Today’s post features Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, who wrote under the pen name George Sand (1804-1876).
Sand was one of the most popular writers in the Europe of her time, and highly regarded by contemporary writers and cultural figures, many of whom were her close friends or lovers. Incredibly prolific and politically active, her writings advocated for the poor and working-class, and criticized the social norms that subordinated women to their husbands. She also lived a colorful and controversial life, openly wearing male attire and smoking in public at a time when women did neither of those things. After separating from her husband (at a time when divorce was illegal in France), she took a number of lovers, including Frederic Chopin.
There are people more qualified than I am to write about her overall standing and influence on literature, so I’ll just write about the fantastical and folkloric work that I’m highlighting today: Sand’s 1859 novella Les Dames vertes, translated into English as The Naiad: A Ghost Story; and her 1858 collection Légendes rustiques (Rustic Legends).
Almost Gothic, But Not
Originally, I was only going to highlight Légendes rustiques, but while doing some research The Naiad: A Ghost Story caught my eye because, well, it’s a ghost story. At least, it was so represented by translator Katherine Berry di Zéréga, who published her translation of Les Dames vertes in 1897.
Sand’s most well-regarded works are her “rustic novels,” written over the period from 1844-1853. These are novels of pastoral life, inspired by Sand’s own upbringing in the rural Berry region of France. One suspects that these rural themes were among those closest to Sand’s heart. Les Dames vertes (The Green Ladies) is not one of these novels, but while reading it I sensed some influence from the kinds of folklore and spooky stories that one might find in the countryside (an influence much more apparent in Légendes rustiques).
The Green Ladies of the title refers to a legend of the Chateau d’Ionis, where much of the story takes place. Legend says that three lovely sisters, daughters of the house, were murdered by a jealous rival, who poisoned the fountain they drank from, and whose water was used to make their bread. And now the Green Ladies are said to haunt one of the rooms of the chateau.
Sounds like a classic “English-style” ghost story, no? In fact, Les Dames vertes has many of the aspects we associate with Gothic novels: a haunted house, a family legend, ghostly visitations, machinations and intrigue, possible madness, even a priest. But rather than the gloomy, spooky atmosphere of a Gothic, this novella is decidedly skeptical in tone, to the point that even an apparition gives lectures about not giving way to superstition!
I found it refreshing to see the elements of a classic ghost story written about with such a different voice and perspective. The puppy-dog like protagonist, who fell in and out of love with women at the drop of a hat, was rather amusing, as was the fairly transparent intrigue. Sand slips in some commentary about the position of married women (the Countess d’Ionis has no control over the money that she brought into her marriage), and a few mildly democratic sentiments about class equality. True, she was only talking about the bourgeoisie as compared to the nobility and landed gentry; but it was nice that the housekeeper and the valet were the most skeptical and pragmatic characters in the narrative, as opposed to the fearful, superstitious creatures that servants are often portrayed to be in nineteenth century English ghost stories.
The ending is a bit pat, and many people will dislike it for other reasons as well; but overall, I’d call this one a pleasant light read. If you don’t mind “almost Gothic, but not,” then do give it a try.
- You can find The Naiad: A Ghost Story at the Internet Archive, here.
- If you read French, you can find Les Dames vertes on French Wikisource, here.
Folk Legends from Berry
Légendes rustiques is a collaboration between George Sand and her son Maurice, retellings of various tales and legends that Maurice (and perhaps his mother, as well) collected from around their native region of Berry. We get werewolves, ghosts, mysterious stones, fairies… good stuff. Maurice Sand also contributed engravings and an epigraph to accompany every chapter.
The tales are told in a personal way, sometimes as stories told directly to the writer, sometimes as anecdotes and memories from Sand’s own childhood. Reading each chapter is a bit like listening to a knowledgeable, relaxed storyteller, who starts out expounding on one subject, but allows their thoughts to run easily from topic to topic, without ever getting too far off the track.
Légendes rustiques seems to be one of Sand’s overlooked works, which is too bad, because I think it’s delightful. As far as I can tell it wasn’t translated into English until 2017, by Hannah Hoyt. I can’t share those translations here, but the French originals are online, and I took a crack at one chapter myself –The Washerwomen of the Night!– just to give a taste of what the collection is like.
- You can read my translation of Les Laveuses de Nuit ou Lavandières (The Nocturnal Laundresses or Washerwomen of the Night) on the Ephemera blog, here.
- If you read French, Légendes rustiques is on French Wikisource here.
- Hannah Hoyt’s English translation on US Amazon, here.
And Fairy Tales, too.
Late in life, Sand also published Contes d’une grand’mère (A Grandmother’s Tales) in two volumes (1873 and 1876): fairy tales for her grandchildren. I can’t say anything about them, because I haven’t read them yet, but of course the French originals are online (link to French Wikisource).
There is a 1930 translation by Margaret Bloom of what seems to be only the first volume, judging by the WorldCat record. There is also a 1994 translation of four stories, called The Castle of Pictures and Other Stories. It has the subtitle A Grandmother’s Tales Volume One; however it seems to actually be three stories from Contes d’une grand’mère Volume 2, plus one story from Volume 1.
Maybe someday I’ll take a crack at a few of these, too. But in the meantime, enjoy The Naiad and the Nocturnal Laundresses, and if you like them, then do hunt down the English translations that I’ve mentioned.