George Sand (1804-1876) was the pseudonym of perhaps the most famous French female writer of the 19th century, a lady of strangely contrary ancestry known as Aurore. With royalty on one side of her family and street vendors on the other, Aurore knew controversy from the very beginning of her life and never stopped embracing it, as she flouted social conventions to take the lovers she chose, dress as she pleased, and do what she wanted.
Aurore’s father was the grandson of the Maréchal de Saxe, who was himself the illegitimate son of the King of Poland. Despite this glowing heritage, he married Antoinette Sophie-Victorie Delaborde, believed to be a former prostitute and certainly descended from a humble background, as her grandfather was a street hawker. Her father died while Aurore was young, and her paternal grandmother, who was the Châtelaine of Nohant, raised her on her large estate in Berry, which would become the scene of many of Aurore’s novels.
After a disillusioning marriage to Casimir Dudevant in 1822, Aurore unofficially separated from her husband in 1831 to embark on an affair with young writer Jules Sandeau, with whom she collaborated on articles for Le Figaro as well as her first novel, Blanche et rose (1831). These joint works were published under the pseudonym J. Sand, but when she began to write independently with the publication of Indiana (1832), Aurore adopted the alias by which she is remembered today.
Once she had left her husband, who she officially divorced in 1835, Aurore began a string of affairs of varying duration and importance, and the list of her lovers features many a famous name, from Alfred de Musset to her most well-known and longest-lasting companion, famous composer Frederic Chopin. Unfortunately, a growing dispute between the two former lovers, thought to have been exacerbated by Aurore’s supposed characterisation of Chopin in her novel Lucrezia Floriani (1846), led to Aurore refusing to attend Chopin’s funeral in 1848. Aurore has often been depicted as bisexual, thanks to a highly publicised relationship, presumed to be lesbian in nature, with the beautiful stage actress Marie Dorval, but it is only certain that she was a passionate lover who had many different partners, often much younger than herself, and who valued highly the concept of love.
There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved.
Aurore reinforced her reputation as someone heedless of society’s opinion through her choice to wear men’s clothing, which she claimed she did for pragmatic reasons – it was more comfortable and cheaper than conventional lady’s attire. However, it’s likely she did it partly so as to be able to gain access to the parts of the city – and life – that were usually barred to her sex. This desire to escape her social milieu and find out the truth of life, in all its forms, was a defining trait of Aurore and is reflected in her work, which often features cross-rank relationships and explores taboo topics such as sex, sexuality and even incest.
What a brave man she was, and what a good woman.
Though she had a prodigious output, numbering nearly 50 novels and around a dozen plays, Aurore is most known for the books written in a later period of her life, referred to as ‘rustic novels’, that draw heavily on her experience of the countryside at her estate in Nohant, which she inherited after the death of her grandmother and which became her permanent home. These often focus on encouraging a sense of compassion for the poor or working classes, a theme on which Aurore was vocal not only with her fiction, but with various political essays, even going so far as to create her own newspaper so as to publish her opinions more easily. With her strong views on the need to end class divides and her support for women’s rights, combined with her severely unconventional behaviour, Aurore was frequently criticised for being too manly or too opinionated for a woman. However, despite her many detractors, Aurore enjoyed the praise and respect of many of her contemporary intellectuals, who were able to recognise her valuable attributes of determination, fearlessness and innate kindness as more important than following the superficial demands of the era.
Guard well within yourself that treasure, kindness. Know how to give without hesitation, how to lose without regret, how to acquire without meanness.
Aurore died peacefully on her estate at Nohant in June of 1876, aged 71. She remains buried in a private graveyard there, though in 2003 it was proposed that her body be moved to the Panthéon, which houses the remains of important French figures such as Balzac and Louis Braille.
La petite fadette (1849)