Constance Garnett: The Great Literary Translator — A Short Profile

She had a great fear of Lenin…

Constance Garnett. Image: George Allen & Unwin — The Garnett Family

If, like me, you started to read, in English, the great Russian novelists and playwrights, in the 1950s and 1960s, you probably read the Constance Garnett translations. Garnett almost single-handedly made Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Chekhov, and the rest of them, available to the English speaking (and reading) world, and by so doing brought a different kind of literature. And as Carolyn G. Heilbrun has written:

“ All those for whom Russian Literature was the new found land of this century[early 20th]looked to Constance Garnett as the great revealer. Literally millions of readers were indebted to her for their first knowledge of a vast new realm of fiction and drama. Those born in England after 1880 often refer to her translations which ‘opened up new worlds of the imagination to readers of English’.”

Heilbrun goes on to write:

“ The tremendous impact of Constance Garnett on the appreciation of Russian literature in England and America did not really occur until after the Dostoyevsky translations had begun in 1912. After that, the cumulative effect of volume after volume of each author began to be felt.

“ From 1901, when her translation of Anna Karenina appeared, until about 1904, Constance Garnett translated some of Tolstoy’s work, which Heinemann published, in four volumes, in ‘popular’ as well as ordinary editions. Tolstoy had by then been translated almost completely; in 1899 Charles Scribner’s issued a twenty volume edition of his works, although, although Aylmer Maude [a contemporary of Constance Garnett, a fellow translator, and biographer of Tolstoy] did not, apparently, find these or other translations satisfactory…”

Aylmer Maude, with his wife Louise, had spent many years living in Russia, and rightly considered themselves experts not only on the country, but on the writers, many of whom they knew personally. As a good friend of the Garnetts, Maude, wisely, never referred to Constance’s work.

The New Zealand writer, Katherine Mansfield, on finishing War and Peace, told Garnett that her generation (she was 32 at the time), “…owe you more than we ourselves are able to realize.”

Constance Garnett was born in 1862, and belonged to a “…first generation of women that received an education comparable to a man’s…”, and like many men of her generation was able, albeit not easily, to form opinions that were her own, and follow them through, away from parental control, and in the end the control of her somewhat grumpy husband, the literary editor, Edward Garnett. D. H. Lawrence writes of her:

Edward “ Garnett… was a good friend and a fine editor, but he ate his heart out trying to be a writer. When I’d visit them, I’d find Garnett in his study, spending hours working over a single phrase to get the very last quality of rightness. He would rack his brain and suffer while his wife, Constance Garnett, was sitting out in the garden turning out reams of her marvellous translations from the Russian…”

Constance was a very small woman who loved gardening, had enjoyed pre-marital sex with Edward, took a revolutionary Russian lover, who first inspired her to translate his country’s great literature. When the English novelist, H. E. Bates first met her in 1926, he saw a very frail, very small grey haired woman that reminded him of his grandmother, who seemed to spend most of her time feeding her chickens. And as Heilbrun writes:

“ She had a first-rate brain, as is evidenced by every stage of her remarkable career but, rarer than that in a woman, she was an intellectual, more interested in ideas than personalities, able to see behind the practice to the principle…”

She was interested in mathematics, spoke many languages, and became extraordinarily interested in World affairs, not least her fear of Lenin, and although a socialist as a younger woman, considered, after careful reading, that Karl Marx’s theories were wrong.

Apart from Tolstoy, Constance probably considered her translations of Chekhov her finest work, work that was done between Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, creating huge excitement among the many stage and dramatic societies, and as Heilbrun writes:

“ Mr Frank Swinnerton [English novelist and biographer]reports that one night in 1911, the Stage Society, ‘always seeking unhackneyed entertainments for its members, which it regarded as the pick [my italics]of the intelligent London middle class’, produced The Cherry Orchard translated by Constance Garnett.”

It would appear not to have been a great success with the majority of the audience (“ bored and bewildered”) leaving soon after the start of the second act.

Frank Swinnerton. Image: Fine Art America

Swinnerton, along with four or five others, remained until the end totally mesmerized by what they had seen and heard. He began to search the bookshops for other works by the Russian, but without much success. To cut a long story short, Swinnerton eventually persuaded Edward Garnett (at a party) to take on the publishing of more Chekhov, naturally translated by Constance. Thus began a theatrical love affair with the Russian doctor.

One regret in Constance’s life was that she translated Turgenev too early in her career, feeling she had not done him justice. Whether true or not, she had done Turgenev enough justice to make one of Hemingway’s favourite, and most influential, writers. The American took the Russian with him wherever he went.

Contance died in 1946, with her son, David Garnett, always furthering her reputation as the most important of all translators of Russian literature and drama.

Constance with son David. Image: timeline

Read about Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Image: The Daily Kos

Bibliography: Carolyn G. Heilbrun — The Garnett Family (George Allen & Unwin Ltd, London, 1961); Helen Smith — The Uncommon Reader: A Life of Edward Garnett(Jonathan Cape, London, 2017);

Playwright, Historian, Biographer & Freelance Writer Living and Working in Shakespeare’s Stratford

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