Sunday, April 08, 2012

Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman. A Review

Our thanks to Ashgate Publishing for sending us a review copy of this book.

Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman
Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot
Lesa Scholl, The University of Queensland, Australia
Ashgate
September 2011
ISBN: 978-1-4094-2653-0
Contemporary translation studies redefine the concept of translation as a form of textual transformation. The role of the translator can be addressed from several points of view which evaluate the different shapes and approaches that the translator uses negotiating the tensions between the original text and context and the society and time when the translation is introduced. Post-colonial and gender studies are particularly fitting when the time and context is the England of the nineteenth century(1).

Lesa Scholl's Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman deals with this subject by exploring the work of three female writers: Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau and George Elliot who in different ways and contexts dealt with issues related to translation both as a profession (translating books) and as a mediator (translating a culture into another) and with their roles as professional writers (and reviewers) in a society where Southey's infamous advice to Charlotte Brontë ("Literature cannot be the business of a woman's life,and it ought not to be")(2) was still the regular norm.

The presence of Harriet Martineau and George Elliot in the book is obvious as both were well known by their translations of August Comte in the case of Martineau and Ludwig Feuerbach in Elliot's case. Charlotte Brontë's inclusion is not so obvious. Her stay in Brussels and her French devoirs (which were not translations per se, but in a way can be seen as cultural translations) are not so representative as Elliot's and Martineau's but the author gives further reasons:
This is mostly due to Brontë's conscious avoidance of the periodical press and her geographical isolation in Haworth. Yet while she did not write for periodicals as a professional author, she was highly aware of the workings of the press, due to reading many journals along with her family from childhood, and creating her own forms of private journalism with her siblings. Interestingly, she participated in the wider literary sphere by being a private reader for her publishers, Smith, Elder & Co. (...) Brontë was also, like Martineau, a strong businesswoman, as seen in her letters to publishers: she understood the business of writing.
Which, of course, are true but still doesn't dissipate the doubt that dealing with the subject studied in the book, Charlotte Brontë was not in the same league as Martineau or Elliot. Of course this doesn't mean that many of the presented discussions are relevant and equally thought-provoking.

The book is structured into three parts which cover different aspects of the approppiation of these authors of the foreign text both professionally and intelectually. The first part is devoted to contextualising them as students of foreign languages. How they interact with their masters both at home and abroad (being a physical one or the author of the original book to be translated) and how, in the end, they were able to reverse the role master-student and become their own masters. Lesa Scholl explores here Jane Eyre's interaction with the novel's patriarchal figures (Rochester, St John and Mr Lloyd) and how Jane is able to use the power and language of these figures to liberate and identify herself(3).

The Charlotte Brontë-M. Heger relationship in master-student terms is discussed both using fragments of Charlotte Brontë's devoirs and with pertinent fragments from Villette(4). Her ambiguous role at the Pensionnat Heger (both teacher and student) is analysed, but the most interesting discussions are related to the evolution of Charlotte Brontë's writing under M. Heger's scrutiny and how
Brontë's exposure to French language and literature thus shape[d] her future English writing, but in a way marked as her own, not in imitation of Heger. (p. 50)
The second part is concerned with the ways in which George Elliot's translations or Martineau's were pathways to a different kind of literary recognition and how these authors dealt with the business of writing.  Charlotte Brontë's ambition to be a writer is traced back to the juvenilia with her and Branwell's tensions when they 'edited' the Blackwood's Young Men's Magazine. The business dealings associated with the literary profession and Charlotte Brontë's role as a businesswoman are explored in connection with fragments from Shirley.

The book continues talking about the role of mainly George Elliot and Harriet Martineau as editors, reviewers and (political) journalists. Charlotte Brontë's role as a non-paid reviewer for Smith & Co. is mentioned and briefly discussed(5) but leaving much room for further investigation. We also think that Charlotte Brontë's role as editor of the works of her sisters after their deaths should be discussed in this context.

The final part engages with how travelling abroad changed, redefined and helped them develop their own voices. Charlotte Brontë's Brussels years and the two novels that are born from this experience: The Professor and Villette are lenghty discussed in opposition to Martineau and Elliot's accounts of her journeys. As the author says, "She did not remain an outsider looking in to comment, but an outsider immersed in Belgian culture". Her novels show the conflict between relocation in a new home and the feeling of displacement(6).

As the author says in her final conclusions, the three studied writers redefined the roles available to the Victorian  middle-class woman. But, as much as her foreign experiences and cultural exposition forged and modeled Charlotte Brontë's fiction, her role in the aforementioned redefinition is clearly minor when compared to George Elliot's or Harriet Martineau's influence in the development of the woman professional author.

Notes:
(1) Douglas Robinson, Translation and Empire, Postcolonial Theories Explained (St. Jerome, 1997); Sherry Simon, Gender in Translation: Cultural Identity and the Politics of Transmission (Routledge, 1996).
(2) Robert Southey to Charlotte Brontë, 12 March 1837.
(3) For instance, it is Mr. Lloyd's diagnosis of hysteria which in the end triggers her escape from Gateshead to Lowood where she was be able to acquire an education and among other things, learn French which will enable her to teach Adèle at Thornfield Hall.
(4) The Professor is not mentioned, mostly because it is most widely discussed in the final part.
(5) And also mentioned is the infamous review of Villette by Harriet Martineau which ended her friendship with Charlotte Brontë.
(6) For instance, Lesa Scholl points out that when Charlotte Brontë criticises the hypocrisy of the Roman Catholic Church and its modes of education she is also pointing to English Evangelical Schools like Lowood Institution in Jane Eyre.

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