The Romances of George Sand

Date of publication, September 12, 2014, by Anaphora Literary Press

The Romances of George Sand by Anna Faktorovich is one of the most thought-provoking books of recent years, a stunning portrait of one of the greatest female geniuses of the 19th century, a book that adeptly performs the tightrope act of balancing biography and fiction. Biographers usually debunk fictional accounts of historical figures, distrusting their flights into fantasy, perhaps with good reason. Faktorovich is aware of this dilemma, and in her Introduction she stresses the fact that her book, while fictional, is based on solid historical sources, including Sand’s Autobiography in her “Works Cited” section.

This tightrope act works, despite some disadvantages it creates for the reader, who often wonders whether he is reading fiction or history. Historical details are given in long stretches of prose, punctuated by shorter interludes of lively dialogue. Sand lived during one of the most turbulent periods of French history, the pre-Revolution period, the age of Terror, the Napoleonic Wars, and the first part of the 19th Century, when the monarchy was restored but riddled with revolutions and general political unrest. It was also one of the most prolific periods of literary renaissance, where the giants of French literature of the romantic period, Victor Hugo, Alexander Dumas, Alfonse de Lamartine, Alfred de Musset, Honeré Balzac, not to speak of the musicians, like Frederic Chopin and Franz Liszt, who fled oppression in their own countries, and lived and worked in France. Nearly all of them were friends with Sand, and influenced her career and complicated her life as she rose in literary status. Many of those men became her lovers.

Another aspect of the book that makes it a must for the modern reader is its decidedly political angle: Sand fought on the side of anti-monarchist factions, the so-called “republicans,” who strove to maintain the individual rights won by the French revolution: freedom of the press, equality between the aristocracy and the working classes, and, implicitly or not, for the rights of women. In fact, the last is the aim of this book: Sand was a living example of the struggle a woman faced to become prima inter pares—a struggle that in the mind of the author continues to this date, despite the century-long efforts of feminists of the 20th and 21st centuries to establish equality between the sexes.

The point of view remains omniscient, but punctuated by many parentheses about contemporary notables, historical events, and analogies to the past and present. For instance, the author makes some allusions to Jane Austen, describing her as the leading author of her time who developed female characters from a female author’s point of view. This “aside” lets the reader know that as the book’s mass of historical data is gradually peeled off, the portrayal of George Sand, as a woman and artist, emerges. Born Aurore Dupin, from an aristocratic family, owners of an extensive estate, Nohant, the Dupins survived the French revolution and the period of Terror that followed it, as Marie-Aurore, Sand’s grandmother, managed to hold on to the estate.

It is within this large canvas that the details of Aurore’s life are gradually filled in. At the age of four, she traveled with her mother, Sophie, to Madrid, to join her father Maurice Dupin, who has risen in the ranks in the Napoleonic army. But they were forced to move back to Paris, as Napoleon retreats, suffering myriad hardships and risking their lives to return to France. As they settle back to Nohant, Maurice is killed soon after they return home in a horse-riding accident. Subsequently, young Aurore spent three years in a convent as a nun, worked with Deschartres, the resident doctor at Nohant, from whom she learned medicine, assisting him in treating patient in the area. She studied the classics, law, then and later, and became an accomplished pianist, who loved to play Beethoven sonatas. She staged plays at the convent and at Nohant, and she began a writing career as a novelist early in life, attaining distinction as the most notable female writer in France for decades to come.

While still a minor, she married Casimir Duvenant, illegitimate son of an aristocrat, forced to do so by her grandmother to gain marital status, and to be kept from her mother, whose marriage to her father proved a disaster. Thus, our heroine was known by three names—Aurore Dupin, Aurore Duvenant, George Sand, the male pen name she adopted of necessity because her political and artistic activities were inhibited by her gender. Restless, energetic, impulsive, capable of incredibly hard work, as she produced novels by the dozen to secure financial independence, Sand became the female literary factotum of Paris, assuming a man’s garb to move unnoticed among literary and partisan crowds. She also had insatiable sexual fervor, alternating overnight lovers with prolonged affairs, one of the most notorious being the lesbian (and most satisfactory) decades-long liaison with Marie Dorval, an actress of the Parisian stage, who gave her the most complete satisfaction she couldn’t attain with most men. Other included her torturous affair with author and poet Alfred de Musset, and her romance with Frederic Chopin, which lasted for a decade. Thereafter, Sand, now middle-aged, lived three more decades, continuing her literary and political career, being lionized, as well as antagonized, by Parisian society and gaining world renown, which has lasted now for two centuries.

Faktorovich’s book is called The Romances of George Sand, and it delivers what it promises on that score, but its broader themes give it unusual scope, painting a canvas of a world afflicted by the illnesses of civilization—political corruption, social unrest, urbanization and poverty, suppression of new ideas which afflict creative people most of all. In the early part of her life, Sand witnessed untold tragedy, both in her family circles and those she lived in. She survived, and eventually thrived. But it took her half her life to reach a conclusion that could have prevented some of those miseries. As the author puts it, “If George had lifted her defenses years earlier, she might have had a smaller household, but she would have avoided those years of pain, which came from her failure to see abusive and manipulative people as cold and calculating” (p. 238). The book hardly attempts to mask its creed: what happened to a pioneer female genius of times past represents, mutatis mutandis, a reality that still exists of today. On dying, Sand muttered three words: “love live greenery.” In a broader interpretation, the author concludes: “The idea must also be about hoping for more than ‘greenery’ from life, and struggling for ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ against millenniums of oppression and constraint.” (p. 248).