A Passion for Paris: George Sand, Romanticism’s Great Woman Happy?
George Sand was the "Great Woman" of the Romantic Age, according to Victor Hugo. If anyone could make that claim it was Hugo.
Successful, beloved, famous and well off, was George Sand happy?
At times she was, certainly. She rode an emotional roller-coaster all her long life.
“The only true happiness in this life is to love and be loved,” she famously said.
Sand also said “One is happy once one knows the necessary ingredients of happiness: simple tastes, a degree of courage, self-denial to a point, love of work, and above all, a clear conscience.” That she had a clean conscience is an open question: she clearly felt qualms and perhaps guilt about her behavior to certain people important in her life. But her life was dedicated to her art: writing, “engaged writing” as the French say. She always had an agenda, and often didn’t trouble to hide it.
Poetry was not her forte, but lyricism, yes. She loved nature as much as she loved men—and women. “Butterflies are but flowers that blew away one sunny day when Nature was feeling at her most inventive and fertile,” she noted.
Butterflies were often on her mind. The reason is found in the famous quip by her (probable) lover Franz Liszt (who was the lover of one of Sand’s greatest woman friends and rivals, Marie d’Agoult).
“George Sand catches her butterfly and domesticates it in her cage by feeding it on flowers and nectar—this is the amorous period,” Liszt remarked with wicked humor. “Then she sticks her pin into it when it struggles—that’s the farewell and it always comes from her. Afterwards she vivisects it, stuffs it, and adds it to her collection of heroes for novels.”
Sand created many memorable heroes and heroines for her novels, not least of which herself in countless guises. She was a formidable militant for women’s rights, free speech, and a just, social-democratic society. “You can bind my body, tie my hands, govern my actions,” she said of men in general. “You are the stronger and society adds to your power; but with my will, sir, you can do nothing.”
The visionary Victor Hugo outlived Sand and gave her moving funeral oration, touching on Sand’s greatness and importance: “Others are great men; she is the great woman. In this century destined to carry to completion the French Revolution and begin the human revolution, the equality of the sexes being an integral part of the equality of mankind, a great woman was needed.”
As usual Hugo was more than a century ahead of his time. The equality of the sexes was not achieved in the 19th century as he’d hoped. It also missed the 2000 mark… Perhaps the 21st century will be the century of equality for women everywhere, in the somewhat enlightened and wholly benighted parts of the globe? Stay tuned on that.
Reading Sand can be – but often is not – an uplifting experience, especially as one grows older. Her autobiography and correspondence are probably her most readable works. She kept working until the end of her adventurous life. “It is a mistake to regard age as a down slope toward dissolution. The reverse is true. As one grows older, one climbs with surprising strides.” And this before knee and hip replacements!
Sand’s life was famously “novelesque,” and in it the truth was stranger than the fiction. This is how Sand expressed the truth/fiction equation: “Life resembles a novel more often than novels resemble life.” I wonder.
Sand and Chopin: The Great Love Affair. Click to watch a hyper-romantic Russian movie about the pair
She had little time for sweet-talkers, cynical politicians and other sophists: “Language is a prostitute queen who descends and rises to all roles,” she wrote. “Disguises herself, arrays herself in fine apparel, hides her head and effaces herself; a lawyer who has an answer for everything, who has always foreseen everything, and who shifts shape a thousand times in order to be right. The most honorable of men is he who thinks best and acts best, but the most powerful is he who is best able to talk and write.” She should have used “she” instead of “he.”
It’s said she lived a charmed life, though that was certainly not always the case. Somehow she maintained a fundamental contentment with the world and her lot. “I love everything that makes up a milieu, the rolling of the carriages and the noise of the workmen in Paris, the cries of a thousand birds in the country, the movement of the ships on the waters. I love also absolute, profound silence, and, in short, I love everything that is around me, no matter where I am.”
Finally, on the essence of sharing, Sand hoped:
“May every soul that touches mine—be it the slightest contact–get some good from it; some small grace, one kindly thought; one aspiration yet unfelt; one bit of courage to face the darkening sky; one gleam of faith to brave the thickening ills of life; one glimpse of brighter skies beyond the gathering mist to make life worthwhile.”
If each of us could say as much!