The Prison Industry in Translating Austen

Who knew?

Felix Feneon translated Northanger Abbey into delightful witty and deeply felt French while he was in prison for the crime of blowing a Paris restaurant up wth a bomb where a number of people were either killed or seriously maimed. A friend bought him a good dictionary and he was allowed to work undisturbed though. During this time he also read George Sand. The reason: women writers like this were considered innocuous; the fact that Austen was seen as knowing nothing about politics and less about sex, and Sand’s political career was repressed in favor of presenting her as all about sex and her books as grandmotherly or not readable, favored this enterprize. . . .

Now that he was drawn to Austen — and translating a book such as hers adequately is no small task — is fodder for those who would consider her book political. There is evidence he was attracted to writing as a woman, as it were in drag — men do, as when they write books like Clarissa or Diderot’s La Religieuse (or any one of a number of 18th century and more recent texts. He was also a superb stylist like RLStevenson and that would be part of the challenge.

He was also a continual writer who founded a couple of reviews that became centrally important at the time and he wrote in many others. Except for his art criticism (of which he was proud and which he wanted to gain respect for artists with), most of the time he wrote anonymously. Interestingly, many of his pseudonyms were women’s names; he liked to write as a woman even though he shared the anti-feminist (Ungerman calls them misogynistic) attitudes of his fellow male radicals (I deliberately use that noun). Women were for sex, baby-making, being a wife, mistress, ministering to men. He himself married a woman out of pity for her, an arranged marriage of an old-fashioned type and apparently was good to her and lived his life out with her — at the same time as he had a life-long mistress who was in effect his second wife; she was the literary partner. He also got the one job he had all his life through a merit exam in the civil service, ironically as a clerk in the war office; he was never promoted, but he didn’t want to be.

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