The Devil’s Pool, George Sand

Holbein Plowman
Hans Holbein, The Ploughman (1525)

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.

 

la_mare_au_diable_ezwa_librivox.jpg

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).

Diary of a New Chum, Paul Wenz

Paul Wenz (1869-1939) was a Frenchman who became an Australian grazier and author, contributing to the myths of the Australian Legend, in French. Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories (1990) is the first collection of his stories in English. Frank Moorehouse contributes an unnecessary Preface which indicates some points of interest in the various stories, but happily there is a much more interesting Introduction by the collection’s editor, Maurice Blackburn.

Blackburn describes Wenz as “a good storyteller with the right mix of wry humour and sentiment … the first, and so far the only, writer to give the French reader a true picture of Australian bush life. His stories bespeak an ambiguous feeling towards the outback, and he always seems to maintain an ironic distance from his characters.” Blackburn writes for a number of pages on whether, as a writer, Wenz is Australian or French. Wenz was well-read in French and his most obvious influence was Guy de Maupassant. He was also friends and corresponded with his schoolmate AndrĂ© Gide. However:

Wenz the horseman and sheep farmer personally appreciated the poetry of Adam Lindsay Gordon and the bush balladists, like the rest of his class, and was a regular reader of the Bulletin… he knew well and greatly admired the stories of Henry Lawson, and recommended him to Gide; his own bush stories show that he was certainly influenced by the new Bulletin school of writing that was at its peak in the period 1890-1905.

Blackburn also detects elements of Steele Rudd, Barbara Baynton and Joseph Furphy.

Wenz’s contemporary, linguist and arbiter of Australian Lit., Nettie Palmer, commented in a Bulletin article in 1929 that Wenz was able “to use the essential rhythms of Australian life”, and that the bushmen whom Furphy “saw from within … Wenz draws as silhouettes with bizarre, decorative effect.”

Diary of a New Chum, which is less than 40pp, and is the one story originally written in English, was first published in 1908, apparently as a book, under the pen-name Paul Warrego. Until this edition it had not been republished since the 1920s.

The protagonist attends a fancy dress ball (presumably in England) and after too much champagne falls hopelessly in love with a French peasant “displaying pretty arms and very shapely legs”. The next morning he discovers that he is engaged to be married to Miss Mary Smith and that his only recourse is to flee to Australia. As a ‘new chum’ on an Australian sheep station he recounts his trials with understated humour, in short episodes, as he learns on the job and attempts to escape his engagement.

The remainder of the collection consists of 8 short stories, first published in the collections A l’autre bout du monde (1905) and Sous la Croix du Sud (1910), three previously unpublished texts, including an account of his meeting Jack London in Sydney in 1909 (Wenz subsequently translated London’s Love of Life into French), selected letters, including to AndrĂ© Gide and Miles Franklin, and some photographs of Wenz and his property near Forbes, NSW, and including, again, Miles Franklin.

Most of the short stories are fairly ordinary, not up to the standards of Henry Lawson, nor even Steele Rudd. Charley for instance, notable only for being translated by Margaret Whitlam, is just a few pages leading up to the pathetic death of an old rabbiter. The story I liked the best, The Waggoner, which left me with a tear in my eye, tells of a young girl growing up as her father’s companion as he services the stations out past the Darling in northern NSW, carting supplies out and wool back in, with his heavy red gum waggon and team of 18 horses.

One other story I must discuss is Picky, which is set on a station in the back blocks of Queensland. Picky is an Aboriginal girl who along with her grandmother, Old Mary, has been rescued by a station owner and his religious daughter after a massacre. Some of the racism is ‘standard’: “Picky made progress and showed an intelligence and memory which might not have been expected in her thick myall skull”; there is a brief moment of enlightenment in what I would have thought was an early highlighting of the euphemism “dispersed”, as in:

Old Mary … recounted how her tribe, accused of having speared to death several head of cattle, had been ‘dispersed’ by the police; and except for herself and Picky, the whole camp, eighteen men, women and children, had been killed by the troopers.

And some of the racism is plain gratuitous, for instance: “Thompson knew the natives, and had killed two or three out of necessity, yet he wasn’t a cruel man.” The early part of the story recounts the efforts of Thompson’s daughter to make Picky a Christian, despite Picky’s clear preference for the company (and tucker) of her grandmother, and the latter part how Picky and Old Mary gain their revenge on a ‘blacktracker’ who had participated in the massacre of their (and his) fellows.

The letters too are interesting as Wenz discusses with Gide his writing, problems with getting published, and meeting other authors such as Joseph Conrad and JM Barrie. In 1933 Gide worries that Wenz’s French is becoming too Australianized – “some errors or infelicities of expression lead me to think that many of the sentences have first been thought in English” – and gives him some examples, with corrections, from his latest ms.

Wenz also corresponds with AG Stephens (of the Bulletin) and with Miles Franklin. The latter who has met Wenz on his sheep station while travelling with Frank (and Mrs) Clune, sends him a copy of Back to Bool Bool “which I consider goes more beneath the surface than the general run of Australian novels.” A month later Wenz asks her, “Does anybody know who the author is?” (It is of course MF under the pseudonym Brent of Bin Bin). Wenz also reads My Brilliant Career, MF’s copy presumably as by 1937 it had been long out of print, and puzzles “to get the ‘real’ out of the imaginative – so naturally and vividly it is written.” MF has read some of Wenz’s novels and they discuss MF translating them, which indicates that at some stage after leaving school MF has become fluent in French.

The book ends with 20 pages of Notes dated from 1834 – the birth of Wenz’s father – to 1959 – the death of his wife. Wenz was only a minor author but he was nevertheless a valid contributor to the Legend and a genuine member of the Australian, French and to a lesser extent, the English literary scenes.

 

Paul Wenz, Diary of a New Chum and Other Lost Stories, Angus & Robertson/Imprint, Sydney, 1990. Edited and translated by Maurice Blackburn. Translations by Patricia Brulant, Margaret Whitlam and notes by Jean-Paul Delamotte.