• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Liberated Women

George Sand: A Woman’s Life Writ Large

Belinda Jack
Knopf, 395 pp., $30.00

George Sand (1804–1876) and Marie d’Agoult (1805–1876) have been for a century and a half objects of curiosity more for their colorful lives than for their writings. Rebellious spirits, they were thorns in an age which preferred women to be roses or, better still, lilies. They were born into well-to-do families and made, by contemporary standards, good marriages, but before they were thirty, they had turned their backs on respectability. Sand made a point of smoking cigars, cigarettes, and a hookah, wore men’s clothes, had a sexually adventurous life of which she made no secret, and wrote novels containing thoughts and images that were seen as shocking, not suitable for reading by the young and innocent. Marie d’Agoult caused a scandal in 1835 by eloping with Franz Liszt and bore him three children (one of whom, Cosima, married Richard Wagner and became his muse). But neither Sand nor d’Agoult was content with notoriety. During writing careers that spanned forty years, both advocated extending the freedoms they claimed for themselves to all of the citizens, male and female, of the liberal, democratic republic they hoped would one day be established in France.

They were almost exact contemporaries and followed parallel trajectories. In the 1830s, they lived out the ideas of Romanticism more completely than the poets and novelists who have always overshadowed them. Victor Hugo lived like a bourgeois, Balzac worried constantly about money, Musset escaped into self-indulgence, and Vigny withdrew to his family château. Sand and Marie committed themselves to Art and Genius. After 1840, their liberal opinions acquired a harder intellectual and political edge and, through revolutions and upheavals, both kept up their attack on the conservative establishment through their novels, journalism, and essays.

Their latest biographers make no great claims for their literary achievements. Richard Bolster judges Marie’s fiction to be unsubtle and Phyllis Stock-Morton regrets that she did not give up writing novels after her first feeble attempts. Belinda Jack draws on Sand’s books not to recommend their aesthetic merits but as evidence of her reactions to events and insights into her attitudes. If Art, as Yeats said, is what we make out of the quarrel we have with ourselves, then both Sand and Marie had a lesser argument, addressed to others and to society. Marie lacked the imaginative ability to transmute the wrongs done to her into literary form and Sand never broke free of the sentimentality, preachy idealism, and melodrama that make even her rustic novels, so popular in her day, seem stagy and contrived. As Belinda Jack points out, admirers of Sand, such as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, and Colette, have been drawn less to her fiction than to her struggles and her personality. For Richard Bolster, it is Marie’s courage and tenacity that compel respect, and while Professor Stock-Morton is an admirable guide to her ideas and political activities, she too places her emphasis on Marie’s analysis of her own experience. Both Sand and Marie left personal accounts, the first in the History of My Life (1854) and the second in her unfinished Souvenirs (1877 and 1927). If George Sand and Marie d’Agoult still live, they are to be found in their autobiographies, into which they put their greatest creation, themselves.

Temperamentally they were very different. Sand dealt energetically with life, relishing challenges and pushing impetuously at closed doors. She never claimed to be a beauty (“I had merely the bloom of youth,” she wrote in her autobiography) yet she was loved by many men. Musset called her the most womanly woman he had ever known. Marie was tall, blonde, and beautiful, much more attractive but less seductive. Her natural reserve, compounded by a patrician dignity, made her vulnerable and she was plagued at intervals by depression and self-doubt. While their status as outsiders brought them together for a moment in the late 1830s, they did not remain close friends for long. Where they overlapped was in their defiance of convention and their determination to live up to their ideas.

Their offense was to free themselves from what men had decided was woman’s duty. They reclaimed their lives in an overheated, poetic age when Romantic writers proclaimed liberal ideas but kept women in their place. In progressive circles, Free Love was the rage—free to men, that is, for women found that it exacted a heavy price. By the late 1820s, the new female fashions said it all. The plain Empire line was replaced by tight corsets which emphasized waists and rumps and contained women no less strictly than Napoleon’s legal code, which gave them equal rights with minors and mad persons and placed them under the permanent tutelage of men. At the height of her fame, George Sand still needed the authorization of her estranged husband before she could seek redress at law against a restrictive publishing practice that was none of his business.

But the woman question had at least become a major topic of the 1830s. In the eighteenth century, Lord Chesterfield had judged women to be children grown large. At the end of the nineteenth, Schopenhauer still defined them as creatures with long hair and short ideas. While most women had little alternative but to accept the terms of their social contract, they did not all go quietly. The Revolution of 1789 gave rights to men; Mary Wollstonecraft and Olympe des Gouges demanded rights for women too. Mme. de Staël, one of the century’s founding figures, dared to defy Napoleon, no friend to women and in her eyes a military dictator, by promoting subversive, liberal ideas. Some made the most of the limitations imposed on them. Madame Récamier had the gift of making friends with men who passionately admired her. Louise Colet became mistress to influential men who she thought would help her make her career in writing. Others shrugged and took the traditional path. As professional lovers of men they could free themselves from economic slavery, acquire notoriety (as did Lola Montès) and even achieve respectability.

After the Revolution of 1830, which promised freedoms for all but delivered bourgeois conformity, women mounted a vigorous campaign rooted in the egalitarian principles of 1789. They were encouraged by the disciples of Saint-Simon and Fourier, who included the subjugation of women in the list of injustices to be redressed. There was a flourishing woman’s press which crossed the social divide. Suzanne Voilquin, a working-class journalist, proposed alternatives to patriarchy, and Flora Tristan, daughter of an aristocrat, chronicled the lives of the poor and demanded female rights, fair wages, nurseries for babies, and state-funded hospitals. In 1848, the year of revolutions, women’s political clubs flourished briefly, and in 1849 Jeanne Deroin dared to stand as a parliamentary candidate. She was disqualified because she was a woman.

When they were young Sand and d’Agoult rebelled not on principle but to escape their stifling lives and constricting marriages. It was only after they had put conventional marriage behind them that they began to generalize from their experience, and even then they were not militants in demanding women’s liberation. For both, female emancipation was a long-term process, to be achieved gradually through social reform and education, not through violence and revolutionary change. They did not demand equality with men and this, for Professor Stock-Morton, casts them only as proto-feminists. Yet their ideas and, no less important, their uninhibited actions had far-reaching effects on masculine attitudes.


George Sand was born Aurore Dupin in Paris. Through her father, Maurice Dupin de Francueil, she was descended, as a result of two illegitimacies, from the King of Poland and the Maréchal de Saxe and was cousin to three Bourbon kings, though the family’s tarnished escutcheon had long made its members unwelcome at court. In contrast, her mother, Sophie-Victoire Delaborde, was a former dancer with a murky past who caught Maurice’s eye and married him in 1804. His mother, Marie-Aurore Dupin, was not told in advance about the marriage and she was persuaded to accept the newborn Aurore only after the baby was first introduced to her as the granddaughter of her concierge.

After Maurice died in a riding accident in 1808, Aurore became the center of the lives of the two women. They lived on a handsome estate at Nohant in the Berry, some three hundred kilometers southwest of Paris, which Mme. Dupin, a woman of considerable intelligence and resourcefulness, had bought in 1793. Whereas she was patient and rational, Sophie-Victoire was fey and imaginative but also manipulative and unstable. In 1809, Mme. Dupin sent her away and allowed Aurore to see her mother for limited periods only. She oversaw her granddaughter’s education, though not with the success she hoped for, and in 1818 sent her to a convent in Paris, where she made friends and was happy. She also found spiritual ecstasy and almost acquired a vocation. In 1820, her free-thinking grandmother took her back to Nohant, where she read voraciously and, encouraged by her risk-taking Hussar half-brother Hippolyte, rode in men’s clothes and swam in the river Indre. For her mother she felt only a secret dread, but she grew to admire her clear-minded grandmother, who would prove a major influence on her attitudes.

Mme. Dupin died before a husband could be found for Aurore. Now a substantial heiress, she lived with her impossible mother in Paris until, largely to escape, she married a minor aristocrat in 1822. Casimir Dudevant, nine years her senior and a baron, refused to be turned into a great Romantic love, nor was Aurore cut out to be a meek, adoring wife. Her son, Maurice, born in 1823, was not enough to occupy her. She formed innocent friendships with young people but was, perhaps, bolder with Stéphane de Grandsagne, who shared her liberal opinions and may have been the father of her daughter, Solange, born in 1828. By sidelining Casimir and claiming her independence to read and write, life at Nohant was made tolerable for them both. Between 1827 and 1831, she finished a number of short works in which she tried to find her own voice and style, but published nothing.

As Belinda Jack makes clear, 1830 was the major turning point in her life. The liberal hopes which she had invested in the July Revolution were quickly dashed by the new regime and she fell passionately in love with Jules Sandeau, a student. Casimir was predictably angry but she won the argument with him. The result was an agreement by which he would remain at Nohant and pay her a small allowance that would enable her to live half the year in Paris. She left in January 1831 and moved in with Sandeau.

She felt immediately at home in the new bohemian setting. She dressed like a man, smoked, and wore hobnailed boots, which took on a special meaning for her. She later wrote:

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print