Books: Winter in Majorca with Chopin

George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large by Belinda Jack Chatto pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
Had she been born in the latter half of the 20th century, George Sand would have raised few eyebrows. Her penchant for wearing trousers and smoking roll-ups, her sexual experiments, even an immoderate enthusiasm for making jam, would today pass as unremarkable behaviour in a woman novelist. In 1832, when the writer "George Sand" was officially born, her lifestyle was both scandalous and profitable. The outspoken content of her novels, along with a mercurial private life, kept Sand in the public eye, and gained her the financial independence to live and love as she pleased. It was a freedom won at considerable personal cost. "The ideal of love," she wrote rather wistfully, in her late 40s, "is certainly eternal fidelity." This, however, eluded her and she made do, instead, with a series of often tempestuous relationships in an attempt to resolve what she described as the "great wound" of life.

Sand's experience of conflict began in early childhood. She was christened Amandine-Aurore-Lucile, the daughter of Maurice Dupin, an army officer with illustrious connections, and a "child of the people", the unstable Sophie- Victoire. Almost at once, tragedy struck the ill-matched couple. A second child, Louis, died and Sophie-Victoire, convinced that her baby had been buried alive, persuaded her husband to disinter the tiny body. Louis was indeed dead and together they reburied him, shrouded in rose petals under a pear tree in the garden. Within days, Maurice was also dead, thrown by a barely tamed horse. Maurice's mother, the formidable Mme Dupin, promptly took control of her granddaughter. The consequence, for four-year-old Aurore, was not only separation from her beloved mother and half-sister, but the suppression of her inner life. "Ah, the fairies and genii! Where did they live, those omnipotent beings, who with one wave of a wand, could lead you into a world of delights? ... Full of Rousseau and Voltaire, [my grandmother] would have demolished the whole enchanted structure of my imagination." What Mme Dupin offered in exchange was an education more typically enjoyed by boys during this period, and access to a liberal and wide-ranging library. Often depressed and solitary, Aurore embarked on a programme of self-improvement that supplied the foundations for a lifetime's exploration of human nature and relationships.

As Belinda Jack points out in the introduction to her absorbing study, George Sand is mainly remembered for excess and contradiction. She was variously reported to be frigid, bisexual and nymphomaniac, and was looked up to, at the same time, as the "Good Lady of Nohant", the chatelaine of a substantial country estate. She married for love, but, unable to sustain her affection for a husband with whom she shared few interests, she took up with a series of bewilderingly different lovers, who included writers, artists and a beautiful actress, Marie Dorval. For a temptress, she was unprepossessing, with only her brilliant eyes to recommend her. Her choice of clothes veered from the drab gown she wore to greet the Brownings, to a sumptuous Turkish costume, including the slippers. Living in Paris with Jules Sandeau (the origin of her pseudonym), she donned male attire and a pair of hob-nailed boots, and blissfully and anonymously, explored the city.

Her affairs were dogged by the diseases and emotional volatility of her lovers. She accompanied Alfred de Musset to Venice, where she nursed him through dysentery and paranoia, and, almost simultaneously, enjoyed the embraces of the charming Dr Pagello. An attempt to winter in Majorca with Chopin at the aptly named S'on Vent ("the house of the winds") nearly ended in disaster when Chopin's health dramatically deteriorated. Both, however, emerged from their escapade with briefcases stuffed with manuscripts, in his case, 24 Preludes.

Sand invariably managed to make capital out of her amorous adventures. Her writing was the forum where she could work out her ideas about love, and through it she often anticipated future relationships. Her preoccupation with women's experience of love and marriage, and the boldness and empathy with which she described it, ensured a wide and often censorious readership. Having discovered, after the success of Indiana (1832), the advantages of earning her own income, Sand maintained a prodigious writing output. What appeared to be excess was achieved through admirable self-control. Writing to Flaubert, her great friend in the final years of her life, Sand recommended the benefits of "moderation" and "equilibrium", goals that she achieved through careful organisation. Whenever possible, she followed a routine that allowed her to attend to the needs of family, lovers and friends during the day, and to write at night.

Finally, in her mid 40s, she met the sculptor Alexandre Manceau. Thirteen years her junior, he became devoted to her, and they enjoyed years of mutual support and productivity before his premature death. Describing Manceau's "woman's care", Sand confessed, "I am well. I am calm. I am happy, I tolerate everything, even his absence, which is saying a good deal." The "great wound" seemed finally to have been healed.

An inspiration to 19th-century female writers - Elizabeth Barrett Browning's Aurora Leigh was just one of many tributes - Sand's novels are rarely read today. Unlike the work of Colette, born just three years before Sand's death in 1876, Sand's innovatory approach to human sexuality is probably more interesting to social and literary historians than to the modern reader. But Jack is right to identify Sand as an inspirational role model. Inquisitive, courageous and truthful, she did not flinch from the worst - and best - that life has to offer, and her philosophy still has much to recommend it: "We will love, we will suffer, we will hope, we will be afraid, we will be full of joy, of terrors, in a word we will go on living ... Let us love and support each other."