It’s difficult not to look back on the past as a black-and-white photograph: staid, colorless, and more conservative than our own time. “Each generation thinks it invented sex: each generation is totally mistaken,” author Robert Heinlein once famously wrote—and of course, he’s right. It’s difficult to picture bygone eras getting down and dirty at all, let alone through our modern lens of sexuality.
Which is why there’s something very titillating about reading a novel that imagines historical figures as real people. And it’s even more titillating when those figures led lives that would make Hugh Hefner blush. This is especially true for Elizabeth Berg’s upcoming new novel, The Dream Lover (Random House, 2015) which fictionalizes the life of 19th-century author George Sand.
Of course, George Sand never really existed. The name was merely a pseudonym for Aurore Dupin, born Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin, in 1804. She married young, but legally left her husband to pursue her own passions. The Parisian novelist eventually became famous not just for her books, but for her affairs and friendships with some of the greatest artists of all time, including Frederic Chopin and Gustave Flaubert.
The Dream Lover, released on April 14, follows Aurore as she’s leaving her husband and starting her life over in Paris. George Sand becomes not just a pseudonym for her writing, but also a metaphor for her new life: one filled with art, passion, and unconventionality. Along the way she garners fame and attention, creating relationships with authors, artists and activists.
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Aurore’s lovers aren’t the heart of the book, though they certainly are intriguing. Not only did she experiment with artists like Chopin, she had affairs with women, too, including actress Marie Dorval. But it’s not always easy to live a scandalous life and Berg perfectly captures the struggles and heartbreak that Aurore faces.
Berg’s romanticized interpretation of a real historical figure joins a long list of fictionalized biographies. It’s a genre that often gets clumped in with historical novels, but really should stand on its own. These are not just books set in the past; they use the medium of fiction to create meaning out of real timelines, facts and relationships. And they’re also wildly popular. Remember the craze around Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl, which told the story of Anne’s sister Mary Boleyn? Or The Painted Girls, by Cathy Marie Buchanan, which explored what life must have been like for the young ballerinas painted by Degas? Both were bestsellers; it seems only a matter of time before The Dream Lover joins their ranks.
On her website, Berg mentions that there has never before been a novel written about Aurore Dupin. “I prefer reading novels to biographies,” Berg writes, “because fiction allows for a more colorful presentation of a character; it allows scenes and dialogue and speculation about motivation.” This is at the heart of what makes fictionalized biographies so compelling: we are able to wonder and imagine what real, historical figures were like in their everyday lives. We can take their world out of black-and-white and into the colorful present. And if the subject just happens to be a little scandalous…well, we’re not complaining.