began to publish in the late 1840s could hardly be more different in tone from works like Indiana and Lélia. Ostensibly harmless in their fireside intimacy, their storylines are challenging, as when the abandoned orphan of François the Waif grows up to marry the miller’s wife who adopted and mothered him; or when the widower in The Devil’s Pool marries the 15-year-old girl entrusted to his care and not the older woman his family had planned for him. These decisions – to trust eroticism and overcome fear – turn out to provide exactly the right basis for building a solid social unit in a rural society that is portrayed as wiser and more forgiving than the urban bourgeoisie.
Of these works, the most charming and perhaps the most representative is La Petite Fadette, which recently appeared in a new translation by Gretchen van Slyke, who also translated Reid’s biography. Let’s return to the moment when Landry, unable to find his morose twin brother Sylvinet, is ready to drown himself in the river. At this point Fadette, a waif in rags, appears, the adolescent granddaughter of the village witch. Teasing Landry mercilessly, ‘lively as a butterfly, curious as a robin and dark as a cricket’, she says she can tell him where his brother is, but only in return for his promising to give her anything she asks for. Fearfully, he agrees and is relieved when months later she merely asks him to dance the first three dances at the village fête with her and not with his girlfriend. In fact, this proves a devastating request: the entirely conventional Landry suddenly finds himself out on a limb, dancing with an insanely lively, grotesquely dressed urchin who is despised by the rest of the village because her mother, like Sand’s, has a reputation as a fallen woman. Fadette is insulted and punched by the local boys; instinctively Landry protects her, loses his girlfriend and the respect of his twin brother, but gains immensely by learning about Fadette’s hardships and troubled family. As the two fall in love, he suggests that she tackle the village’s ostracising of her by toning down her provocative behaviour and she wins the hearts of Landry’s parents by curing Sylvinet’s depression with a series of therapeutic interventions of the kind that would begin to appear in psychology journals a hundred and fifty years later. So the Hardyesque atmosphere of impending doom that hangs over the beginning of the book is transformed by the end into something worthy of Shakespeare’s comedies. After the bloodshed of the Revolution, Sand explained in her 1851 introduction to the book, she ‘chose to take on the task of being nice, even if that means dying of despair’.
She died of an intestinal obstruction in 1876, having spent her last years worrying about money and about her children and grandchildren, while continuing to produce a steady stream of novels and plays. Yet perhaps the most moving writing of her later years is her correspondence with Flaubert. ‘What will we do?’ Sand asks as they are both setting out on new novels at the end of 1875:
You, for sure, will produce desolation, me consolation. I don’t know what determines our destinies; you watch them unfold, you criticise, you won’t appraise them in your writing, just depict, while painstakingly and systematically hiding your personal feelings. Yet one understands them easily enough between the lines, and you make the people who read you sad. I would like to cheer my readers up. I can’t forget that my personal victory over despair came as an act of will and a new way of understanding entirely opposed to my previous views.