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.


  1. How was it that everyone seemed to recognize Eliza Anderson behind whatever pseudonym she used? Did the knowledge of her true identity just leak out into Baltimore society through her close friends?

  2. Good question. It's hard to be sure how 18th- and early 19th-century readers saw through the use of pseudonyms, but see through them many of them did. The Federalist essays, for example, were written under pseudonyms, and although modern historians are still not entirely sure of the authorship of all of them, many contemporary readers were apparently in no doubt. All I can say is the country was a lot smaller then--and the educated, reading public even smaller still--and word just seems to have gotten around. That would be even more true within the confines of Baltimore--which, despite being the third largest city in the U.S. at the time, seems to have been in many ways a pretty small town. Someone who wrote regularly under a particular pen name, as Eliza did, would have gotten identified before too long. On the other hand, it's clear that Eliza herself often didn't know the identity of the pseudonymous writers who contributed to her magazine on an occasional basis.