Then the flowers died.
That is the full text of Chapter XIII in Ossit’s short novel ‘Ilse’. A work that appears, on the surface, to be a fairy tale of a young innocent girl corrupted by men. But bubbling underneath is a deeper allegorical journey with references to the emperor, folk lore, fairies and more. Described in the blurb as “like a fable or a long poem in prose” and “as much a drowsy dream as it is a book”, the edition was released last year, coming from a revised 1906 translation.
Madeleine Annette Edme Angelique Vivier-Deslandes (1866-1929) wrote under the pseudonym of “Ossit” and ‘Ilse’ is her second novel, her four books being; ‘A quoi bon?’ (1892), ‘Ilse’ (1894), ‘Il n’y a plus d’îles bienheureuses’ (1898) and ‘Cyrène’ (1908). Information about “Ossit” is very limited on the internet, I managed to find one article, in French, discussing a portrait of her by Edward Burne-Jones, where she is described as a recluse, modelling herself on images taken from Botticelli, a home with no windows and a thick steel door, containing thick plush white carpets, white bear rugs, bronze toads. There are two well researched articles about her persona on the National Gallery of Victoria’s website relating to the Edward Burne-Jones portrait which is held in the gallery.
The book itself says “she hosted a notable literary solon, which was attended by such figures as Jean Lorrain, Gabriele d’Annunzio, and Oscar Wilde. Somewhat an eccentric, she was said to have recited a poem by Jean Richepin from a lion’s cage at a fair.”
Our main protagonist, Ilse, is an innocent young girl who frolics amongst the sunflowers, enjoying the sunshine and the “the chattering of the happy birds”. The riverside fishing village where she lives also hosts a forty-year-old old-maid, the shop keeper Lina Minniglich who has designs on her neighbour Heinrich Rothkeppel, a keen gardener, however Heinrich meets Ilse:
One Sunday as he was tending his plants, Heinrich, happening to raise his head, saw leaning on the parapet a young girl who was looking at him. She was fair and very beautiful and suggested all kinds of flowers. He stood staring at her open-mouthed, astonished at the contrast she made to the shopkeeper he was accustomed to find there.
The girl smiled and bowed to him prettily. He raised his hat awkwardly, and then, after a moment’s silence, asked: “Do you love flowers?”
“Oh, yes, I lover flowers,” she replied, her pretty face lighting up with pleasure.
“Would you like to come in and see my garden? He asked hesitatingly.
The innocence and simplicity of the writing leads you to feel the dread in in such straightforward requests.
A young prince enters the fray, each of the characters being introduced with a short sketch, their personas detailed enough for the reader to broadly anticipate their roles. An innocent young girl, an old maid, an eligible bachelor, a prince:
He was a looker-on. He loved the arts passionately, but he practiced none of them with any considerable success, a result rather of his extreme indifference and versatility than of a lack of natural gifts. He was very handsome and very much petted, but that did not suffice him. He had a melancholy soul that was at once enthusiastic and disillusioned. He was not capable of any sustained effort not of continuity in his ideas. He was not goog, nor was he bad; he was an idler, that is all. He idled through life and recognized his own uselessness.
He had just returned from Bayreuth, where Wagner’s art had delighted and then saddened him, for it had made him feel once more his inferiority, his impotence to create and the futility of his efforts. This was a great sorrow to him; but still he could never find the necessary energy and determination to be great in anything he undertook.
Ossit seems to have very firm views of the usefulness of men, even the prince is of lacks “natural gifts”. On the other hand, Ilse is full of innocence, revelling in the idea of fairies, even her name is reflected in fairy legend. Princess Ilse (German: Prinzess Ilse or Prinzeß Ilse) is the name of a popular tourist destination in the Ilse valley near the town of Ilsenburg in the Harz Mountains of central Germany. The legend of the name comes from ‘Prinzessin Ilse’ a fairy tale from the ‘Harz’ by Marie Petersen, which first appeared in print in 1850. In this story, Princess Ilse loses her way whilst riding to the chase with her father, King Ilsing, and comes at nightfall to the gates of the fairy world, ruled by the fairy queen. The queen meets her kindly and invites her to the crystal palace. (Wikipedia) Ilse’s brother Hans takes the young prince, Brian, to his home, a scene he could paint, and there he meets Ilse:
A great, unknown joy had entered into her; it seemed to her that the queen of the fairies had sent her a message. Everything was vague and confused in her mind, but everything was changed; she no longer felt that she was the same little girl who had got up that morning so care-free, so ignorant of happiness and still so glad to be alive amid the shrill music of the birds.
Ilse could not sleep. Now the moon came in through the window and bathed her in its pale rays. She sat down on her little bed, clasping her arms about her knees, and stared into space with unseeing and ecstatic eyes. Love had entered her heart, and she did not understand its wonderful magic that is so gentle, so radiant, so mysterious and so sad.
In her mind “he came from the land of the fairies, and surely their gentle queen had sent him.” Whilst reveling in the world of love and innocence the novel turns when the flowers die. Earlier in the novel we learn of the statue of Konrad III, “the emperor on his stone horse” a likeness with “an indignant air”. This towering monarch with “arrogant eyes” will play a literal as well as a metaphorical role in Ilse’s fate.
A short novel, that can be read in a single sitting, that plays on folk lore, innocence vs ignorance, one that uses metaphor subtly alongside theories of “the great Nietzsche”, this is a delicate and subtle moral tale. It is a pity the publisher, Snuggly Books, hasn’t credited a translator, simply stating “This edition of Ilse is a revised version of the translation that was originally published in 1906.” An enjoyable light read between some of my more serious fare.