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Constance Garnett’s family history and alleged prudishness

July 8, 2020

My fellow Constance Garnett fans will want to read Olga Zilberbourg’s post about her over at Punctured Lines. I get what Zilberbourg means when she says Garnett wasn’t a Victorian prude, and I take her point, but I wonder if “strong views about the privacy of sexual matters,” like Garnett’s, are what Victorian prudishness boiled down to anyway. (Looking through past posts about Garnett, I see I once suggested she might have skipped a page of Goncharov out of prudishness, though I’m still not sure what the most likely explanation is.)

Before reading Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (pen name: Amanda Cross), Zilberbourg had had the impression that Garnett “fell to translating from Russian almost randomly.” After reading a piece by Rosamund Bartlett, I’d come to think Garnett got into translating with the help of Russian native speaker friends and lovers. But it turns out that Garnett was also the granddaughter of Peter Black, “Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I,” who is buried at Kronstadt. Her father, David Black, grew up in Russia. So she has ties to the culture on all sides, which helps explain how she did so much so well without the dictionaries and online tools Russian-to-English translators have today. (Which didn’t save her from being made fun of by literature professors through the second half of the twentieth century!)

3 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2020 9:20 am

    It was a very interesting and I do get cross with the way Garnett is criticised. She was a pioneer.

    • July 8, 2020 12:48 pm

      Yes! And I respect all the pioneers, but I think Garnett’s work holds up very well compared to other translators from the same time or earlier.

  2. July 12, 2020 10:23 pm

    Constance was my gateway drug. Pace, Richard & Larissa.

    Forgive the personal note, but, following the links, I can’t help but say that Robert A. Maguire was my mentor and thesis supervisor at Columbia in the late ’60s-early -70s. Pace, Professors Robert Belknap (happy memory), Richard Gustafson (of the famous Tolstoy seminar), and John Malmstadt (of the notorious 19th-C. Russian lit. survey). And спасибо, Prof. Gustafson, for giving me the opportunity to meet, greet, and listen at the feet of Александра Львовна Толстая, youngest daughter of the great author himself.

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