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).

The Dream Lover, Elizabeth Berg

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The Dream Lover (2015) is a fictionalized life, written in the first person, of celebrated French novelist George Sand (1804-1876) who was of course a woman, born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. I’ve been listening to it over the past couple of days and have constructed this review from my memory of the story, relying on Wikipedia for dates and names.

Ironically, in her memoir Histoire de ma Vie (1855), Sand writes, “I would not want to tell my life like a novel. The content would be overwhelmed by the form.”

Sand was the author of 60 or so novels and two memoirs. As well as I can gather, her themes were adultery, sexual satisfaction for women, and the unfairness of marriage laws which vested all of a woman’s property in the husband. She went about publicly in men’s clothes, lived separately from her husband, conducted a number of ‘scandalous’ affairs, and hinted at being bi-sexual, particularly in her relations with the actress Marie Duval.

I am always looking out for antecedents for the strong anti-marriage theme in the writing of C19th Australian women novelists and feminists like Catherine Helen Spence, Mary Gaunt and Rosa Praed, and Sand interests me in this regard. I’m not sure how much of her work was translated into English, though I’m sure she was well known. Berg quotes passages from Sand’s work and what I presume are genuine letters, particularly in relation to her views on sexual politics, but again does not suggest any influences.

The novel begins in 1831 with Aurore leaving her husband Casimir Dudevant and their two children at their country home Nohant – which she had inherited from her grandmother along with a substantial fortune, but which he controls – to join her lover in Paris and to set out on her career as a writer. We move ahead in two parallel streams – her career as an independent adult going on from that point, and her childhood and young womanhood leading up to the separation. The writing is good, but not excellent, and the story itself is fascinating. As we switch back and forth between the timelines each episode is dated but still with the potential to be confusing, especially listening and not paying full attention, for instance Aurore dealing inexpertly with a suitor in one timeline and dragging a lover into bed in the other.

As briefly as I can, the story is that her well-born father Maurice Dupin was an officer in Napoleon’s army. While serving in Italy he falls in love with Sophie, a courtesan, whom he marries secretly against his mother’s wishes. They have a daughter, Aurore and subsequently a son who is born when Sophie joins Maurice in Spain (I guess at the beginning of the Peninsular War) but who is sickly, particularly after the long trek back to Nohant in central France (about 300 km south of Paris) and soon dies. Maurice dies not long after, in a riding accident. Sophie does not get on with her mother in law and accepts an allowance to go and live in Paris while Aurore is brought up as a lady by her grandmother, and is educated by Maurice’s old tutor.

Aurore is probably a bit wild. She gets her first taste of men’s clothing riding around the countryside in trousers and a loose shirt. Her grandmother reacts by putting her into a convent school run by English catholic nuns in Paris where she spends a relatively happy couple of years until she is 16 and it is time to put her on the marriage market. Her grandmother dies and Aurore becomes mistress of the estate until at 19, she marries Dudevant and he begins to run it down.

Berg pictures her as inexperienced (of course) in bed but also unresponsive. Nevertheless they have a son, Maurice, and then a daughter, Solange, though by then Aurore has been experimenting with lovers, so Solange’s paternity is uncertain.

Dudevant offers Aurore no comfort intellectually and she is frustrated by his stewardship of her estate. After eight years they separate and Dudevant gives her an allowance (out of her own money!) to live in Paris. Initially the children stay with their father and the parents take turns living at Nohant.

Aurore and her lover Jules Sandeau jointly write Rose et Blanche (1831) which is published under the pen name Jules Sand. The following year she writes Indiana, using the pen name George Sand, which name she adopts for herself from then on (that is, people now call her George). She has a job as a theatre critic and starts wearing men’s clothes because only men are allowed to sit in the cheap seats down the front.

The problem of women achieving satisfaction is a running theme in her early novels, and Berg has her spending one never repeated weekend of sensual delights with Marie Duval at Nohant where Duval teaches her the uses of all her ladybits. This seems to make life more pleasant both for her and for the many subsequent men in her life.

Divorce was abolished in France by Napoleon, but after four or five years of independence Sand and Dudevant negotiate a legal separation in which she regains control of Nohant and custody of the children. Sand is in any case already a prolific and commercially successful author and so though her stated sympathies are with the poor, her upbringing and lifestyle put her firmly with the rich and famous.

We go on. Maurice is a good boy, Solange is a handful. George is friends with Franz Liszt and stays with him in Switzerland in time to meet baby Cosima (The Young Cosima, Henry Handel Richardson). Liszt introduces her to Frederic Chopin, and Sand and Chopin live together for the decade 1837-47, eventually separating when Chopin sides with Solange over Solange’s impetuous marriage to August Cl├ęsinger.

In 1848 Sand is an enthusiastic supporter of the February Revolution marking the end of the monarchy and the beginning of the (short-lived) Second Republic. I think though that with the return of Empire under Napoleon III she finds it politic to retire to the country. She continues to entertain and in later years becomes friends with the reclusive Flaubert, twenty years her junior. She dies at Nohant in 1876.

 

Elizabeth Berg, The Dream Lover, Random House, 2015. Audio version Brilliance Audio, 2015, read by Emily Sutton-Smith

Google Books has some interesting critical studies of George Sand (here) including modern introductions to Story of my Life and Indiana.

Lisa Hill of ANZLitLovers has set up a collaborative blog for George Sand (here) to which this post has been added.