"George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large" by Belinda Jack

A biography of the cross-dressing novelist who wrote books and took on new lovers at an equally feverish pace.

Published August 22, 2000 7:00PM (EDT)

"What a brave man she was," Ivan Turgenev once said about George Sand, "and what a good woman." It's a perfect characterization of a person who, while she was certainly both brave and good, also spent her life preoccupied with the ways in which men and women -- and society's notions about what each should be -- both complement and harm each other. Famed for cross-dressing, the scandalous novels that made her name and innumerable love affairs, most notably with Fridiric Chopin, Sand wrote what she lived and lived what she wrote.

Or at least that's the main contention of Belinda Jack's new biography, "George Sand: A Woman's Life Writ Large." Born Aurore Dupin in 1804 to an aristocratic father and an unstable working-class mother, Sand was immediately thrust into a world of paradox and conflict. Her paternal grandmother, with whom she lived after her father's early death, disapproved of her parents' marriage and of Sand's mother's encouragement of her daughter's dreaminess. Battles over class and upbringing on the home front produced in Aurore a tendency to turn inward toward fantasy. As she wrote in her autobiography, "The Story of My Life," "I inherited from my parents that secret wildness which makes the world difficult to bear." Even as a young child her gift for expression was apparent; she spent hours telling her pet rabbit fairy tales, and went so far as to invent a "god" of her own, an androgynous being named Corambe. A kind of precursor to Sand's libertine adult life, Corambe "was without sex and was clothed in all sorts of different disguises ... He would become man or woman."

Though she was initially given the same education as her half-brother Hippolyte and was allowed to dress like a boy at home, Sand soon succumbed to her predetermined role and, after a stint at a convent, married at the age of 18. As the marriage foundered, she turned back to her childhood love of stories and, according to Jack, realized not only that writing was a way to gain financial independence but that it would "no longer translate life into words but offer new interpretations, new scenarios that she might one day dare to live out." Her work began to serve as a kind of laboratory for her life, and vice versa. "How good it is to turn life into a novel," she once commented. And, toward the end of her life: "I will die with my shoulder to the wheel."

What a lot of life there was before then, though. Jack traces Sand's development from oppressed wife to one of Paris' most famous, or infamous, writers. She seems never to have slept; the amazing pace of her love affairs was matched only by the books she churned out with astonishing regularity, often because she was broke and needed to support her two children. Perhaps her most touching love affair, however, was with the freedom she found wearing men's clothes, which allowed her to travel unnoticed in the streets of Paris as well as to attend the theater cheaply by sitting in the stalls. Here is Sand's own assessment of her relationship to her hobnailed men's boots, which she wore with a top hat and overcoat: "I would willingly have slept with them, as my brother did when he was very little, when he was given his first pair. With their little metal heels I was firmly grounded on the pavement."

Other parts of her life, alas, were not so firmly grounded. She bounced from lover to lover, including an affair with a great actress of the day, Marie Dorval (of whom she said, upon seeing her onstage, "It is as though I am watching my soul"). Sand was always searching for someone to help her fulfill her ideal conception of love. All the while, she folded her experiences into the novels and "letters" that earned her a literary reputation. By the time she died in 1876, she had written countless novels, plays and essays, and 25 volumes of correspondence to boot. She drew fire from Nietzsche and Baudelaire; Flaubert broke down at her funeral; and she met with Napoleon III, whom she greatly admired, to plead for the release of political prisoners.

Jack has managed to crush all of this, and plenty more, into her book, which is an admirable feat. What's peculiar, though, is that for all the descriptions of her exploits and passions, Sand never takes on a life of her own in Jack's treatment. The events are listed with precision, the heartbreaks and triumphs are recorded, but Jack's writing is far too analytical to let any real light shine through. Perhaps this can be explained by Jack's somewhat distressing confession in her introduction that she was "often ... disconcerted, while writing this life, by a sense that Sand had not one but many lives." Undoubtedly Sand did, but then, so does anyone with any inner life at all, and that understanding seems crucial to writing a biography that does more than recount the chronology of an existence. In her efforts to write something "large," as her book's subtitle proclaims, Jack has pinned down George Sand's life, but left her spirit to languish.

By Melanie Rehak

Melanie Rehak is a poet and critic.

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