Magazine article The Spectator

Purple Pants and Even Purpler Prose

Magazine article The Spectator

Purple Pants and Even Purpler Prose

Article excerpt


Chatto, 20, pp. 412

Here is a book which may unwittingly mark a new retrograde trend in the writing of biography. Ever since Lytton Strachey's Eminent Victorians, we have become accustomed to discovering that behind their public achievements our noblest heroes and heroines were privately corrupt, egotistical, sex-crazed and - that favourite pseudoFreudian cliche - a tangle of psychological contradictions. Now the tide turns: Belinda Jack proves that far from being 'a cigarsmoking, man-eating, transvestite, lesbian nymphomaniac', George Sand was in fact a high-minded, crashing bore.

Actually, I doubt whether this was precisely Miss Jack's intention, but it is certainly the effect of her flat-footed prose

- for example: `I-Her sense of fusedness involved a temporal complexity which, in its turn, was bound up with the notion of history, - and excessively reverential attitude to her subject. No cheap Stracheyan jibes here, but none of his subtle and elegant scepticism and little of his talent for vivid sketching of scene or personality either.

To be fair, there is something profoundly convincing about the drabness in Miss Jack's portrait: George Sand, nee Aurore Dupin in 1804, clearly wasn't as much fun as her louche image suggests, for all her phenomenal energy and celebrated acquaintances. She took herself very seriously - Simone de Beauvoir would be her 20th-century spiritual sister, I fear. Reared and absorbed in the Rousseauan tradition of Sentimentalism, she exalted emotion above morality and reason, before graduating to romantic Saint-Simonian socialism. There was nothing wanton or flighty about her: the trouser-wearing, tobacco-craving, sleeping-around side of her personality does not evince a bohemian rebel or even an irritating eccentric so much as someone philosophically determined to act on impulse without regard to class, gender or phoney decorum. At the core of her ethics was a belief that what you honestly feel is by definition right and `what remains eternal is the sense of beauty in a good heart'.

George Sand's family background is fascinating, though Miss Jack expends too much space explaining it. Her soldier father died when she was young, her mother may have had some sort of past as a prostitute, and much of her childhood was spent with a dominating grandmother in the pleasant mansion in Nohant which remained her home for most of her life. …

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