George Sand (1804-1876) was an influential (female) French writer and feminist, though I have no idea whether she was widely read in English before the C20th (Wiki says The Devil’s Pool was first translated in 1847). I wrote about Sand previously as the subject of Elizabeth Berg’s fictionalized ‘autobiography’, The Dream Lover, and have long had the intention of reading some of her work.
Sand grew up on, and became the owner of, her grandmother’s estate at Nohant in central France (Wiki). Since 1952 the house and gardens have been a museum. The Devil’s Pool (1846) was written relatively late in Sand’s career and refers back to the time of her childhood on the estate, a time which she regards as before modernization, particularly of course before rail made cross-country travel accessible to rural communities.
The novel begins with a contemplation of Holbien’s picture (above) of the devil driving a team of plough-horses, from his series ‘The Dance of Death’.
Shall we look to find the reward of the human beings of to-day in the contemplation of death, and shall we invoke it as the penalty of unrighteousness and the compensation of suffering?
No, henceforth, our business is not with death, but with life. We believe no longer in the nothingness of the grave, nor in safety bought with the price of a forced renunciation; life must be enjoyed in order to be fruitful.
We shall not refuse to artists the right to probe the wounds of society and lay them bare to our eyes; but is the only function of art still to threaten and appall?
We believe that the mission of art is a mission of sentiment and love, that the novel of to-day should take the place of the parable and the fable of early times, and that the artist has a larger and more poetic task than that of suggesting certain prudential and conciliatory measures for the purpose of diminishing the fright caused by his pictures. (The Author to the Reader)
So the story begins:
I had just been looking long and sadly at Holbein’s ploughman, and was walking through the fields, musing on rustic life and the destiny of the husbandman ..
At the other end of the field a fine-looking youth was driving a magnificent team of four pairs of young oxen ..
A child of six or seven years old, lovely as an angel, wearing round his shoulders, over his blouse, a sheepskin that made him look like a little Saint John the Baptist out of a Renaissance picture, was running along in the furrow beside the plough, pricking the flanks of the oxen with a long, light goad but slightly sharpened. The spirited animals quivered under the child’s light touch
These are Germain and his son Petit-Pierre.
So it was that I had before my eyes a picture the reverse of that of Holbein, although the scene was similar. Instead of a wretched old man, a young and active one; instead of a team of weary and emaciated horses, four yoke of robust and fiery oxen; instead of death, a beautiful child; instead of despair and destruction, energy and the possibility of happiness.
On the Librivox recording I heard the author say that she was surprised her work was regarded as ‘revolutionary’ but I can’t find the quote. I think the ‘revolution’ is that she has taken the old genre of Pastoral Romance with its lords and ladies and fairies and replaced them with ordinary peasant folk, and in doing so has written one of the prettiest little love stories I have ever read.
Germain, who is 28, has been some years a widower with 3 children. He lives and works on his father-in-law’s farm, and is I think effectively a partner in the business, along with his late wife’s brother. His father and mother in law have decided that he needs to re-marry, his sister in law is pregnant and they need another woman in the house to manage Germain’s children.
There is an amusing discussion on Germain’s great age and how he needs a sensible and mature wife and not one of the flighty young girls from the village. Father in law has in mind the widowed, childless daughter of a friend, who has a few acres of her own and who lives in a remote village beyond the woods, some ten miles distant. The journey is planned for the following Saturday and Sunday, and a poor widowed neighbour asks Germain to take with him her 16 year old daughter, Marie, who is going to a nearby farm as a shepherdess. On the day, Petit-Pierre inveigles his way into going with them.
I won’t tell you the story of their little trip, and their problems getting through the forest of the Devil’s Pool, but if you can, download the Librivox version, it is an absolute delight listening to Marie talk. She is one of those young women born full of common sense who have so often had to rescue me from my congenital idiocy, and I am more than a little in love with her.
Germain’s ‘intended’ turns out to be a flibbertigibbet and Marie’s employer a lecher and so they return home. All else turns out as you might expect.
George Sand, The Devil’s Pool, first pub. 1846 as La Mare au Diable. Gutenberg English translation here. I listened to a Librivox recording.
Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added. Lisa has my father’s copy of La Mare au Diable (I don’t read French) and reviews it over the course of three or four posts, starting (here).