George Sand: the writer who drew scandal and praise

George Sand is no longer widely read, but once eclipsed many of the biggest names in 19th century European literature

“Our trip,” wrote George Sand to his friend Carlotta Marliani, “seems to start under the most favorable conditions.

It was November 7, 1838, and the 34-year-old French novelist was about to embark from Barcelona on the steamer El Mallorquin bound for Palma on the island of Mallorca. She was accompanied by her two children, of whom she had obtained custody following her legal separation from her husband Baron Casimir Dudevant three years earlier, and the composer Frédéric Chopin, a year after a relationship that had scandalized French society. and was going to scandalize. the agrarian backwater of Mallorca.

The plan was to spend the winter in a temperate climate for the benefit of the health of her rheumatic son and certainly that of the consumptive Chopin. The isolation they dreamed of would also give them the chance to work without distraction away from the glamor of being one of Europe’s most famous couples.

Sand isn’t widely read these days, but during her lifetime she was one of Europe’s best-known cultural figures, equaling if not eclipsing her compatriots Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. She influenced Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot and Charlotte Brontë.

John Ruskin and Walt Whitman were fans while Matthew Arnold preferred his work to that of Dickens. Proust used it Francois le champi like the novel that Marcel had read to him by his mother in In Search of Lost Time. She was also famous for her unique lifestyle: the chain of relationships between actress Marie Dorval and Gustave Flaubert, men’s clothing, studded boots, cigars.

All of this made Chopin – primitive, foolish, sickly, six years younger – an unlikely mate choice, but their relationship lasted nearly a decade, ending shortly before his death at the age of 39. years. They had been presented at a party by Franz Liszt in 1836 shortly after Chopin’s engagement with Maria WodziÅ„ska ended. At first, the Polish composer didn’t know what to think of Sand who was biting a cigar and wearing pants, even asking Liszt if she was male or female. Sand, meanwhile, found herself drawn into what she called “a state of drunkenness” because of the morose musician with the relentless cough.

In 1838, they were a couple famous enough for Eugène Delacroix to portray them together, with Chopin at the piano and Sand seated listening, pulling a thread through his embroidery sampler.

“Nature, trees, sky, sea, monuments exceed all my dreams: it is the promised land! Sand wrote to Marliani shortly after the unconventional family group arrived on the island.

Mallorca was far from the developed tourist destination it is today and when Sand and Chopin arrived they could not find any suitable place in Palma to stay. Instead, they took a home in the picturesque ancient town of Valldemossa, a few miles from the island’s main settlement. Within days, Chopin’s health, never good at best (Hector Berlioz said: “Chopin was dying his whole life”), had become bad enough that his pale demeanor and incessant cough prompted the owner of the house. ‘building to evict them, fearing the spread of infection.

They moved into an empty Carthusian monastery nearby that Sand had initially rented as a place to write. It was Spartan vacation accommodation, but Sand and Chopin hoped the pseudo-Gothic nature of the old building, parts of which were in ruins, could be an inspiration. Chopin would complete his 24 Preludes there while Sand took care of him and the children while managing to work on his novel Spiridion and begins to prepare a book published in 1841 under the title Winter in Mallorca.

It was the kind of balancing act she had accomplished all her life. She was born Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1804, the daughter of a woman who was possibly a prostitute and a father descended from the illegitimate son of a courtesan and a nobleman. She was raised by her grandmother in Nohant, in central France, an estate inherited by Sand upon her grandmother’s death in 1821.

She had married Dudevant when she was 18, but as an intelligent and creative woman, not to mention independence of mind, she quickly moved beyond her domestic situation. She left for Paris in 1831, leaving her husband to raise their two children. She was 26 and was certain there was more to live for than the decades to come to produce babies for a dismal retired military officer. Leaving was daring and risky, but it worked. In the French capital, she began to write for Le Figaro in collaboration with her 19-year-old lover, the novelist Jules Sandeau, signing their plays’ J. Sand’.

The couple co-wrote a novel, Pink and White, but in 1832 appeared George Sand’s first independent novel, Indiana, the story of a woman leaving her marriage in search of true love and a passionate protest against the norms of the time which bound a woman to her husband as unhappy as she was. She no longer needed a collaborator but she needed a name: it was her publisher who suggested that she adopt George Sand, arguing that women’s novels would not sell.

Indiana was a huge success, as was Valentine, published later the same year and Lelia, published in 1833, stories of rustic peasants breaking moral constraints in pursuit of true love. Love, she thought, could and should conquer everything, regardless of class or circumstances. It was a philosophy that guided both her literary life and her personal life: her many relationships and adventures had never been conceived of as mere banter, she was a woman who fell in love easily and often recklessly. This is what fueled her work and what fueled the independence of mind that drove her unconventional life.

Indeed, it was in 1833 that she met Marie Dorval, having written her a fan letter after seeing the actress perform on stage. The couple embarked on what some biographers say is a deeply intense friendship while others attribute a passionate relationship in their own right. Either way, there was a scandal.

“Only those who know how different we were made can appreciate how much I was in his grip,” Sand wrote. “I can only say it was as if I was looking at an embodied spirit.”

The Mallorcan winter of 1837-38 was a freezing winter. The Valldemossa monastery was cold, drafty and humid, the wind blew through it and the rain and mist reduced the inspiring views to a milky void.

“We were living in the midst of the clouds,” she wrote later, “and 50 days had passed without being able to descend into the plain; the roads had turned into torrents, and we did not see the sun.

They were also ostracized by locals, a combination of the realization that Sand and Chopin were not married and their absence from church leading to rebuffs which often included denial of service in grocery stores. It was made clear that they were no longer welcome.

Chopin’s piano remained confiscated at customs for weeks, and the damp asceticism of their living conditions had done nothing to improve his health. In the end, having learned that a freighter was leaving for Barcelona long before the departure of the first steamer of the season, they booked a passage and returned to France with 100 pigs for company on the trip.

Chopin’s health was so bad that they stayed in Marseille for several weeks until he felt well enough to travel to Nohant. During the following years, they will divide their time between the domain of Sand and apartments in Paris.

Their increasingly strained relationship was not helped when Sand published her novel. Lucretia Floriani in 1846, with the character of the sickly and helpless prince of Eastern Europe Karol clearly modeled after the composer. He was not impressed.

When in 1848 he sided with Sand’s daughter, Solange, in a money dispute, Sand felt betrayed, concluding that Chopin must be in love with Solange, with whom she had a stormy relationship, and informing him that he was no longer welcome in Nohant. A few months later he was dead. Sand did not attend the funeral, which created almost as much coverage as the event itself. She was, as always, unrepentant.

“The world will know and understand me one day,” Sand wrote to his critics. “But if that day doesn’t come, it doesn’t matter much. I will have paved the way for other women.

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