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Lesa Scholl, Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman

Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot
Hélène Collins
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Lesa Scholl, Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman. Charlotte Brontë, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot, Farnham, Ashgate, 2011, 222 p. ISBN: 978-1-4094-2653-0

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1Lesa Scholl’s Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman develops the notion that translation provided a means for Victorian middle-class women to take part in and benefit from the general important shifts of power occurring during an era marked by internal and imperial evolutions. The study focuses on Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot and Harriet Martineau, three female professional writers and ‘linguistic and cultural translators’ (7). Interestingly, Lesa Scholl shows how these women were atypical in terms of Victorian conventions, even though their works now tend to be included in the Victorian literary canon.

2Translation is understood by Lesa Scholl as a ‘displacement’ between two languages with more or less informational equivalence, but also metaphorically as many other types of linguistic, cultural, notional or practical displacement that imply transfers of influence between two poles, and often mediation between them: ‘[t]ranslation is not just linguistic transmission’ (3); ‘[t]he connection of translation with the linguistic and social displacement and alienation relates to the sense of foreignness experienced by the traveller’ (131).

3Victorian middle-class women, who were increasingly educated notably in modern languages, were granted access to translation on the grounds of what Lesa Scholl calls a ‘loophole’ (11), namely a misunderstanding of the act of translation as mechanical reception, hence as sheerly submissive and in keeping with the Victorian ideal of the passive female. However, translation in fact implies the active processes of understanding, interpreting, and rewriting—linguistically or not—as well as an opportunity to wield influence. Indeed, a translator can impact the source by modifying the text produced by the original author, and the target by the effect the translation has on readers. Hence, translation provided a means of empowerment to Victorian middle-class women, ‘challenging the idea that women, like translations, are derivative’ (189). The activity enabled them to cross the boundaries between two poles: to put it like Lesa Scholl, they were able to translate their female voices from a sphere that should typically have been private to a public space conventionally assigned to males, thus gaining a new public authority (though it must be acknowledged that the convention of anonymity in the periodical essay favored the access of women to professional writing, 66). In short, Lesa Scholl’s study is less about linguistic comparisons between texts and their counterparts translated into other languages, as it is about the cultural phenomenon of female empowerment in the Victorian civilization, such as it is favored by their access to linguistic translation and to similar activities.

4Based on the assumption that a writer’s life is translated into their fictional writings (see for instance 156, 162), Lesa Scholl analyzes some of Brontë’s, Eliot’s and Martineau’s short stories and novels, alongside some of their private letters and journals, Martineau’s Autobiography and some other published writings, like journalistic or academic essays, and obviously, some of their translations. This textual material is studied in the context of their private and professional lives and supported by helpful clues about the historical context.

5The clear structure as well as detailed and nuanced argumentation of the book make it as accessible as it is enriching. Guiding the reader through selected aspects of the three writers’ lives and works, it establishes enlightening connections between them without overlooking their idiosyncrasies.

6The first part concentrates on the three writers’ education in modern languages, which resulted in their crossing the boundaries between student and master, as they progressively appropriated the knowledge taught them: ‘[t]his internalisation of knowledge is an act of translation in itself’ (11, see also 7). After being influenced by and often rebelling against masters—mostly males—the three women’s identities were translated into new public personas. This shift is exemplified by biographical points concerning the female writers’ relationships to brothers, fathers, husbands and / or teachers, along with a parallel to couples in their novels, such as in Eliot’s Middlemarch and Brontë’s Villette. After overcoming Heger’s authority—as illustrated by her Belgian essays—Brontë became a teacher herself. As to Martineau and Eliot, they acquired authority over their sources and readers through their professional translations, such as The Positive Philosophy of Auguste Comte: Freely Translated and Condensed by Martineau, and Eliot’s work on Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity. Indeed, instead of entirely submitting to the original text, they could ‘alter’ (87) it (in a metaphorical ‘colonisation’ 1, see also 188) so that their own voices, alongside the original foreign voices, found a way to readers through the translated texts.

7This independence thus fostered the three writers’ business skills, as presented in the second part of the book. The business of writing and translating allowed these three female authors to influence other writers’ texts, a power which they also wielded as editors and reviewers and, in the case of Charlotte Brontë, as an unpaid private reader for a publisher. Lesa Scholl links this opportunity of influencing texts in the Victorian era to the ‘demythologis[ation]’ (5) they underwent as the notion of textual inalterability, inherited from Biblical translation, was fading. Though unconventionally childless and professional, the three female writers still met the Victorian expectations of exemplary female morality through their teaching activities. Brontë taught at school or as a governess, and the three of them taught their readers their views on British and foreign societies through their fictional or non-fictional writings. To support the notion of their business and teaching powers, Lesa Scholl exemplifies it among others by the characters’ attitudes and transactions in Brontë’s Shirley, by Eliot’s essay ‘German Wit: Heinrich Heine’, and by Martineau’s ambivalent views on the issue of the imperialist power as developed in ‘The Charmed Sea’, and ‘French Wines and Politics’.

8The British Empire itself provided Victorian women with the opportunity for cultural and spatial displacement: ‘[i]nterestingly, Martineau sees travellers taking the place of translators where no translations of written materials exist’ (126). Though only Charlotte Brontë went abroad with the explicit objective of improving her language skills, all three female writers profited from their travels in terms of linguistic and cultural experience. This is what the third part of Lesa Scholl’s book demonstrates by observing the influence of the three female authors’ voyages, and of foreign texts and cultures on their private and public writings, and by noting the importance of the genre of travel writing in the nineteenth century. For instance, Martineau appropriated a typically male voice on imperialism in a ‘displaced, translational way’ (132). Among others, a detailed analysis of Martineau’s sociological studies on America illustrates the process of translating comments about the home culture into writings about a foreign culture so that the writer becomes a mediator between two cultures, being influenced by and gaining authority over both through remarks dialogically bearing on both: ‘In Society in America, then, Martineau translates women’s need for emancipation through the position of slavery in American culture’ (139). Eliot wrote among others about Germany, manifesting her disappointment that the high expectations she had built for herself through theoretical (artistic and philosophical) studies were not met by her practical experience of the country. Her ambivalent texts also demonstrates that she appreciated the higher status of women in Weimar (for instance in ‘Liszt, Wagner, and Weimar’), as the very freedom she lacked in her private life in Victorian England partly motivated her exile abroad. Charlotte Brontë’s novels show similar ambivalence when comparing education in England and abroad. The motive of the mirror in Brontë’s writings reminds us that the experience of foreignness enabled the three women writers, through self-reflection, to appropriate new, independent identities for themselves, ‘beyond Victorian convention’ (189): ‘[i]ndeed, they can be said to translate and rewrite female identity through the way that they speak of the position of women within other cultural contexts’ (129).

9The metaphor of translation, ‘translation of some sort—cultural, historical, linguistic’ (188), thus, constitutes the key strength of Lesa Scholl’s book, as it enables her to emblematize various shifts of influence and authority in the lives of Victorian middle-class women in a consistent and powerful way.

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Hélène Collins, « Lesa Scholl, Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 78 Automne | 2013, mis en ligne le 26 mai 2014, consulté le 25 mars 2017. URL :

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Hélène Collins

Université Nice Sophia Antipolis, CNRS, BCL, UMR 7320, 06300 Nice, France; LIRCES, EA 3159, 06204 Nice cedex 3, France

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