Classics revisited – and Austen at 200

Today is the 200th anniversary of the publication of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. I’ve been celebrating vicariously with BBC Radio 4, including a delightful report from the Austen house this morning, delivered from the very spot on which Jane received her first copy from the publisher.  She read it aloud to a lucky listener that same day, making no mention of herself as the author. I haven’t  re-read the novel itself for at least two decades,  but know I would find a great deal more in it now than I did back then. As when looking afresh at any work of art one hasn’t experienced for years…

The 2002 Matisse/Picasso exhibition at the Galeries du Grand Palais in Paris opened with the two painters’ self-portraits hung side-by-side, both of which I had last seen (in print only) almost two decades earlier, as a history of art student. Faces I had registered then simply as ‘two famous men’ sprang to life now. Picasso (or I ) had effected a kind of reverse Dorian Gray shift: he was younger than me this time around, forceful, sensual, stocky, muscular, determined, burning with inspiration. Matisse was no longer just a well-known artist painting a famous picture of himself with green flesh tones instead of pink: he looked cautious, wary, reserved, questioning the choices he was making on the canvas. On the brink of middle age, he was still a far cry from the twinkly, iconic persona of his last years. The paintings hadn’t changed but I had, and there was so much more to see in them now.

  

Reading Pride and Prejudice for the first time, in my teens, I loved the superficial fun of Lizzie and her father’s ongoing private joke, their arch derision of the lesser-brained members of the Bennet family. I felt the Bennet girls’ acute pain in love and loss, too, of course. But the subtlety and depth of the book’s characters were mostly lost. The same fictional folk are revisited in the Guardian this weekend (‘Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice at 200 : looking afresh at a classic’). Messrs Bennet and Darcy undergo perceptive analysis and character assassination courtesy of John Mullan and Sebastian Faulks, Mrs Bennet gets a more understanding hearing from Bharat Tandon, and Lydia enjoys a dazzling rehabilitation thanks to Paula Byrne. I look forward to reading it all again, with what the French so charmingly call l’avantage de l’âge…

Another Austen bicentennial piece on Radio 4  – coupled with the reference to newly-published books arriving in the post – put me in mind of a couple of my recent translations. Bear with…

Sue Limb’s delightful audio letter from Mr Bennet imagined the ever-jaded Mr B. writing to Lizzie from Bath, where he and his dear lady wife are celebrating their wedding anniversary. Mrs B’s excited squeals announce her return from a shopping trip, on which she has bought ‘a Jane Austen fridge magnet, a Jane Austen T-shirt, a Jane Austen Thermos mug, a Jane Austen enamelled keyring, and a Jane Austen zipped hoodie…’.

This was bound to strike a chord with someone who spent most of last summer and autumn  translating two big books on Monet’s garden in Giverny (an exhibition catalogue for the Musée Marmottan Monet, Paris and the Sakip Sabanci Museum, Istanbul), and Marie-Antoinette’s garden at the Trianon (Flammarion, 2013).

Who among us has not bought or at least seen a Monet waterlilies teatowel, mouse-mat, mug or croaking frog garden alarm in a museum gift shop at some point in the last decade or so? Not to mention a Marie-Antoinette guest soap assortment, teacup-and-saucer, or kitten-heeled satin slipper Christmas tree  decoration? Revisiting these two icons, and their equally iconic gardens – rescuing them from the gift shop and chocolate box lid, helping us to see them afresh – is what both books and their English translations are all about.

Giverny is perhaps easier for us to reinstate as a bold, avant-garde Gesamtwerk, than Marie-Antoinette’s Trianon playground. But Elisabeth Feydeau’s book (devised with Versailles head gardener and consultant editor Alain Baraton) succeeds in the undertaking, I think. Marie-Antoinette was, like Mrs Bennet, trying to do her best with the means at her disposal. In the context of Versailles, the Trianon was a genuine attempt at unaffected naturalism, an immersive environment that drew on painting, architecture, garden design, colour, fragrance and movement, counterbalancing the infinite tedium and massive scale of the static allées next door. Visitors to the Trianon could climb hills, float in boats, enjoy trysts in shady grottos, escape unseen down hidden flights of steps. The Temple of Love, on an artificial hillock overlooking a lake, was planted all around, we are told, with fragrant, white-blossoming shrubs whose petals and scent swirled and filled the air, like a snowstorm in a glass globe. White was Marie-Antoinette’s favourite colour, and she may even have understood (subconsciously or otherwise?) how white can function in bright sunlight against a vivid green background to generate retinal suggestions of contrasting colour, at the corners of our vision – provided we are prepared to look beyond the evidence of our eyes and experience colour and form as direct, abstract sensations, rather than the constituent parts of familiar motifs.

Marie-Antoinette’s social conscience was expressed at the Trianon too. Her hamlet with its kitchen gardens seems to have been intended, in part, to encourage the French poor to grow their own food in the face of famine – especially potatoes, which she saw as a solution to the acute problem. Which is why the Queen donned a potato-flower coiffure when the botanist and potato advocate Parmentier was received at Versailles. ‘Let them eat potatoes’ has a more practical ring, n’est-ce pas?

We have a duty, then, to keep working hard to rescue classic texts, classic paintings, iconic gardens, any and every aspect of The Culture, from the relentless petrification and superficialisation that come with great familiarity and huge popularity.

In that ongoing effort, translation has its role to play.

Did I see a Sid Vicious Union Jack tea-cosy on sale in London in the hazy, crazy summer of 2012? I think perhaps I did…

  • Monet’s Garden: Masterpieces from the Musée Marmottan Monet, exhibition catalogue, Musée Marmottan Monet/Sakip Sabanci Museum, 2012. Translated by Louise Rogers Lalaurie and Charles Penwarden.
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