Sand, George: Introduction

views updated


Acelebrated writer and controversial personality of nineteenth-century France, Sand wrote prolifically in a variety of genres, producing over eighty novels, three collections of short stories, a twenty-volume autobiography, numerous essays, twenty-five dramas, and approximately twenty thousand letters. She remains best known for her novels, which have been praised for their vivid depictions of the peasantry and the countryside, insightful studies of human nature, and natural prose style. Although she was one of the most popular novelists of her time, relatively few of her works are studied today. Instead, she is primarily remembered for her bold behavior while living in Paris as a young woman: wearing men's clothing, espousing equal rights for women, and engaging in love affairs with prominent artistic figures. Feminist scholars who have examined Sand's work have focused on her representations of female characters, her critique of marriage and the relations between the sexes, her deconstruction of gender stereotypes, her exploration of the female body and transvestism, her ideas about masculinity and femininity, and her controversial brand of feminism.


Sand was born Aurore Dupin on July 1, 1804, to parents of dissimilar backgrounds: her mother was a bird seller's daughter, while her father was an officer in Napoleon's army and purportedly an illegitimate descendant of Frederic-Auguste de Saxe, King of Poland. Her parents married just one month before her birth. Following her father's death when she was four, Sand was entrusted to her paternal grandmother's care and was raised at the family estate of Nohant in Berry. There, she was privately tutored until she reached the age of thirteen, at which time she was sent to the Convent of the English Augustinians in Paris for three years. When she was eighteen, Sand married a local army officer, Casimir Dudevant, and eventually became the mother of two children. Dudevant and Sand soon realized that they were incompatible, and after several restless and unhappy years of marriage, Sand left her husband in 1831 to pursue a literary career in Paris. Following the publication of two novels written in collaboration with her lover Jules Sandeau and signed J. Sand, she began her career in earnest with the novel Indiana (1832), writing independently under the name George Sand. For the next several decades, Sand remained a prominent member of the artistic and intellectual community in Paris, due to her considerable literary output as well as her friendships with such figures as Honoré de Balzac and Gustave Flaubert. She also often captured public interest with her romantic involvements, which included relationships with Alfred de Musset and Frederic Chopin. Sand spent her last years in Nohant, where she died in 1876.


Sand is best known for her bold statements about the rights of women in nineteenth-century society, her exploration of contemporary social and philosophical issues, and her depiction of the lives and language of French provincials. Several of her important early novels, including Indiana, Valentine (1832), Lélia (1833), and Jacques (1834), reflect her rebellion against the bonds of marriage and deal largely with relationships between men and women. Clearly influenced by Lord Byron and Jean Jacques Rousseau, Sand crafted Romantic narratives depicting passionate personal revolt against societal conventions and an ardent feminism, attitudes that outraged her early British and American critics. These novels were extremely popular with the reading public, however, and they established Sand as an important literary voice for her generation. Sand's abiding interest in politics and philosophy is evident in such novels as Consuelo (1842-43) and Le meunier d'Angibault (1845; The Miller of Angibault). These works, dealing specifically with humanitarianism, Christian socialism, and republicanism, have been described by critics as the least plausible of her literary efforts; the tone is often didactic and the plots contrived. Sand is perhaps most renowned for her pastoral novels. Set in her native Berry, La mare au diable (1846; The Haunted Marsh) Françoise le champi (1848; Francis the Waif), and La petite Fadette (1849; Little Fadette) were inspired by her love of the countryside and her sympathy for the peasants. Realistic in background detail and distinguished by their Romantic idealism, they are considered by many scholars to be Sand's finest novels. The most enduring products of her later years are her autobiography, Histoire de ma vie (1845-55; My Life) and her voluminous correspondence.


From the beginning of her career, Sand's unconventional lifestyle interfered with serious critical assessment of her works. In spite of moral prejudice, which dominated early critical analyses of her works, she eventually won acceptance as an artist during her lifetime. Throughout the first half of the twentieth century, many critical studies of Sand's oeuvre attempted to establish links between her life and works, particularly focusing on Sand's romantic relationships. Since the early 1970s, critics have concentrated on the works themselves, noting especially her bold exploration of such issues as sexual freedom and independence for women. Many feminist critics have lauded Sand for presenting strong, willful heroines, and for exposing the obstacles faced by women—particularly women artists—in the nineteenth century. Several commentators have argued, however, that Sand's feminism was limited; she consistently advocated equal rights for women in matters of marriage and divorce, yet she subscribed to conventional views on male and female social roles. Some critics have noted that she regarded women to be creatures of emotion and men as thinking beings. However, Sand continues to be viewed as an important feminist, one whose life and work sought to undercut gender stereotypes and rebel against the roles imposed upon women by male-dominated society.