When novelist Elizabeth Berg came upon a few choice facts about the 19th-century French writer Aurore Dupin — who smoked cigars, often wore men’s clothing and worked under the pen name George Sand — she hungered for more details.
Berg searched for a novel to read about Sand to help her gain an artistic appreciation of the writer, who penned more than 80 novels and plays during a 40-year literary career that began in the early 1830s.
“There were no novels, so I had to write one,” said Berg, who spoke at the Nov. 5 meeting of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society, kicking off the group’s 2015-2016 season. The result of her efforts is “The Dream Lover,” a novelized, first-person account of Sand’s life, published in 2015 by Random House.
Berg steeped herself in knowledge about the period of her novel, which is set in Paris, at Sand’s inherited country estate, Nohant, and in Italy. She read biographies, many of Sand’s novels, as well as books on the history and fashions of the times. She also read letters between Sand and some of her famous friends, such as Gustave Flaubert, author of “Madame Bovary.”
Most of the story is true to life, said Berg, although she did imagine some key scenes and also invented both dialogue and the thoughts of her main character.
“She had such an extraordinary life, there was very little reason to gild the lily,” said Berg, the author of some 25 books, including the novels “Open House,” “Talk Before Sleep,” and “Durable Goods.”
The book details Sand’s childhood, and the critical decision she made at age 27 to leave an unhappy marriage and move to Paris, where she launched her literary career.
“We rolled slowly through the gates of the estate, and then the driver turned the carriage onto the main road, which made a clicking sound, and the horses began a rapid trot. When we passed the cemetery that lay directly to our right, I looked over the graves of my father and my grandmother. I thought about the ways in which one is shaped, starting from birth and even before, into the person one becomes. One cannot stand isolated from those who came before him, and fate decrees that there are many other things over which one has no control. Yet if one has courage and resolve, there are ways to make changes in one’s life,” Sand muses as she departs from Nohant, in an excerpt from “The Dream Lover.”
Sand takes a job reviewing plays for a literary magazine, and is told by her editor that she must buy her own tickets for the performances. The editor said women were allowed to sit only in expensive box seats, but men could stand or sit in cheaper parts of the theater, and that if she dressed in men’s clothing she could save money. Later, Sand embraced her male persona, enjoying what she perceived as more respectful treatment.
In the novel, Berg addresses the feminist issues confronted by her chief protagonist, who chafed at the laws and customs of the day that were discriminatory against women. For example, although Sand inherited her grandmother’s estate, her estranged husband retained fiscal control of the property even after the couple’s separation. Also, a man could divorce a woman for infidelity, while a woman had no such legal right.
Despite the trials and tribulations that Sand experienced in her quest for love, she did not give up on the deep-seated desire to meet and fall in love with her soul mate.
“She prized the ideal of marriage and family life, but she didn’t see the ideal playing out, she saw a lot of inequities playing out,” Berg said.
“She was a product of the age of Romanticism. She was in love with being in love.”
The novel chronicles Sand’s romances and friendships with many prominent male and female artistic figures, from writers such as Balzac and Alfred de Musset, to the pianist and composer Frederic Chopin, to the famous actress Marie Dorval.
Through her reading, Berg believes that Dorval was the great love of Sand’s life. But the two never established a permanent relationship, and Dorval died, broke and nearly forgotten, at 51. Sand died at age 71 at Nohant, in 1876.
Berg, who lives in Chicago, is on a speaking tour organized by Northern Trust, which is also the sponsor of the Rancho Santa Fe Literary Society.
“I think it’s amazing, that in a world where we keep talking about the demise of books and reading, that this kind of thing exists,” said Berg.
She is also a fan of book clubs, and is thrilled when a club chooses one of her novels to read. Even when people disagree over an interpretation of a scene or theme in a book, Berg said, they benefit by hearing and acknowledging a point of view different from their own.
“More book clubs equals world peace, if you ask me,” she said.