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Book Review

The Early Life and Spirit of George Sand

GEORGE SAND: A Woman's Life Writ Large by Belinda Jack; Alfred A. Knopf $30, 400 pages

September 04, 2000|MERLE RUBIN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The free-spirited, large-souled Frenchwoman who took the pen name "George Sand" was so esteemed in her day, she not only won the admiration of figures as diverse as Balzac, Hugo, Heine, Turgenev, Matthew Arnold, Elizabeth and Robert Browning, and Napoleon III, but also attracted the antagonism of Nietzsche, who dismissed her as an ink-lactating cow, and Baudelaire, who likened her oeuvre to a latrine. If Sand's name is familiar nowadays, it is often on account of her unconventional behavior (dressing in male clothing and smoking cigars) and her famous lovers (including the writer Alfred de Musset and the composer Frederic Chopin). Her once-popular novels, exploring themes from the pursuit of romantic love to the quest for political justice, are written in an expansive style currently not in fashion, although an edition of her correspondence with Gustave Flaubert reveals her keen intelligence, her kindness and her humane wisdom.

Even while her fiction was becoming less popular with readers, Sand's autobiography held great fascination for women writers such as Woolf, Wharton, Cather and Colette. Sand's latest biographer, Belinda Jack, describes her as "a writer-explorer." And, though her writing was closely related to her personal experience, she often used her fiction, not simply to chronicle her adventures after they had occurred, but to test possibilities before proceeding to live them out.

Her first novel, "Indiana" (1832), for instance, examines the problems of a woman trapped in a frustrating marriage. "Lucrezia Floriani" (1847) afforded Sand the opportunity to reflect upon the difficulties of her love affair with Chopin. "Consuelo" (1842), one of her most esteemed works, explores the meaning of love, the significance of music, the principles of social justice and the dream of a more egalitarian and compassionate society.

Born Aurore Dupin in 1804, Sand was intimately acquainted with class conflict: She was the daughter of an aristocrat and a prostitute. Her dashing father died in a riding accident when Aurore was barely 5. Before long, the child was sent to live in the country with her paternal grandmother, a highly intelligent and formidable woman who had little use for the exceedingly emotional and impulsive woman her son had taken it into his head to marry. For much of her girlhood, Aurore found it hard to love the austere grandmother who had caused her to be separated from her affectionate mother. But as she grew up, she came to appreciate her grandmother's virtues and to recognize the crude and unreasonable aspects of her mother's personality.

Sent to a convent school, Aurore was a devout adolescent who considered taking the veil. In later years, Jack maintains, Sand's impassioned criticism of the Roman Catholic Church can be traced, not to an antipathy for religion but to her deep attachment to Christian precepts that, she felt, the church of her day was betraying.

Sand's occasional cross-dressing, Jack shows, had little to do with modern transvestism: If a 19th century woman wished to ride at a gallop, walk long distances over cobbled streets, sit in the inexpensive theater sections forbidden to women and avoid the condescension of male book reviewers, donning trousers, boots and a masculine pen name was the sensible thing to do. "I can't describe how delighted I was by my boots . . . " wrote Sand. "I flew from one end of Paris to the other. . . . There was nothing to harm my clothes, and I went out in all weathers, I came home at all hours. . . ."

Jack's highly readable and sympathetic biography of Sand paints a particularly compelling portrait of her early and middle years, including her adolescence, her ill-fated marriage, her quest for self-expression and financial independence as a writer, her liberal and socialist political views, her role in the Revolution of 1848 and, of course, her love affairs. The last 26 years of Sand's still very busy life from 1850 to 1876 are covered in just 36 pages, making the book seem a bit truncated. But Jack succeeds admirably at the challenging task of helping modern readers see beyond the apparent paradoxes and contradictions in Sand's beliefs and behavior to the underlying integrity of her character and vision.

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