Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Preventing a French Villette, or did Charlotte really try?

There’s nothing to suggest Charlotte Brontë did indeed implore Smith, Elder & Co to prevent a French translation, as Gérin said. Many letters she wrote to them have survived, and there’s nothing in them, or in any other letter she wrote, to suggest she did, or even that she was bothered by the question of the novel becoming known in Brussels. This doesn’t of course prove Charlotte didn’t try what she could. At some point she might have told George Smith personally about the Brussels origin, and might have asked him.

In a letter to a John Forster, of 3 May 1853 (in M. Smith ed.- The letters of Charlotte Brontë,vol. 3, p. 160) Mrs. Gaskell wrote that “Mr Smith has got her 100 £ for a ‘French’ translation of Villette (500 £ for the copyright)…) but Tauchnitz, or his agent Williams, have never applied to her about Leipsic [sic] re-publication.” Mrs Gaskell here implies of course that Charlotte gave permission for a French translation.

Mrs. Gaskell was however quite  wrong on this, as Charlotte herself proves. On 18 April 1854 she wrote to George Smith (Smith, Letters, vol. 3, p. 245) that:
“I have Bank-Receipts for the following sums in my possession, viz.  …
£480. Recd for the copyright of “Villette” invested Decr 1852 …
£82-10s. Recd for Foreign Copyright of “Villette”; invested April 1853.”
It doesn’t show that she indeed gave permission for a French translation, as Mrs. Gaskell suggests, and it keeps open the possibility that she used the copyright treaty between France and Britain to prevent a France translation, for a year.


The money she received for ‘foreign copyright’ must partly refer to the Continental copyrighted edition (in English) of Villette that was published by Tauchnitz, a famous German publisher. This new work was available to people in Paris, or Brussels at almost the same time as it was in London. Tauchnitz was about the only publisher in Germany which registered all their books for copyright, and which thus paid foreign authors for their works. (For interesting bibliographical information see this article about Tauchnitz and Charlotte’s books).

Title page of the 1853 Tauchnitz Villette
A letter by Sidney Williams, published in The Athenaeum  on 26 March 1853, states that well over a year after the UK France treaty only three British books had been registered in Paris, to obtain copyright protection! It was he who had inspected the German register too, and reported about it in the same letter.
“During a recent visit to Paris, I saw on the shelves of a bookseller several American reprints of books recently published in England, against the sale of which no action would lie, for want of the English register.” This means that Tauchnitz had to compete against American pirates. It is quite a mystery why the British authors and publishers didn’t bother to register in France. That would have prevented their works from having to compete with cheaper American pirates there, and thus have increased their income.

The New York Villette
There seem to be just two American 1853 editions of Villette. Both were published by Harper & Brothers, from New York. The books don’t mention anything about copyright, but it could well be that these are not pirate editions. In a letter of 27 November 1852, written in New York, we find William Makepeace Thackeray saying that “Messrs. [Harper], who have published my larger books and have paid my London publisher for my last work, have offered me a sum of money for the republication of my lectures.” (G. Ray (ed.) - The letters and private papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, vol. 3 (Harvard 1946), p. 131). Thackeray’s 1852 Esmond was published by Smith, Elder & Co.

Villette was first published in the US at the beginning of February, as is shown by an article in The Literary World, an American journal (also from New York). On the fifth of that month they wrote that “Messrs. Harper & Brothers announce the publication … [of] “Villette,” a novel; by the author of “Jane Eyre“ and “Shirley,”” as well as of 18 other books. On 2 April Villette was in a list of published books, under the category of ‘Reprints.’ The first edition had apparently quickly sold out. The date of 5 February makes it possible that the New York Villette had hit the bookshelves in Paris by mid-March. However, since it probably wasn’t a (cheap) pirate edition it is unlikely that Harper & Brothers were going to compete against the Tauchnitz Villette, on the Continent.

Title page of the New York Villette
The £82-10s Charlotte received from her publisher for the foreign copyright of Villette can well be regarded as a rip off. Apart from the Tauchnitz Villette, and the New York Villette, there was also a copyrighted German translation in 1853 (the Berlin Villette, about which more later). Charlotte deserved to get much more money.

We don’t know which three books were registered, but it’s clear Villette wasn’t among them. If it were the Bibliothèque Nationale should have a deposited copy, and its catalog shows they haven’t. They do have a copy of apparently January 1853 (the date of a Smith, Elder & Co advertisement included in it), but they only acquired it about five years ago. It follows that Villette was not deposited, and thus also not registered, in order to obtain copyright.

It also follows that what Gérin wrote about “the fact that Charlotte pledged him [George Smith] to refuse and to prevent a French translation,” and that “he kept his word till after her death”  is completely untrue. Sadly this is just one little example of how very unreliable her biography of Charlotte, and in particular her chapters about Brussels are. Charlotte may not have actively pursued a French translation, which is all that can be said. But the way she acted meant that anyone in France was free to produce and publish one by April 1854. Clearly then she was not at all interested in Villette not getting known in Brussels. Or she was resigned to the idea that it was impossible to prevent it.

Winifred Gérin was also quite wrong in calling the two 1855 Brussels Villette translations “pirates.” Whatever copyright protection there was and could have been, had expired or hadn’t been used.  There was nothing illegal about them. And she was also wrong in stating that publication began after Charlotte’s death. We’ll come back to these publications in two weeks time.

It has been said that Charlotte pledged to take revenge on Madame Heger, at their final farewell. And that Villette was that revenge. We’ll discuss this theory in the next article, as it’s worthy of a separate article. If it were right Charlotte would even deliberately have tried for the novel  to become known in Brussels, contradicting Gérin even further.

Eric Ruijssenaars

1 comment:

Pat Marshall said...

Thank you for these clarifications. Very interesting.
Pat Marshall, Canada