Thursday, October 23, 2008

George Sand, party girl - an ancient ceremony held in mockery of theorists

The Devil's Pool is short, only 140 pages in the antique Everyman's Library edition I read. How strange, then to discover that the story ends after just over 90 pages. What's left? An appendix with four chapters: A Country Wedding, The Wedding Favours, The Wedding, and The Cabbage. Even stranger, the appendix is the best thing in the book.

Like Melville in Typee, Sand is using the novel for the purposes of cultural anthropology, capturing the peasant customs before they are gone. "In a year or two more, perhaps, the railroads will lay their level tracks across our deep valleys, and will carry away, with the swiftness of lightning, all our old traditions and wonderful legends."

The wedding guests - the whole village - divide into two parties. The groom's party is led by the grave-digger, the bride's by the hemp-dresser. The groom's party tries to enter the bride's house, first through persuasion, then by a singing contest, then by a mock combat. The couple can only marry once the groom's party place a goose on a spit on the bride's hearth. This is all pretty good - the singing contest is especially charming.

It's that last chapter, though, "The Cabbage," that is genuinely amazing. On the third day of the wedding, a pair of beggars appear, "the gardener and the gardener's wife, and they pretend it is their sacred duty to guard and care for the sacred cabbage." And so begins an hours-long, improvised performance involving the entire village. Some of the pieces are moral lessons - warnings against wife-beating, say, while others are pure comedy. It all concludes with the digging up of a symbolic cabbage. Another character appears, the know-it-all "geometrician," who

"walks up and down, constructs a plan, stares at the workmen through his glasses, plays the pedant, cries out that everything will be spoiled, has the work stopped and begun afresh as his fancy directs, and makes the whole performance as long and ridiculous as he can. This is in addition to the ancient formula of an ancient ceremony held in mockery of theorists in general, for peasants despise them royally..." (App. Ch. 4).

The cabbage is placed on the roof of a barn, and is "a symbol of the prosperity and fruitfulness" of the marriage.

Did George Eliot know the works of the French lady George? The parties in Adam Bede were some of my favorite scenes of that novel. Here we have George Sand with a book where the great party scene is actually the climax, maybe the point, of the novel.

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