Virginia Barton

A woman of admirable integrity

Catholic Herald, 7 June 1991


Review: Constance Garnett: A Heroic Life by Richard Garnett (Sinclair-Stevenson, £20)


Only in the last chapter of this excellent biography of his grandmother, does Richard Garnett allow his personal relationship with her intrude upon the telling of her life story. In this last chapter Constance comes suddenly and vividly to life (clad in home-knits) with the author’s personal memories.

These impressions complete the book. The woman he has described from her birth in 1861 could not have developed into anyone other than the person he remembers in the 1930s and 1940s.

constance-garnettConstance Garnett is known of course for her translations into English of the Russian classics. By 1934, when she completed Three Plays by Turgenev and finally laid down her pen, she had translated 71 volumes. The effect of this colossal work on the English-speaking world is incalculable.

The sheer cultural impact of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov or Gogol on a generation of English readers – few of whom had any idea of the wealth of literature that lay on the banks of the Volga – would make an interesting study in its own right.

Constance’s dedicated toil was a gift without price, and even today many translators look to her as a beacon. On the rare occasions in this book when Richard Garnett makes comparisons between her work and that of others, the differences are glaring.

One of her aims was to translate into the English of the period in which the original was written; as she pointed out: “it would show grotesque insensibility to produce a translation of Dead Souls, written at the same time as Pickwick, in the language of today’s newspapers . . .”

Constance née Black, one of eight children, was born in Brighton to parents who believed in education for girls as well as boys. Dogged throughout her life by precarious health (and more seriously, by poor eyesight), she nonetheless obtained a scholarship to Newnham, Cambridge, aged only 17.

The early death of Constance’s mother, and the illness that confined her father to a wheelchair, seem to have shattered any religious beliefs Constance may have held; and indeed to the end of her life she maintained that religion was “a sort of contagious insanity”.

Cambridge was a liberating experience and the study of classics developed Constance’s skill in expressing precise meanings. After graduating with first class honours, she found work in London, first as a governess and then as a librarian at the People’s Palace in the East End.

At this time she met Edward Garnett, whose father, the notable scholar Richard, was Keeper of Printed Books at the British Museum. Romance developed into an unconventional but happy marriage and one son, David, was born to them.

This biography is not confined to Constance; Edward and David figure almost as largely, and a whole throng of the literary giants of the time. Bernard Shaw (who proposed to Constance), Wells, Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, D.H. Lawrence, Conrad and H.E. Bates, to name but a handful, flit in and out of the Garnett environs like so many illustrious birds of plumage.

It was a heady world of art, politics and culture – a world Constance often escaped to seek the peace of her garden in Kent. Karl Marx’s daughter, Tussy, was an early friend of Constance, and as other Russians arrived, an exotic patina glossed the British scene.

Inspired by her friendships with the radicals Volkhovsky and Stepniak, Constance made two journeys to Russia (where she met Tolstoy), and it was the influence of these two men that propelled her into the world of Russian literature.

There is so much that is fascinating in this biography – the socio-historical, the literary, the simply human – it is impossible to give more than a glimpse of this very full life in a short review. Constance – cool, clever, a little forbidding – dominates a book that intrigues the reader to the very last page. A prize-winner of a book about a woman of admirable integrity.


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