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Authors' Spotlight: Q&A with Séverine Vidal and Kim Consigny, Author and Illustrator of George Sand: True Genius, True Woman

23 May 2024

Today marks the UK release of George Sand: True Genius, True Woman, the graphic biography of the 19th-century literary pioneer and social revolutionary George Sand (a.k.a. Aurore Dupin).

So, here we've asked some questions to Séverine Vidal (author) and Kim Consigny (illustrator) about what brought them together on this project, the research and collaboration involved, and what the real-life legend known as George Sand means to them.

Kim Consigny was born in 1991 in the south of France, and qualified as an architect there in 2015, but has increasingly devoted herself since to a full-time celebrated career in illustration, including a long-standing collaboration with Séverine Vidal.

Séverine Vidal was born in 1969. She lives in Gironde in the South of France, and has worked as a full-time writer for over ten years. A prizewinning author of Children’s and Young Adult fiction, her debut online work, A Tale Off the Top of My Head, illustrated by Claire Fauchet (2012), was described as an “outstanding” work of “poetic writing”.

SelfMadeHero: To start at the beginning, the life story of a literary and political pioneer like George Sand / Aurore Dupin speaks for itself, but what inspired you to tell it specifically as a graphic novel?

Kim Consigny: I had already worked with Séverine when she told me she wanted to adapt George Sand’s life as a graphic novel. I was immediately hooked – I wanted to be involved as soon as she mentioned it! I asked her if she already had someone, and she didn’t, so we decided to go for it. I hardly knew anything about George Sand, but she already was a figure that I thought was strong and inspiring, and I knew it would be a wonderful project.

Séverine Vidal: In the summer of 2019, a friend of my son gave me a biography of G. Sand by Joseph Barry. I ‘swallowed’ it in two days – fascinated. I knew immediately that I wanted to make a comic book biography for her. What a woman!

SMH: Sand was endlessly controversial in life, as this book demonstrates so well, which sadly came to dominate her posthumous public image despite the memoirs she herself published. Were there any challenges involved in deciding how to narratively balance these controversies (interpersonal or otherwise) while also recentering Sand within her own story?

Kim: The controversies had to be a part of the book, because they were a part of her life. The idea was to show a balance, to try to show the full personality of an incredible woman who didn’t want to be reduced to a scandal, but still wanted to live her life as she felt.

Séverine: That's true. Scandal is part of her life. But these controversies are directly linked to her commitment to defending women's rights (her separation from her husband Camille Dudevent, for example, her firm stance on her work, her desire to be published and to make a living from her writing despite strong reactions from her male colleagues), or to defending the rights of the people. She was committed. Despite her aristocratic origins (half of them), she always took the side of the people, which also earned her mockery (and even harsh criticism). So I think these were controversies that Sand herself took on board.
What she took less responsibility for were her love affairs – free, independent. In her autobiography, none of this is mentioned. We read about her love affair with Musset between the lines, in the ellipses. Nothing is said.
I tried to show that, all her life, she fought against prejudice, against the straitjacket imposed by the 'stiff' patriarchy of the 19th century. But I've also told the story of what she tried to hide. This could be seen as a form of betrayal, but I see it more as a desire on my part to show 'my' George Sand. The one who fights, takes on challenges, assumes herself. Never shying away from anything. She chose life.

SMH: When it came to researching gender relations and dynamics in Sand’s own time, was there anything that you were surprised to learn? Are there lasting traces of her impact on French discussions of gender that people living elsewhere might not be fully aware of?

Kim: In France she is well known for dressing up like a man. Actually, she still is very modern in the way she lived her life. What impressed me most was the fact that she was able to live from her work, and help others create as well because she was such a hard worker. Chopin for instance wouldn’t have been able to create as much as he did if it weren’t for George. THIS is quite impressive, because it’s so hard to achieve even now (she acted sometimes like a sort of sponsor), and it’s usually something men are more able to do (because they had the money and influence, which is also still more common today). This is perhaps not the most visible thing about her and her gender, but it’s the most striking to me.

Séverine: In France, George Sand remains "the wife of", "the muse of"... Chopin, Musset... It's so simplistic. She is studied very little, if at all, in class. She is often reduced to a few clichés: Sand in trousers, cigarette in mouth, imposing herself in the literary world with this male pseudonym. That's what I wanted to do with this book: show what an artist, writer and campaigner for women's rights she was. I also wrote a novel for teenagers, George Sand l'indomptée (Rageot), to make her less invisible to young people.
In fact, George (we feel so familiar with her that we used to call her Jojo between us, with Kim and our French editor, as if we'd become friends with her) surprised me all the time during our research work. I discovered what she had managed to do, to build, as a woman in the 19th century, at a time when the Civil Code gave women the same civil rights as minors, the intellectually disabled, and criminals! She worked, was successful, owned an estate (Nohant), separated from her husband, won custody of her children, and was a militant, always on the side of the people, during the revolutions of the 19th century.

SMH: This book makes much of fantasies and dreams and nightmares – both those imagined or endured by Sand and by those she knew. What drew you to that element of the story? Did representing those immaterial things pose a different kind of artistic challenge?

Kim: She was an artist and a writer, and we really needed to show her imagination. I had to find a way of showing it without drawing the reader out of the story. It is also something to do with the era, the Romantic century. We had to make that palpable.

Séverine: The challenge of this adaptation was to make the often epistolary exchanges more readable (a succession of letters sent and received is impossible in comics!). We had to find graphic ways of telling the story by inventing encounters, scenes, and dialogue based on the letters that didn't take place in real life. Or, we show Sand in the act of writing or saying her letters aloud to vary the narrative. By plunging into her imagination and daydreams and nocturnal reveries, I wanted to show the richness of her inner world. Even as a child, she was already inventing worlds for herself, a philosophy, a god... she mixed her games with poetry, theatre... That fascinating Aurore.

SMH: Did any specific aspects of Sand’s works lend further inspiration as to portraying Sand herself – narratively, visually? Were you admirers of her writing before collaborating on this book?

I had actually never read anything of George Sand beforehand! I started just when we decided to work on the book. I especially loved her letters, because they feel so much closer to her. They are perhaps what inspired me the most.

Séverine: All I knew of George Sand were the clichés I mentioned before, so, very little… We studied La Mare au diable in class, just a few extracts. What touched me the most when I did discover the committed artist, I think, was her way of both living life to the fullest and also living like a tightrope walker: her life as a woman in love, her life as a writer, her life as a political activist. She touches me in the way she loves and shares.
On the other hand, I don't know if she was a good mother to her daughter Solange. Maurice was luckier... I think this quote from Sand that I've hung in the bathroom at home represents her well: "The mind seeks but it is the heart that finds".

SMH: Can you share anything about your respective creative processes for this book? Did you develop a particular process or system for your collaboration? Was it an entirely digital creative process?

Kim: Séverine sent me the script and I started working on the storyboard, which is smaller than the final pages. I like to draw a lot at that stage to save time later. It’s also the moment when I look for visual references: period-appropriate paintings, drawings, furniture, dresses... I consulted books, the internet of course, and I watched movies. It was quite a long process... When everything was validated, I started working on the final pages. It’s black ink on paper (I never work digitally for a graphic novel). But the very first thing we did was actually meeting in the Berry region to visit George Sand’s house!

Séverine: So, as Kim tells it, the two of us got to know each other through other projects in children's publishing. We also visited Nohant together (with my mother!). I first spent about eight months doing the research (radio programmes, film, reading biographies, correspondence, novels and plays by Sand...). I also renewed my historical knowledge about the 19th century, whose political issues are so complicated to understand.
I wrote the script and sent the cut-out plates to Kim in packs of ten or twenty plates, once they had been approved by our French publisher.
As the book shows, I chose a simple, chronological narrative. I didn't want a complex, elaborate set-up that would have obliterated George Sand. Her life is enough.
Then, for each period of Aurore’s life, I went back to my pages of notes, my notebooks, my photos taken in Nohant and I listened to what she had to say. It was a continuous dialogue with her, as if we were sharing a good meal in her kitchen.

A picture of Nohant, Sand's estate, taken during Consigny and Vidal's visit.

SMH: Finally, has crafting this particular piece of graphic non-fiction about this particularly significant woman lent any new perspective on your own creative roles today?

Kim: Haha! I wish I was as talented and successful as she was. George Sand became a sort of role model to me; she managed to be an artist as well as an activist, and she was so vivacious. She didn’t forget to live fully while creating and working for the people. How did she manage it all?!

Séverine: I think it was partly because of this work that I began to deconstruct a number of patriarchal reflexes and habits. My work has included other projects about strong female figures that are both biographical (Naduah, Colette, Lou Andreas-Salomé, Martha Gellhorn...) and fictional. Now I’m currently working on a large comic book project on the history of feminist struggles in France (from 1789 to the present day).
Naturally, I’m a strong advocate for women’s rights; I put more and more sorority in my life, my exchanges, my choices.

Kim & Séverine: Since the release of George Sand, we have been working together on another biography: that of the writer and music-hall artist, Colette.

Sketches of George Sand at various ages.
Sketches of Alfred de Musset

George Sand is out now in the UK, and pre-orders are open for the North American release on July 16th!