George sand

George Sand: the life of a French feminist icon

Writing under the nom de plume George Sand, Aurore Dupin was not only an extraordinarily prolific author but also a woman who led an extraordinary life, boldly flouting the gender expectations of her day. Séverine Vidal’s graphic novel George Sand: True Genius, True Woman (French title: George Sand, fille du siècle), illustrated by Kim Consigny, presents her fascinating life story in an accessible format for audiences from the French-speaking world and beyond – the latter thanks to Edward Gauvin’s recent English translation. 

A writer’s journey: from legend to oblivion (and back again?)

George Sand was arguably one of the most famous women in 19th-century France. Yet, you will probably not recognise her name as quickly as, say, the Brontë sisters or Jane Austen. This may partly be attributed to cultural and linguistic differences; Sand is, after all, a francophone writer, with the Brontë’s and Austen being more popular in the anglophone world. However, there is a more complicated history underlying Sand’s fluctuating status. 

Despite being one of the most successful women writers of her age, Sand would be excluded from the French canon for years. This circumstance has been connected to shifts in perceptions of literary value, which increasingly saw ‘realism’ recognised and preferred over a so-called feminine ‘idealism’. Accused of belonging to the latter category, the writings of George Sand were neglected. It was not until the 1980s that feminist critics sought to reconsider Sand’s position – most notably Naomi Schor, who would publish her foundational work on George Sand and Idealism in 1993.

Séverine Vidal’s graphic novel marks a continuing effort to spark conversation about this rediscovered figure. Tracing her journey from childhood to death, the biography powerfully reinscribes her identity with a focus on themes of family, love, gender, politics and writing, all turning around the axis of the key location of Nohant, her country home.

The scandalous life of a feminist avant la lettre*

George Sand was born in 1804 – the same year that Napoleon Bonaparte’s ‘code civil’ decreed that ‘the husband owes protection to his wife, the wife owes obedience to her husband’ (my translation), suggesting a hierarchical and differential approach to gender. Throughout her life, Sand rejected such double standards. Aside from pursuing her own career under a male pseudonym, she famously smoked cigars and crossdressed, even obtaining a licence to wear trousers. Her separation from her husband, Casimir Dudevant, and the extra-marital affairs with a number of high-profile men from intellectual circles that followed, only cemented her notoriety. Vidal equally explores her status as a bisexual figure in this graphic novel.

We should not oversimplify George Sand’s feminism, though. The various prefaces to her most famous work, Indiana, reveal fluctuations in her stance over time. Furthermore, Sand did not support women’s suffrage in 1848, although she had her own reasoning for this, believing that a transformation of society – and particularly the institution of marriage – was necessary beforehand. 

A vertiginous view of 19th century France

19th-century France is a deeply complicated period characterised by great social and political upheaval. Following the French Revolution of 1789, the nation saw a succession of different regimes and leaders, with major revolutions in 1830 and 1848. Vidal’s graphic novel should be praised for offering a fairly accessible window onto this cluttered time period, even if those unfamiliar with the context still run the risk of being confused. A timeline would have made for a welcome addition to help readers visualise the panorama of events.

Sand herself was a prominent figure in the 1848 Revolution, as the graphic novel makes clear. Her friends were often leading social and political actors; indeed, some, like Victor Hugo, consequently found themselves exiled. Sand maintained a correspondence and friendship with such canonical 19th-century authors as Balzac, Flaubert, Musset and Lamartine, alongside artists like Eugėne Delacroix and musicians such as Chopin, with whom she lived for some time. 

Style and characteristics of the graphic novel 

Initially, I was slightly disappointed by the choice for black-and-white illustrations, if only because I had been treated to rich and vivid colour in the last graphic novel I read, Jean-Marc Rochette’s The Last Queen. However, I soon grew used to the artistic style, which is often cheering and adorable, if not quite capable of beating Rochette’s mastery. There was, however, a slight contradiction between the child-like nature of the drawings on one hand and some explicit content on the other, which confuses the age range at which the text is targeted.

As there are a plethora of more minor characters, it can also become difficult at times to differentiate between and remember them, so a glossary of figures may have helped.

Final thoughts

Overall, this graphic novel represents a commendable, ambitious project of tracing a life and time period which are far from simple, as well as an important effort to continue reinscribing George Sand into literary histories. It is a remarkably well-researched text which both engages with Sand’s autobiographical material and considers her literary works, among them Lélia, Mauprat and, of course, Indiana, which many students of French at Oxford will recognise from the Prelims course.

There is, though, a tension inherent in trying to condense such a complex story and context into a digestible series of images, inevitably leading to some oversimplification. And French critical theory would have something to say about any reliance on this biography to understand Sand’s works (see Roland Barthes’ famous essay on The Death of the Author for more on this…). But this graphic novel does not purport to be an academic source, even if it is educational. Rather, it is a point of entry for anyone, student or not, who is curious about the life of this remarkable woman who resisted the moulds of society and oppression. 

*Avant la lettre is a French idiom meaning ‘before the term existed’. A ‘feminist avant la lettre’ could be translated as a ‘proto-feminist’.