Before reading Elizabeth’s Berg’s The Dream Lover, I must admit that my knowledge and appreciation of the 19th century writer and feminist Aurore Dupin, better known as George Sand, was extraordinarily limited. I knew she had a longstanding love affair with one of my favorite composers, Frederic Chopin, and that she was known for wearing men’s clothing, and that was about it.
The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg captures the life of George Sand’s long and prodigious life in a mere 350 pages, illuminating not just her life but also the lives of many Parisian artists she befriends. The historical fiction unfolds in the first person perspective like a memoir and is interestingly structured as a dual narrative starting in 1831 when Aurore Dupin leaves her loveless marriage and her family estate in the French countryside to pursue a new identity in Paris. There, she sheds her name and female clothing to start life afresh as George Sand. Given marriage laws in the 19th century, Aurore leaves behind more than her husband and inheritance, but also her two children – Maurice and Solange. The second narrative begins in 1804 with Aurore’s birth to an unlikely pair of lovers. Her father, Maurice Dupin, was an aristocrat with blood ties to Polish royalty, while her mother, Sophie Delaborde, was a courtesan. They met while he was serving in the French army and soon became lovers.
The book toggles back and forth between Aurore’s lonely childhood and George’s scandalous adulthood. As a young girl, she loses her baby brother to illness and soon after her beloved father in an accident. Then because her aristocratic grandmother elects to raise Aurore, she loses daily contact with her mother, whom moves to Paris. As an adult, George Sand becomes the first female bestselling author in Paris, but she doesn’t feel like much of a success. Instead she moves from one passionate romantic encounter to another without finding what she desperately desires.
Sand once wrote, “There is only one happiness in life, to love and be loved,” and it is this idea that ties the two narratives together. George Sand is disappointment in her love affairs to an assortment of French artists: the writer, Jules Sandeau; the poet and dramatist, Alfred de Musset; the actress, Marie Dorval; and the composer, Frederic Chopin. Always in the foreground of the childhood narrative are Aurore’s feelings of yearning to feel loved and wanted by the two cold and distant women in her life – her mother and grandmother. Always in the background of the adult narrative is her mixed maternal feelings for Maurice and Solange. Her relationship with Solange is especially strained. Solange is a temperamental and strong willed girl and then woman, who craves her mother’s attention and affection in much the same way as young Aurore, but George doesn’t seem to see this even when it is pointed out.
I did have a difficult time connecting with the character of Aurore/George. Early in the book her mother calls her selfish, and I admit that I agreed with her assessment, but by the middle of the book, I did feel some sympathy for this unapologetically independent woman who carved out an artistic and personal life in time that didn’t conform to her progressive ideas or values. George Sand valued equality between the sexes. Midway through the book, George’s friend asks her if she wished she’d been born a man, and George replies, “I don’t wish to be either a man or woman. I wish to be myself.”
Another thread in the book is George’s enviable success as a writer. It is perhaps her truest love, and she says that “Writing could lift me out of my surroundings entirely and into a rarefied place of peace, one that was not subject to weather in another’s soul.” Sand is depicted as a disciplined and dedicated writer who kept to a strict schedule for most of her writerly life to setting to work once the house settled for the night and easily writing twenty pages of prose before the birds roused the house by morning. Over the course of her career, she wrote more than eighty novels and thirty five plays.
The Dream Lover by Elizabeth Berg is ultimately about pursuing a dream that never becomes reality. In the book, George’s dear friend Marie Duval tells her, “You cannot ask for something that is not possible, then regret the fact – even punish yourself for the fact – that you cannot have it. We live not to have, George. What we want is not the object of our desire but desire itself.” George disagrees; she is no realist when it comes to passion and love; and what she seeks remains elusive. Despite my mixed review of the book, I am glad to know more about about this passionate, complicated, contradictory, non-conformist who refused to be anything other than herself.
“To anyone who observes my life superficially, I must seem either a fool or a hypocrite. But whoever looks below the surface must see me as I really am — very impressionable, carried away by my love of beauty, hungry for truth, faulty in judgement, often absurd, and always sincere.”
— George Sand, in a letter to a friend