Thursday, September 2, 2010

Why I Love Literature

So anyway, I was reading a book called Jane's Fame, by Claire Harman, which is a history of Jane Austen's reputation. Her literary one, mostly, but with her, even more so than with most authors, it's all tied up with her personal reputation, and what people assume about who she was and what she thought and felt (in the face of a dearth of solid information, thanks to her sister's notions of privacy). It is in regard to these assumptions that I find this story particularly delightful.

The first reliable French translation of Jane Austen's work was undertaken by one Felix Feneon (excuse me for leaving out the accents; the present internet setup refuses all subtleties) in the 1890s. He discovered her while he was in prison on suspicion - and pretty reasonable suspicion at that - of being associated with an anarchist bombing. He was a War Ministry clerk who kept detonators and mercury in his desk. Kept in solitary while awaiting trial, he was denied access to outside reading matter and soon read through all the French volumes in the limited prison library - which apparently only stocked female authors on the grounds that they wouldn't corrupt the morals of prisoners, or something like that. What remained was Northanger Abbey, so he read it.

And he loved it. Unlike many of her more conservative fans, he saw all kinds of satiric savagery in her social commentary; and he immediately set to work to get permission to import an English dictionary and begin a translation. After he got out, acquitted of anarchy but fired from the War Ministry anyway, he worked in company with John Gray, a lover of Oscar Wilde's (who was at that time languishing in Reading Gaol and complaining he could get no Jane Austen at all) and supposed to be the model for Dorian Gray, to finish the translation, publish it, and move on to the rest of the novels. Feneon's subsequent literary career included being the first French publisher of James Joyce.

What is not to love about this?

1 comment:

  1. I love how it is wound through with Austen's literary output and its reputation, Feneon's personal life and literary career, &c. If only she hadn't been dead for so long by then, doubtless it would have involved Austen's personal life, too.

    On another matter, I find it difficult to believe that Oscar Wilde would do something as clumsy as to model a character after a friend, and give the character the friend's actual last name.