Bold and brilliant are terms often used to describe George Sand (1804-1876) and Colette (1873-1954). As it turns out, the two French authors have many things in common besides their celebrated literary production. Because of their character and chosen lifestyle, these feminist icons turned cultural expectations for women upside down. And somehow, despite behaviors which frequently shocked and dismayed many of their contemporaries, both were revered during their lifetimes.
A native Parisian, Sand, born Aurore Dupin, spent much of her childhood in the idyllic small town of Nohant in central France. As a young girl, she enjoyed horseback-riding in the peaceful countryside surrounding her grandmother’s home. By age eighteen, she became a bride and gave birth to two children within six years. Feeling stifled in her marriage, after nine years she left her family, escaping to the French capital. There, she fell in love with writer Jules Sandeau who collaborated with her on a novel, signed with the pseudonym “J. Sand.” The book’s moderate success prompted another press to ask for more. Dupin proposed keeping the original surname but changing the first name to indicate a different author. Using “George Sand” then for the first time in 1832, she achieved immediate fame with Indiana—about a woman, much like her, who abandons an unhappy marriage to find love.
Growing up in similar calm surroundings of Saint-Sauveur-en-Puisaye, a village in Burgundy, young Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette was inspired early on by her mother to express her individuality and to become a close observer of the outside world. Her life changed dramatically at twenty once she married Willy, a womanizer nearly fourteen years older, and moved to Paris. When her husband suggested writing down memories of her youth, Colette created the first book of the Claudine series in 1900. Not only were the bestselling novels published under his name, but the tyrannical Willy kept the copyrights and royalties. After thirteen years of marriage and plenty of infidelity and jealousy on both sides, Colette called it quits in 1906.
At this point both Sand and Colette began the most scandalous periods of their lives, pushing the envelope in terms of society’s view of proper feminine behavior. The independent Sand, heralded as the continent’s most notable and notorious woman, constantly demonstrated “unladylike” conduct—dressing in men’s clothing, smoking cigars, and engaging in a series of high-profile romantic affairs with a dozen or so men. Among them were members of the cultural élite, including authors Prosper Mérimée and Alfred de Musset, as well as composer Frédéric Chopin. Her unlikely nine-year liaison with the shy, sickly Polish musician began after the couple met at a Parisian salon hosted by the mistress of Franz Liszt. A short while later, the romance evolved with Sand becoming Chopin’s caretaker due to his rapidly declining health. The final straw for her, however, came when he began taking her daughter’s side in family quarrels.
As for Colette, she struggled financially after leaving her husband until finding work as a journalist and as a music hall performer. During this time, she engaged in several lesbian affairs, including one with the niece of Napoléon III, a marquise known as Missy. The two women caused a near riot when they kissed on stage during a performance at the Moulin Rouge. Over the course of her second marriage to Henry de Jouvenel, Colette continued her shocking ways. Seven years after giving birth to her daughter at age forty, she began a four-year-long, sexual relationship with her sixteen-year-old stepson—paralleling the plot of her 1920 novel Chéri.
In their work both authors shared a common passion for writing, as evidenced by their voluminous output. In order to produce forty-three novels, Sand churned out twenty pages every night, working from midnight to dawn. Colette, a prolific writer herself, was often called “the greatest woman of letters since George Sand.” Yet, she clearly stood in awe of her predecessor’s work ethic: “How did the devil did George Sand manage? [She] found it possible to finish one novel and start another in the same hour.” Not surprisingly, they each created strong female characters who, imitating their authors, were daring and sexually expressive.
In honor of Women’s History Month in March, we commemorate these two talented and complex women. Both exhibited non-conformist attitudes in their writings, their love life, and the general way they each chose to live. Yet, despite all of the controversy surrounding their behavior (or maybe because of it), both of them were adored and admired by the general public…as well as by an international group of literati—including Dostoevsky, Balzac, and Walt Whitman for Sand and Proust, Gide, and Katherine Anne Porter for Colette.
Read more about Sand and Colette in the second book of my Cheapo Snob series: Paris and Parisians.