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“Une école des mœurs & de la morale”: How the Wouters Sisters made English Theater French

Carrie F. Klaus
p. 79-96


Dans leur Traduction du théâtre anglois en douze volumes (Paris, 1784-1786), un recueil comprenant, entre autres, des pièces de Jonson, Steele, Garrick et Sheridan, Cornélie Wouters, Baronne de Wasse, et sa sœur Marie Wouters déclarent que le théâtre est « une école des mœurs & de la morale » essentielle pour toute nation civilisée. Elles s’étendent ensuite sur les difficultés que l’on peut rencontrer dans l’adaptation théâtrale d’un pays à l’autre, remarquant, par exemple, que les Anglais flegmatiques comptent sur le théâtre pour les égayer — « ce peuple naturellement sombre a besoin de spectacles extrêmement animés » — tandis que « trop de force et d’énergie dans les caractères blesseroit la sensibilité » des Français. Cependant, la lecture et l’analyse de leur traduction de Miss in her Teens de David Garrick montrent que les Wouters s’occupent beaucoup moins des goûts présumés des Français que de la création d’une version de la pièce conforme à l’« école des mœurs & de la morale ». Le relevé de leurs substitutions lexicales révèle que les Wouters évitent systématiquement le langage grossier, rendent les références au désir sexuel moins explicites, et minimisent les suggestions de violence, rétablissant ainsi les différences de classe sociale, remodelant le caractère des personnages et transformant le texte entièrement. Les Wouters commentent et critiquent donc leurs dramaturges anglais préférés tout en se servant de leurs œuvres. Ainsi offrent-elles aux lecteurs modernes des aperçus utiles des idéaux esthétiques et moraux de la fin du xviiie et des règles de conduite de la société bourgeoise française dans les années menant à la Révolution Française.

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1With their twelve-volume Traduction du théâtre anglois, which appeared in Paris from 1784 through 1786, Cornélie Wouters, Baroness of Wasse (or Vasse) and her sister Marie Wouters took on the challenge of bringing recent English plays to a French audience, with the stated goal of adapting these plays to match French tastes and conventions. The Wouters sisters wrote and published actively in Paris in the 1780s but have since largely disappeared from literary history. We know little about these two women outside of the works they have left us. Both were born in Brussels: Cornélie most likely in 1737 and Marie in 1739.1 According to her many nineteenth-century biographers, who borrow heavily from each other, each devoting only about a paragraph to her, Cornélie Wouters married the Baron of Wasse—sometimes called a German—when she was relatively young and traveled throughout Europe with him. There is no indication that they had any children. Apparently after the baron’s death, Cornélie moved to Paris, where she lived with Marie at No. 6, rue Sainte-Apolline (near the Porte Saint-Martin). Her biographers suggest that she suffered financial distress during the French Revolution and fled the capital. At some point, surely after the Reign of Terror (1793-1794) and perhaps even later, she returned. Cornélie Wouters died in Paris in 1802; Marie Wouters was still living there at that time.

2The Wouters consider intersections of French and English literatures and cultures in all their published works, including both original texts and translations.2 Cornélie Wouters, in particular, seems unendingly fascinated by—indeed, obsessed with—differences in the character of the two peoples. Throughout her original works, she presents the English as stolid, serious, earnest folks, a bit stodgy but essentially admirable—as opposed to the French, who are flighty, capricious, flirtatious, and often concerned with trifles, although always stylish. In Cornélie Wouters’ first published work, Les Aveux d’une femme galante (1782), a French marquise and an English lady relate their respective amorous adventures, the mischievous French woman playing her lovers against each other for her own entertainment and the sober English woman preferring constancy to intrigue. L’Art de corriger et de rendre les hommes constans (1783) includes the story of Milord George Freeman, who by his fine example cures the debt-ridden Monsieur de Verdillac of his penchant for gambling. In Le Nouveau Continent (1783), an allegorized account of the American Revolutionary War, the vivacious Zephyrins (the French) help free Amerina (America) from the magic chastity belt placed upon her by her father, Bionalbo (England). Le Char volant (1784) relates the plight of the French inventor Eraste, who despairs of finding anyone worthy to journey with him to the moon until he meets the English scientist Milord Travel, who lacks all propriety and speaks dreadful French, but who is honest and sincere, and motivated only by a true desire to learn more about the universe. Finally, in her Mémoire à l’Assemblée nationale pour démontrer aux François les raisons qui doivent les déterminer à admettre les juifs indistinctement aux droits de citoyens (1790), Wouters attempts to persuade the new National Assembly to grant full civil and political rights to Jews by suggesting that if the French do not act quickly, the English will do it first and be seen by the world as more just and generous than the French. Cornélie Wouters’ interest in the character of the French and English peoples—piqued, perhaps, by her experiences living as a foreigner in each of these two cultures—thus pervades a variety of genres, from epistolary novel to political treatise. This interest can also be seen, of course, in her translated texts. In addition to the Théâtre anglois, both Cornélie and Marie Wouters published numerous translations from English to French, including stories, novels, and the lengthy Traduction du Plutarque anglois (1785-1786), usually attributed to Cornélie Wouters but perhaps also a collaboration.3 Marie Wouters’ most prominent independent publication is the Decameron anglois, ou Recueil des plus jolies contes traduits de l’Anglois (1783-1784).

3It is in the Théâtre anglois4, however, that the Wouters sisters discuss in the most detail the differences between the English and the French and how these differences affect translation. In their Avant-propos, the Wouters argue that theater, as a tool for teaching shared values, is essential for a civilized society, observing that “TOUTES les Nations policées ont encouragé les Spectacles, comme une institution utile à la prospérité de l’état.” (vol. 1, p. i) They cite dramatists from ancient Greece (Sophocles, Aeschylus, Menander, and Euripedes), ancient Rome (Plautus, Terence, Seneca, and Varrius), England (Shakespeare, Fletcher, Beaumont, and Jonson) and France (Corneille and Molière) who, in their opinion, make best use of theater’s didactic function. All of those men, they write,

firent de la scène une école des mœurs & de la morale, où la vertu représentée sous un aspect attrayant, inspire au guerrier & au citoyen l’amour de la patrie, montre à la jeunesse le danger des passions, & corrige la vieillesse des défauts que l’habitude lui a rendus familiers. (vol. 1, p. i-ii)

4Drama is thus, above all, a school of manners and morals for the Wouters, with lessons for public and private individuals, young and old. A worthwhile play will move its spectators to embrace virtues of patriotism and self-restraint and to reject bad habits.

5After a brief history of the English stage, the Wouters turn to their supposed main concern: identifying and accounting for differences in style between French and English playwrights. They emphasize the fact that such differences are to be expected, “Car le premier, l’unique but d’un Auteur dramatique doit être de plaire à la nation pour laquelle il écrit.” (vol. 1, p. xxi) Of course, what pleases the Wouters are plays that teach the moral lessons mentioned above. Nonetheless, they begin their discussion of differences with formal considerations. English writers freely disregard Aristotle’s rules for drama, for example, even though their French counterparts tend to observe them. Playwrights from the two nations also use source material differently. Thus, both French and English writers have adapted works of Spanish dramatist Pedro Calderón de la Barca, but to different ends:

Les François ont simplifié l’intrigue ; les Anglois, suivant leur usage, l’ont enchaînée à divers petits évènemens ; persuadés que l’attention du spectateur est plus agréablement occupée lorsqu’on la tient dans un labyrinthe de détours, que quand on lui découvre tout de suite la route qui conduit au dénouement. (vol. 1, p. lxxi)

6Both of these comments point toward what the Wouters see as the key stylistic distinction between French and English theater: the French reduce complications (respecting unities of time, place, and action; simplifying plot) while the English multiply them (ignoring the unities; adding a “labyrinthe de détours”). The English tendency toward variety holds true in matters of prosody as well. Whereas French playwrights have traditionally used rhymed couplets, for example, English ones have more frequently opted for blank verse. The Wouters account for this English preference:

Est-il naturel, disent-ils, que dans les transports de la colère, dans l’agitation de la crainte, dans les noirs soupçons de la jalousie, on fasse un discours cadencé ? L’emportement des passions est comme une pluie d’orage qui grossit rapidement les eaux & les force à sortir de leur lit. (vol. 1, p. lxxii)

7To an English public, they explain, a French dramatist’s attempt to force the raging rivers of passion to stay within their banks—to express themselves in a regular series of alternating masculine and feminine rhyme endings, say—lacks all verisimilitude.5

8Put most simply, aesthetic differences between the two nations can be reduced to a matter of French order versus English disorder. Since the Wouters are writing for a French audience, it is, of course, the English taste for disorder that they must explain. They do so by looking to what they see as the essential nature of the English people. “Peut-être verrions-nous avec plus d’indulgence encore le désordre qui règne dans les pièces théâtrales des Anglois,” they suggest, “si nous observions mieux les causes physiques qui président à la composition de ces sortes d’ouvrages.” (vol. 1, p. lxxii) They explain such causes physiques as follows:

 [C]e peuple naturellement sombres [sic], a besoin de spectacles extrêmement animés ; ce qui engage souvent les Auteurs à conserver sur la scène des situations qu’il seroit plus avantageux de mettre en récit. Les Anglois veulent du mouvement, pourvu qu’on parvienne à dissiper la noire mélancolie qui les dévore par les saillies de la Comédie, ou qu’on nourrisse leurs vapeurs par les images terribles de la Tragédie ; il leur est assez indifférent que l’auteur employe une méthode régulière pour y réussir. (vol. 1, p. lxxii-lxxiii)

9In other words, precisely because the English are so stolid and serious, they must have vigorous plays that will lift their spirits. The Wouters recall here the notion of melancholy, the so-called “English malady” painstakingly analyzed by Robert Burton in his Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), which had a strong influence on Garrick and his contemporaries, most notably Samuel Johnson, who subscribed to the theory that comic drama had a therapeutic value. It is so difficult to enliven an English audience, the Wouters add regretfully, that dramatists are forced to make stylistic sacrifices.6 The sober English mien is not simply a matter of chance or custom, but rather, a condition with real, physical causes, as the Wouters’ lexical choices reveal. According to the ancient physiological theory to which Burton subscribed, the human body was composed of four humors (black bile, yellow bile, blood, and phlegm); melancholy was an ailment caused by an excess of black bile, which led to a state of sadness and lethargy. Vapors, by this same physiology, referred to a feeling of faintness brought about by exhaled humors rising to the brain. The Wouters remind their readers that comedy and tragedy respectively, when properly written and performed, could function as a much-needed antidote to these common English maladies. They provide translations of plays of both genres in their collection.

10In preparing a volume of English theater for a French audience, the Wouters have set themselves no easy task, for they believe—or claim to believe—that the French are likely to be scandalized by the English plays, for the reasons mentioned above. They explain,

Il résulte de toutes ces observations, que peu de pièces Angloises doivent réussir sur le Théâtre François; trop de force & d’énergie dans les caractères blesseroit la sensibilité d’un peuple dont les passions sont douces & modérées; trop de vérité dans les tableaux effaroucheroit son imagination délicate & légère. En général il en est des ouvrages Anglois, soit abstraits, soit frivoles, comme de leurs jardins. La nature, quoique assujettie quelquefois à l’art, y conserve toujours ses traits caractéristiques & originaux; mais pour la présenter aux yeux des François, il faut que le voile des graces en couvre la nudité. (vol. 1, p. lxxiv)

11French physiology is not the same as English physiology, and the comic wit and tragic imagery that are the perfect remedies for melancholy and vapors on one side of the Channel will only upset lighthearted temperaments on the other. As further illustration, the Wouters observe that English plays, much like English gardens, remain closer to nature than their French equivalents. Interestingly, though, in this period of liberalization leading up to the French Revolution, the French had already begun to express an aesthetic preference for the so-called jardin à l’anglaise; the garden designed for Marie Antoinette at the Petit Trianon is a case in point. The Wouters, it would seem, disapprove of this trend toward a more natural style, whether in the garden or on the stage; as translators, they promise to cloak the nakedness of English style in order to protect delicate French sensibilities. Indeed, the changes the Wouters make to the plays they translate have much more to do with this cloaking of bare nature than with formal revisions. Their lengthy discussion of differences between French and English styles ultimately serves more to justify the fact that the Wouters make significant changes to the plays they translate than to describe the actual nature of these changes. In fact, the Wouters follow their source plays closely, scene by scene and line by line. Their main alterations are all lexical in nature and seem to result more from a vision of theater as a school of manners and morals than from considerations of national character.

12To examine the specific changes the Wouters make, let us turn to an example from the Théâtre anglois, David Garrick’s Miss in her Teens, translated by the Wouters as La Fille de quinze ans. One of the Wouters’ most-admired authors, Garrick is one of only two of the sixteen playwrights in the Wouters’ collection (Ben Jonson is the other) whose works occupy two full volumes.7 A celebrated actor and the manager of the Drury Lane theater from 1747 to 1776, Garrick brought numerous innovations to the English stage, increasing seating capacity; modernizing sets and lighting; and expanding the repertoire, bringing back forgotten plays, finding new ones, and writing his own. Most importantly for the Wouters, he also promoted stylistic reform: “Il eut encore la gloire de réformer la scène, d’en bannir la licence, & d’en faire l’école des mœurs, le fléau du vice & l’écueil du ridicule.” (vol. 6, p. 16). Nonetheless, it turns out that even the great David Garrick’s plays need a fair amount of adaptation for a French audience. Miss in her Teens, the work that concerns us here, was first performed in London in 1747.8

13Garrick’s play tells the story of the teenage Miss Biddy Bellair, who wishes to marry the dashing young Captain Loveit, just back from the war, but whose spinster aunt has arranged a marriage for her with a much older man, who turns out, in the end, to be the captain’s father. The aunt, who does have Miss Biddy’s best interests at heart, is easily persuaded to call off the match with the older man when she finds out that Miss Biddy is in love with the captain. There is another complication, however. During the captain’s six-month absence, Miss Biddy has allowed two other, quite silly, men to woo her—hedging her bets, it would seem, since one never knows for sure if a soldier will return from war. In order to rid herself of these men respectably, now that the captain is back, Miss Biddy, with the help of her clever maid Tag, tries to goad them into fighting each other so that one of them will be killed and the other will be either executed as a murderer or forced to flee. If the suitors refuse to fight for her hand, she will be able to dismiss them both for cowardice. Of course, it all works out in the end, and Miss Biddy’s engagement to Captain Loveit is approved by everyone, amid mayhem and merriment.

14On the surface, the Wouters faithfully translate Garrick’s play. A close reading of their language, however, reveals substantial, if subtle, changes. According to Nicole Bonvalet, this kind of adjustment on a lexical level was typical of translations into French in that period.

Il va de soi que c’est d’abord au niveau de la langue que [le] travail de « présentation » des ouvrages étrangers s’accomplissait. Au cours du travail de traduction, il fallait en particulier substituer aux mots « bas » des termes plus généraux, plus abstraits, plus vagues qui ne choqueraient ni les oreilles ni les imaginations chastes (Bonvalet, 1981: 203)

15With regard to the Wouters’ translation of Jonson’s Cataline, Bonvalet states,

L’argument est conservé, le déroulement de l’action assez minutieusement suivi, les ressorts psychologiques demeurent les mêmes mais le langage est littéralement métamorphosé et c’est justement ce qui enlève à la pièce son caractère jonsonien. (Ibid.: 233)

16A similar statement could be made about Miss in her Teens: although the plot, characters, scenes, and lines of the two versions of the play correspond almost exactly, the Wouters’ diction and their slight, but significant, omissions, create a text that is thoroughly transformed according to both aesthetic and moral considerations.

17The Wouters’ main modifications to Garrick’s play may be grouped into three categories: (1) they tone down what might be considered rough speech, having characters speak more formally and avoid swearing; (2) they make references to sexual desire less explicit; and (3) they minimize suggestions of violence. One of the most obvious ways the Wouters formalize the characters’ language is by nearly eliminating the use of given names. They refer to the protagonist as “Miss,” for example, rather than “Biddy”; furthermore, “Miss” in the Wouters’ translation never once calls her lover by his given name, whereas Garrick’s “Biddy” often cries out, “Oh, Rhodophil!” Similarly, the elder Sir Loveit—Sir Simon Loveit—speaks of “my son Bob” from time to time in Garrick’s version, while the young captain is only “fils” or “enfant” in the Wouters’.

18This tendency toward formality can also be seen in the Wouters’ elimination of the numerous humoristic epithets in Garrick’s play. When Captain Loveit’s servant Puff sees his wife Tag (Miss Biddy’s maid) for the first time after six months, for example, he exclaims, “By Heav’ns, it is, that fretful Porcupine, my Wife!”; the Wouters’ version reads only “Ô ciel, c’est ma femme !” (I. 2).9 The banter between the reunited spouses is filled with name-calling in the English play: “[T]ell me, Rascal, why you left me,” Tag demands, adding, “You left me to starve, Villain”; Puff tries to soothe her, entreating, “Come give me a Kiss, Darling,” and “Speak plain my Dear,” but then, exasperated, demands, “Are you not a Jade?—Are you not a Jezebel?” At the end of the encounter, Tag dismisses her errant husband with “Go, you graceless Rogue.” The only vestige of any of these appellations in the Wouters’ version of the scene is Puff’s unfinished statement, “Tu es une grande…” in place of the Jade/Jezebel comment. (I. 3)

19In Garrick’s original text, the elder Sir Loveit—Sir Simon Loveit—also uses colorful sobriquets, all of which are toned down considerably in the Wouters’ version. When he first learns he has rivals for Miss Biddy’s hand, Sir Simon asks her furiously, “Where’s your Aunt, you young cockatrice?” in English, but more politely in French, “Où est votre tante, Mademoiselle ?” When he discovers that his chief rival is his son, Sir Simon becomes mocking and patronizing by turns, calling his son “Captain Fireball,” “pretty Lamb,” “Mr. Modesty,” and “Puppy.” In the Wouters’ version of the scene, Sir Simon calls his son simply “M. le Capitaine” or “Monsieur,” and finally, “mon enfant.” Interestingly, both series of epithets the Wouters choose to eliminate take place between family members—in the first example, between husband and wife, and in the second, from father to son. By eliminating these expressions, the Wouters promote a system of values in which communication between family members never sinks below a certain level of respect or decorum. Their insistence upon titles promotes a similar kind of respect, in this case explicitly linked to class. Class thus becomes a more salient category in the French play than in the English one.

20The Wouters raise the register of the speech of Garrick’s characters in other ways as well. Perhaps most obviously, they eliminate virtually all oaths making reference to the devil or damnation. These allusions abound in the confrontation between Miss Biddy’s two silly suitors, Flash and Fribble. Flash, brimming with false bravado, shouts, “The Devil take me” (II. 3), “Dammee” (II. 5), “I shall be blown to the Devil” (II. 5), and “The D---l mince me” (II. 5). The more timid Fribble declares similarly, “Dammee,” “You and your Opinion may go to the Devil,” “Damnation!,” and “Hell and the Furies!” (II. 6). No such blasphemous language appears at all in the Wouters’ translation. Interestingly, though, the Wouters do not hesitate to have their characters use the weaker, perhaps even dated, terms morbleu and parbleu, apparently sufficiently distanced from their original denotations so as to seem innocuous.

21The second main way in which the Wouters modify Garrick’s text is by making references to sexual desires less explicit. Indeed, the word passion itself, which occurs fourteen times in Garrick’s play, is used only twice in the Wouters’. From the start of the play, the desires of both the young and old Loveits are expressed more vividly in the English play than in the French. Explaining his early return from the army, the young captain says in Garrick’s version “I was wild to get away,” a comment missing in the Wouters’. What has stirred up the captain’s wildness is, of course, his affection for Miss Biddy, called a “young, charming, innocent, bewitching Creature” by Garrick but simply “l’objet de tous mes voeux” by the Wouters. (I. 1) Similarly, the captain’s father has a distinctly sexual interest in the adolescent girl; according to his servant Jasper, “he mumbles and plays with her till his Mouth waters, then he chuckles till he cries”; the Wouters tame down this description to “Il joue, il pleure, il danse & rit avec elle.” (I. 2)

22Miss Biddy’s two other suitors, Fribble and Flash, express their desires for the young girl more directly in Garrick’s version as well. “Go, you wild thing,” says Fribble at one point, “patting” the girl, according to the stage directions. When Miss Biddy taunts him with a flirtatious glance, he threatens her with physical harm: “Well, I vow I’ll beat you if you talk so—Don’t look at me in that manner—Flesh and Blood can’t bear it—I could—but I won’t grow indecent.” In the Wouters’ version, he says with more restraint, “Ne me regardez pas ainsi; je pourrois oublier la décence, & vous embrasser.” (II. 3) Although Fribble’s warning to Miss Biddy that he is likely to take her in his arms and kiss her might sound unusually direct for the Wouters, it is certainly less violent than his threat to beat her in Garrick’s version. As for Flash, he tells Miss Biddy, “I am in love with you up to Hell and Desperation, may the Sky crush me if I am not” in Garrick’s play; in the Wouters’, he speaks only of “l’amour qui me dévore” (II. 5), an expression whose potential force is diminished by its already hackneyed status in eighteenth-century French.

23Like the desires of their masters, the sexual desires of servants are more explicit in Garrick’s version of the play than in the Wouters’. When Captain Loveit refuses to give his servant Puff time off to visit his wife after a six-month absence, Puff complains, “He does not consider that I am Flesh and Blood as well as himself.” When Puff finally does meet his wife Tag and begs, “Come to my Arms, and let me press you to my Heart, that pants for thee,” the Wouters write more abstractly, “viens, vole dans mes bras, le ciel récompense enfin tous mes travaux.” Puff tells his wife he bears her “immoderate love” in Garrick, “beaucoup d’amour” in the Wouters. He tries to claim his conjugal privileges in Garrick’s text by saying, “Come, give me a Kiss, Darling, and tell me where I shall pay my Duty to thee”; in the Wouters’ version, he merely says “Tiens,” embraces her, and later asks discreetly, “Parle: où demeures-tu ?” (I. 3).

24Women, too, speak more openly of sexuality in Garrick’s play than in the Wouters’. When Miss Biddy’s spinster aunt defends her choice of a sixty-five-year-old husband for her teenage niece by saying, much like Molière’s Arnolphe in L’École des femmes, “she’s so innocent she won’t know the Difference,” Tag counters suggestively, “a good Maid you are to be sure; but tho’ you really don’t know the Difference, yet you can fancy it I warrant you.” The response in the Wouters’ version is less overtly suggestive: “Quoique vous ne vous soyez jamais mariée, vous savez qu’il y a une grande différence…” The spinster aunt’s young niece does, of course, know the difference. At this point in the play, she is languishing for the captain. The English description of her symptoms of lovesickness is more precise than the French: in English, we read, “she sighs and she cries, and she loves Moon-light”; her sighs and cries disappear in the French version, which states only “elle passe des nuits entières à contempler la lune.” At the end of this scene, the Wouters have Tag merely allude to the risks of marrying a young girl to an old man—“je tremble pour les suites”—whereas Garrick has her come right out and state the danger: “Sh’ll make him a Cuckold.” (I. 4) The issues of sexuality and sexual desire that are at the heart of this play, crossing lines of social standing and gender—sexual desire is expressed by both masters and servants, by both men and by women—are thus systematically muted by the Wouters.

25In their third major correction to Garrick’s text, the Wouters attempt to minimize suggestions of violence. This task is a difficult one, since Miss Biddy’s main strategy for ridding herself of unwanted suitors is urging them to fight against each other. Nonetheless, the Wouters do their best to tone down violent language by shortening descriptions and making them more abstract. When Flash first proposes to fight Fribble, thinking he is making only an empty threat, he exclaims in English, “Ram me into a Mortar piece, but I’ll have Vengeance; my Blood boils to be at him,” but more briefly in French, “Mon sang bouillonne de colère.” A few moments later, when he realizes Fribble is in the next room and he may have to make good on his threat, he tries to stall, “I have it—I’ll watch for him in the Street, and mix his Blood with the Puddle of the next Kennel”; the Wouters eliminate the imagery: “Il seroit plus convenable de le tuer dans la rue.” The passionate—or playful—Miss Biddy refuses to allow Flash to delay, however, prodding, “Do, stick him, stick him, Captain Flash, I shall love you the better for it,” or, in French, “Ce triomphe vous assurera mon cœur pour la vie.” (II. 5)

26Indeed, Miss Biddy takes much more obvious delight in pressing her unwelcome suitors to fight each other in Garrick’s version of the play, where she says to herself “I have Business upon my Hands enough to turn my little Head; but egad my Heart’s good, and a Fig for Dangers” (II. 1) and tells Tag, “we shall have pure Sport” (II. 4), two comments missing in the Wouters’ version. Miss Biddy tries to persuade Sir Simon to fight her current favorite—his son, as it turns out—more eagerly in the English version as well. She first incites his jealousy, “I have set my Heart upon a young Man, and a young one I’ll have,” then urges, “Now, Sir Simon, if you’ll take up the Conqueror and kick him, as he has kick’d the others, you shall have me for your Reward, and my Fifteen thousand Pounds into the Bargain.” In the Wouters’ play, she summarizes, “tâchez de lui rendre la pareille, & vous obtiendrez ma main.” (II. 8) With the Wouters’ elimination of the mention of Miss Biddy’s dowry, we see yet another attempt at moral elevation—in this case, in the elimination of a reference to presumably base monetary concerns.

27Sir Simon’s reaction to Miss Biddy’s prodding is predictably more animated in Garrick’s version. He cries out, “Flesh and Blood can’t bear it—I’m all over in Agitation—Hugh, hugh!,” as opposed to, “Morbleu, je n’en reviens pas.” Here, Miss Biddy tries to stir up Sir Simon’s fury even further by telling him where she has left his rival—“I lock’d him up in my Bed-chamber till you came”—another phrase the Wouters delete. Appropriately riled and still unaware that his competitor is his son, Sir Simon exclaims, “What would I give that my son Bob was here to thrash her Spark, while I—ravish’d the rest of the Family.” The Wouters make no mention of ravishing, writing only “Quel dommage que mon fils ne soit pas ici, il puniroit de la bonne manière ce jeune présomptueux…” (II. 8)

28When Sir Simon recognizes his competitor as his son, he is quick to represent their rivalry in terms of physical violence in Garrick’s play. “I did not think of being knock’d o’th’Head, or cut up alive by so fine a Gentleman,” he says to the captain, adding, “Sir, you have left the Regiment, and the honourable Employment of fighting for your Country, to come home and cut your Father’s Throat” and urging, “’tis soon done—one Stroke does it.” In the Wouters’ play, he expresses the rivalry in more theoretical terms: “Je ne m’attendois pas à être supplanté par un galant comme vous,” “Monsieur quitte son régiment, renonce à l’honneur de défendre sa patrie, pour venir traverser ici les desseins de son père,” and “ne vous gênez pas,—votre triomphe sera facile.” Of course, Sir Simon soon realizes the advantage of the match for his son, especially since it will allow Miss Biddy’s fortune to stay in his family. He thus gives his approval, promising, “when we celebrate your Wedding, Son, I’ll drink a half Pint Bumper myself”—another presumably indecent comment the Wouters delete. (II. 9)

29At the end of the play, when the superfluous suitors have been dismissed and Sir Simon has proposed a toast to the marriage of his son and Miss Biddy, we see evidence of one last attempt by the Wouters to revise Garrick’s play. Just before the curtain falls, Miss Biddy worries, “I’m afraid the Town will be ill-natured enough to think I have been a little coquetish in my Behaviour; but I hope, as I have been constant to the Captain, I shall be excus’d for diverting myself with Pretenders.” In fact, Miss Biddy’s moral character poses a serious problem for the Wouters; she is by no means an untarnished protagonist, for although she is ultimately faithful to Captain Loveit, she did encourage the attentions of other suitors while he was away, and the question of whether she will make her husband a cuckold is raised several times. In their version of this final comment, the Wouters omit the mention of Miss Biddy’s diversions, ending rather with the reminder of her underlying constancy: “On m’a peut-être jugée un peu coquette ; mais ma constance pour le Capitaine doit me justifier.” (II. 9) Thus, just as they make references to cuckoldry less explicit and do not have the young girl encourage her suitors to duel quite so eagerly, the Wouters make one final attempt to highlight Miss Biddy’s virtue and render her a more acceptable heroine. Just as family members become more respectful toward each other and rival suitors become more difficult to provoke, the play’s heroine becomes merely a teenager who may be forgiven for a few harmless flirtations, not a troublemaker who threatens to grow into an adulterous wife.

30The Wouters’ revisions to Garrick’s play, although they operate on the level of language, go far beyond matters of style. As we have seen, the Wouters do not merely translate the source text; they transform it completely—among other things, reinscribing class distinctions and recasting characters. Despite their initial claims to the contrary, the Wouters’ revisions to Garrick’s Miss in Her Teens are far less about pleasing French tastes than about making sure the play teaches suitable moral lessons. They have chosen this text deliberately, of course. Even in its original form, Garrick’s comedy meets the curricular standards of the “école des mœurs et de la morale” described by the Wouters in the introduction to their collection: not only does it teach youth the danger of passions (Miss Biddy, in the end, is no longer juggling suitors and has returned to her rightful companion), but it may also be said to exalt patriotism (the winning suitor is a captain in the army) and to correct the bad habits of old age (Sir Simon is not permitted to continue lusting after his son’s fiancée). With the Wouters’ adjustments, it becomes even more appropriate subject matter.

31Rather than trying to appeal to French sensibilities, then, the Wouters sisters were giving French readers the plays they thought they ought to prefer. A contemporary review in the Mercure de France suggests that the Wouters’ translations were well received. In the edition of this periodical dated August 12, 1786, theater editor Jean-Charles le Vacher de Charnois underlines the importance of the stage with regard to literary and cultural transmission—“C’est principalement dans les Ouvrages Dramatiques qu’on apprend à connoître le génie, le goût, les mœurs & les usages des Nations.” (56)—then thanks the Wouters for having undertaken this worthy project: “C’est à Mme la Baronne de Vasse & à Miss Wouters, c’est à deux sœurs unies par les triples nœuds du sang, de l’amitié & des talens, à deux Angloises, que nous sommes redevables de cette idée & de son exécution” (58).10

32Charnois does seem, however, to believe the plays are best suited to an English audience; the value of translations into French is not to make dramatic texts available for performance on a French stage, but simply to keep educated French men and women up to date with trends in English drama. Near the end of his review, Charnois remarks, “Les éloges que nous avons donnés aux Ouvrages dont on vient de lire les notices, sont plus relatifs à l’effet qu’ils produisent à Londres, qu’à celui qu’ils pourroient produire à Paris” (68). In other words, what is good for the English is, ultimately, not good for the French:

Les Anglois ont leurs formes, ils les aiment, ils les conservent parce qu’elles tiennent à leur goût & à leur génie. Gardons les nôtres, puisqu’elles nous conviennent; mais ne portons pas le ridicule jusqu’à vouloir soumettre les productions de l’esprit & du génie des Nations étrangères à notre compas & à notre mesure. (68)

33Of course, if the Wouters’ goals had been nothing more than to make French audiences aware of what had been produced in London, it seems unlikely that they would have gone to such lengths to alter the plays, as such efforts would have run counter to their purposes. Why mask a play’s “Englishness” if the objective is for French readers to gain a fuller understanding of English literature? On the other hand, there is no indication that any of the Wouters’ translations were ever performed on a French stage. What mattered to the Wouters was creating morally superior versions of the English plays, regardless of their destination.

34More than anything else, the Wouters were trying to improve their favorite English plays, to rid them of what they perceived as coarseness and make them conform to what they viewed as a more exalted model. The Traduction du théâtre anglois thus demonstrates not only the Wouters’ belief in the importance of literary and cultural exchange, but also their allegiance to the efforts at expurgation that were happening on both sides of the Channel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Perhaps the best known example of this phenomenon is Thomas and Harriet Bowdler’s edition of Shakespeare’s plays, the 1818 Family Shakespeare, in which, among other changes, Ophelia dies accidentally and Lady Macbeth exclaims, “Out, crimson spot!” With their Traduction du théâtre anglois, the Wouters join the likes of Pierre Antoine de La Place and Marie Jeanne Riccoboni in meeting the demands of a French public avid for translations of English theater, but, even more importantly, they illustrate the aesthetic and moral principles they believe dramatists—at least French ones—should follow. They comment on and critique their favorite English playwrights even as they bring their work to a French audience. For modern readers, the Wouters provide a wealth of information about literary ideals in the late eighteenth century and valuable insight into language, manners, and other codes of conduct of French bourgeois society in the years leading up to the French Revolution.

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Primary sources and translations

Garrick, David, 1758, Miss in her Teens, or, The Medley of Lovers, A Farce in Two Acts, 5th ed., London, J. and R. Tonson.

Wouters, Cornélie and Marie, eds. and trans., 1784, Œuvres de David Garrick, écuyer, v. 1, Paris, Couturier.

—, eds. and trans., 1784-1786, Traduction du théâtre anglois, depuis l’origine des spectacles jusqu’à nos jours, Paris, Couturier.

Other works and articles

Anon., 1966 [1787], « Plutarque anglois » (review), in Année littéraire, Geneva, Slatkine Reprints, v. 34, p. 73.

Anon., 1849, Biographie générale des Belges morts ou vivants, Brussels and Leipzig, Muquardt, p. 35.

Boileau, Nicolas, 1919 [1674], L’Art poétique, New York, Cambridge University Press.

Bonvalet, Nicole, 1981, “Adaptations et traductions de Ben Jonson au xviiie siècle,” in Les Lettres romanes no 35-3, Louvain, Université Catholique de Louvain, p. 199-234.

Briquet, Fortunée, 1804, Dictionnaire Historique, littéraire et bibliographique des Françaises et étrangères naturalisées en France, Paris, Treuttel and Würtz, p. 342-43, 345.

Burton, Robert, 2000, 1989 [1621], The Anatomy of Melancholy, New York, Oxford University Press.

Charnois, Jean-Charles le Vacher de, 12 August 1786, “Traduction du Théâtre Anglois” (review), in Mercure de France, Paris, p. 56-68.

Dantès, Alfred Langue, 1875, Dictionnaire biographique et bibliographique, alphabétique et méthodique, des hommes les plus remarquables dans les lettres, les sciences et les arts, chez tous les peuples, à toutes les époques, Paris, Boyer, p. 1021.

Delvenne, Mathieu, 1828-1829, Biographie du royaume des Pays-Bas, ancienne et moderne, Liège, Veuve J. Desoer, v. 2, p. 572.

Goethals, Félix-Victor, 1849-1852, Dictionnaire généalogique et héraldique des familles nobles du royaume de Belgique, Brussels, Polack-Duvivier, v. 4, p. 1132.

Hoefer, Ferdinand, 1866, Nouvelle biographie générale : depuis les temps les plus reculés jusqu’à nos jours, Paris, Firmin Didot, v. 46, p. 986-87.

Le Moyne, Nicolas-Toussaint, dit Des Essarts, 1800-1803, Les Siècles littéraires de la France, ou Nouveau Dictionnaire historique, critique et bibliographique de tous les écrivains français, morts et vivans jusqu’à la fin du xviiie siècle, Paris, Des Essarts, v. 6, p. 327-38.

Pauwelsde Vis, Jean, 1843, Dictionnaire biographique des belges, Brussels, s.p., p. 63.

Pigoreau, Nicolas-Alexandre, 1821, Petite bibliographie biographico-romancière, ou Dictionnaire des romanciers tant anciens que modernes, tant nationaux qu’étrangers, Paris, Pigoreau, p. 344, 346.

Piron, Constant F., 1860, Algemeene levensbeschryving der mannen en vrouwen van België, Mechelen, Olbrechts, p. 107.

Ravel, Jeffrey S., 1993, “Seating the Public: Spheres and Loathing in the Paris Theaters, 1777-1788,” French Historical Studies, 18 (1), p. 173-210.

Rubellin, Françoise, 1992, « Destinée », in Marivaux, L’École des mères, suivi de La Mère confidente, ed. F. Rubellin, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, “Livre de Poche,” p. 231-37.

Wouters, Cornélie, 1782, Les Aveux d’une femme galante, ou Lettres de madame la marquise de ***, à myladi Fanny Stapelton, Paris, Ballard.

—, 1783, L’Art de corriger et de rendre les hommes constans, Paris, Ballard.

—, 1783, Le Char volant, et Relation d’un voyage dans la lune, Paris, Ballard.

—, 1793, La Famille émigrée, ou le procédé généreux, Comédie en un acte, en prose, Nivelles, Plon.

—, 1790, Mémoire à l’Assemblée nationale pour démontrer aux François les raisons qui doivent les déterminer à admettre les juifs indistinctement aux droits de citoyens, Paris, Baudouin.

—, (and Marie?), 1785-1787, Vie des hommes illustres d’Angleterre, d’Écosse et d’Irlande, ou le Plutarque anglois, Paris, Couturier.

Wouters, Marie, 1784, Le Decameron anglois, ou recueil des plus jolis contes, traduits de l’Anglois, Paris, Ballard.

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1 A Cornélie Pétronille Benoîte Wouters was born and baptized in Brussels in the parish of Notre-Dame du Finistère on October 14, 1737. Wouters’ biographers give the author’s full name as Cornélie Pétronille Bénédicte Wouters and list her birthdate as 1737, so she is probably the child in question. However, the parents of Cornélie Pétronille Benoîte, Jacques Corneille and Catherine Marguerite (Charlier) Wouters, also baptized two other daughters named Cornélie in Brussels (Cornélie Carole, parish of Saint Géry, May 1745; Cornélie, parish of Saint Géry, September 1752). Cornélie’s collaborator, Marie Thérèse, was baptized in Brussels on October 20, 1739. The record of the birth and baptism of Cornélie Pétronille Benoîte is found among the baptismal records of the parish of Notre-Dame du Finistère, vol. 439, and on microfilm 131 of the parish records at the Archives of the City of Brussels. The baptismal records of the two other Cornélies and of Marie Thérèse are found among the baptismal records of the parish of Saint-Géry and on microfilm 85.

2 The one possible exception to this rule is Cornélie Wouters’ original play La Famille émigrée, published in Nivelles in 1793, which deals mainly with the plight of exiled French nobles.

3 Praising the translation of the Plutarque anglois, a reviewer for the Année littéraire noted, “Les illustres Sœurs qui ont consacré leurs loisirs à enrichir la France d’une excellente production de leur pays, nous ont rendu un véritable service, & je les en remercie au nom du public.” (1966, Année littéraire, Geneva, Slatkine rpts., vol. 34, p. 73 [1787, Année littéraire, Paris, Merigot, vol. 1, p. 266]). Despite these words of admiration, the reviewer considers the twelve-volume translation to be merely a product of the Wouters’ “loisirs,” not of their “travail.”

4 For all references, see bibliography.

5 Boileau, interestingly, makes a similar remark on the connection between emotion and style, though in reference to diction rather than versification (and, indeed, using rhymed couplets himself): “Que devant Troie en flamme Hécube désolée / Ne vienne pas pousser une plainte ampoulée, / Ni sans raison décrire en quel affreux pays / Par sept bouches l’Euxin reçoit le Tanaïs. / Tous ces pompeux amas d’expressions frivoles / Sont d’un déclamateur amoureux des paroles. / Il faut dans la douleur que vous vous abaissiez: / Pour me tirer des pleurs, il faut que vous pleuriez. / Ces grands mots dont alors l’acteur emplit sa bouche / Ne partent point d’un cœur que sa misère touche.” Nicolas Boileau, L’Art poétique, 1919 [1674], New York, Cambridge University Press, chant troisième, vv. 135-144.

6 The Wouters mention in passing another reality that forces English dramatists to make aesthetic compromises, namely, the fact that the English theater-going public includes persons of lower social standing than the French: “le bas peuple Anglois fréquente les Théâtres” (vol. 1, p. lxxiii). For more on this issue, see Jeffrey S. Ravel, 1993, “Seating the Public: Spheres and Loathing in the Paris Theaters, 1777-1788,” in French Historical Studies 18-1, p. 173-210. It is clear, however, that essential differences in national character play the largest role for them.

7 The collection includes plays by Ben Jonson, Nicolas Rowe, Francis Fletcher, John Beaumont, Susanna Centlivre, John Vanbrugh, Colley Cibber, Richard Steele, David Garrick, Benjamin Hoadley, Richard Glover, William Mason, Henrietta Cowley, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, John Burgoyne, and Robert Jephson. For a discussion of the Wouters’ translations of Jonson’s Catiline and Sejanus, see Bonvalet, 1981.

8 Garrick based this play on a French source, Dancourt’s La Parisienne, first performed in Paris in 1691. Dancourt’s La Parisienne also served as an inspiration for Marivaux’s École des mères (1732), which was performed throughout the eighteenth century, so the main lines of the story would likely have been familiar to a French audience. See F. Rubellin, 1992, “Destinée,” in Marivaux, L’École des mères, suivi de La Mère confidente, éd. F. Rubellin, Paris, Librairie Générale Française, “Livre de Poche,” p. 231-237.

9 . Scene numbering come from the Wouters’ version of the play.

10 The Wouters, incidentally, were often referred to in Paris as English women, despite the fact that they were born in Brussels, probably spoke Flemish, and published only in French.

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Carrie F. Klaus, « “Une école des mœurs & de la morale”: How the Wouters Sisters made English Theater French », Palimpsestes, 20 | 2007, 79-96.

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Carrie F. Klaus, « “Une école des mœurs & de la morale”: How the Wouters Sisters made English Theater French », Palimpsestes [En ligne], 20 | 2007, mis en ligne le 01 septembre 2009, consulté le 27 mai 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/palimpsestes.95

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Carrie F. Klaus

Carrie F. Klaus est professeur associé de langues modernes (Français) à DePauw University à Greencastle, Indiana, aux États-Unis. Elle est docteur ès lettres de l’Université de l’Illinois à Urbana-Champaign où, en 2000, elle a soutenu sa thèse intitulée Neither Male nor Female in Christ? The Construction of Gendered Identities in Women’s Writing of the French Reformation (1521-1561). Elle a publié une traduction en anglais de La Petite Chronique (The Short Chronicle) de Jeanne de Jussie pour les presses de l’Université de Chicago en 2006. Spécialisée dans les écrits des femmes de l’Ancien Régime, elle se consacre actuellement à l’œuvre de Cornélie Wouters, Baronne de Wasse (1737-1802).

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