George Sand by Elizabeth Harlan
Sometimes, we only know the past lives of famous thinkers, writers, and artists not through their work, but through the movies made of their lives or even worse, through the legend of their often stormy love affairs. George Sand, a successful and prolific writer in nineteenth century France and often charitably described as a colorful woman -- clad in men’s dress, cavalierly smoking cigarettes, ravenously on the prowl for love and sex among her male peers -- has suffered this fate. Some people may associate her with the face of Judy Davis via the movie Impromptu: a tough minded lady, gruff, passionate, eloquent; or through the lens of Frederic Chopin’s life, her most famous lover and most people’s introduction to Sand. But like all lives lived as long and as fully as Sand’s, her own life deserves a wider examination. Elizabeth Harlan’s new biography of George Sand serves to fulfill that edict and succeeds immeasurably: it is a deeply researched book full of new insights and interesting conjectures into the life of one of the most intriguing women of history.
Harlan dutifully details the oft mentioned and most salient features of George Sand’s life: the birth of Aurore Dupin nee George Sand, her acceptance by her paternal grandmother, her ultimately failed marriage, the birth of two children, and most importantly Sand’s escape to Paris and her eventual recognition as a writer to be reckoned with. She was a woman of famously uncertain virtue, embarking on love affairs with famous and not so famous men, from the writer Jules Sandeau from whom she took her nom de guerre, the poet Alfred de Musset, and Frederic Chopin. But where most biographies, especially the biographies of notable women with bold face name lovers, dwell on the sexual Venn diagrams of their lives -- and Harlan doesn’t shy from this and even goes as far as to mention that Sand wasn’t a good lay -- but Harlan’s biography is most of all a meditation on the ideas of identity, legitimacy, maternal love, and Sand’s often troubled relationship with her mother Sophie, her paternal grandmother, and her estranged daughter Solange most of all. Harlan uses these important women in Sand’s life to throw into high relief her own actions, character, and her work. Her grandmother, an illegitimate child herself from a fairly illustrious family, pursued security and recognition of her status throughout her whole life, but only to have it almost upended by the arrival of Sophie, Sand’s mother, a woman who bore other children before her own marriage to Sand’s father. Most intriguingly, there are strong hints that Sand was born under an illegitimate star as well. And there is her daughter, Solange, the perennial “thorn” in Sand’s side who was likely a bastard too. These concerns set up Sand’s life: the questions of legitimacy and identity -- just who are you really? They show up in her writing -- some blatant roman a clefs, her memoir, and most tellingly, in the way she treated her own children, Maurice and Solange.
Harlan’s biography is entertaining and revelatory, but the mark of any good biography is its power to change the shades of meaning around a person’s life, and sometimes, in a few cases, to violently destroy conventional wisdom to the point that the reader’s perception of the subject has been totally changed, sometimes not for the better. I liked Sand prior to reading this book and had an abstract notion of the basic features of her life, but now, after reading closely, I am torn between grudging admiration for her balls in trying to make her way in a man’s world and overwhelming, sheer disgust for her fantastically bad parenting, her disregard for Solange, her callous treatment of Chopin, and her vociferous attacks on the proto-feminists of her day. In regards to Solange, Sand is at times cold and critical to her only daughter and eagerly gives her up to a man who may have enjoyed Sand’s favors in the boudoir -- an act worthy for a Jerry Springer show. Sand is a complex woman with a Janus-faced personality like so many talented artists. But the biggest and most unfortunate impression I am taking from this book is that George Sand is a vicious mother harpy, unaware of her modus operandi, blind to her faults, tearing and eating the people around her with heedless disregard. And in the end, this critic doesn’t know what to think. Do I love her? Do I hate her? There is very strong emphasis on the latter.
But putting aside this subjective concern, Sand is not as widely read as in her day, in part maybe to her towering personal life that renders her work pale and weak, and we become more concerned with a Page Six inventory of her biography. Seeing that her male peers, Gustave Flaubert and Victor Hugo, live more fiercely in the modern light, if it must be said bluntly, maybe if Sand wasn’t such a skank, people would know her more for her work than who she slept with. She might not be relegated to the women studies ghetto unlike Jane Austen who is universally revered and loved by so many and known for her formidable body of work instead of who she shared her bed with. What can I say? A little more art, and less sex please.
George Sand by Elizabeth Harlan
Yale University Press