Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Scandal, Fictional and Otherwise

In my last post, I hinted that in 1807 Eliza Anderson may have been up to something--something that led observers to speculate that her translation of the scandalous novel Clara d'Albe was actually autobiographical. (Of course, as Eliza pointed out, if it was a translation, how could it be autobiographical?)

At some point in late 1806 or 1807, Eliza met a French artist and architect living in Baltimore named Maximilian Godefroy. Godefroy's early history is cloaked in some mystery (he gave conflicting accounts), but it appears that he escaped from France after getting into trouble with Napoleon and eventually secured a job in Baltimore teaching drawing at St. Mary's College, a boys' school run by French priests. Godefroy apparently cut quite a dashing figure: he had pretensions to nobility (on some occasions he's referred to as "Count St. Maur" or "Count La Mard"), and he attracted favorable attention after designing a Gothic chapel for the Sulpician friars of St. Mary's in 1806--a structure that has been called the first Gothic-style building on American shores. In the summer of 1807, the Baltimore Library exhibited his massive drawing, "The Battle of Pultowa," which had a romantic backstory: supposedly Godefroy fashioned it while imprisoned in the Chateau d'If, using only bits of paper that came to hand--120 in all--along with the "stump of a pen" and ink made from the soot of his stove.

How Godefroy and Eliza first met isn't clear--although he does record being treated by her doctor father in October 1806--but by July 1807 he had become a contributor to the Observer. That magazine, edited by Eliza, published in three installments a work by Godefroy entitled “Military considerations on the mode of defence best adapted, for the United States, under its present circumstances.” (With a background as both a soldier and an architect, Godefroy apparently felt he had some expertise in military fortifications.) In October this work appeared in pamphlet form, with the translator identified as Eliza Anderson.

So far, nothing scandalous here. But at some point the relationship between Godefroy and Eliza became romantic. They were married in December of 1808--after Eliza had, the previous June, gone to Trenton, New Jersey, to obtain a divorce.

That's right: Eliza was already married. (Why she went to Trenton to get the divorce is a mystery to me.) In 1799, when she was 19 years old, she'd married a Baltimore merchant named Henry Anderson. They had a child the following year, but shortly thereafter Anderson disappeared: he's no longer listed in the Baltimore city directory of 1801. For the previous six years, then, Eliza had been an abandoned wife. But of course that, under the mores of the era, didn't give her license to fool around with another man.

So, in October 1807--when both Clara d'Albe and the translation of Godefroy's pamphlet appeared--there may have been talk of some hanky-panky between Eliza and Godefroy, and that may have fueled the odd rumor that Clara d'Albe was somehow based on Eliza's own experience. Eliza was surely right to protest that she was merely the translator, but isn't it possible that a certain similarity between Clara's plight and her own may have drawn her to the novel and helped her to overcome any scruples she might have had about translating a work that was so racy? After all, both Clara and Eliza had found true love, and all that was standing in their way were some pesky marriage vows.

Whether there was actually gossip about Eliza and Godefroy in 1807 I don't know, but there was certainly talk by June of 1808, when Eliza was seeking her divorce in Trenton. "As for what the Town says of me and much I hear they say," she wrote to her friend Betsy Bonaparte, "I care not. Absurd & ridiculous monsters in whose hands no fame can go unsullied--if Godefroy had wished or proposed anything dishonourable to me, would it be by honourably proposing to my Father to make me his wife & share the good or bad fortune that befalls him that he'd prove it? Why should I be at the trouble of getting a divorce & overcoming the difficulties that attended getting the means to do it--if I had already sacrificed honor? Truly I might have continued as I was--their malice is too glaringly absurd, for it to cost one a single sigh."

And yet, she's not quite as cavalier about the gossip as she makes out; the next sentence is, "Tell me if you have heard anything of their infernal reports--God help me, a spanish Island or any other Island, with some one to knock out the brains of any who insult me, will be blessed Elysium."

It certainly sounds like Eliza maintained her "honor" in 1807. But someone--perhaps one of the many Baltimoreans Eliza had managed to antagonize--was apparently spreading rumors to the contrary.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

A "Lady" Translator

Let's say you're the editor of a magazine in Baltimore in 1807. Now, to complicate things a bit, let's say you're a woman--which is to say you've taken on a position that perhaps no other woman in the United States has assumed before (editing a magazine, that is), and you've noticed you've already come in for some abuse on that score. And let's say you've recently been criticized for--among other things--running a serialized translation of a racy French novel that caused such an uproar you've had to discontinue it.

What would a good career move be at this point? How about publishing, in book form, a translation of an even racier French novel--one that, according to a modern scholar, "contains what may be the first depiction of female orgasm in polite fiction"?

You do have to wonder what Eliza Anderson was thinking when she decided to translate Claire d'Albe--the story of a young woman who has an adulterous affair with her husband's adopted 19-year-old son, not exactly the kind of tale designed to curry favor with Baltimore's strait-laced elite. True, it was ostensibly published anonymously--the title page identifies the translator only as "A Lady of Baltimore"--but, just as everyone knew who "Beatrice Ironside" was, everyone was apparently well aware of the Lady's true identity.

Judging from the generally favorable review of the translation that appeared in Eliza's own magazine, the Observer, in Eliza's mind the scandalous nature of the plot was outweighed by the book's other attributes: its "simple, flowing, and elegant" language, and the ultimate moral correctness of its sentiments--since the two adulterous lovers eventually come to a bad end. (The Observer review did express the opinion, common during this era, that reading novels was a waste of time, but sighed that "since it was in vain to aim at changing general taste," it was better to read something like Clara d'Albe, as the translation was referred to, instead of the other "miserable trash" that was being consumed with "untiring avidity.")

Plus, Eliza did have the modesty to omit several of the more rapturous sentences that appear in the original French version of the orgasm scene, and to soften some of its language (for instance, Eliza rendered "She has stained her husband's bed!" as the somewhat less graphic, "She has sullied the honor of her husband!").

But clearly, that kind of tinkering wasn't going to be enough to appease the scandalized citizens of Baltimore. Shortly after the translation appeared in September, it was apparently criticized in a magazine called Spectacles--a magazine with which the Observer was already at war. And, according to Eliza, the Baltimore Federal Gazette had "inveigh[ed] against [the translation], as being vile and contaminating."

The Federal Gazette--Baltimore's leading newspaper--did run an ad for Clara d'Albe. But on October 12 the editor ran a notice headed "Mistress E.A."--as close as he would come to publicly identifying Eliza Anderson. The editor avowed that he would never be "forced into a newspaper controversy with any person," but that when the "assailant is a WOMAN, he can wage no possible war except that of defense."

The "attack" he's defending himself against is apparently Eliza's reference to the Federal Gazette's criticism of the novel, quoted above. The editor says that all he did was to refuse to publish an essay "intended to sell" the book, "which we thought unfit for female perusal... This, and only this, is what has armed against us the fierce FURY who edits the `Observer.'" In other words, he's saying that he never even criticized the novel in print--but he then proceeds to do just that. It's an "infamous tale," and that scene in the garden (the orgasm scene) is one that no "`lady,' of any tolerable delicacy, can read without being filled with disgust." He then describes the scene as best he can, given his own delicate sensibilities:

"A once lovely woman, reduced to a mere skeleton, is offering up orisons at the tomb of her father; a barbarian rushes upon her--seizes the trembling dying Clara and ................ Shame! shame! ................. let the `lady' of delicate taste and refined feeling, who has offered it to the females of Baltimore, tell the rest. We cannot defile these columns by publishing a chapter, for censuring which we have incurred the high displeasure of the phenomenon in Hanover-street." (Eliza lived at the corner of Hanover and German.)

All of this was transpiring in the pages of the Federal Gazette at the same time as the Webster debacle was unfolding there (see previous blog post). Webster, while professing not to know who had written the letter refuting his accusations against Eliza, tipped his hand: he referred to the letter-writer sarcastically as "the delicate and immaculate Translator of Clara d'Albe."

It's quite possible that if a man had translated Clara d'Albe, he too would have come in for some outraged criticism. But the language used by both the editor of the Gazette and by Webster indicates that the outrage was intensified because the translator was female. It's telling that the editor refers to Eliza as a "lady," in quotation marks. Ladies are supposed to be delicate and refined; they're not supposed to be translating graphic sex scenes (or what passed for graphic in 1807) that would clearly only disgust other ladies--the real ladies, that is.

There was something else going on here as well, although it's difficult to parse it out at this remove. But it appears that some people--whoever was writing about Clara d'Albe in Spectacles, for example--were saying that Eliza was actually writing about events in her own life. (Alas, only one issue of Spectacles has survived, and it's not the one that discusses Clara d'Albe.) Indignant, Eliza countered that "every page stamps it as a translation," and directed readers to "Mr. Hill's Book-store," where they could find the original, and thus judge "the degree of reliance to be placed on the veracity of the Spectacles."

But in a way, Spectacles was on to something. Eliza certainly wasn't having an adulterous affair with her husband's adopted son, but, subconsciously, she may have found herself identifying with poor tormented Clara. In her own way, Eliza was also transgressing boundaries ordained by society--and, as we'll see, not just by assuming what had been a traditionally male journalistic role.