La Mare au Diable (1846) is the fifth book that I’ve read in the original French instead of in translation, and the second I’ve read by George Sand.
The novella is one of a series of four pastoral novels by George Sand (1804-1876): the others are François le Champi (1847–1848), La Petite Fadette (1849), and Les Beaux Messieurs Bois-Doré (1857). This edition is a student edition published by Nelson, and it still bears the sticker from Hall’s Book Store in Bourke Street, where those of us of a certain age bought all our school text books. The book once belonged to the father of Bill from The Australian Legend and in beautiful copperplate, it bears his name and the date from September 1949. So the book is a real treasure, with a story of its own, thank you Bill!
As we know from Indiana (which I also read in French, see my review) George Sand was subversive. Notable for smoking in public and wearing men’s clothes, she was also acerbic about marriage because of her views about equality of the sexes. However, La Mare au Diable is, at first glance anyway, a story of a happy marriage, a devastated widower, children in need of a mother, and in-laws pressuring their father into marrying again (because they have had to look after the children while he works on the farm.) And though the fates conspire against true love for most of the novel, it ends up satisfactorily.
However, the novella features two strong women who refuse to be pressured into marriage until they are ready. I have summarised the plot at Sensational Sand (here, but don’t go there if you want to avoid spoilers), so suffice to say here that the woman that Germain is supposed to marry has been a widow for two years and has been playing off three suitors against each other for all that time because she’s not in any hurry to marry again. She doesn’t fancy any of them, but their presence signals to other men that she hasn’t settled on widowhood and is open to the right offer. She is wealthy and has no children to support, so she has more choices than other women do.
But despite much more limited choices, the other woman, the one that Germain has fallen for, possibly under the influence of the Devil’s Pool, doesn’t fancy him either, because he’s almost twice his age. He’s also sulky and pessimistic. She loves his children and enjoys looking after them, but she’s alert to the dangers of being left a widow by a husband much older than she is. More importantly, she would rather live in poverty, without work, than marry someone she doesn’t care for. (This same young woman has also refused the advances of her #MeToo employer, and subsequently refused a bribe intended to keep her quiet about it. )
So why doesn’t she care for Germain? He’s handsome, and while not rich, he’s certainly better off than she is. A poor girl sent off to be a shepherdess in another village because her mother’s farm can’t support the two of them, can’t afford to be too choosy, right? Well, despite her capitulation at the end, Marie is a good judge of character. She’s strong enough to tell him that he should be making his own choices, not just doing what his in-laws say he should do. He’s a lugubrious fellow, and he gives up too easily: it’s she who takes the initiative when they are stranded in the woods, and it’s she who has the skills and ability that enable to survive a bitterly cold night after he’s got them lost.
An observant reader will notice other things too. Germain takes her under his cloak because she’s used hers, not his, to wrap up his child against the cold. There’s not a lot to eat, and she takes barely a morsel because he’s used to eating four times a day and she’s used to being hungry. She tears her skin dealing with the kindling for the fire while he watches on, impressed by her skills. Marie doesn’t judge him for this unmanly selfishness, but I have no doubt that George Sand meant her readers to do so.
A very interesting little book!
PS The book is listed in the 2012 edition of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, but not in the 2006 edition that I’m tracking.
Author: George Sand, (the nom de plume of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin)
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.