Tuesday 23 February 2016

La maîtresse d’Anglais, ou Le pensionnat de Bruxelles

In my second book, The Pensionnat revisited, I wrote there were two Brussels editions of a French translation of Villette. I wrote half a page about them, and the copyright question and other translations. This series of articles is of course a much improved version of that story. What I wrote was not entirely right. It was unfinished research. There were, we know now, four ‘Brussels Villettes’ in 1855. Apart from three book versions, La maîtresse d’Anglais, ou Le Pensionnat de Bruxelles was also published in serialized form, in the Revue Britannique. We’ll begin by describing the four editions.

The Revue Britannique Villette

The Revue Britannique was a monthly journal, which was published from 1825 to 1901. It was not just a Belgian journal.  It appears that there were two different editions of it on the Continent in 1855. One has Paris, Rotterdam and Madrid as places of publishing, the other one has Brussels and Livorno.

Title page of the Revue Britannique
of the first bound volume of 1855,
for the first half of the year.

It started to publish La maîtresse d’Anglais in its March edition of 1855, just before Charlotte died and after the Anglo-Belgian copyright treaty. The journal never mentions the author (nor does it mention her death). The ninth and last episode was published in November. It’s easy to see that the opening chapters of the novel were cut short. By the end of the first installment Lucy Snowe had already well and truly arrived in Brussels. If the Hegers hadn’t heard about Villette yet, they would now.

The first page of the Revue Britannique Villette

At that time the Revue Britannique was “sous la direction de Amédée Pichot,” a historian and translator. It seems likely that he did the translation of Villette. Pichot (1795-1877) translated a lot of works from English authors, including Dickens and Thackeray. He was a Frenchman, which will mean that the origin of La maîtresse lies in France.

The page numbers of the installments are: in Part 1 of 1855, March, pp. 345-364, April, pp. 477-492, May, pp. 590-614, June, pp. 714-735; in Part 2 of 1855, July, pp. 81-99, August, pp. 222-239, September, pp. 296-310, October, pp. 419-442 and November, pp. 544-553. The July to November editions of La maitresse can be seen via Google books.

The Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette

Perhaps the most interesting edition is the book, three separate volumes in fact, published by Kiessling & Schnee, of Brussels and Leipzig. Its address in Brussels was Rue Villa-Hermosa 1 (now the Ancien magasin Old England, on the corner with the Montagne de la Cour), in the Isabella Quarter, only a few hundred meters away from the Pensionnat Heger. A copy of this edition is in the possession of the Heger family. It has been directly linked to them finding out about Villette, but this can’t be true. The Revue Britannique Villette at least came first.

Title page of the Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette
(from Princeton University Livrary)

In her ‘M. Heger’s grand-daughter visits Haworth’ (Brontë Society Transactions, 1953, vol. 12, nr. 3), Phyliis Bentley said that “Mme. Beckers showed us some interesting Brontëana; … and a rare pirated edition of “Villette,” very freely translated into French and dated Brussels, 1855 – only two years after its publication, when Charlotte was still alive.” Gérin’s description of this edition in her Charlotte biography shows that it is the Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette. Bentley’s statement that Charlotte was still alive is wrong.

First text page of the Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette
(Princeton University Library)

The Journal de l’imprimerie et de la librairie en Belgique has recorded the publication of the three volumes in 1855. The first part was mentioned in the July edition, which will probably mean that it was published in June, or May perhaps. As one would expect this was done at about the same time as the third installment of La maîtresse in Revue Britannique in May 1855, or shortly after. The second volume was mentioned in the October/November edition, while the third volume was announced in the December Journal. The Journal also has the Revue Britannique contents for each month, but not the other two editions of La maîtresse. It did give the name of Currer Bell as the author of the first installment, which as we saw the Revue itself didn’t.
Princeton University Library informed me that they had “looked at this [Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette,] and the back page cover or the end paper is a blank sheet of cream paper. There is no advertisement.”*

The Bayerische Staatsbibliothek has a digital version of the first volume online. In Germany Mainz University Library also has a copy of this La maîtresse. The one other known copy is kept at the National Library of Poland.

The Paris Villette

The Library of the University of Amsterdam has in its collection an edition of La maîtresse d’Anglais which was published by Borrani et Droz from Paris. This name was not printed though on the cover page. A little sticker was put on it. Like the other edition this Villette was also printed by A. Labroue et Compagnie, from Rue de la Fourche 36 in Brussels. All the books make the same strange mistake of giving the author’s name as ‘Curer Bell (Charlotte Bronti).’ The Paris Villette’s three volumes have 216, 206 and 219 pages respectively, and so no doubt will the other editions.

Title page of the Paris Villette

These La maîtresses have quite identical advertisements  on the back cover, for itself, for the Revue Britannique, and also for instance of a work by “Tackeray,” in the ‘Bibliothèque internationale’ series. Both the first and second volume mention two volumes of itself, while the third gives “3 vols.” This suggests that the first and second volume were published together, presumably in September.  Volume two can’t have been published before August at least, the month of the sixth of nine installments in the Revue Britannique.

Back cover pages of the Paris Villette

The Rue de la Fourche Villette

The Ghent University Library has in its collection a Brussels Villette which only has the printer’s name. They only have the second and third volume. Apart from the little Borrani et Droz sticker it’s similar to the Paris Villette. The band of decoration was widened, leaving no space for a sticker beneath it. Volume 2 can be seen here, and volume 3 here. It has also got the Bibliothèque internationale inscription on the cover page. The back cover pages have apparently not survived, so we don’t know if it had the advertisement of the Paris Villette. That is likely though.

Cover page of the second volume of the
Rue de la Fourche Villette
(Ghent University Library/Google books)


The text of these four editions is exactly the same. It is just one translation, published in four versions. The print setting of the three books is identical, and it’s even the same as that of the Revue Britannique Villette. Only the cover and title pages vary. There are five known surviving copies of the Rue Villa-Hermosa Villette, and only one of each of the other two book editions. An unspecified copy is being held in a Rio de Janeiro library, and it is possible there will be a few more copies in other libraries and in private collections. There is no sign of a La maîtresse ever having come up for auction. They were cheap copies, of rather poor quality. Some remaining volumes have been bound, surely in a bid to restore a book that was falling apart. Not all front and back cover pages have survived. It was probably cheapest to have it printed in Brussels. That will have been the major reason, rather than the Brussels connection of the novel.


Phyllis Bentley, as we saw above, called La maitresse a “very freely translated” work. Perhaps it’s mostly though an abridged version of Villette. We would estimate that almost half of the text has vanished. Whole paragraphs of the original are sometimes condensed into a few lines, but the remaining part is reasonably well translated. The Revue Britannique speaks about its nine installments as ‘extraits.’It could perhaps be called an ‘imitation,’ or an adaptation, for which there was no copyright protection. The copyright treaties were “not intended to prohibit fair imitations,” but were meant to prevent piratical translations. In case of disagreements a court judge would have to decide on whether a work was an imitation or a translation.

It is remarkable that it took until March 1855 before the first part of (an abridged edition of) a French Villette was published. Apparently no French publisher was really interested, and no translator stood up earlier. It took until well into the 20th century before another French translation was published.

Before writing about the supposed scandal Villette caused in Brussels, against the background of the findings presented here and in the earlier articles, I will first write about the other early translations of Villette, in countries like Germany and Russia. Both had 1853 translations. In the latter country there were two editions of a translation of La maîtresse d’Anglais.

Eric Ruijssenaars

*With thanks to Gabriel Swift and Brianna Cregle of Princeton University Library, Department of Rare Books and Special Collections.

No comments: