Balzac’s Women (the ones you don’t know about)

Balzac, as we know, had a view of women that would land him in big trouble with contemporary feminists. His female characters were all either saints or sinners, and while some of them might have been cunning or sly, few of them were capable or competent at anything.

So it would come as a great surprise to Balzac to know about the role that women have played in bringing his oeuvre to the world.

Firstly, there were four translators to whom the English-speaking world owes a great debt.  They were

  • Ellen Marriage (1865 –  1946) was an English translator fluent in  French.  She started translating La Comedie Humaine when her neighbour and critic, A.R. Waller suggested it: he pitched a proposal to the English publishers J.M. Dent and Sons that they should publish the first complete edition.   She completed most of the eventual 40 volumes, except for five omitted because they were too rude (!) and 13 done by Clara Bell and one by Rachel Scott.  The racier ones that made it past this publisher’s self-censorship were published not under Ellen Marriage’s name, but under the male pseudonym James Waring!
  • Clara Bell (1835–1927).  Also an English translator, Bell was fluent in no less than eight languages:  French, German, Danish, Dutch, Italian, Norwegian, Russian, and Spanish.  Her French translations include Maupassant as well as Balzac.
  • Rachel Scott (1874–1905): *sigh* There is no acknowledgement of Rachel Scott at Wikipedia.  But (wonders of Twitter!) thanks to @TranslatedWorld, we know that Rachel Scott was an active educational reformer & feminist, and wife of CP Scott, editor of Manchester Guardian.  That led to checking her husband’s page at Wikipedia, where it says that Rachel Cook was one of the first undergraduates of the College for Women, Hitchin (later Girton College, Cambridge).   And you can find her entry at Oxford here which tells us that she translated Une fille d’Ève (A Daughter of Eve) and Mémoires de deux jeunes mariées (Memoirs of Two Young Married Women). 
  • Katherine Prescott Wormeley (1830-1908).  She was born in the UK but migrated to the US where she served as a nurse in the Civil War.  She became one of the best known translators of her time, and translated the complete works of Balzac (40 vols., 1883-97).

La Comédie humaineSecondly, there are two unsung heroes of the internet age, who have introduced Balzac to countless numbers of English-speaking readers.  While I don’t discount the merits of publishers who have produced fine print versions of Balzac’s more popular stories, unless you are one of the lucky few to own the complete La Comedie Humaine or to stumble across one of his stories in a bookshop or university course, your introduction to Balzac – and your search for the more obscure stories – probably leads you to Project Gutenberg …

Project Gutenberg is a digital library and archive of cultural works, free for anyone to download as an e-text.  The digitization of works in the public domain (i.e. out of copyright) is done entirely by volunteers.  And Balzac’s works are there due to the combined efforts of New Zealander John Bickers (who has also digitized an extraordinary number of other authors and is now active at Project Gutenberg Australia) and our very own Dagny a.k.a Madame Vauquer from the Vauquer Boarding House and co-conspirator for this blog!

When they started this project, there was only one story available: The Duchesse de Langeais.  Between them, Dagny and John typed the remaining entire La Comedie Humaine.  John, in New Zealand, had the Katherine Prescott Wormeley edition, and Dagny in the US. had the Dent edition edited by George Saintsbury.  As each typed a story, the other proofread and corrected it.

Dagny tells a wonderful story about this proofreading:

One of the guys at PG once held an informal proofreading contest. He gave the same text to everyone who wanted to participate and we sent a corrected text to him. John and I came in first and second. After we had each submitted our corrected text, we asked if we could send an extra entry with our cross-proofing and it was near perfect.   John and I did well proofing each other’s work because we tend to make different types of errors.

The task took eighteen months, and was finished in February 1999,  in time for the bicentennial of Balzac’s birthday in May, 1999.

So next time you come across one of Balzac’s saints or sinners, remember these women (and John!) and how between them, they have kept his work alive for us to enjoy in the 21st century!

Lisa Hill, January 1st, 2014


5 comments on “Translations

  1. […] of the Vauquer Boarding House blog.  Dagny is well-known to anyone who downloads stories from Project Gutenberg, where she and John Bickers from New Zealand personally typed and proof-read liter… so that they could be accessed for free, and by anyone.  If it were not for this, it would have […]


  2. What about translations that are more recent? I seem to remember seeing a few of Balzac’s works offered on Amazon, by a translator whose name I forget, but who translated them at least after WWII.


    • Dagny says:

      Yes, almost all of the major works have new translations, but to my knowledge there is no modern complete set. At least one of these modern translators is a woman, but men seem to be in the majority.


  3. Jerome Solberg says:

    We recently read Balzac’s play “Mercadet, A Comedy in Three Acts”, from Project Gutenberg. and found it very funny and perhaps something one could produce on stage. But there is no reference to who did the original translation, from the above I see perhaps it was Wormsley? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dagny says:

      I wish I could help as I was involved with the PG work, but it has been so long that I can’t recall. I’m not sure that the Wormeley edition included the plays. I know the Saintsbury edition did include the plays in which case it could have been Ellen Marriage.


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