I’ve been slowly reading this 1947 French edition of La Mare au Diable for a while, but I’ve now decided to start summarising each chapter here as I read it…
The book begins with a ‘Notice’, narrated in first person, and dated 12 April 1851. In it, she says that when she began writing this story, as part of a series of rustic tales called Veillées du Chanvreur (Evenings with Hemp-workers), she had no ambition to write anything revolutionary. Stories of country life have been around for ever, and like many others which celebrate the simple life, she merely intended to write a story about such a life. Critics searching for greater meaning than that are mistaken.
Sand was inspired by an engraving of a ploughman by Holbein, she says, and I think it’s this one, from his 1538 series ‘Danse Macabre’ (‘The Dance of Death’) in which Death is hastening along beside the exhausted ploughman as he tills the barren soil that stretches before him. In the ensuing ‘L’Auteur au Lecteur’ (‘Note to the Reader’), she quotes an old French quatrain, and explains that in all of Holbein’s series, Death is a fearsome spectre, except for just one image: Lazarus, the poor man who does not fear Death because life is so burdensome.
A la sueur de ton visaige
By the sweat of your brow
Sand rejects Holbein’s vision: for him, there was divine retribution for rich sinners and consolation for the misery of a poor life, but Sand wants to celebrate life because she believes that God blessed it. As an artist working in another form, she doesn’t want to depict poverty as ugly, vicious and criminal. The novelist has a more poetic task. She wants to make her subject lovable, and perhaps flatter him if necessary to achieve it.
II ‘Le Labour’ (‘The Ploughing’)
After musing further on the contrast between the common images of labour in the fields and what can actually be seen there, the narrator, walking in the countryside, sees an old man, steadily ploughing his team of two placid oxen, while at the far end a younger man with a team of four is guiding a spirited team of four over stony ground. His task is harder because his oxen are not yet used to the yoke, but he has youth on his side. He is accompanied by a beautiful young child of six or seven, (beau comme un ange) who is doing his best to goad the beasts but is hampered by the sweetness of his young voice. It is a scene of hard work but also contentment, in marked contrast to Holbein’s scene of despair. The narrator acknowledges that the peasant lacks sophistication and high intelligence, but she cautions against patronising him, because she knows Germain, and she knows his story…and she will rescue it from oblivion.
III ‘Le Père Maurice’ (Father Maurice)
Maurice tells his son-in-law Germain that he needs to remarry: his three children Petit-Pierre (7), Solange and Sylvain (not yet 4) have been cared for by their grandparents, but they’re a handful and a burden. Not only that, but the grandparents will soon have another one to look after because their daughter-in-law is about to give birth, and she won’t be able to look after her other child while she’s lying-in. Germain’s children must be watched because of the accidents that could easily happen, so it’s time he took a second wife.
Germain is still grieving for the death of his wife Catherine (Maurice’s daughter): he says it’s not part of the bargain that he should forget her if he were unlucky enough to lose her. She was a wonderful woman:
J’avais une brave femme, une belle femme, douce, courageuse, bonne à ses père et mère, bonne à sa mari, bonne à ses enfants, bonne au travail, aux champs comme à la maison, adroite à l’ouvrage, bonne à tout enfin.
I had a valiant wife, a beautiful wife, sweet, courageous, good to her father and mother, good to her husband, good to her children, as good at work in the fields as in the house, clever at her work, good at everything.
Maurice acknowledges his loss, a grief which he shares. But he’s not telling Germain to forget her. He says that if Catherine could speak, she would tell him that the children need a mother. It will be hard to find someone worthy of her, but when they do, Germain will love her as he loved their daughter, because he is an honest man.
Germain acquiesces, and Maurice goes on to advise against a young wife because youth is fickle and three children are a burden. He should have a wife about the same age as he is, and willing to accept her duty. And, rejecting Germain’s suggestions of local women as either too young or too poor, Maurice recommends a widow without children of her own, pretty enough to bear attractive children, and preferably with some property of her own. Neither of them know of such a perfect woman in their own village.
IV ‘Germain Le Fin Labourer’ (Germain, The Astute Ploughman’)
What Maurice has in mind is a woman (also called Catherine) who lives in the village of Fourche. It turns out that he has already made overtures and established that she is good-hearted, good-looking enough when she was younger though she’s 32 now, and (importantly) she has land she could sell. Because he’s a simple fellow, Germain is a bit taken aback by his father-in-law’s preoccupation with money, but Maurice says so much the better if Germain has a wife with brains. Maurice is a little worried that after he dies, there may be trouble between Germain and his son, but Germain reassures him that he would never make a claim on Jacques’ inheritance.
Maurice reminds him that things do not always turn out as expected, and also he needs to be mindful that any children he has with a second wife could have no claim on his first wife’s inheritance. So she needs to have some property of her own.
Still reluctant about the whole idea, Germain tries to stall with claims of too much work to do, but Maurice insists and Germain caves in, musing on his grief but not strong enough to argue against Maurice’s rather cold-blooded plans.
V. ‘La Guillette’ (‘Mother Guillette’)
That night, Old Mother Guillette calls on Maurice, her neighbour, to borrow some embers for the fire. She’s interested to hear the news about Germain, and when she hears that he is going to Fourche, she asks if he could escort her only daughter Marie to nearby Ormeaux. They are very hard up because their farm isn’t big enough to support them both, so, aged 16, Marie is going away to work as a shepherdess.
Maurice readily agrees, but the narrator sounds a note of caution. More sophisticated folk would balk at the idea of a 28-year-old man being entrusted with the care of a 16 year-old girl, but in this simple rustic world, Germain wouldn’t dream of corrupting her chastity. Maurice and his family are held in high regard, and since Germain is going in search of a wife, it doesn’t enter anyone’s head that he could take advantage of her.
On to VI ‘Petit-Pierre’ (‘Little Peter’) in the next instalment…
Author: George Sand
Title: La Mare au Diable (The Devil’s Pool)
Publisher: Nelson, Paris, London, Edinburgh & New York, 1947, first published 1846, 282 pages (A6)
Source: gift of Bill Holloway from The Australian Legend.