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Garnett, Constance (1862–1946)

Garnett, Constance (1862–1946)

Prolific English translator of 19th-century Russian literature. Born Constance Clara Black in Brighton, England, on December 19, 1862; died on December 17, 1946, in Edenbridge, England; daughter of David Black (a coroner) and Clara (Patten) Black; educated by home tutoring; attended Brighton High School, Newnham College Association for Advanced Learning and Education among Women in Cambridge, 1879–83; married Edward Garnett (a writer), in 1889; children: David (b. 1892).

In 1879, Constance Garnett received the highest score of more than 3,000 candidates who sat the entrance examination for Cambridge University. The resulting scholarship to Newnham College allowed her, in the words of Carolyn Heilbrun , to "escape from the suffocating prison that was the life of the usual Victorian girl." Garnett had been born 17 years earlier, the sixth of eight children of David Black and Clara Patten Black . Her childhood had not been a happy one. She suffered from tuberculosis until the age of seven. Her father, who had been born of English parents in Russia and educated in law in England, worked as the coroner in Brighton. He was a severe and irritable man who terrified his many children. Her mother, from an artistic English family, died when Constance was only 13. Much of her early education came from her older siblings but was sufficient, given her natural abilities, for her to win the coveted scholarship and to gain the equivalent of a first-class university degree after four years at Newnham College.

Constance Garnett's disposition and her higher education, which was unusual for an English woman of this period, allowed her to live independently in London. She supported herself first as a tutor for girls of wealthy families and later as a librarian at the People's Palace. During the 1880s, she enjoyed the cultural life of the capital, became interested in social causes, and joined the Fabian Society. In 1889, she married Edward Garnett, a budding writer and literary critic. Three years later, during her only pregnancy, she started to study Russian at the suggestion of a Russian émigré living in England. She made sufficient progress that shortly after the birth of her son David she was able to translate Ivan Goncharov's A Common Story into English. Its appearance in print in 1894 began a career that over the span of the next 34 years witnessed the publication of 72 volumes of Russian novels, short stories, and plays in very readable English translations. This output made her, in the opinion of Rachel May , "the most famous translator of Russian literature of all time."

In the winter of 1894 Garnett traveled alone in Russia for three months, transmitting money raised in England for Russian famine relief, passing on letters to revolutionaries in that country, and visiting the novelist Leo Tolstoy. During this trip and another which she made with her son in 1904, as well as through her literary work and her association with Russians in England, she developed an affection for Russian life of the 19th century which she passed on to her readers through her translations. She introduced Dostoevsky and Chekhov to English audiences in addition to translating almost all of the writings of Turgenev and many of those of Tolstoy, Herzen, and Gogol. She deserves great credit for stimulating the interest of several generations of English-speaking readers in the classics of Russian literature. While some of her translations now seem dated, they exerted considerable influence on English literature during the first half of the 20th century. It is a tribute to their fluidity and accuracy that many remain in print a century after their original publication. Failing eyesight caused her to cease translating in 1928. She died two days before her 84th birthday in December 1946.

sources:

Brailsford, H.N. "Garnett, Constance Clara, 1861[sic]–1946," Dictionary of National Biography, 1941–1950. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959, pp. 288–289.

Heilbrun, Carolyn G. The Garnett Family: The History of a Literary Family. London: George Allen and Unwin, 1961.

suggested reading:

Garnett, David. The Golden Echo. London: Chatto and Windus, 1954.

R. C. Elwood , Professor of History, Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada

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