Sea-bathing in Nerval’s Octavie

In Gérard de Nerval’s poignant novella Octavie he describes how he met the “daughter of the waters” Octavie in Marseilles: “Every morning I went sea-bathing at Château-Vert and saw the laughing isles of the gulf far off as I swam. Every day too I met a young English girl in the azure bay whose nimble / agile / slender body parted the green water near me.” “Nimble”, “agile” and “slender” are all translations of Nerval’s word délié when it is used in a literary way. The basic meanings of the verb délier are to untie, to free or to loosen. In a sense there’s no difficulty about translating the passage: any or all of these meanings could be relevant because I suppose even the most restrictive bathing costume would allow at least more freedom of movement than ordinary clothes of the same period. I’m also sure that Nerval intends us to see the scene as an expansive and liberated one. That’s partly why the story is so poignant: at its end Nerval describes how he met Octavie again and found her trapped in a stifling marriage, spending her life caring for her invalid father and the totally paralysed, pathologically jealous husband who kept her a prisoner in the home. Her sad situation then is played against that earlier glimpse of freedom, agility, space and light. Perhaps feeling that contrast is all that really matters. But I’m still frustrated by not having the historical knowledge to visualise the scene more clearly in a literal way, even if only to see how much Nerval may have abstracted and idealised it. I know that later Victorian bathing suits (in England) were very cumbersome and inhibiting. I know that in the eighteenth century they could be much less so. I have no idea what they would have been like in Provence in the 1830s.

The very end of the story suggests a much more spiritual idea of freedom. Nerval says that the boat that took him away from Octavie again “carried off the memory of that dear apparition like a dream, and I told myself that perhaps I had left happiness there. Octavie has kept its secret with her.” If she has the secret of happiness it is in her ability to retain her own sweetness and virginal innocence while living not for herself but for these two others. Nerval seems to be contrasting the way he himself restlessly searches for happiness in external circumstances with the way she finds it, without even looking for it, in ungrudging self-abnegation. This is a lovely idea of what true freedom is, the more touching for being expressed so indirectly or, to put it differently, being expressed with the non-abstract directness of poetry.

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