Sometime in the 1850’s, Frédéric Chopin was beginning to make a name for himself in the salons of Paris. Aside from his obvious musical genius, the young man had garnered a reputation for exquisite, almost excessive politesse and gentility, gracious to a fault. He was much in demand. By all accounts ‘fragile, delicate, reserved, somewhat languid’, Chopin was nevertheless frequenting similar circles to a woman he ‘dreaded above all others’, Aurore Dupin, otherwise known as George Sand. Having already ‘conquered’ Franz Liszt, among other luminaries of the nineteenth century, she had written to Liszt that she ‘idolized’ Chopin and was desperate to make his acquaintance. They would shortly be lovers.
To see George Sand as some kind of predatory monster, as many have done, is, surely to fall prey to the misogynist clichés she herself was railing against. In fact this woman, a hero to women of the day, was unstoppable: fierce, proud, alive, celebrated as much for her reputation as one of the greatest contemporary novelists in France as she was vilified for her uncompromising stance on gender and sexuality. Her conquests were legendary, and though Chopin’s friend the Marquis de Custine lamented that ‘the poor creature does not see that she has the love of a vampire’, Chopin fell, perhaps inevitably, under her spell.
Like the great Colette who was to follow her, George Sand forged her own path in society and remains a fascinating figure of the period. Les Parfums Historiques, a limited edition line from Maître Parfumeur et Gantier, have done something very interesting with their perfume – a celebrity perfume if you like, but for someone long gone; an attempt to recreate, somehow, the ‘essence’ of George Sand in a perfume. The result in my opinion is extremely good, having subtleties and complexities not easily found in a modern release. It is open yet enigmatic, erotic yet refined, a perfume that takes a while to reveal its secrets.
George Sand’s most controversial aspect was perhaps her desire to be unshackled of gender (‘the mind has no sex’), dressing as a man whenever fancy took her, and taking female lovers. She was determined not, at any cost, to be deprived of experiences in society merely because she was a woman. Balzac writes of ‘coming across her in her dressing room, smoking a cigar by her fireside after dinner. She had on some pretty yellow slippers, ornamented with fringe, some fancy stockings, and red trousers.’ (This was, at the time, literally illegal).
Though she was practically accused of having brought about the early demise of Chopin – ‘I was said to have worn him out with my violent sensuality’- the passion, at least for a time, was surely mutual. The weaker the consumptive composer got, the stronger Sand: she made it her mission therefore to restore him to health, with ill advised trips to southern Europe, and (more congenial to Chopin) lengthy stays at her idyllic country retreat, Nohant, where he is fact said to have produced some of his best work. Perhaps their diametrically opposed personalities were in fact more compatible than has been supposed.
The ‘housebound genius’ would be happily esconced in an apartment off her bedroom, ‘cheerfully decorated with red and blue Chinese wallpaper’, where he could work on his compositions. Some of this orientalist warmth, an elegant drawing room quality, has found its way into the perfume, as well as some of the writer’s exotic dandyism. Sand wore a pendant around her neck containing a particular patchouli she had acquired in Venice and ‘couldn’t live without’: this dark, earthy note then forms the basis of George Sand the perfume: a rich, but very elegant patchouli encased within a warm, spiced, resinous heart that bears a cursory resemblance to orientals such as Opium, through refracted through a more sober, aristocratic lens.
While Chopin was at work on his valses and polonaises, Sand loved to go out into her garden, where she grew herbs and her favourite flowers, roses and lavender. These essences are thus used as an interesting counterpoint to the more sensual notes of the base, with an added invigorating accord of bergamot and orange in the top notes. The scent thus maintains an interesting tension between poise and abandonment, light and dark, vigour and restraint – all qualities that come through in accounts of the woman.
What drew me to this scent, besides its delightful bottle, was its enigmatic, bisexual aspect, endowed as it is with both ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ ingredients (all of good quality), combining to form a perfume that is unique and outside the mainstream of current fads. It is perfectly suited to a woman or a man and highly recommended.