Books are more important than ever during these strange times. They have the power to take us to another place at a time when we are all staying within our homes; they can open our eyes to different cultures and lives and they can offer comfort and distraction. Lovers of reading owe a debt to Brighton’s Constance Garnett (1861 – 1946), the first person to translate the work of iconic Russian novelists into English.
Born in 1861 in Ship Street, Constance was the younger sister of Clementina who was to become a Trade Union pioneer. A lover of reading and pupil of Brighton and Hove High School pupil, Constance, earned a scholarship to study Latin and Greek at Cambridge and followed this with a career as a librarian in London’s East End. In 1892 destiny intervened in the shape of a Russian exile called Volkhovsky whom she visited with her future husband, Edward Garnett, a reader for a publishing company. Constance was captivated by the stories that the young revolutionary told her about life in Russia and some of the intriguing sounding work that was being done by its writers. As most of these writers were inaccessible to English readers because they hadn’t been translated into English, Constance decided that she was simply going to have to learn Russian and translate them herself. Armed with a dictionary and a grammar book, and all the while enduring a difficult pregnancy, Constance pulled off this feat, mastering the language to such an extent that she was soon making the works of writers such as Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy available for English speakers for the first time.
She wasn’t the first to tackle the almost one and a half thousand page long War and Peace, however. That honour goes to Clara Bell in 1886. But Constance was the first to translate it directly from Russian, Bell having worked from the French translation. By 1894 Constance was leaving her young son and husband at home to make trips to Russia, sometimes of three months in length – no mean feat for a single woman traveller at the time – to meet the writers whose work she was translating. On one occasion she battled the snow to have lunch with Tolstoy at his snowbound estate, Yasnaya Polyana, where he wrote War and Peace and Anna Karenina. She reported that his ‘piercing eyes seemed to look right through one and to make anything but perfect candour out of the question’.
Constance’s mission to bring works of Russian literature to a wider, English speaking audience for the sheer enjoyment of reading them was always forefront in her mind. She ensured that her translations came out in inexpensive editions to ensure that as many as possible could afford them. By the time of her death in 1946 Constance had translated over 70 volumes of Russian literature and is considered a key figure in the introduction of Russian literature to the English speaking world. The fact that Constance learned Russian so quickly and was able to translate so many different writers for the benefit, enjoyment and inspiration of millions of readers worldwide, is an achievement indeed.
Today, although there are some criticisms of her work now sounding a little demure for modern readers, most of Constance Garnett’s translations are still in print.
When you consider how much writers in the English speaking world were influenced by Russian writers – notably Chekhov who caused short story writers in particular to make an about turn when they discovered his short, to the point fiction – it can be said that Constance Garnett had a huge influence on literature in the twentieth century and on. New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield, herself a giant of the short story in the twentieth century, made her appreciation known in a letter to Constance in 1921: ‘These books have changed our lives, no less. What would it be like without them?’
Written by social historian, Louise Peskett.