Carolyn Gold Heilbrun on Constance Garnett

Most readers of Punctured Lines are likely familiar with the name of Constance Garnett –English-language translator from Russian par excellence — and so I’ll begin this post with a bit of a tangent.

I forget who of my friends had recommended to me, years ago, mystery novels by Amanda Cross, whose fictional detective Kate Fansler solved crimes while quoting W.H. Auden. These were highly literary mysteries, and, intrigued, I looked up the author’s biography to discover a fascinating story. Amanda Cross was a pseudonym of an academic, Carolyn Gold Heilbrun, the first woman to be tenured in Columbia’s English department. In the course of her life, she became an outspoken feminist, and in 1992 accused her department of discriminating against women. Her oeuvre includes a book about Gloria Steinem and a collection of essays How to Write a Woman’s Life.

I’ve been slowly making my way through Heilbrun’s work, both fiction and nonfiction, and recently I finished her first published book The Garnett Family (The Macmillan Co, 1961). Heilbrun was trained in Modern British Lit, and, in particular, studied the Bloomsbury group. This book, as she announced in the introduction, “is the history of a literary family,” — the “literary intelligentsia,” as we might call it in Russian. By the by, Heilbrun makes a very good case that studying literary dynasties makes very good sense for historians of literature, and that the work of Constance Garnett needs to be examined next to the work of her husband Edward, who in his position as a Publisher’s Reader presided over so much of what we consider today Modern — and Modernist British Lit, from John Galsworthy to Joseph Conrad and D.H. Lawrence, among others. (And by suggesting that her work needs to be examined next to his, I mean exactly that — stressing the lack of a hierarchical relationship between the wife’s and husband’s work, and their ongoing conversation.)

Heilbrun is a very engaging and opinionated writer, and I only wish her treatment of Constance had been fuller. Brief as it is, it gave me a portrait of Constance in a vastly different light than I’ve been accustomed to seeing. For instance,

An obituary in the New Republic said of Constance Garnett that “she was a product of the Victorian Age and shared the prejudices and pruderies of her time.” Apart from the fact that she was born in the Victorian Age, the statement is the direct opposite of the truth; it would be nearer the mark to say that the post-Victorian Age, with its lost prejudices and pruderies, was the product of her generation, and, to a significant extent, of her own work. Born in 1862, she belonged to the first generation of women that received an education comparable to a man’s, and, shaping its life according to its own, rather than society’s, or parental, decision, remained in a very real sense in control of its own destiny.

Heilbrun’s monograph contains four chapters: 1) Background of the Garnett Family, including the Elder Richard Garnett (1789-1850), 2) The Younger Richard Garnett (1835-1906), 3) Edward Garnett (1868-1937), 4) Constance Garnett (1862-1946), and concludes with the Epilogue about Edward and Constance’s son David (1892-[1981]). The book was written, apparently, in a close collaboration with David, who as a prolific writer himself, I imagine, had some stakes in the shape of Heilbrun’s monograph. (One could probably study his writing and that of his descendants for further insights on the family.)

In her chapter on Edward Garnett, Heilbrun tells a “meet cute” story: Edward and Constance Black were introduced by Constance’s sister Clementina Black (a writer herself), who was a regular at the British Library’s reading room, where Edward’s father Richard assisted her. The sisters came to tea at the Garnett house, and 18-year old Edward immediately fell in love with 24-year old Constance. Constance was lukewarm.

In the evenings Constance took him to various Fabian and Socialist meetings, which he refused to take seriously. They quarrelled because Edward said that Land Nationalization would not come in England for the next ten or even twenty years. This was to Constance a terrible lack of faith, and a real grief. George Bernard Shaw, with whom she had often gone to political meetings before, asked her who was the pretty young man he had seen her with. She replied that he was a boy whose education she was undertaking.

Heilbrun’s chapter on Constance provides one other fascinating facet of the fabled translator’s biography. From the stories I’d read about her (for instance, in this David Remnick piece in the New Yorker), I’d gotten a sense that she fell to translating from Russian almost randomly, without any particular reason. This was, apparently, not quite so.

Her grandfather, Peter Black, was Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I; Peter Black’s daughter is supposed to have danced with the Tsar at a Court Ball. When this daughter married, in Petersburg, the Tsar presented her with a glass salad bowl as a wedding present. Peter Black was buried in the Russian naval fortress of Kronstadt; his son, David Black, Constance’s father, having spent much of his youth in Russia, came to live in London as a law student . . . went on to Canada . . . was recalled to England by a telegram from his brother Peter, who was French Consul in Brighton.

Aha! This background, from family ties to Russia to strong interest in socialism, makes it so much easier to understand why Constance would choose to dedicate her life to translating from Russian. And to return to the question of how far Constance had been removed from “the pruderies of her time,” Heilbrun paraphrases this story from a manuscript by Constance’s son David:

She was never particularly outspoken on the subject [of sex], nor militant about it, having strong views about the privacy of sexual matters, which she thought no business of society or the State. However, when, on vacation from Newnham, she had been entertained in London and had seen the prostitutes in Haymarket and Trafalgar Square, that ‘hideous spectacle of coarse cynical brutality and degradation accepted by everybody as a matter of course’ threw her into despair. Believing prostitution to be chiefly the fault of women putting a high premium on their own chastity for economic reasons, she thought that if women were brought up to expect to earn their own living and have love affairs, it would disappear.

From the advantage of time, we may judge her naive, but her thought is far from prudish. We may also perhaps glean how she might be a much more sympathetic translator for, say, Chekhov and Turgenev than for Dostoevsky. Here would be an interesting project: to re-read her Dostoevsky with her politics in mind… because, of course (and as we learn from our friends at the RusTrans project), translation has politics.

10 thoughts on “Carolyn Gold Heilbrun on Constance Garnett

  1. What an excellent post. I have a great deal of respect for Constance Garnett and her one-woman crusade to get Russian lit to the English, despite the criticisms of her. A fascinating family, and as I’ve also read some of David’s work and am a sucker for an interesting old volume, I may have had to send for a copy of this… You are a bad influence!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. What an interesting post, thank you! Have you come across Helen Smith’s biography of Edward Garnett, An Uncommon Reader? There is a lot of interesting material in there about Constance, including her love affair with Sergius Stepniak around the time she was becoming immersed in her translations. There is also quite a lot in there about her views on sex (she was quite open about it, really, and the suggestion is that her openness made David uncomfortable) and how her desire for Edward changed after giving birth. Well worth a read for anyone interested in the Garnetts or in any of the writers helped by Edward and Constance. I came across it via my interest in H.E. Bates and became hooked. I’ll need to look up Heilbrun’s book next!

    Liked by 2 people

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