A great republican


George Sand Bicentenary: As France today pays homage to George Sand, Lara Marlowe commemorates the prolific novelist whose colourful life included love affairs with Chopin and Alfred de Musset

It took three strands of French history - the pre-revolution aristocracy; Napoleon's empire and a mother from the common people - to create the extraordinary "social métis" (her own expression) who was George Sand.

Born 200 years ago, Aurore Dupin de Francueil adopted the name George Sand when she published her first novel, Indiana, at the age of 27.

Today, France will pay homage to the early socialist and écrivain engagé who published nearly 100 novels, wrote 20,000 letters and had tempestuous love affairs with the poet Alfred de Musset and the composer Frédéric Chopin.

The Ministry of Culture has declared 2004 "The Year of George Sand". In February, she was fêted in the Senate and National Assembly. In March, a commemorative stamp was issued in her honour.

Some 40,000 tourists, double the usual number, are expected to visit Sand's home region of Le Berry, in central France, and her beloved château at Nohant this year.

The George Sand Bicentennial Association is holding its main celebrations today, July 3rd, in and around Nohant, though the writer was born on July 1st. Dignitaries from Paris will attend the official ceremony in late morning. Not since Victor Hugo wrote her funeral oration in June, 1876, and Gustave Flaubert and Alexandre Dumas fils (who called her Maman) travelled to Nohant for her burial, have so many people gathered to remember Sand. "Others are great men," Hugo wrote. "She is the great woman." From 7.30 p.m., a giant picnic will be held in the gardens of the Château d'Ars, near Nohant, in memory of the soirées champêtres that Sand organised for her house guests. Musicians, dancers and actors representing Sand's best known characters will perform among the picnickers. A sound and light show at 10.30 p.m., accompanied by an actress, narrator and pianist, is intended to convey the essence of Sand's life and oeuvre.

For those who miss the main festivities, there are at least six George Sand exhibitions in Le Berry spanning the rest of the year, and her château at Nohant, where you can see the dining table set for de Musset, Liszt and Flaubert. The year will close with a colloquium on "George Sand: Literature and Politics" at the Senate on December 9th-10th.

Sand's father, Maurice, died when she was four years old. She was raised at Nohant by her paternal grandmother, Marie-Aurore Dupin de Francueil, who despite being the illegitimate daughter of the Maréchal de Saxe married an aristocrat from the ancien régime. It was to escape the notice of the revolution that Mme Dupin de Francueil purchased the modest but graceful château. For little Aurore, too, Nohant would always be a refuge.

Aurore's father supported the revolution, joined the Napoleonic army and married a seamstress.

Though the future George Sand had little contact with her mother, she attributed her sense of equality and compassion for the poor to her mother's origins.

Sand became a disciple of Pierre Leroux, who wanted to make a religion of humanism, ban privilege and liberate women. It was Leroux who coined the French word socialisme. Sand was an active supporter of the 1848 revolution, whose leaders met in her Paris apartment. When it failed, she went into internal exile at Nohant.

After studies at a convent school in Paris, Aurore had married Baron Casimir Dudevant when she was 18. She bore him a son, Maurice, then a daughter, Solange, though there are doubts about the paternity of Solange.

Like a true country gentleman, Casimir was interested only in hunting, drinking and chasing local servant girls. In her boredom, Aurore became friendly with young people in the nearby town of La Châtre. Among them was Jules Sandeau, a student seven years her junior, with whom she fell in love.

All of Sand's lovers would be considerably younger than she was.

When Casimir discovered the affair, Aurore declared, "I want a pension and I shall go to Paris". She and Jules Sandeau rented a garret on the quai des Grands-Augustins. Aurore spent hours in literary and political discussions, and began writing articles for Le Figaro, which was then a small, opposition newspaper. "Living! How sweet!" she wrote of her newfound freedom. "How good it is - despite heartbreak, husbands, boredom, debt and relatives!" It was during this period that Aurore wore men's clothing, though biographers differ as to whether it was to avoid attracting attention in student cafés and theatre stalls, or, on the advice of her mother, to save laundry money.

The change of name was also for practical reasons. The editor of La Revue De Paris detested women and refused to publish their writing, so Aurore Dudevant submitted her articles under the name George Sand. George was a typical first name in Le Berry region, and Sand was a shortened, English-sounding version of her lover's name.

To avoid being categorised as a female writer, Sand kept the name when she started writing novels.

For the rest of her life, she would use both names. De Musset called her George. So did her son, Maurice. But Chopin, her lover for nine years, called her Aurore.

Sand's affair with de Musset lasted only 18 months, but with its stormy break-ups, tearful reunions and long stay in Venice came to symbolise love in the romantic era. De Musset was unfaithful and a drunkard. Yet when Sand eventually left him, she was so bereft that she cut her long hair and sent it to him. De Musset, his brother and Sand all wrote novels about his broken heart, making it one of the best-documented in literary history.

Throughout their passion, Sand showed an amazing aptitude for work, producing three novels in less than five months. Her dissolute lover complained: "I worked all day, and in the evening I wrote ten lines and drank a bottle of brandy; she drank a half litre of milk and wrote half a volume". Sand mothered all of her lovers, most of all Chopin. The Polish composer was "a fragile, extremely ambiguous figure, who found a maternal figure in Sand", the pianist Piotr Anderszewski told Le Figaro Littéraire. "She protected him, gave him a sense of security that allowed him to concentrate on his art." Chopin composed some of his best works at Nohant. Today, Sand supporters and Chopin fans dispute the real cause of their separation. The former say Sand suspected Chopin was secretly in love with her daughter Solange; the latter accuse Sand of crassly abandoning the composer when he was dying of tuberculosis.

Sand was amazed to find love again in middle age, with the engraver Alexandre Manceau, a friend of her son, Maurice. "I love him, I love him with all my heart," she wrote. "I am forty-six years-old, I have white hair, but it doesn't matter. Men love old women more than the young ones; I know that now." Only Manceau's death from cancer 15 years later would separate them.

In her lifetime, Sand was as famous as Hugo, Balzac and Dumas. Though her novels about hard-working, suffering peasants seem dated now, the themes of love, politics, society, feminism, art, friendship and nature are timeless.

"I can't stand the clichés about her," says Jacqueline Majorel, director of the tourism office in La Châtre. "She is either portrayed as 'the good lady of Nohant' because she helped the local peasants, or as the debauched mistress, or as a regional writer. People want to stick labels on her, and it's unfair because she was very complex." Annick Dussault of the Bicentennial Association says George Sand is still relevant today. "The French Republic decided to honour her because, above all, she was a great republican," she explains. "In her life and in her writing, she went to extreme lengths to defend the values we still believe in: freedom of the press and thought, the right to vote."

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