Review: The Naiad, A Ghost Story by George Sand

The Naiad; A Ghost Story - George Sand, Katherine Berry di Z r ga

George Sand (actually Amantine-Lucile-Aurore Dupin) has been on my TBR list for some time. Actually, she was on the Really You Still Haven't Read This Author, Even Though References To Her Keep Popping Up In Your Reading list, until my list names began getting longer and longer and I lost track.


Sand is another of the French authors I've wanted to read whose books haven't all been translated to English - or at least not in easily accessible/free ebooks. Happily there are quite a few of her works in English you can find: Gutenberg and Internet Archive. But if you glance at the Gutenberg link you'll see how many are only in French. Another problem is when the English translations were written - if you have a translator working in the Victorian era it's very likely that certain words and ideas (any sexual allusions for instance) might have been tidied up/reworded/removed entirely, and you'd only know if you found a review alerting you to it. (Or a wandering scholar warns you off of an edition.)


Anyway! The Naiad is a short story (a bit over 100 pgs), definitely not long enough to get into novella territory, which is possibly why it's not even mentioned on Sand's wikipedia page. I found it via Open Library here:


The Naiad, A Ghost Story

Translation by Katherine Berry di Zerega, date on the book is 1897.


You can download it in various formats or read it in a browser at that link. I couldn't find out anything online about the translator di Zerega (except that she's translated other things), but there was this preface to the book that sheds a little light on her autobiography:


"When years ago the author of this volume read, with delight, the story in the original, she then decided to translate it, in order that others (unfamiliar with the language) might enjoy a similar pleasure; the work of publication, hardly begun, was interrupted by the illness and sudden death of her only daughter, and to one who in so many ways resembled the heroine of this sketch, this book is now dedicated."


The plot: a young man who is the son of a lawyer and in the process of building his own career, is sent by his father to explain to a titled lady the points in an important lawsuit that will determine how much money she'll have to live on when her husband dies. (The husband is older and has lost most of his money.) The young lawyer hears much about how beautiful she is, and he falls in love with the idea of her before even seeing her. He's also one of those sensitive, bookish-types - you know, the familiar story of boy who would rather be a poet than a lawyer, but he wants to please his family. When he arrives at the castle he's told a legend about the family ghosts, who will supposedly answer questions concerning the fate of the family. That's how the young lawyer is roped into looking for/communicating with the ghosts.


Fair warning, this is the 1800s, so the language is of the time - and here're some examples! There's more than one mention of how people are too modern to believe in things like ghosts. When the lady agrees to have food put out for the ghosts (part of the legend):


46% in: ..."I will order the famous tray to be taken there then," said Madame d'lonis, smilingly, "and I am forcing myself to look only on the strange side of this affair, not to be too much impressed by it."


"What, madame, you too!"


"Eh, mon Dieu," she exclaimed, "after all, what do we know about it? We ridicule everything nowadays; are we any the wiser for it than formerly? We are weak creatures, who think ourselves strong; who knows if we do not thus render ourselves more material than God desired, and if what we take for lucidity of vision is not really blindness. Like myself, you believe in the immortality of the soul. Is an absolute separation between our own and those freed from matter so clear a thing to conceive that we can prove it."


I think this whole train of conversation has some reference to the philosophies of Rousseau and his contemporaries - but since I was bad and didn't take notes, I can't remember if there was a particular reference that made me think that. In any case it's a completely normal discussion when ghosts come into a story.


Some typical description:


51% in: "...'Twas in truth the influence of the sublime naiad, with clear and living eyes, beaming with a fascinating sweetness, the naiad, with undraped arms, contours of transparent flesh and supple motions resembling those of childhood. This daughter of Heaven seemed at the utmost about fifteen years old. The ensemble of her figure expressed the perfect chastity of youth, while the charm of a mature womanly soul illuminated her features."


So a bit over the top, and as usual with a translation you can't tell how much of that is Sand and how much the translator. For me the main eyerollish part of this was that the young lawyer (I think in his 20s) getting all gooey over a 15 year old. Not to mention that

hello, she's a ghost, so no, she's not going to fall in love with you, no matter how much you flirt. (Actually fawning is a better description.)

(show spoiler)

But then the young lawyer, our narrator, is kind of an idiot.


A moment of "ah, this is a French language thing":

52% in: "...It was only then that I remarked she addressed me as "thou." "

Because in 1800s English no one was using thee and thou, but in French, that still works. (Somewhere one of my former French teachers has no idea that one of his students remembers her lessons even now. Heh, he's probably grading papers.)


An example of multiple comments about social class. Young man of the upper class speaking to the young lawyer:


76% in: "...And meanwhile whatever happens, bear in mind my repentance, and do not have too poor an opinion of me. It is too true that the world brings us up badly, we young men of family. We forget that the bourgeoisie is as good as we are, and that the time has come to recognize this fact. Come, give me your hand now, while we prepare to cut each other's throats!"


That's said before a duel of honor, which neither party wants to fight as they've made up and become friends, but of course public display and honor are weird like that. Spoiler, they end up not having to fight.


A bit more about class, and that whole "ideal angelic women" concept, again popular at that time:

89% in :  "...She conversed without art, and without pretension, but with a natural distinction and clearness of judgment which evinced a moral education far above what was then regarded as sufficient for women of her rank. She had none of their prejudices, and it was with angelic good faith and even with a certain generous childish enthusiasm that she accepted the conquests of the philosophical mind that was drawing us, without our knowledge, towards a new era.


But above all she possessed an irresistible charm of sweetness, and I at once succumbed to its influence without a struggle."


It might be from this bit that I thought of Rousseau - some of his ideas on education sound like this. (Er, I've not read much Rousseau, I should admit. Still working my way through one of his books.)


One thing that all authors of ghost stories have to decide: what shall I do with the ghost at the end of the story? There are two choices:


1) It's a real ghost, and as such it's not explained. You can give it a motive at most, but you don't go into too many specifics.


2) It's not real, it was all:

--a trick

--a mistake

--insanity/The Devil!/the Elder gods/swamp gas/the planet Venus/Men in Black/extraterrestrials/wait, I'm the ghost!/it was old Mr Dibley dressed up in a bad costume and he'd have gotten away with it if it wasn't for those meddling kids!/etc. etc. etc.


Frankly, I like stories with the first choice, especially where it's somewhat up for grabs what actually happened. The best stories hint at a lot and give you lots of detail to satisfy you in some ways, but don't give you anything too cut and dry in the way of explanations. The only ending bits are how the experience effected the viewer of the ghost, ranging from white hair to a more grim fate - "they only found hair, bones, and a fingernail or two" - or something like that.


Since I never expect everyone to immediately go read this sort of thing, I'll spoil the ending.*

We learn that there was no ghost. It was all a hoax played on the young lawyer by Madame d'lonis and several others. When I read this I had a "oh COME ON" moment - I was much happier with the sappy romantic ghost story I thought it was, and this twist completely changed the tone of the book and the characters of the people involved. The young lawyer seemed an even bigger idiot (before he was just a lovesick idiot) and stupidly trustful. (I should add here that the experience gave him a fever and made him change his attitude towards life. That's the short version.) The people who played a part in the hoax, who we've been told are so nice, now seem mean spirited, and definitely not very sorry for playing a part in it. I'd not trusted Madame d'lonis previously but that was about the lawsuit and her handling of the young lawyer's lovesickness (for her), but now she seemed completely manipulative.

(show spoiler)


If I was going to write this up for a class I'd probably do a reread, because I think there's probably a lot fun that could be had in discussion of where the hints are, and the whole moral philosophy thing. And it's definitely something that I'd have delighted in using for a class paper - lots of topics you could work with in there.


The whole "it's a twist, there was no ghost" moment does have me wondering when the twist/surprise/fake out moment first began in literature. You know, the completely unexpected is pulled in just at the last moment. I know it's been done forever, and it's a major part of many dramas - but for some reason I didn't expect it here because Sand had me completely sold on this being yet another Victorian-sappy-melodrama-plus-ghost. Especially with the mentions about disbelief and modern thinking, making fun of being skeptical - and the suddenly, hello, yes, the narrator and reader should have been skeptical.


My problem is that I don't really have enough of a handle on Sand to know if she was writing this all tongue in cheek or not. I'd guess yes, from the mentions of philosophy here and there. And I always hope, whenever I read a female author going with the angelic/ideal woman trope, that there's some critical commentary underneath that surface. (For some reason it's always seemed worse to me when women wrote that female stereotype, compared to the male authors.) I do feel sure that Sand did want the reader to both doubt and dislike Madame d'lonis, just from descriptions of her and her conversions. I'm not so sure what to think of the "ghost."


So.... Hmm. Dunno. Would be fun to pick apart in a lit class though. Especially with someone who'd read a lot of Sand and could fill me in.

(show spoiler)


Short version: Fluffy melodrama, lots of moaning from a period hero, and possibly Sand making a larger point here and there. (I think I need more Sand background to know for sure.) Two stars mainly for the meh I always feel over angelic-heroine types. A half star added for making me rethink what the story was about.


So there you go. Now I've read some a slight bit of Sand. I need to try something longer of hers, but I foresee that I'll end up reading a biography first, because I have the feeling that her life was much more fascinating than her fiction. Just a guess. (Read her wikipedia and you'll see why I think this.)




* Randomly, I actually am one of those people who - even before the internet where spoilers pounce on you from all directions - has always liked reading spoilers. That way if I'm bored to tears with the actual media I can have fun comparing my expectations with the reality. Also I love reading movie reviews and film studies essays, and you just learn to love the spoiler then, because there is no way you can see all the movies that will be referenced. Also I do like being forwarned about some things. Although I enjoy many forms of horror lit and film I have a serious problem with descriptions of gore and blood that go on and on, and the torture porn that some films seem to go to extremes with. So, yay spoilers.