The writer who attracted scandal and praise in equal measure
- Credit: Universal Images Group via Getty
George Sand is no longer widely read, but once eclipsed many of the greatest names in 19th century European literature
“Our journey,” wrote George Sand to her friend Carlotta Marliani, “seems to begin under the most favourable conditions.”
It was November 7, 1838, and the 34-year-old French novelist was about to embark from Barcelona on the El Mallorquin steamer to Palma on the island of Mallorca. She was accompanied by her two children, of whom she’d won custody following her legal separation from her husband Baron Casimir Dudevant three years earlier, and the composer Frédéric Chopin, a year into a relationship that had scandalised French society and was about to scandalise the agrarian backwater of Mallorca.
The plan was to spend the winter in a temperate climate for the benefit of her rheumatic son’s health and certainly that of the consumptive Chopin. The isolation they craved would also give them the chance to work without distraction away from the glare of being one of the most famous couples in Europe.
Sand is not widely read these days but during her lifetime she was one of the best-known cultural figures in Europe, equal to if not eclipsing compatriots Victor Hugo and Honoré de Balzac. She influenced Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, George Eliot and Charlotte Bronte.
John Ruskin and Walt Whitman were fans while Matthew Arnold preferred her work to Dickens’. Proust used her François le champi as the novel Marcel had read to him by his mother in A la recherche du temps perdu. She was also famous for her singular lifestyle: the string of relationships from actress Marie Dorval to Gustave Flaubert, the men’s clothes, the hobnail boots, the cigars.
All this made Chopin – prim, foppish, sickly, six years her junior – an unlikely choice of partner, but their relationship endured for almost a decade, ending shortly before his death at the age of 39. They’d been introduced at a party by Franz Liszt in 1836 shortly after the end of Chopin’s engagement to Maria Wodzińska. At first the Polish composer didn’t know what to make of the cigar-chomping, trouser-wearing Sand, even asking Liszt if she was a man or a woman. Sand, meanwhile, found herself swept up into what she called “a state of intoxication” over the morose musician with the relentless cough.
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By 1838 they were a couple and celebrated enough that Eugène Delacroix would to paint a joint portrait of them, with Chopin at the piano and Sand sitting listening, pulling a thread through her embroidery sampler.
“The nature, the trees, the sky, the sea, the monuments surpass all my dreams: this is the promised land!” wrote Sand to Marliani shortly after the unconventional family group had arrived on the island.
Mallorca was far from the developed tourist destination it is today and when Sand and Chopin arrived, they could find nowhere suitable in Palma to stay. Instead they took a house in the ancient, scenic town of Valldemossa a few miles outside the island’s main settlement. Within days Chopin’s health, never good at the best of times (Hector Berlioz said, “Chopin was dying all his life”), had grown bad enough that his pale demeanour and incessant coughing prompted the building’s owner to evict them, fearing the spread of infection.
They moved into an empty Carthusian monastery nearby that Sand had initially rented as a place to write. It was spartan as holiday accommodation but both Sand and Chopin hoped the pseudo-Gothic nature of the ancient building, parts of which were in ruins, might provide inspiration. Chopin would complete his 24 Preludes there while Sand looked after him and the children while still managing to work on her novel Spiridion and beginning to prepare a book published in 1841 as Winter in Mallorca.
It was the kind of balancing act she’d performed all her life. She was born Amandine Aurore Lucile Dupin in Paris in 1804, the daughter of a woman who may have been a prostitute and a father descended from the illegitimate son of a courtesan and a nobleman. She was raised by her grandmother in Nohant, in central France, an estate inherited by Sand on her grandmother’s death in 1821.
She’d married Dudevant at 18 but as a woman of intelligence and creativity, not to mention independence of spirit, soon outgrew her domestic situation. She left for Paris in 1831, leaving her husband to raise their two children. She was 26 years old and certain there was more to life than the decades stretching ahead producing babies for a dreary retired military officer. Leaving was audacious and risky but it worked. In the French capital she began writing for Le Figaro in collaboration with her 19-year-old lover, the novelist Jules Sandeau, signing their pieces ‘J. Sand’.
The pair co-wrote a novel, Rose et Blanche, but in 1832 the first standalone George Sand novel appeared, Indiana, the story of a woman leaving her marriage in search of true love and an impassioned protest against the norms of the time that bound a wife to her husband no matter how unhappy she might be. She no longer needed a collaborator but she did need a name: it was her publisher who suggested she adopt George Sand, arguing that novels by women wouldn’t sell.
Indiana was a huge success, as were Valentine, which appeared later the same year and Lelia, published in 1833, stories of rustic peasants breaking through moral constraints in pursuit of true love. Love, she felt, could and indeed should conquer all, regardless of class or circumstance. It was a philosophy that drove both her literary life and her personal life: her many relationships and affairs were never intended as mere dalliance, she was a woman who fell in love easily and often rashly. It’s what fuelled her work and what fed the independence of mind that drove her unconventional life.
Indeed, it was in 1833 that she met Marie Dorval, having written her a fan letter after seeing the actress perform on stage. The pair embarked on what some biographers say was a deeply intense friendship while others credit a full-blown, passionate relationship. Either way, there was a scandal.
“Only those who know how differently we were made can realise how utterly I was in thrall to her,” wrote Sand. “I can say only that it was as though I were looking at an embodied spirit.”
The Mallorcan winter of 1837-38 was a bitterly cold one. The monastery at Valldemossa was cold, draughty and damp, the wind howled through it and the rain and mist reduced the inspiring views to a milky blankness.
“We lived in the middle of the clouds,” she wrote later, “and 50 days had passed without being able descend to the plain; the roads had become torrents, and we did not see the sun.”
They were also ostracised by the locals, a combination of the realisation Sand and Chopin were not married and their non-attendance at church leading to snubs that frequently included being refused service in grocery shops. It was made clear they were no longer welcome.
Chopin’s piano remained impounded at customs for weeks and the damp ascetism of their living conditions had done nothing to improve his health. In the end, having learned a cargo ship was leaving for Barcelona long before the first steamer of the season would depart, they booked passage and went back to France with 100 pigs for company on the voyage.
Chopin’s health was so poor they remained at Marseille for several weeks until he was well enough to travel to Nohant. For the next few years they would divide their time between Sand’s estate and apartments in Paris.
Their increasingly strained relationship wasn’t helped when Sand published her novel Lucrezia Floriani in 1846, with the character of the sickly and helpless eastern European prince Karol clearly modelled on the composer. He wasn’t impressed.
When in 1848 he took the side of Sand’s daughter Solange in an argument over money Sand felt betrayed, concluding that Chopin must be in love with Solange, with whom she had a stormy relationship, and informing him he was no longer welcome at Nohant. A few months later he was dead. Sand did not attend the funeral, which created almost as much coverage as the event itself. She was, as ever unrepentant.
“The world will know and understand me someday,” Sand once wrote to her critics. “But if that day does not arrive, it does not greatly matter. I shall have opened the way for other women.”
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