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Lesa Scholl. Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman: Charlotte Bronte, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot.

Lesa Scholl. Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman: Charlotte Bronte, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot. London: Ashgate, 2011. 222 pp.; US $99.95 ISBN 9781409426530

The novel looms large in established accounts of Charlotte Bronte's and George Eliot's contributions to nineteenth-century British literature, and Harriet Martineau's prolific writings on political economy mark her first and foremost as a Victorian pioneer in the field of sociology. But as Lesa Scholl makes clear in Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman: Charlotte Bronte, Harriet Martineau and George Eliot these three women writers also exerted wide-ranging cultural influence and fashioned authoritative professional identities in their work as translators. Scholl understands translation as not only "linguistic transmission" (exemplified, for instance, by Eliot and Martineau's English translations of German and French philosophical texts) but also as cultural translation, what Scholl describes in the cases of these authors as a self-conscious and selective process of rewriting foreign ideas within and, at times, against the middle-class conventions of Victorian Britain (3). In their translated works, journalism, reviews, fiction, and travel writing, Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau acted as "cultural double agents" or "mediators": familiarity with foreign texts and international travel positioned them to bring continental and colonial ideas to England, while also giving them opportunities to encounter cultural otherness abroad and write from "a new place of dislocation between the known and the unknown, the domestic and the foreign" (6).

The mastery and manipulation of textual and cultural content manifest in Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau's work as translators, Scholl argues, can be understood as a subversive claim to public intellectual authority on the part of these woman writers. As they "reworked" dominant ideologies by importing "possible alternatives" into the contexts of Victorian England, these writers not only challenged the Judeo-Christian tradition to think of translation, like woman, as derivative, but widened domestic fields of debate on issues such as the status of women, poverty, and colonization (3). Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman importantly elucidates the influential roles these women played as "literary professionals and master-translators" who wrote across languages and genres and wielded real cultural and ideological authority through their intellectual work (189).

At the core of Scholl's argument is the dialectic of colonization: domestic/foreign and English/other. Translation, Scholl states from the outset, is metaphorically and physically inseparable from the act of colonization, an appropriation of power that takes over the original text and produces a "hybrid" linguistically "re-identified as English" albeit remaining in cultural "exile" (188). Several related dialectical oppositions--original/derivative, master/pupil, and public/private--provide bases for particular lines of interpretation pursued across chapters and to a large extent determine the tripartite organization of the book as a whole. In part I, "Learning the Language of Transgression," Scholl establishes the tensions inherent in the power dynamic between original author and translator in order to explicate the ways in which these women writers exceeded the role of "pupil" and assumed authorial mastery in their own literary careers. Part 2, "Beyond Translation," examines material from Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau's autobiographical writings, personal and business correspondence, and journalism in order to explicate the discursive strategies these women employed in representing and asserting professional authority as public educators for the English nation. Particularly arresting here are the readings of Martineau's self-construction as a woman writer and "a businesswoman" in her 1877 Autobiography (79). Throughout, biographical interpretation is woven with close readings of Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau's major literary works so that source materials mutually inform in revealing ways. Scholl brings fresh readings to the canonical Villette and Middlemarch, for example, when she demonstrates the ways in which Bronte's and Eliot's professional experiences as translators find expression in their fiction. Scholl argues that Bronte puts her fluency in French to use in Lucy Snowe's dissembling translations of the French language, which make explicit to the reader that Lucy "has the power to decide" as narrator what her audience hears (42).

Part 3, "Vacating the Hearth," charts Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau's physical journeys outside England. Here Scholl argues that their fictional and autobiographical narratives of cross-cultural encounters rewrite dominant masculine discourses of imperialist adventure by replacing the quest for "dominance and superiority" with "the search for equivalency" in a foreign land (131). Examples drawn from Martineau's writings on American politics (and her support for the advancement of American women and the emancipation of slaves) and Eliot's journals and published essays on Weimar (where she observed the "relative freedom of Continental women" and, unlike in England, was accepted into society [158]) flesh out Scholl's compelling argument that these women use travel writing as the distanced venue from which to critique English society.

Scholl does intimate that "the social trauma" of the colonizing process should not be ignored in the broader contexts of her study (188). She concedes that Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau, akin to many British women writers of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, enlisted imperialist discourse in order "to further the cause of women" (140). She observes that in their work as translators they opened "reluctant" cross-cultural "channels that could not then be shut" (188). Still, in Scholl's framing colonization by translation appears to have been largely propitious for Bronte, Eliot, and Martineau because it afforded a means to cultural and professional power otherwise denied women writers at this time. These tensions between gender, colonization, and translation, so central to Scholl's book, raise important questions regarding the complicity of British women translators and travel writers and the violence of British imperialism in and beyond the Victorian period. Translation, Authorship and the Victorian Professional Woman deepens our understanding of Bronte's, Eliot's, and Martineau's roles as influential literary professionals and agents of cultural (ex)change, and its synthesizing critical approach lays paths of further inquiry within and beyond the field of women's writing of the Victorian period. Scholl's book will accordingly be of particular interest to scholars and students of nineteenth-century British women writers and gender, the professionalization of writing in Britain between 1830 and 1880, translation studies, and postcolonial theory.


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Author:Sharpe, Ada
Publication:Papers of the Bibliographical Society of Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2012
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