The British Library holds a world-class collection of Jane Austen material. The Libraryâs manuscript materials include, for instance, a collection of comments about Mansfield Park by family, friends and acquaintances compiled by Austen soon after publication. The Library possesses at least one copy of each of the first English printed editions of her work, and also holds the first full French translations of Sense and Sensibility (1815), Mansfield Park (1816), Pride and Prejudice (1822), and Northanger Abbey (1824), as well as the first translation into German of Persuasion (1822).
Both Pride and Prejudice and Mansfield Park were first translated into French in a much abridged form in four instalments in the Swiss periodical BibliothĂšque britannique (1813, 1815). (Unfortunately, the Libraryâs copy of this periodical, which disseminated British culture in continental Europe during the Napoleonic wars, was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War.) By 1824, all of six of Austenâs major novels were available in French.
There are no known French reviews of these early translations, but the translatorsâ prefaces to the novels, the way in which they were translated and the changes that were made to the text can provide a great deal of information about the tastes and expectations of her readership and the reception of her novels in France and Switzerland in the early 19th century.
In 1815, Isabelle de Montolieu, a well-known and successful Swiss novelist, published her âfree translationâ of Sense and Sensibility as Raison et SensibilitĂ© ou les Deux ManiĂšres dâaimer. The Libraryâs copy includes the translatorâs preface: Montolieu expresses her preference for this ânew genreâ of English novel which has superseded that of âterreurâ and is confident that her French readers will enjoy a bit of âlight literatureâ, âdevoid of any political allusionsâ after the troubled times they have lived through.
She presents her translation as âreasonably faithful until the end, where I have allowed myself, as is my custom, a few slight changes which I have deemed necessaryâ. She changes some forenames: Elinor Dashwood remains Elinor, but her sisters Marianne and Margaret become Maria and Emma. She alters and moralises the ending: Marianne rejects the reprobate Willoughby, now a widower, and he, seeing the error of his ways, marries Caroline (Eliza in the original) whom he had earlier seduced and abandoned. Madame Smith, who has taken in Caroline, is âdelighted to save a soul from eternal damnationâ. Montolieu, catering for a readership still in thrall to Jean-Jacques Rousseauâs Nouvelle HĂ©loĂŻse, produced a didactic and sentimental version of Austenâs novel. At this time, too, her fame far eclipsed Austenâs and so itâs no surprise that the publisher reissued this translation in 1828, with added illustrations, in an edition of Montolieuâs works .
The title page of Le Parc de Mansfield ou les Trois Cousines, states that the novel is âpar lâauteur de Raison et SensibilitĂ©, ou Les deux maniĂšres dâaimerâ, thus trading implicitly on the cachet of Montolieu. The translator, bashfully named as M. Henri V ******N., was Henri Villemain or Vilmain, a prolific translator and also a novelist in his own right.
The Library holds one of the two early French translations of Pride and Prejudice, Orgueil et PrĂ©vention, also described as âpar lâauteur de Raison et SensibilitĂ©â, translated by âMlle ĂâŠâŠ.***.â This translator has been identified as EloĂŻse Perks, who, in her short preface, presents herself as a âjeune Ă©trangĂšreâ (young foreigner), and a novice writer imitating the âelegant penâ and the â good modelâ of Montolieu, and adds that the translation of Raison et SensibilitĂ© âeut en France le plus grand succĂšsâ. Perks also adds a few brief explanatory notes on English customs, food and place names, e.g. on mince pies (I, p.82) or the English Sunday (I, p. 94), and says that she intends to translate the as yet untranslated novels: this didnât happen, so either her version wasnât a success, or she was pipped at the post by other translators.
The last novel to be translated was the posthumous Northanger Abbey, translated as LâAbbaye de Northanger by Mme Hyacinthe de F****, i.e. Hyacinthe de FerriĂšres, who was also a novelist. The authorâs name is given on the title page, but Frenchified as Jeanne Austen. Henry Austenâs âBiographical Noticeâ is included, though without the Postscript, and with some omissions and curious errors: notably, John for (Samuel) Johnson, Arbley for Arblay (Fanny Burney), and, significantly, the translator omits the sentence ending: âshe partook largely in all the best gifts of the comic museâ. Despite this, it must be admitted that Henryâs notice on his deceased sister does emphasise her piety and decorum.
The British Libraryâs copy includes the engraved frontispiece illustrating and telescoping the episode where the heroine first sees the large chest in her room and then tries to open it when she is interrupted (the figure at the door). Our copy, in three volumes, bears the stamp of the âcabinet de lectureâ (circulating library) of G. Dufour et Cie in Amsterdam. It has a British Museum stamp dated 16 September 1876, and is housed in modern box with the label âConserved under the Adopt a Book Appeal [by] The Jane Austen Society of North Americaâ. The other early translations into French and German that the Library holds were, by contrast, all acquired relatively recently.
Cumulatively, these translations enable us to study how Jane Austen was interpreted in early French culture and how they convey the spirit of the original text. This early French Jane Austen is a somewhat formulaic novelist of sensibility devoid of her trademark sense of irony and social satire.
Teresa Vernon, Lead Curator, Romance Collections.
The Reception of Jane Austen in Europe, edited by Brian Southam and A.A. Mandel (London, 2014). YC.2016.a.4133
Lucile Trunel, Les Ă©ditions franĂ§aises de Jane Austen 1815-2007. Lâapport de lâhistoire Ă©ditoriale Ă la comprĂ©hension de la rĂ©ception de lâauteur en France (Paris, 2010). YF.2014.a.5858
ValĂ©rie Cossy, Jane Austen in Switzerland: a study of the early French translations (Geneva, 2006). YD.2006.a.4670