George Sand lived an enormous life – it was more like two or three lives by any one else’s standards, and much racier and more thrilling than any narrative she wrote. Her famous lovers and her prolific literary output, her ambivalent feminist politics and her unstable childhood have all congealed into an almost legendary existence. The Slaves of Golconda have been posting this week on her novel Indiana, and whilst I considered writing an appraisal of it, I felt it would be cheating as it’s a book I teach. Instead, I thought I’d accompany their reading with some biographical information on one of the most intriguing female authors to make it into the mainstream canon.
The publicity that surrounded Sand throughout her lifetime undoubtedly stemmed in part from the company she kept. She counted among her lovers Chopin, Musset and Mérimée, and among her friends, Balzac, Flaubert, Sainte-Beuve, Chateaubriand, Zola, Heinrich Heine, Henry James, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Delacroix. In her own lifetime she was considered by her male contemporaries to be a great writer and her reputation spread across Europe. She has been identified as influential to any number of subsequent writers, most particularly the Brontes and George Eliot. But in the run-up to her death, her reputation was waning, her books – with the exception of the much more conservatively written pastoral novels (post 1848) – were suppressed by the Third Empire, and thoughtless negative judgements assigned to her, as to any women in those days who dared to write. Balzac had considered her an honorary man (supposed to be complimentary), Nietzsche, seventy odd years later, would call her a ‘writing cow’. The sociologist Pierre Bourdieu classified her as one of the ‘miraculée’, one of those exceptional members of disadvantaged groups, whose rise to a position of high status makes inegalitarian systems appear meritocratic. The downturn in her reputation after her death is typical of the latent hostility with which women writers were viewed, challenging, as they did, male supremacy in the field of the arts and the whole territory of intellect and creativity with which men saw themselves exclusively aligned. Sand’s personal relationship with so many famous writers, and the genuine regard with which she was held, allowed her to transgress the boundaries laid down for women. But she herself was all too aware of the individual and transitory nature of such esteem. And her ambivalent relationship to feminist politics reflects that.
Sand’s complex relationship to her gender and to gender politics is worth considering. Her family circumstances were highly unusual, as she was the product of a cross-class liaison. Her father was an aristocratic young officer in Napoleon’s army, and her mother was his working class Parisian mistress. She was a prostitute in fact, and indeed Sand’s own daughter, Solange, with whom she would have as tempestuous a relationship as she had had with her mother (Solange nicked Chopin from Sand), became a famous courtisan. Sand was in the middle of a maternal lineage of transgressive, upfront female sexuality. Sexuality as a means of employment and social advancement, but also sexuality as a powerful, unbridled force whose demands have to be met. Her paternal legacy, however, was no less influential. Sand’s father died young and Aurore (as she was christened) took his place in the affections of her cultured upper-class grandmother. This was a special place indeed; when her grandmother died part of the funeral ceremony involved disinterring her father’s skeleton to pay respects to the dead. Sand did say with characteristic humour that kissing the freshly unearthed skull of her father took her mind off her grief at her grandmother’s death better than anything else. So she had a significant place to fill, and one that was nominally designated masculine; this was reiterated in the education she received, which came from the tutor who had taught her father and which had a markedly male slant, concentrating on science and classics. Sand is often considered an interestingly androgynous figure, and the basis for this undoubtedly stems in part from her cross-gendered identifications in childhood.
This childhood was characterised by endless wrangling between her working-class, streetwise mother and her aristocratic grandmother as to her education and the appropriate female behaviour she should adopt. Sand was deeply attached to both of them but often isolated by the conflicts between them. Once her grandmother had died, life with her mother became increasingly stifling and, like many young women, she chose early marriage at 18 as a means of escape. The marriage was not a success. Eventually she reached an agreement with her husband that he would allow her the money to rent a room in Paris for 3 month periods. What this meant in reality was that she went to join the first in a string of lovers, the writer Jules Sandeau, and, needing money, found herself collaborating with him on joint writing ventures. She began writing Indiana under the name of G. Sand, and it was a huge success. By her third novel, Lélia, she had become famous across Europe. So her time in Paris launched her writing career, but it also liberated her sexuality. She began cross-dressing, loving the freedom that male clothes gave her, and smoking in public, which was considered outrageous for a woman, at that time. The masquerade of the male signature and the transvestism gave her a fictional male universe to inhabit that appears to have been creatively and sexually stimulating, but it is of course problematic, as it signals a belief in power as being only ever gendered masculine.
It is perhaps no surprise that, despite her later reputation as a significant socialist writer, Sand refused the offer by a group of feminists to nominate her for election to the National Assembly. She argues, quite reasonably that the problem of inequality between the sexes will not be solved by electing one token woman to the political establishment, and that the civil rights of women in the domestic sphere should take primary importance. But the letter in which she makes this argument is constructed so as to distance herself from the feminists who wrote to her, suggesting that these ladies were daring to advocate a sexual promiscuity with which she would not like to be associated. Now, coming from a woman managing a string of lovers, this is at best hypocritical, but it is significant that she should associate promiscuity with a feminist challenge to patriarchy. It shows Sand aware of the subversive implications of her own behaviour, but unable to own them and use them politically, for fear of losing her unique quasi-masculine status and descending to the level of a female underclass. These were contradictions that Sand perhaps could not reconcile within her own existence, but time and again in her fiction we find her preoccupation with creating a ideal heterosexual relationship – that is to say one of equality, that is both intellectually and sexually satisfying – going hand in hand with a more general improvement in the social order. In her work, the civil sphere and the domestic sphere mirror one another, with equality and liberty the guiding principles for both.