George Sand

George Sand

by Elizabeth Harlan

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George Sand was the most famous—and most scandalous—woman in nineteenth-century France. As a writer, she was enormously prolific—she wrote more than ninety novels, thirty-five plays, and thousands of pages of autobiography. She inspired writers as diverse as Flaubert and Proust but is often remembered for her love affairs with such figures as Musset and Chopin. Her affair with Chopin is the most notorious: their nine-year relationship ended in 1847 when Sand began to suspect that the composer had fallen in love with her daughter, Solange.

Drawing on archival sources—much of it neglected by Sand’s previous biographers—Elizabeth Harlan examines the intertwined issues of maternity and identity that haunt Sand’s writing and defined her life. Why was Sand’s relationship with her daughter so fraught? Why was a woman so famous for her personal and literary audacity ultimately so conflicted about women’s liberation? In an effort to solve the riddle of Sand’s identity, Harlan examines a latticework of lives that include Solange, Sand’s mother and grandmother, and Sand’s own protagonists, whose stories amplify her own.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780300130560
Publisher: Yale University Press
Publication date: 10/01/2008
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
File size: 4 MB

About the Author

Elizabeth Harlan is the author of two novels, Footfalls and Watershed. She lives in Paris.

Read an Excerpt

George Sand

Copyright © 2004 Elizabeth Harlan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-10417-2

Chapter One
Her Father's Daughter This father, whom I scarcely knew and who remains in my memory as a shining apparition-this artistic young man and warrior has remained wholly alive in the flights of my fancy, in the pitfalls of my constitution, in the features of my face.

WHAT SHINES through most brightly in George Sand's charming, harmonious depiction of coming into the world is her desire to resolve the conflict into which she was born. Whatever the particulars of her birth may have been, what she presents in her autobiography is a carefully crafted composition, a social still life that tells as much about how Sand wished to interpret the conditions of her birth as it does about the way it actually occurred:

I came into the world on July 5, 1804; my father was playing the violin and my mother wore a pretty pink dress. It took but a minute. I at least had that portion of happiness that my Aunt Lucie predicted of not making my mother labor too long. I was born a legitimate daughter, which might very well not have happened if my father had not resolutely trampled on the prejudices of his family; that too was a portion of happiness, for otherwise my grandmother might not have taken such loving care of me as she later did, and I would have been deprived of the small fund of ideas and knowledge which have been my consolation through the troubles of my life.

In the tableau that Sand paints, her father, Maurice Dupin, occupies the foreground and plays his cherished violin, ("the old instrument I still have, to whose sound I was born"). Surprisingly, considering what is taking place, it is the father, not the mother, who contributes the active element to this composition. Although Maurice Dupin had served as an officer in Napoléon's army, throughout her autobiography Sand emphasizes Maurice's love of music as much as, indeed more than, his love for the martial arts. In the end, it is not his military prowess but his creative sensibility that constitutes Sand's self-designated legacy from her father.

Her mother, Sophie Delaborde Dupin, occupies a position on the sidelines of Sand's description, even though it is she who will shortly perform the central act that motivates the scene's retelling. But Sophie is passive, sitting pretty in pink, awaiting the birth that happens quickly and seemingly without effort. Sand underscores her active role in her birth. It is she who spares her mother a long and difficult labor, who relieves her of the pain of childbirth, who brings her happiness. Assisted only by her father's hands that play over her-a musical midwife-Aurore takes charge and, in a sense, gives birth to herself, forecasting another, later birth, or rebirth, in which she will redeliver herself as George Sand. There's another less spiritual explanation for Aurore's swift, biological birth: before becoming Maurice Dupin's wife a month short of Aurore's birth, Sophie had already borne several babies (in all likelihood by several different fathers), preparing the possibility for this one to come with little discomfort.

The role Sand ascribes to her father of "resolutely trampling on the prejudices of his family" is exaggerated, to say the least. Maurice's way of dealing with his family, which is to say his mother, was to avoid confrontation at all costs, even to the point of keeping secret his socially undesirable marriage and Aurore's birth. "I was born on 12 Messidor," Sand writes in her autobiography, Story of My Life. "My grandmother had no inkling of it. On the 16th, my father wrote her on a quite different matter." Four days after Aurore's birth, instead of bearing the unacceptable tidings of his newly formed family life, Maurice imparted information designed to please and appease his hypercritical mother: "My request is at the war office and should be put before the Emperor next week. My name is on the promotion list." In August mother and son were still at loggerheads. "According to you, my dear mother," Maurice wrote, "I'm an ingrate and a madman.... Your letter hurts me ... because you accuse me of having engineered my own bad luck.... If we had been at war longer, I believe I would have duly won my ranks, but since they have to be won in antechambers, I admit I have no brilliant campaigns to boast of on that score." Skirting any mention of his wife or daughter, Maurice accused his mother, "You reproach me for never telling you what's going on inside me. You are the one who never wishes it! How is it possible, when the minute I open my mouth, you accuse me of being a bad son?"

The emperor turned down Maurice's request for promotion, and he would have to wait another year before rising to the rank of captain. In the meantime, he complained bitterly to his mother about how "other members of our family are rising in the world" and, in particular, how his envied and much resented nephew René Vallet de Villeneuve, who had recently been made chamberlain to Prince Louis, was taking up his functions with a large gold key embroidered on his back. Madame Dupin responded by blaming Maurice for his lack of advancement. The rivalry between René and Maurice, related through their common patriarchal ancestor the marshal de Saxe, is a persistent theme in Maurice Dupin's brief life.

Maurice was far from "resolute" before the prospect of angering his mother. In two separate, unaccompanied visits to the family château at Nohant after his marriage-one for a fortnight soon after the civil ceremony, and the other for a full two months in the fall following Aurore's birth-Maurice could not muster the courage to reveal his secret. It was not until November 1804, after he had returned to Paris from the second visit, that Madame Dupin learned of her son's domestic arrangements from René, who attributed "Maurice's unsuccessful attempts at obtaining a promotion to his persistent attachment to Sophie" and let slip an indiscreet reference to Aurore's birth. Maurice and his mother kept up their correspondence and occasional visits during Aurore's early life, even as Madame Dupin refused to acknowledge her daughter-in-law and launched a campaign to have the marriage annulled.

Sand would have us believe that the situation changed abruptly on a visit Madame Dupin made to Paris sometime during Aurore's infancy. In addition to the description of her birth, Sand also supplied the material for this subsequent scene, which is even more essential to the establishment of her identity, for within it her grandmother Marie-Aurore Dupin acknowledges her namesake as her biological granddaughter. But for this acknowledgment, the life of the individual we've come to know as George Sand would not have been lived.

The crucial scene follows a period of many months which Madame Dupin spent in a frantic attempt to dissolve her son's marriage to Sophie Delaborde. According to Sand:

My father discovered that his mother was in Paris; he understood that she knew everything and put me in charge of pleading his case. Taking me in his arms, he climbed into a cab, stopped at the door of the house where my grandmother had gotten off, won in a few words the good graces of the doorkeeper, and confided me to the care of this woman, who carried out the following errand: She climbed to the apartment of my grandmama and asked to speak to her on whatever pretext came into her mind. Once in her presence, she talked to her about this and that, and chatting all the while, interrupted herself to say, "Take a look, madame, at the pretty little girl of whom I'm the grandmother! Her wet nurse brought her to me today, and I'm so happy about it that I can't part with her for an instant." "Yes, she looks very healthy and strong," said my grandmother, looking for her box of sweets. And all at once, the good woman, who played her role very well, placed me on my grandmama's knee, who offered me some tidbits and began to look at me with a kind of shock and emotion. Suddenly, she pushed me away, exclaiming, "You're deceiving me, this child isn't yours; she doesn't look like you! I know, I know who she is!" Frightened by the movement that propelled me from the maternal bosom, it seems I began, not to scream, but to cry real tears, which were very effective. "Come, my poor dear love," the porter lady said, taking me back. "They don't want any part of you here, let's go." My poor grandmother was vanquished. "Give her back to me," she said. "Poor child, all this isn't her fault! And who brought this little one?" "Your own son, madame; he's waiting downstairs, I'll carry back his daughter to him. Excuse me if I offended you; I didn't realize, I'm just an ignoramus! I thought to give you pleasure, to bring you a nice surprise...." "It's all right, my dear, I don't blame you," said my grandmother. "Go find my son, and leave me the child." My father climbed the stairs four at a time. He found me on the lap, against the bosom of my grandmama, who was crying as she did her utmost to make me laugh. No one told me what transpired between them, and as I was only eight or nine months old, it is probable that I didn't take note of it. It is also probable that they wept together and were loving to each other some more. My mother, who recounted to me this first adventure of my life, told me that when my father brought me back to her, I had in my hands a beautiful ring with a big ruby that my grandmama had removed from her finger, charging me to place it on my mother's finger, which my father made me observe religiously.

To further authenticate her account, Sand informs her readers in a footnote, "I wear this ring all the time." The emotional logic may be convincing: The event bore such importance that I retain to this day a treasured souvenir of it. But the sequential logic is flawed: I have the (a) ring; therefore the episode took place. As for the rest of the account, it bears the stylistic hallmark of much of Sand's fiction: meticulous narrative detail, motivational mechanics, melodramatic flourish, and the kind of attenuated suspense that relieves the reader of any real sense of doubt about the outcome.

Notably, the sole source of information about this scene of recognition is George Sand, who claims she was told of it by her mother. However, by the time Sand wrote the scene, in the summer of 1848, there was no one around to dispute its veracity. Her mother, father, and grandmother were dead, and the only other potential witness to the event, the porter who ostensibly presented the baby to Madame Dupin, was never identified.

We know that Sand thought little of distorting and even rearranging pieces of her past that interfered with the way she wished to present her life. Half tongue-in-cheek, half serious, Sand's inestimable editor Georges Lubin cautioned, "We know full well it's essential never to believe G.S." Her fellow novelist and much admiring critic, Henry James, also picked up on this characteristic of his subject: "Madame Sand remembers to the point of gratefully-gratefully as an artist-reconstituting.... So it could be that the free mind and the free hand were ever at her service. A beautiful indifferent agility, a power to cast out that was at least proportioned to the power to take in, hangs about all this and meets us in twenty connections." With so much acknowledged as questionable in Sand's account of her life, it's remarkable that this crucial episode, based loosely, if indelibly, on apocryphal information, has been universally incorporated as uncontested fact in biographies of George Sand.

In Chère George Sand, Jean Chalon provides a typical example of the way biographers have uncontestedly replicated the scene of her grandmother's recognition and Sand's version of her resemblance to her paternal ancestors: "After persistent refusal, she consented to see her granddaughter, who had inherited the beautiful eyes of the Koenigsmark's and the Saxe's, the beautiful eyes of the first Aurore and the first Maurice, the eyes of Maurice, her Maurice. Vanquished by this resemblance, which irrefutably established her son's paternity [emphasis added], Madame Dupin de Francueil agreed to attend the couple's religious marriage."

Given Maurice's visits to Nohant (which account for some two months of Aurore's earliest life), his military obligations, his Parisian social life, and his musical career, he could not have spent much time with his new daughter. This lack of contact, however, did not prevent Sand from idealizing her relationship with her absent father. Revealing examples abound in her heavily edited version of his letters. Where Maurice wrote merely "Aurore, my good mother, is very aware of the kiss I gave her on your behalf, she wishes you a good year and good health," Sand liberally embellished: "[Aurore] doesn't say anything yet, but I can assure you that she thinks nonetheless. I do adore this child, a love you must allow me." In reality, Maurice's mention of her in his letters-e.g., "Aurore is doing marvelously," "Aurore wants to leave right away"-consists of little more than a handful of banal references. Despite this, Sand wrote with impunity, "In all his letters, I find a passionate, paternal love that brings me to tears when I read them."

To emphasize her father's connection to her, Sand occasionally went beyond rearranging his words. Among her posthumously published writings collected under the title Sketches and Hints, an entry inscribed "Written on my grandmother's album" contains a passage that Georges Lubin believes to have been written by Aurore Dupin in the voice of her father addressing his mother after his death: "After several hours of stormy navigation, I tacked about again! ... I've made port! Why do you cry, my good mother? We weren't destined to arrive together.... You would have waited for me but meanwhile my life wouldn't have been very gratifying for you. But yours will be necessary to me for a long time still. My daughter is she not your own?"

George Sand's preoccupation with her connection to Maurice Dupin endured throughout her life. In February 1836, when she finally won legal separation from her husband, she triumphantly wrote her mother: "I am my father's daughter, and I don't give a damn about prejudice when my heart tells me what is just and brave. If my father had listened to the idiotic and crazy people of the world, I would not have inherited his name. He has left me a great legacy of independence and paternal love."

Although no one has questioned the veracity of Sand's account of her grandmother's recognition of her, it is entirely possible that, like so much else in her version of her life, Sand invented the scene that would establish her unequivocally as the biological daughter of Maurice Dupin. To test its truth, or lack thereof one must examine the life of the protagonist who carries the burden of its action. For, accordingly, it is Marie-Aurore Dupin who wields the power to confer legitimacy upon the future George Sand. Much as the stability of the French state depended on the maneuvers of its military heroes, the stability of the lineage to which George Sand was heir depended largely on the ingenuity and tenacity of her grandmother Marie-Aurore. Whereas the battles of Fontenoy and Marengo conferred glory on Sand's great-grandfather and father, respectively, the lesser-known struggles and conquests of her grandmother required commensurate courage and perseverance. The story of Marie-Aurore de Saxe is essential to an understanding of George Sand's life.

Chapter Two
The Importance of Being Marie-Aurore de Saxe She who was the soul of my entire development and the key that so gently opened all the mysterious doors of my childhood mind. How good and intelligent she was! It consoles me to think of her all the time, to see her again in my dreams and to forget that she no longer exists.

MARIE-AURORE was only two years old in 1750 when her illustrious father, Maurice de Saxe, marshal of the French Army, died. Because she was so young and he had been away on military campaigns during most of her early years, he could not have made much of an impression on her. The distance between them was accentuated by her being the illegitimate daughter of his former mistress Marie Rinteau. Nevertheless, the connection with such a powerful and prominent man was the shaping force of Marie-Aurore's life.

During the first third of that life, Marie-Aurore waged a battle to gain, if not legitimacy, then recognition and security within French society. Over the course of two decades, Marie-Aurore made repeated attempts to be acknowledged officially as the "natural" daughter (the polite French term for illegitimate) of the marshal de Saxe and to obtain from the French government the financial support to which she was, as such, entitled. Her education, social position, and livelihood, and ultimately the destiny of her granddaughter Aurore Dupin depended upon this recognition.


Excerpted from George Sand by ELIZABETH HARLAN Copyright © 2004 by Elizabeth Harlan. Excerpted by permission.
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