Castle of dreams

10th March 1995 at 00:00
The Castle of Pictures and Other Stories. A Grandmother's Tales By George Sand Feminist PressGazelle Book Services Pounds 14.99. 1 55861 091 X. George Sand's children's stories - written to amuse her grandchildren - are oddities, hard to place. Sometimes they look back to the reading matter she might herself have had as a child in the early years of the last century - moral truths and gobbets of information served up in a conversational form, as in the opening story, "What the Flowers Say", in this collection.

But she could also have a wonderfully light touch with fantasy as in "The Castle of Pictures", the principal story in Holly Erskine Hirko's new translation of four stories from the two volumes of Contes d'une grand-m re (1873, 1876).

Obviously "The Castle of Pictures" has a strong feminist appeal. A fashionable 18th-century portrait painter has a small daughter on whom he dotes without being able to recognize that she has talent and longs to be an artist too. Despite her father's amused discouragement she doggedly plods on. When his work (never very distinguished) no longer sells and he is faced with bankruptcy the grown-up Diane is able to come to the rescue.

"Do I need to tell you the rest of her life? You can easily guess what it was like, my children. It was a very noble. Very happy life, very prolific in exquisite works."

A fairy tale in itself in fact. But it is the fantasy that we remember. The story opens with the eight-year-old Diane and her father, on their way back to Arles, having to spend a night in the ruins of the old castle of Pictordu perched on its high rocky pinnacle. (Was George Sand thinking of Les Baux)? The shape of a wonderful garden is still there, though now the vegetation runs riot over the terraces and statuary. But that night, led by a statue with a shrouded head (the Veiled Lady) who has come to life, Diane sees the castle and the gardens as they once were. In the morning all this has gone, but she carries away with her a fragment of antique sculpture, a tiny head of a child, that the Veiled Lady has given her. These two - the concrete object and the dream - remain her inspiration while she is struggling to realize her talent. The magic of the garden and the ruined castle is compelling, and one wonders whether E Nesbit may have been influenced by Sand when she came to write The Enchanted Castle.

There have been few translations, and this capable, elegant one from the New York Feminist Press is very welcome. But why were the illustrations thought necessary? These clumsy, often ugly drawings fight the magic.

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