I'm embarrassed to admit that up until recently, I knew very little about George Sand except a slew of adjectives like scandalous, sexual, wild.
She was a writer who assumed a man's name and dress, but what did she write? Why was she special? Hell if I knew, until I read "The Dream Lover" by Elizabeth Berg, a novel based on the life of George Sand. And then I realized that she was Taylor Swift of 19th Century France, the public more concerned then (and now) with her cigar smoking and multiple lovers than her 85 novels, 35 plays, and bounty of nonfiction.
The more I read, the more astonished I was at her accomplishments and the more frustrated I became that this literary figure is so forgotten today. Do we really need to wait for Hollywood to bring Sand to cinematic life so that bookstores can dust off her bestselling novels like "Indiana" and "Leila" and bring them to our attention? And why is it that the world is familiar with all of her male friends and contemporaries - Gustave Flaubert, Victor Hugo, Prosper Merimee, Honore de Balzac, Ivan Turganev - when she outsold all of them as the first bestselling female author in France?
Professionally, George Sand had a huge impact on the literary scene, but she was also politically active, the only woman on the staff of the Figaro, and she later started her own newspaper. An activist for women's rights, she herself left a loveless marriage when it was unacceptable to do so, obtained a legal separation and regained control of her family fortune and estate, earned her own legitimate income, and redefined motherhood and sexuality in accordance with what she felt to be true and right. George Sand was a modern woman in every sense, meaning she knew herself and did what she wanted. In other words, these actions were - and still are - considered masculine.
But as Berg notes, "what was unusual about Sand was the way her male and female qualities lived side by side." She placed tremendous importance on her role as mother to her two children, found great joy in domesticity, and acknowledged that "there is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved."
If BMW wanted the original poster child for their #DefyLabels campaign, they could have looked no further than Sand, the cross-dressing, bestselling, unconventional, divorced writer, who wanted nothing more conventional than the love of a man and to be a good mother.
Examining unconventional women today, they are still in masculine-defined, tightly-fitting roles that cinch them in just as corsets did 150 years ago. Roles of power and ambition leave no room for the full breadth of a person, but mainly the full breadth of a person's feminine side. Take the most publicized woman in the world, Hillary Clinton. If she shows emotion, advocates for peace over force, or gets sick, she is considered weak. The same goes for any woman in a position of power - from CEOs to office managers to mothers of small children - and the same goes for men too. The difference, however, is that men are held to a different standard. As Belinda Jack said in The New York Times, "Her literary production is vast. Honoré de Balzac was deemed phenomenally productive: Sand was mocked for her output. There was an implication that such a stream of works was unfeminine in its proportions."
This book made me reflect on the contractions that lie within each of us - and the normalcy of it. Can I be a writer and a mother? Of course I can. Is it possible to lean in and to lean out? Absolutely. At the end of her book, Berg offers terrific insight, "George Sand's struggle to become and stay herself, in all her permutations, was of paramount importance, and that idea is still relevant today, whether you're a man or a woman."
A young girl walked past me the other day, her shirt read "Be Your Own Hero."
I love it. It reminded me of George Sand, with permutations for today like "Be your own hero, but AAA will always be there for you," and of course, "Be your own hero, but take-out can be your hero too."
Be your own hero, y'all, in all your vast variations and evolutions.