Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

`Distant Voices, Still Lives': The Correspondence between H.H. Richardson and Her French Translator, Paul Solanges

Academic journal article Australian Literary Studies

`Distant Voices, Still Lives': The Correspondence between H.H. Richardson and Her French Translator, Paul Solanges

Article excerpt

Mr Nicholls was ... aware of the kinds of particulars which people would look for; and saw how they snatched at every gossiping account of her, and how desirable it was to have a full and authorized history of her life if it were done at all. His feeling was against its being written, but he yielded to Mr Bronte's impetuous wish. (Letter from Elizabeth Gaskell to Ellen Nussey 14 July 1855, on obtaining permission to write the life of Charlotte Bronte, qtd. in Barker 783)

Until recently, access to Henry Handel Richardson's correspondence has been restricted. Dorothy Green had read the correspondence between Richardson and her French translator Paul Solanges by the time she prepared the revised edition of her literary biography of Richardson, Ulysses Bound (1973; rev. ed. 1986). Solanges is mentioned briefly in an appendix as the translator into French of Richardson's Maurice Guest where Green points to the light the correspondence, through its discussion of translation problems, might throw on the novel (1986, 544-45). Before her death, Dorothy Green expressed concern that she had not had time to undertake the translation of Solanges' letters, written in French to Richardson who replied in English. She and Richardson's literary executor, Margaret Capon, had planned an edition of the letters (545). At Dorothy Green's request and with Margaret Capon's permission, I began that task of transcribing and translating the letters, intending to deposit the translations in the National Library's collection and possibly, if the letters proved interesting enough, to publish a selection of them.(1) My project has been overtaken by the preparation of an edition of the complete correspondence of Richardson.(2) This paper, an expanded version of my contribution to a conference on Richardson at the National Library of Australia in April 1997, is an attempt to provide for future scholars an outline of what I have found to be the major points of interest in the correspondence.

When Paul Solanges mentioned that he was keeping all her letters to him, Richardson expressed some concern (HHR 23.8.11).(3) After his death, his daughter, at Richardson's request, returned them (Letter from Mile Marthes Solanges to Richardson, 6.4.14). I understand Richardson's concern at the idea that these letters might some day come to be read by others, and the more closely I have read this correspondence, the more I have felt that I am intruding on a special relationship and that I don't fully understand its secrets. Some of the letters have direct bearing on Maurice Guest, but the general contribution to an understanding of Richardson herself can never be more than oblique. Richardson and Solanges masqueraded for each other, Richardson the more extravagantly in maintaining, throughout the correspondence, a masculine identity. Solanges appears as a very frank correspondent, yet he too is presenting a persona. Though the letters are full of what biographers might seize on as `gossipy' particulars, there is a sense in which we will never plumb their depths. Richardson and Solanges, who never met, remain imagined, shadowy lives for readers of the letters, just as they were for each other.

For just over three years, Richardson and Solanges wrote to each other almost every week. What I find fascinating, the big issue of the gender masquerade apart, is why Richardson committed herself so devotedly to maintaining a correspondence that clearly was going beyond translation problems. `Your letters,' she wrote, quite early in the correspondence, `are among the most interesting I get' (HHR 30.10.11). And again: `I always receive them gladly. I am pleased to hear, not only how the work is going, but also of you yourself, and of all the other many things you tell me of so interestingly' (HHR 28.11.11). After Solanges' death, Richardson wrote to her friend Mary Kernot to say that the death of her French translator had `knocked all the spirit' out of her. …

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