As some of my readers might know, I love nineteenth-century French literature. So when Patricia Worth contacted me to ask if I wanted to review her new translation of George Sand’s Spiridion, I was very excited. I have wanted to read something by Sand for quite some time now.
Luckily for me – and a bit unlucky for Worth, who has been waiting for this review for quite a while now – I was just doing a course on gothic literature last semester. Spiridion is a gothic novel as well, and I was so intrigued by it that I wanted to write my final paper for this course about Spiridion. Which did mean I had to wait until after my deadline to publish this post, to make sure I don’t accidentally plagiarise myself.
Spiridion tells us the story of the young novice Angel, who does not feel at home at the Benedictine cloister he lives in. Feeling rejected by the other monks, he confides in Alexis, an old monk who does not have much contact with other monks either and who lives by himself in the astronomy tower. Alexis explains to Angel how the rest of the monks are all corrupt and that they do not trust Angel because he shows he still has integrity. Alexis takes Angel on as his pupil and tells him the story of the cloister. It was founded by Spiridion, a former Jew who first became a Protestant and who later switched to Catholicism. He imagined his cloister to be a place of religious study, gathered a big group of studious monks around him and set to work. However, being focussed on his own work too much, he forgets to be a leader to the other monks who start to become corrupt. Every generation of monks in the cloister knows but one monk who isn’t corrupt. Spiridion’s wisdom has been passed on for several generations now, from Spiridion to the monk Fulgence, to Alexis, and now to Angel. Alexis and Angel are trying to find a way to get to know Spiridion’s deepest truths. However, the rest of the cloister are trying to stop them.
First of all, George Sand’s writing is just amazing. She is seen as one of the best writers of her period, even better than Honoré de Balzac. What I personally enjoy so much about her style in this specific novel, is that she still uses the beautiful style we know from realist writers for such a different genre as the gothic novel. I normally don’t like gothic novels because of the slow, elaborate style (I’ve been struggling with Ann Radcliffe’s Romance of the Forest for months now), but even though Sand uses elements of gothic narrative in her story (ghosts, creepy cloister, etc.), she stays loyal to the analytic, psychological and descriptive style we know from realist literature.
Besides that, I was really grasped by some of the themes of the story. Trying to find the truth, the monks spend a lot of time studying different subjects, but especially Alexis will find out that you can’t learn everything from books. Self-development is more than just studying, it’s about thinking how you relate to the rest of the world as well. About friendship, about what makes you a good person, about being kind. Just working hard is not enough to become enlightened. This message really resonated with me as I tend to sometimes lose myself in my studies as well. I like it when literature helps me realise these things.
Sand received some criticism for this novel as well, with people claiming it was blasphemous and anti-Catholic. I don’t think that was fair. I have to admit, Sand is very critical, but only towards Catholicism as an institute, and never about religion as such. She has a problem with corruption and blindly following dogma’s, but she is also convinced that through studying and personal development true faith can be found and this is a message I hope many people can respect.
Spiridion is a very inspirational novel and a lovely mixture of realist and gothic literature. I am glad Worth set herself to making a new English translation of this novel, making more available again to an international audience (it had not been translated or published in English for way too long and became near impossible to find).
You can order your edition of Spiridion here.