George Sand's voluminous works are not much read these days, and it is hard to take on board what a huge influence she had, even in this country, in her own time. Few of her novels are now available in modern English translations. But in the 19th century, when educated readers did not mind ploughing through volume after volume in French, her impact was felt by writers as diverse as Matthew Arnold and Charlotte Brontë. For the latter, Sand's "wicked" novels offered a welcome release from the prudery of English culture, legitimising the expression of female erotic passion and transfiguring it into something "godlike". Elizabeth Barrett Browning apostrophised the "self-called George Sand," pointing to her adoption of a male pseudonym as a paradigm for radical female self-creation.
This new biography does not really deal with Sand's reception - the imaginative place she occupied in the cultural consciousness of her day - and this is a pity because the interplay of private and public selves seems crucial to understanding this figure who is so hard to categorise. In particular, her relation to the history of female emancipation is tricky to negotiate: rebelling against every convention, wearing male dress, taking numerous high-profile lovers and publishing sexually explicit fiction, she nevertheless irritated the 19th-century feminist Flora Tristan with her failure to support women's clubs and suffrage.
The name "Sand" was originally taken from the first syllable of that of one of her early paramours, Jules Sandeau, a rather weedy, feckless fellow who supposedly collaborated on the early novels with his mistress but in reality left the hard graft up to her. The irony of this is symbolic of Sand's ambivalent presentation of gender relations in her novels, in which the dialectic of submission and dominance is in constant flux. In using his name, was Sand meekly bowing to Sandeau? Or was she appropriating him for her own ends in an act of empowerment? In her myriad love affairs, often with younger men she could mother, she usually seems to have had the upper hand. Is this the reason why she never felt the need to identify herself with the women's movement of her day? What does the fact that "George" became the name by which she was known to lovers, friends, and even her own children, say about how she saw herself? As the author of a slippery memoir, Histoire de ma vie, where poetic licence often takes precedence over factual accuracy, Sand was fascinated by creating her own image (during her affair with the poet Alfred de Musset, the pair of them made notes, transforming the relationship into instant literature with an eye to posterity).
George Sand was born Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1804, but according to Elizabeth Harlan, the key to her identity lies further back in her family history. The image of Sand as aristocratic has its truth - her paternal greatgrandfather was the illustrious Maréchal de Saxe - but the blue blood in her veins was mixed with that of a far less respectable class. Her greatgrandmother was little more than a prostitute, pimped as a young chorus girl to the great military commander by her crook of a father. The illegitimate daughter who resulted - Sand's grandmother - spent much effort covering these tracks. Educated in a convent and married off to a respectable man who soon died, she was horrified when her own son fell in love with a woman of easy virtue and history began repeating itself.
Sand's mother, then, as well as her great-grandmother, exchanged sex for money. The difference was that the former married, though whether her husband was in fact the biological father of the child who grew up to become George Sand is a moot point. Harlan's researches lead her to conclude that he wasn't, though she does not sufficiently follow through the psychological implications on Sand of this clouded paternity, especially in the light of the fact that Sand's own second child, Solange, was not her husband's.Read more >>>
If this seems complicated from a genealogical viewpoint, it is as nothing compared with the over-wrought emotional vortex of mother-daughter relationships that it spawned: the toxic quarrels between Sand's emotionally incontinent mother and austere grandmother, and the dreadful relationship between Sand and her own daughter Solange, whose sexual dysfunctionality almost defies belief. When the young Sand first left her marriage and abandoned her children to pursue her literary career, she would occasionally send for the unfortunate infant Solange, whose mental health was not, Sand thought, endangered by witnessing her mother fornicating at close quarters. Sand later forced her daughter into an abusive marriage.
Harlan provides some fascinating insights into the emotional damage that ensued within the family, but offers less on the social context of Sand's life. Why, when her grandmother was so obsessed with social respectability, was she herself so keen to act out a life of complete freedom from conventional mores? And why, in her memoir, was she so determined to censor the less respectable aspects of her origins, leaving teasing gaps in the record? What were the true origins of Sand's extraordinary rebellion and her ambition as a writer?