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…

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