Wednesday, 15 February 2017

The Translations of the Brontë Devoirs

When at the Pensionnat Heger in Brussels, Charlotte and Emily Brontë wrote quite a lot of essays, or devoirs, at the instruction of Monsieur Heger, in French. These compositions are not only an important part of the legacy of their time in Brussels, they are also “a crucial link between the juvenilia and the novels,” as Sue Lonoff put it in her The Belgian Essays, published in 1996 by Yale.

For the first time the texts of all the known manuscripts were published, also in English translations. Previously, some could be found in Elizabeth Gaskell's Life of Charlotte Brontë;  Enid Duthie's The Foreign Vision of Charlotte Brontë, and several articles in the Transactions of the Brontë Society.

Cover of Enid Duthie's
The Foreign Vision of Charlotte Brontë


The first separate publication of devoirs was Fannie Ratchford's and Loraine White Nagel's Emily Brontë. Five Essays Written in French, published in 1948 by the University of Texas Press (with a 1974 reprint by Folcroft from Pennsylvania; 19 pp.). Fannie Ratchford (1887-1974), an important Brontë historian of the mid-20th century, was the Librarian of the Rare Book Collections of the University of Texas in Austin, which has among its collection of Brontë manuscripts one of the devoirs. She was the author of The Brontës Web of Childhood, about the juvenilia, edited  Gondal's Queen: A Novel in Verse by Emily Jane Brontë (1955) and contributed to C.W. Hatfield’s edition of Emily’s poems (published in 1941) and the Oxford edition of the complete works of the Brontes. In 1960 she published an article in the Transactions with three more essays.

Cover of the 1948 Emily Brontë,
Five EssaysWritten in French

Photograph of Fannie Ratchford



At the time, Lonoff gives the number of 30 devoirs known to have existed, written by at least one of the sisters, with two of them being lost. In 2012 Charlotte’s L’Amour filial devoir turned up, found in a private library. A devoir with that title written by Emily was already known. On top of that, Brian Bracken discovered Charlotte’s L’Ingratude in 2011. It was one of the two missing devoirs.

There are bound to have been more manuscripts than the ones now known, originally. “Of the extant essays,” Lonoff wrote, “ten are clear copies, eight have been corrected lightly, and nine bear signs of heavy intervention. There are also four revised drafts, two with his corrections and two, mailed to Gaskell, in his handwriting.” Given this, it seems fair to assume that there will originally have been three manuscripts per devoir, on average at least. There are four manuscripts by Charlotte from 1843 that may not be devoirs, of which thus only one manuscript ever existed. With these 4, the 27 known devoirs (27 x 3 = 81 manuscripts) and the four extras we get to a minimum of 89 manuscripts that have existed. It is likely that there will have been at least one or two more devoirs. Thus it would amount to more than 90 manuscripts. At present we have, it seems, a bit more than a third, 35 manuscripts. The number of titles is 27. Four of these were done by both sisters.
Most of the missing manuscripts will never turn up, but it must be only a matter of time before one will be discovered again. It seems possible that in the end we can get to 40 manuscripts, many years from now.

Cover of the 1996 Belgian Essays

Earlier, in 1990, a Japanese edition was published, with translations of 18 devoirs (298 pp.). The work was edited and translated by Hiroshi Nakaoka, and published by Kaibunnsha Shuppan from Tokyo, in 1990. The title translates as "Brontë Sister's Study Abroad Era." All these devoirs had been published before 1990, mostly in Brontë Society Transactions.

Cover of the 1990 Japanese devoirs edition
(front cover on the left)

In 2002 Emily’s devoirs were published in Italian by Ripostes from Salerno, translated by Maddalena de Leo (85 pp.).

Cover of the 2002 Italian Emily Brontë.
Componimenti in Francese


The next editions were not translations. Emily had six of her devoirs again published in French by Mille et Une Nuits in 2008. The booklet was edited by Augustin Trapenard (64 pp.).

Cover of the 2008 French
Devoirs de Bruxelles

In 2013 a new French edition, Le Palais de la Mort,  was published by Hermann from Paris. It was edited by Sue Lonoff de Cuevas herself. The book contains 13 devoirs written by both Emily and Charlotte, including the newly discovered L’Ingratitude (88 pp.).

Cover of the 2013 French
Le Palais de la Mort
(Painting (detail): Arnold Böcklin - Isle
of the  Dead (5th version, 1886))

A Japanese translation of Lonoff’s work was published in the summer of 2016 by Sairyusha (752 pp.). The translation was done by Hiroshi Nakaoka, who did the 1990 edition, and Ashizawa Hisae. The book sadly doesn’t have the two devoirs that were discovered some years ago.





Cover of the 2016 Japanese Belgian Essays

At the end of 2016 an Italian edition was published. It’s unique in having all thirty devoirs. They were translated by Maddalena de Leo, who wrote the following text:
 “I componimenti di Bruxelles have been finally published by the Italian publisher Ripostes in this month of December (123 pp.). In this book I’ve collected and translated in Italian all the French devoirs by Charlotte Brontë, written during her stay as a student -with her sister Emily- at the Pensionnat in Brussels, in 1842. I had already translated and published Emily’s devoirs in 2002 and now, by working on Charlotte’s unknown ones, my intention was to complete what at the time was an innovative work. Unlike Emily, Charlotte went back to Belgium in 1843, became an English teacher, and took more French lessons from Heger, writing for him new compositions.
My translation was based on Sue Lonoff ‘s work. To her I owe a great debt of gratitude for her punctual and clever work. The “devoirs” are thirty in total – twenty-one written by Charlotte and nine by Emily -, and in my book they are all preceded by an explicative introduction by me. The topics are varied, from British history to Greek history and the Bible - by reading them it is easy to understand Charlotte’s religious culture. Emily’s are far superior and almost some pearls of her thought.
My hope is that this new and complete work can be an addition to the Italian knowledge of these surprising English writers to whom I have dedicated my life.”


Cover of the 2016 Italian
I componimenti di Bruxelles



The cover picture is a slightly adapted version of a Brontë Christmas postcard with a drawing of Rosalind Wicks (with the Haworth Parsonage and the nearby church in the background).

Postcard drawing by Rosalind Wicks

To conclude, here is, in two parts, a table with all the manuscripts. It lists where they are located and where they have been published. It should be noted that the two that were published in Mrs. Gaskell’s Life of Charlotte Brontë have a number of times been translated as part of that book. The biography has at least 10 translations.







Eric Ruijssenaars
(with thanks to Akiko Higuchi, her son Tsuneharu Higuchi, and Sue Lonoff)

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