George Sand: Socialist and sensualist

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Victor Hugo called her the greatest woman of the century; for the people of her village she was the good woman of Nohant; the world knows her as the writer George Sand. Patron of artists, supporter of the revolution of 1848, her autobiography is a masterpiece, and a founding text of feminism. This year France celebrates the 200th anniversary of her birth.

Amandine Aurore-Lucile Dupin de Francueil was born in Paris on July 1, 1804. Her mother had led a life “not recommended” a polite way of saying she was a prostitute. Her father died after a fall from a horse when Sand was four years of age. She was raised by her paternal grandmother at the family chateau in the Berry that would be the centre of her rich life. It was here in Nohant that her lover Frédéric Chopin came for seven years, and wrote nearly half his music. Her visitors included Balzac, Turgenev, Flaubert, Saint-Beuve and the painter Delacroix.

Married to a morose Baron, she left for Paris, living overlooking the Seine, across from Notre Dame Cathedral, in a fifth floor walkup, with her heavy young daughter.

Sand set out to be successful novelist, and her writing brought her financial independence. She spent the money as it came in, giving freely to support other artists and the people of Nohant who inspired her works.

In the early days she tried selling sketches, leaving them in cafés. To save money on clothes she came upon the idea of dressing as a man. She liked the comfort of wearing boots, and a man's suit was warm, and less expensive than women's apparel. Through her stylish presence Sand had a lasting impact on Parisian society. Dressed in her pants, smoking pipes and cigars, she was befriended by the leading lights of the literary and musical world.

Separated from her husband, she took a series of lovers. With the poet Musset she went off to live in Venice. Her account of their turbulent affair entitled “Her and Him” was followed by his own version “Him and Her.” Eventually, she settled back in Nohant.

A socialist, when the revolution of 1848 erupted, she went to Paris, and founded a newspaper The Cause of the People.

Her History of My Life began to appear in 1854. Published in 20 volumes it was about how a woman became who she was, took on an identity, pursued her art, created herself. A literary innovation, her contemporaries debated its merits, but not its value. Caesar had written about the Gallic Wars, the model for war time memoirs to come, including those of De Gaulle and Churchill. Sand had done something similarly significant. Not a history of the times, or of family; it was the portrait of a singular life, a woman's life that she wrote “could be yours.” It was favourably compared to other great works, The Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and The Memoirs of Chateaubriand.

France remembers its artists. Statues, stamps, bank notes, streets, schools and museums bear witness to their tribute to the greatest among them, a continued presence well after their death. Best of all, for us, the works of many artists are still alive. For Sand, her books are still in print, her work to be discovered.

It is about more than memory, it is about respect: for the artistic imagination, and the life of the mind.

So far in 2004 some 60,000 people have visited the Chateau of Nohant which became a national monument in 1961 upon the death of her granddaughter and last surviving relative, Aurore. Here she wrote and produced plays for the villagers. Her children grew to know an environment that included her passion for botany, and preparation of jams. She died looking out the window at the trees she had planted when they were born. Her funeral was attended by the people of the surrounding villages. As reported at the time, everybody came, and all cried as they mourned her passing, the good woman of Nohant.

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