GOOD FICTION must transport the reader into an imaginative universe and cast its spell regardless of whether the subject is fictional or a fictional rendering of an actual person. Elizabeth Berg understands this well; her voluptuous new novel, The Dream Lover, deftly illuminates the interior life of French Romantic writer George Sand, laying bare the complex passions and contradictions of a woman who adopted one of the most unconventional lives of the 19th century.
Since her debut in 1993, Berg has penned 24 novels. I was enchanted by her first, Durable Goods, a coming-of-age novel about a young army brat who loses her mother to cancer and must come to terms with an abusive father. Her books, frequently bestsellers, focus on women struggling — with divorce, widowhood, illness, and raising children. In Talk Before Sleep, a novel I digested in one sitting, she writes movingly about the friendship between two women, one of whom is dying of cancer. The Dream Lover is Berg’s first historical novel.
While finely researched, this compact novel does not set out to tell the entire story of George Sand’s life, nor does it delve deeply into her fiction. Instead it wisely focuses on the sacrifices — personal, financial, and familial — of a female artist who risked everything in order to become a writer and find her place in a virtually all-male pantheon. As a novelist herself, Berg is more interested in what sparked Sand’s ambition and fortitude than she is in writing a full and nuanced portrait of Sand, and hence a more conventional historical novel. It is this focus that gives The Dream Lover its energy and propulsion.
Born Aurore Dupin, raised largely on an estate in the center of France, Sand marries Casimir Dudevant dutifully at 18 and promptly gives her husband first a boy, Maurice, and then a girl, Solange. Her marriage quickly becomes unfulfilling and stifling. Aurore soon seeks consolation first in a platonic friendship with a young magistrate and then in a passionate liaison with a neighbor. Berg chooses to give us Aurore from a close first-person voice, and in doing so, the novel reads almost like a memoir or a diary where we are privy to the private thoughts, desires, and torments of its protagonist. And through the prism of this heroine, a writer with necessarily progressive ideas whose relationships scandalize her contemporaries, Berg brings a host of other characters to life as well.
At the novel’s opening Aurore has left her husband to embark upon a bohemian life in Paris and to pursue her dream of becoming a writer. The narrative moves back and forth between Paris and Aurore’s childhood, from her birth in 1804 to an aristocratic father and a flamboyant courtesan mother, through her childhood, eventual marriage, and first affair. Aurore’s father dies months after Aurore loses her younger brother, and the girl is sent to live with her paternal grandmother, a woman who demonizes Aurore’s mother for her inferior social position. Berg takes the reader through the struggles of Aurore’s childhood — she goes from an emotionally distant mother, to an unyielding grandmother, to years spent in a convent contemplating a life dedicated to God — to demonstrate how shame, grief, and faith shaped the adult Sand’s interior world. Aurore’s first affair is with Aurélien de Sèze, a young aristocrat whom the young woman feels is a “true soul mate.” Her intense attraction to Aurélien sets the stage for her lifelong search for erotic companionship. “The first betrayal is the hardest,” writes Berg.
It is also the one that helps facilitate the second, and the one after that, and the one after that. And so it goes, until it is seemingly effortless to transfer from one set of arms into the other. […] [I]t is the most arduous and soul-wrenching thing one can do, to search endlessly for a way to stop searching.
Readers of The Dream Lover come to understand, in fact, that Aurore’s perpetual search is really an examination of her own passion, her own sensibility.
Once in Paris, Aurore publishes her first novel, Indiana, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, examines the social conventions that bind a woman to her husband. In the meantime, the new author embarks upon numerous affairs, where she seeks not so much the love of a man but power and independence. When Le Figaro hires her to review theater, she famously dresses as a man so she can secure the cheapest tickets — in the front where there are no seats and no women allowed. Wearing men’s clothes, she finds a new power within.
I experienced an elevation in society, simply because I was thought to be of the opposite sex. The favors I was given as a matter of course! I was lent a kind of gravitas, given respect and inclusion that I had theretofore not experienced. This brought with it a new way of seeing and feeling, and the feeling was […] I felt it between my legs, that power, that confidence, that sense of entitlement; and I liked it.
The most fascinating aspects of The Dream Lover involve witnessing Aurore embody this dominant, powerful stance, not only in her relationships with her lovers, but also as she protects and creates a sanctuary for her writing life. Freedom for a writer involves the emotional space needed to create art, and Aurore finds a novel way to acquire it. She is able to create an independent life only by shunning the rules and morals of the society in which she came of age. Most movingly, Berg shows Aurore wrestling not only with her ambitions as a writer, but also with her responsibilities as a mother, as she seeks during pivotal moments in her life and in the lives of her children to reclaim their love and respect.
The most affecting and erotic relationship in the novel, and there are many (involving Frédéric Chopin, Alfred de Musset, and Franz Liszt, as well as friendships with Balzac and Flaubert), is Berg’s portrayal of her bond with the famous and beautiful Parisian actress Marie Dorval, who “catapulted” into Aurore’s life:
“It’s me; here I am!” she cried, rushing to embrace me. In a brilliant shift all the world became a vessel for her support; all but Marie and her golden curls and her narrow waist and her remarkable lightness in movement dropped away. That throaty voice! Here it was at my table, and those blue eyes, now directed only at me!
It is this fiery love affair, with a woman very different from herself, that sustains Aurore, and gives her the courage to experience the depths of her desire and sexuality. Though her relationships with Musset and Chopin and other male lovers are intellectually rich, Aurore, dominant in her own right, has trouble sustaining them. Berg implies that perhaps Aurore’s own gifts and ambitions as a writer proved emasculating to her male lovers. Nevertheless, in her fiction, Sand made great use of her closeness to these men and their complex personalities, desires, and emotional lives. As her lawyer reminds her:
You will never be satisfied with the love of an individual; that kind of love will only disappoint. Turn your gaze outward, away from yourself, and toward a noble goal. It is that kind of purpose that brings lasting content, that speaks to the truest desires of the heart and the needs of the soul.
Should a novel based on a historical figure offer a window into the subject herself, or remain true to the imaginative universe the author has created? The Dream Lover succeeds at both. Though at times the language skids toward the sentimental and the overwrought, perhaps in an attempt to capture the Romantic spirit of the era Aurore embodied, The Dream Lover, elegantly told and passionately conceived, gives us a glimpse into the interior life of an ambitious intelligence that in spite of many obstacles was a force that could not be restrained. Aurore triumphs over loss, scandal, prejudice, failure, and ridicule. Once she is fully established and confident as a writer, she resumes relationships with her two children, as if realizing too that a life of art alone is in itself a prison.
Aurore’s daughter Solange particularly resents her mother’s career overtaking her role as a parent. She acts out by agreeing to marry her first suitor, a man her mother finds “pleasant but nothing more.” In time, Aurore wins back her daughter’s trust by striving to adopt a mother’s selflessness, and then, finally, by inviting the sculptor Auguste Clésinger to sculpt Solange, when she senses his attraction to her daughter. Solange and Clésinger eventually fall in love and marry.
Berg’s depiction of Aurore’s devotion to her children, especially in adulthood, shows her deep capacity for love and generosity. Perhaps the greatest contribution The Dream Lover makes to the life of George Sand is that Berg shows Sand to be a complex, driven woman who fought for the right to be guided by her own truths and ideals, not so much the ruthless, selfish lover she has often been understood to be.
Jill Bialosky is the author of three novels, the most recent, The Prize, forthcoming from Counterpoint in September 2015; four collections of poetry, including her most recent, The Players; and a NYT bestselling memoir, History of a Suicide: My Sister’s Unfinished Life. She lives in New York City.