Novelist GEORGE SAND scandalised 19th-century Parisian society
When I was 16, I enjoyed a summer alone in Paris. I lived with an Italian composer, a German teenager and a French Marxist in an apartment near the Louvre, and spent my mornings at a language school near Gare du Nord.
The host family, who was supposed to take the responsibility of feeding me and keeping me out of trouble during my stay, had gone to India for the summer, leaving their 19-year-old son and their various boarders unattended.
I was left to my own devices, completely unsupervised, to come and go as I pleased, eat as I pleased, and do as I pleased, while my parents introduced me safely into French family life. It felt like the best thing that ever happened to me.
What made that summer so delightful was that it offered me a glimpse, albeit a tame and adolescent one, of the freedoms people have found in Paris for centuries.
It is a city where people – artists and writers in particular – have long found and reinvented themselves, breaking rules and rewriting rules, fleeing old conventions and creating new ones.
One of the most famous writers in Europe, Sand was prolific and published more than 50 novels, non-fiction, drama and journalism
Perhaps no one captures that spirit more boldly and joyfully than 19th-century author George Sand.
During her life, Sand, one of the most famous writers in Europe, was prolific and published more than 50 novels, non-fiction, drama and journalism.
Her books were wildly popular and many sold those of French writers now better known than her, including Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo.
But for all her extraordinary literary success, Sand’s fame now rests as much on how she lived as on what she wrote.
She is known for her love affairs with both men and women, the masculine clothes she wore, the tobacco she smoked. She was a rebel, an original, utterly uncompromising; from the first moment I read about Sand, I was drawn to her story.
She was born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin in 1804 and after a childhood spent between her grandmother’s house in Nohant in central France and a convent in Paris, she married the son of a baron at the age of 18.
Sand and her husband had two children, but the couple were not right for each other: she found him rude and cruel; she felt bored and ignored; they both had an affair. At the age of 26, Sand left him and moved to Paris to start a new life.
And there she embarked on an extraordinary process of reinvention, transforming herself from a disgruntled provincial woman into one of the most celebrated yet scandalous figures of the 19th century.
When she first arrived in Paris after leaving her marriage, she lived with her 20-year-old lover, the writer Jules Sandeau, in a three-room apartment on the top floor overlooking the River Seine, the arches of the Pont Neuf it reached across the water and Notre Dame Cathedral on the other side.
I like to think of Sand looking at the city from her window and imagining her future there: the books she would write, the people she would meet. It must have felt dizzying: the sudden freedom after years of unhappy marriage. In that flat she wrote her first novel, co-written with Sandeau.
It was published under the pseudonym J Sand, which she would later adapt and adopt as her own name. Although the affair with Sandeau ended and other lovers replaced him (the writer Alfred de Musset, the actress Marie Dorval, the composer Frédéric Chopin), Sand never changed her adopted name.
She wanted to be at the center of the artistic and literary world of Paris, attend salons and parties, meet writers, artists, composers and performers.
In the studio of painter Ary Scheffer, she met cultural celebrities such as artist Eugène Delacroix, composer Franz Liszt and singer Pauline Viardot.
Today it is possible to visit the workshop: a beautiful house with mint green shutters at the foot of the hill of Monmartre, which now houses the Musée de la Vie Romantique.
Sand’s handwritten manuscripts are on display there, as well as paintings and a cast of her arm, which seemed surprisingly small to me – as if, looming as large as she is in my imagination, everything about her should be correspondingly too large.
After all, Paris was a place where Sand underwent both a physical and an artistic transformation. Although she had worn trousers while riding in the countryside in her youth, she regularly wore menswear in Paris.
She wanted to be at the center of the artistic and literary world of Paris, attend salons and parties, meet writers, artists, composers and performers
She initially did this for a mundane reason: it got her cheaper tickets to the theater, where only men were allowed in the stalls.
But soon it took on a greater meaning. She wanted to move around the city with the same freedom as her male peers, and the fashionable women’s clothes she brought with her just didn’t measure up: the delicate shoes burst after a few days walking the streets of Paris. her skirts were unwieldy and muddy, her little velvet hats were falling apart.
HER CELEBRITY NOW VOTES AS MUCH AS HOW SHE LIVES AS WHAT SHE WRITE
She wrote ecstatically about the joys of walking in men’s boots. She loved the fact that she could go out in any weather and come home at any hour.
In short, she could experience the city in the unfettered, uninhibited way that men did.
Sand’s masculine clothing was noticed by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, who met her at a party hosted by Liszt and asked in shock, “Is that a woman?”
It was a sentiment echoed by conservatives who detested Sand’s public affairs and unconventional presentation.
But Chopin gradually warmed up to Sand. They entered into an eight-year relationship, during which they traveled to Majorca with Sand’s children and lived together in an abandoned convent.
Their stay in Majorca was disastrous: the community turned against the couple when they learned that they were unmarried and did not attend mass.
They were also unable to get adequate medical care for Chopin, who was seriously ill, and his piano, which he needed to complete his Preludes, was stuck in a customs dispute.
When I first heard about this strange journey taken by these two famous artists, I knew I would write about it.
It sums up so much of what’s so fascinating about Sand: how uncompromising she was to convention, bold and unapologetic; how relentlessly creative she was, writing her novel in the dark, caring for Chopin and her children all day; how complicated she was, balancing her own literary work with the needs of her family.
In my novel about their time in Majorca, Briefly, a Delicious Life, I wanted to capture everything that was compelling and contradictory about Sand.
Her unconventional dress sense attracted attention everywhere and became inseparable from her public image – and yet she wrote about feeling invisible in men’s clothes.
Despite being iconic and unashamed, Sand found something important about going unnoticed: with no one to look at her, no one to interrupt her, she was free to have ideas, to imagine, to work.
When I think back to that strange summer when I was 16, I see that Paris gave me that too: a taste of anonymity, of being lost and free in the extraordinary city, of being part of it all and at the same time separated from it. time.
That’s why whenever I think of Paris I see Sand walking the streets making it her own.
- In Short: A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is published by Pan Macmillan, £9.99*
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