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George Sand: The Writer as Reader in Histoire de ma vie

From: Women in French Studies
Special Issue, 2012
pp. 108-119 | 10.1353/wfs.2012.0031

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Before considering how George Sand portrays herself as a reader in Histoire de ma vie, it is helpful to remind ourselves of the extent to which not only writing but reading were “exceptional” activities for girls born in the first years of the nineteenth century. It is estimated that in 1820, when Aurore Dupin was sixteen years old, only about four percent of published writers were women, although this represented a doubling of the percentage of female authors since 1789 (Hesse 38). Female literacy rates lagged behind those of men throughout the nineteenth century.1 Moreover, literate women and girls had to be protected against “dangerous” books and their choices closely monitored. As Bénédicte Monicat indicates, once a woman ventures outside of didactic literature, “Le personnage de la lectrice devient alors un sujet constant de réflexion et de représentation, et la question des lectures à lui recommander . . . prend des dimensions importantes” (20). Women’s public access to books was also restricted in comparison to that of their male counterparts. When not excluded from cabinets de lecture and libraries (as they were in Lyon in 1863, Lorient in 1871, Angers in 1878, and from the first municipal library in Paris in 1865), women were often segregated for their moral and physical protection.2 Although George Sand does not explicitly present herself as a female reader in Histoire de ma vie (any more than she presents herself as a female author), the context in which reading was an “exceptional” activity for a woman should be kept in mind in the following discussion of how George Sand portrayed her venue à la lecture, her attitude towards appropriate texts for children, the books that influenced her early intellectual development, and, finally, how her experiences are reflected in her relationship with the readers of her autobiography.

As Rosemary Lloyd has noted, “The experience of reading . . . and the intellectual discovery of the connection between sign and sound, is one of the experiences of childhood most frequently evoked in nineteenth-century texts . . .” (171).3 For Lloyd, this topos “becomes metonymical for the interpretation of life and the world more generally, suggesting . . . the child’s decoding of the semiotics of existence . . .” (171). Paradoxically, however, few works actually reconstruct the moment “when the child discovers the connection between the black marks on the white page and the words of the spoken language with which it is already familiar” (174).4 In this regard, Sand reveals herself once again to be an exception. Even though she states that neither she nor her cousin Clotilde retained “aucun souvenir du plus ou moins de peine que nous eûmes pour apprendre à lire,” the description she provides of learning to read and write in Histoire de ma vie is unusually detailed (OA I 536). Moreover, her achievement of literacy was precocious and closely associated with the mother and other feminine figures.

Sand informs us that “à quatre ans je savais très bien lire . . . (OA I 531).5 She and Clotilde, the daughter of her maternel aunt and godmother Lucie, were taught to read by “nos deux mères alternativement” (OA I 531). A typical pedagogical approach at the time would have been to work linearly through the alphabet, learning first the shapes of the letters, then syllables, and finally words (Lyons, “New Readers” 330). The two sisters apparently had little difficulty in teaching their daughters to read, with the exception of young Aurore’s obstinate refusal to include the letter “b” in her recital of the alphabet.6 The role that the mother’s voice played in her initiation to literature was crucial. Sand tells how “l’amour du roman s’empara de moi passionnément avant que j’eusse fini d’apprendre à lire” by listening to her mother’s stories (OA I 541). She recalls: “Je ne comprenais pas encore la lecture des contes de fées, les mots imprimés, même dans le style le plus élémentaire, ne m’offraient pas grand sens, et c’est par le récit que j’arrivais à comprendre ce qu’on m’avait fait lire” (OA I 541). Her imagination stirred by these stories, young Aurore created aloud her own “romans...



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