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The author whose life was a page-turner: Novelist GEORGE SAND scandalised 19th-century Parisian society with her unconventional attitude to life and love

When I was 16, I enjoyed a summer by myself in Paris. I lived with an Italian composer, a German teenager and a French Marxist in an apartment by the Louvre, and spent my mornings at a language school near the Gare du Nord.

The host family, who were supposed to take responsibility for feeding me and keeping me out of trouble during my stay had gone to India for the summer, leaving their 19-year-old son in charge and their various lodgers unattended. 

I was left to my own devices, utterly unsupervised, to go wherever I wanted, eat what I chose and do whatever I pleased, while my parents imagined me safely ensconced in French family life. It felt like the best thing that had 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 been finding in Paris for centuries. 

It’s a city where people – artists and writers in particular – have long found and reinvented themselves, have broken rules and rewritten rulebooks, have escaped old conventions and made new ones. 

Sand, one of the most famous writers in Europe, was prolific, publishing upwards of 50 novels as well as works of nonfiction, drama and journalism Sand, one of the most famous writers in Europe, was prolific, publishing upwards of 50 novels as well as works of nonfiction, drama and journalism

Sand, one of the most famous writers in Europe, was prolific, publishing upwards of 50 novels as well as works of nonfiction, drama and journalism

Perhaps no one encapsulates that spirit more brazenly and joyfully than the 19th-century author George Sand.

In her lifetime Sand, one of the most famous writers in Europe, was prolific, publishing upwards of 50 novels as well as works of nonfiction, drama and journalism. 

Her books were wildly popular and many outsold those by French writers now better known than she is, including Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo. 

Yet for all her extraordinary literary success, Sand’s celebrity 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 clothing she wore, the tobacco she smoked. She was a rebel, an original, utterly uncompromising; from the first moment I read about Sand, I found myself 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 when she was 18. 

Sand and her husband had two children, but the couple were ill suited: she found him crass and cruel; she felt bored and ignored; they both ended up having affairs. At 26, Sand left him and moved to Paris to start a new life. 

And it was there she began an extraordinary process of reinvention, transforming herself from dissatisfied provincial wife into one of the most celebrated yet scandalous figures of the 19th century.

On first arriving in Paris after leaving her marriage, she lived with her 20-year-old lover, the writer Jules Sandeau, in a three-roomed top-storey flat with a view of the river Seine, the arches of the Pont Neuf reaching across the water and Notre Dame cathedral on the other side. 

I like to think of Sand looking out 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. It was in that flat that she wrote her first novel, co-authored with Sandeau. 

It was published under the pseudonym J Sand, which she would later adapt and take as her own name. Though 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 centre of Paris’s artistic and literary worlds, attending salons and parties, meeting writers, artists, composers and performers. 

At the studio of painter Ary Scheffer, she met cultural celebrities including the artist Eugène Delacroix, the composer Franz Liszt and the singer Pauline Viardot. 

It’s possible to visit the studio today: a beautiful house with mint-green shutters at the foot of the Monmartre hill, which now holds 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 struck me as surprisingly small – as though, looming as large as she does in my imagination, everything about her should be accordingly oversized.

Paris was, after all, a place where Sand underwent a physical transformation as well as an artistic one. Though she had worn trousers while riding in the countryside in her youth, in Paris she wore men’s clothing regularly. 

She wanted to be at the centre of Paris¿s artistic and literary worlds, attending salons and parties, meeting writers, artists, composers and performers She wanted to be at the centre of Paris¿s artistic and literary worlds, attending salons and parties, meeting writers, artists, composers and performers

She wanted to be at the centre of Paris’s artistic and literary worlds, attending salons and parties, meeting writers, artists, composers and performers

She did this, initially, for a mundane reason: it got her cheaper tickets at the theatre, where only men were allowed to stand in the stalls.

But it soon took on a larger significance. She wanted to move about the city with the same freedom as her male peers, and the fashionable women’s clothes she’d brought with her were simply not up to the task: the delicate little shoes cracked after a couple of days of walking the Paris streets, her skirts were unwieldy and got muddy, her little velvet hats fell apart. 

HER CELEBRITY NOW RESTS AS MUCH ON HOW SHE LIVED AS ON WHAT SHE WROTE 

She wrote ecstatically about the joys of walking in men’s boots. She loved the fact that she could go out in all weathers and come home at all hours. 

In short: she could experience the city in the unfettered, uninhibited way men did.

Sand’s male attire was noted by the Polish composer Frédéric Chopin, who met her at a party thrown by Liszt and asked, horrified, ‘Is that even a woman?’ 

It was a sentiment echoed by conservatives who abhorred Sand’s public affairs and unconventional presentation. 

But Chopin gradually warmed to Sand. They entered into an eight-year relationship, during which time they travelled to Mallorca with Sand’s children and lived together in an abandoned monastery.

Their stay in Mallorca was disastrous: the community turned against the couple when they learned they were unmarried and didn’t attend Mass. 

They were also unable to get adequate medical care for Chopin, who was gravely ill, and his piano, which he needed to complete his Preludes, was caught up in a customs row.

When I first learned of this strange journey, made by these two famous artists, I knew I would write about it. 

It encapsulates so much of what is fascinating about Sand: how uncompromising she was in the face of convention, audacious and unapologetic; how relentlessly creative she was, writing her novel after dark, having spent the day caring for Chopin and her children; how complicated she was, balancing her own literary work with the needs of her family. 

In my novel about their time in Mallorca, Briefly, a Delicious Life, I wanted to capture everything that was compelling and contradictory about Sand.

Her unconventional dress sense drew attention wherever she went and became inseparable from her public image – and yet she wrote about feeling invisible in men’s clothes. 

For all that she was iconic and unashamed, there was something important to Sand about going unnoticed: with nobody looking at her, nobody interrupting her, she was free to have ideas, to imagine, to work.

When I think back to that strange summer when I was 16, I can see that was what Paris gave me, too: a taste of anonymity, of being lost and free in the extraordinary city, part of everything yet separate from it at the same time. 

It’s why, whenever I think of Paris, I picture Sand striding through the streets, making it her own.

Briefly, A Delicious Life by Nell Stevens is published by Pan Macmillan, £9.99** TO ORDER A COPY FOR £8.49 UNTIL 23 JULY, GO TO MAILSHOP.CO.UK/BOOKS OR CALL 020 3176 2937. FREE DELIVERY ON ORDERS OVER £25

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