Devanny in Germany

Article excerpt

Towards the end of the Weimar Republic Jean Devanny made a brief appearance in Germany; a literary one when her novel The Butcher Shop was translated in 1928, and a personal political one when she attended the Eighth World Congress of the Workers' International Relief held in Berlin in 1931.

I

The Butcher Shop, Devanny's only work ever to be translated into German, was published in Berlin by Theodor Knaur and issued in a series called "The World's Novels" in which contemporary Anglo-American authors figured prominently. Devanny was here placed alongside Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and Sinclair Lewis, but socialist writers such as Max Eastman, Ralph Fox and Liam O'Flaherty, and women novelists, among them Radclyffe Hall and Rose Macaulay, were also in the series. Its general editors were Thomas Mann and H. G. Scheffauer, and all the volumes in it were very popularly priced at M 2.85, which was only about a third of the price of the first London edition.(1)

The English title gave little indication of the theme of the novel but appeared ostensibly to allude to the more brutal aspects of sheep farming in an outpost of the Empire -- in contemporary interviews Devanny had to explain that the meaning extended to the "subjugation of woman in all time", to her being "butchered in life".(2) The German title, Die Herrin, immediately drew attention to the protagonist of the tale: a young servant in a homestead, turned lady of the house through her marriage with the farm-owner; her initial acquiescence in family life, but eventual questioning of the institution of marriage. "Herrin" also connotes domination and majesty. The provocative question "Is Woman the Slave of Man?" on a red slip enclosed in the book seemingly contradicted the title, while enhancing the feminist interest of the work.

The book was translated by Paul Baudisch, a minor playwright and novelist with a substantial translation record. He had previously rendered Robert Louis Stevenson, Upton Sinclair, John Dos Passos, Thomas Hardy and many others into German, and was also later to do the German translation of Hemingway's novel on the Spanish Civil War, For Whom the Bell Tolls. But despite this varied experience, Baudisch's translation has not worn well. This is partly the result of old-fashioned syntactic usages such as starting sentences with the genitive.(3) However, more importantly, the dated quality of the translation has to do with Devanny's unselfconscious language of race and romance, and its subsequent transposition into a conservative völkische diction.(4)

In a German cultural and political context the recurring remarks on race and blood, for example, situate the novel in a very sinister neighbourhood. Margaret, the heroine, "came of clean, good stock".(5) Her first-born son, who suffers -- like Devanny's own son -- from a heart-disease, has nevertheless "round cheeks [that] glowed with the ruddiness of pure blood". Barry Messenger, her husband, "had preserved himself in order that he might breed a fine, clean race". Miette Longstair on the other hand, Barry's lascivious cousin, whose machinations trigger off the final tragedy has, Margaret reminds her husband, "no drop of your blood in her!". Phrases like these lend themselves to biological mysticism and racial stereotype. Devanny partly offsets the racist danger by drawing a sympathetic portrait of a cultured indigene. Her Maoris are in no way Untermenschen. And it is also clear that purity of blood is meant to suggest purity of the heart; for, like Hardy with Tess, Devanny is concerned to represent Margaret as "a pure woman", an unsmirched character even when committing adultery or pushed to murder. But endorsing the notion of the purity of the blood and designating it as conferring nobility on a character, means the redistribution of racist assumptions.

It is perhaps difficult for an English-speaking reader to realise to what extent words such as "Blut" (blood) or "sauber" (pure, clean) have been lastingly contaminated by their appropriation in Nazi ideology. …