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Hélène Pignot, Sarah Fielding en France : enquête sur la réception d’une romancière anglaise du siècle des Lumières

Gillian Dow
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Hélène Pignot, Sarah Fielding en France : enquête sur la réception d’une romancière anglaise du siècle des Lumières, Paris, L’Harmattan, 2020.

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1Sarah Fielding (1706-1768) had a literary career that was at once impressively diverse, and instrumental to our collective understanding of the development of English prose fiction, for adults and children. Two centuries of near-obscurity after her death were followed by many significant new studies and approaches to her life and writing, published by anglo-american critics. Linda Bree’s 1996 biography Sarah Fielding was joined by Christopher D. Johnson’s 2017 A Political Biography of Sarah Fielding. A conference held at Chawton House, in 2010, commemorated the tercentenary of her birth. There are now editions of most of her publications, including her satirical novel The History of the Countess of Dellwyn (1759) which benefits from a new critical edition by Gillian Skinner published in April 2022. Numerous essays and book chapters now attest to the importance of Sarah Fielding’s contribution to the mid-century novel. More generally, her diverse œuvre – which includes experimental writing, remarks on Richardson’s Clarissa, translation from the Greek, and proto-feminist writing inspired by illustrious women from history and myth – has been brought out from the shadow of the towering presence of her brother Henry. Sarah Fielding is now fruitfully read alongside the work of other members of the Bluestocking circle, and in the context of the literary careers of her friends and collaborators such as Jane Collier, James Harris and Sarah Scott. In short, she has benefitted from the recovery project that sought to both recuperate women writers from what Clifford Siskin has called the “Great Forgetting” of their texts, and to make their work accessible to new generations of students and scholars.

2It is not, however, only in accounts of the origins and development of the English novel that Sarah Fielding’s work should be considered, or recognised as significant. We must add contributions in other European languages to the corpus, and we must hope for many more of them to augment our understanding of the European literary marketplace for the novel in the eighteenth century. For this reason, Hélène Pignot’s study is a most welcome addition. Her monograph adds to scholarship on Sarah Fielding, to reception and translation studies, and to explorations of cross-Channel exchanges in the Enlightenment period more broadly. Pignot is herself the author of a 2005 monograph of Sarah Fielding in French, and of two 2016 publications: a study Who Wrote The Cry (1754), and an edition of Sarah Fielding’s translation of Xenophon's Memorabilia and the Apology of Socrates from the Greek. She is thus well-equipped to enhance our collective understanding of Fielding’s life and work.

3This study takes an impressive archival deep dive into Sarah Fielding’s reception in France. The introduction presents us with a full bibliographic account of the first French translations of David Simple (1744, trans. 1745) and The History of Ophelia (1760, Ophélie, 1763). L’abbé de La Place (1707-1793), translator of Shakespeare, Aphra Behn’s Oroonoko, and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones, made a living from his translations, which are often best considered adaptations. In the case of David Simple, he translated it more or less faithfully – and somewhat exceptionally, as Pignot sees it. It is not Pignot’s aim, in this study, to draw such conclusions, but one cannot help wondering to what extent this faithful approach from La Place is because Sarah Fielding’s satirical and sentimental novel already matched the expectations of French readers neatly, needing no domestication as a result. In the case of M. B***, translator of Ophélie, the translation is much freer, and indeed something of a rewrite. M. B*** was Octavie Belot (1719-1805), a widow who supplemented her allowance with translations of Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas (1760) and David Hume’s Histories of England (Histoire de la maison de Tudor… 1763 and Histoire de la maison de Plantagenet… 1765). Pignot quotes an extract from Belot’s correspondence in which she writes that she translated this “mauvais roman anglois” carelessly, sold it to a bookseller, and barely corrected it, since “on ne fait pas quelque chose de rien” (p. 25). This protesting seems excessive, albeit entirely typical of mid-century attitudes to fiction on both sides of the Channel, and to the special pleading of women writers and translators more generally. The very existence of the translation invites the question of why Belot translated this “mauvais roman anglais” rather than any other. This question of selection hangs over the entire monograph; it is one to which I shall return.

4Having introduced the first publishers and booksellers in both Amsterdam and Paris, Pignot then works backwards from the present day, to the mid-eighteenth century and finally to Sarah Fielding’s first French readers. Chapter One traces a “rediscovery” through twenty-first and twentieth-century reception in criticism and reviews. Chapter Two documents the receptions of the nineteenth century – from Hippolyte Taine to Sainte-Beuve, and what Pignot demonstrates are somewhat typical responses, made from perspectives of prejudice and ignorance. Fielding’s eighteenth-century reception is covered in Chapter Three, where we meet her via an impressive and diverse range of French sources, from Françoise de Graffigny’s voluminous correspondence to the Journal des savants’s account of British literary news, to Fréron’s (benign?) neglect. Chapter Four looks at Fielding’s readers in France – including a most impressive range of aristocratic readers (or at the least, aristocratic owners of books). Pignot has examined 1,150 catalogues covering the period 1745-1805, and she draws useful comparisons with Daniel Mornet’s 1910 work on private libraries. She also examines the “cabinets de lecture” used by French readers until the middle of the nineteenth century, raising the possibility that readers of a variety of classes accessed Fielding’s works across France, in reading rooms in Belfort, Besançon, Dijon, Lyon and Paris. Throughout, the sources, and their treatment, is impressively thorough. Pignot has spent countless hours in the Bibliothèque Nationale: she gives us a sense of the thrill of an archival researcher’s “prize” in her account of reading a catalogue with uncut pages.

5This is, perhaps, a work that will often be consulted according to an individual’s own research interests and preoccupations, rather than read from start to finish. Helpfully, Pignot and her publisher seem to anticipate this: the study is illustrated with the title pages of rare editions, and it contains many useful tables, appendices, and not one but two indexes – one thematic, and one of authors. There is much, too, that might be used for teaching purposes: essential work for inspiring the next generation to continue to explore fruitful avenues for research. Annexe 1, to give just one example, is four pages of parallel translation, comparing the original The History of Ophelia with Belot’s French Ophélie. Pignot’s notes point out changes and omissions, infidelities and errors. As such, the passage could be used in the classroom as an example of target-focused, domesticating, translation – entirely typical in the mid-eighteenth century.

6The bibliography is somewhat dizzying, broken down into categories of primary and secondary sources. It will be an invaluable resource for a student embarking on research in this area. Pignot herself calls it “déjà fort longue”, but quite understandably, it is not comprehensive. I was intrigued to see the inclusion of such works as Kate Flint’s The Woman Reader, which focuses on the nineteenth century, but not Jacqueline Pearson’s Women’s Reading in Britain, 1750-1835 (1999). Nor does Ros Ballaster’s Seductive Forms: Women’s Amatory Fiction from 1684-1740 (1992) appear. This early work of recuperative criticism gave fine readings of Behn, Manley and Haywood, as well as tracing the early English novel’s debt to the French Romances of Scudéry and the nouvelles of Lafayette – work that has been picked up by the next generation of scholars. On a related note, it is curious not to find mention of work such as Margaret Cohen and Caroline Dever’s edited collection The Literary Channel, or Mary Helen McMurran’s The Spread of Novels: Translation and Prose Fiction. Both adopt a cross-Channel perspective, and contain significant accounts of women writers’ roles in this exchange. Many scholars have presented case studies of Eliza Haywood and Aphra Behn, whose Betsy Tatless and Oronoko loomed large in eighteenth-century French translation (as Pignot documents), apparently long after their work had been forgotten in their native country. This may reflect a tendency in the French academy to “segregate” eighteenth-century women writers, and indeed to marginalise authors of scholarship focusing on their work. I was particularly struck by Pignot’s account of French theses focusing on British women writers before Jane Austen, which appears on p. 51-52, and includes a mere fifteen studies, all by female scholars, from 1985 to the present day. Pignot sees this paucity of scholarship as being influenced by concerns about careers – undoubtedly real, rather than simply imagined. She notes Pierre Fauchery’s 1972 claim that female-authored fiction of the eighteenth century is not read because it does not include a “chef-d’œuvre”, before damning the entire corpus with faint praise in her own conclusion: “faut-il lire et ne faire lire que des ‘chefs-d’œuvre’ ?” Much recovery remains to be done, it seems, to persuade the French academy that a Sarah is as worthy of study as a Henry.

7Pignot points out many avenues for future research – on Sarah Fielding herself, on her predecessors, and on those who were inspired by her legacy in their own fictions – including, of course, necessary research on still-neglected women writers in both France and England. I was left curious about what was not translated in Sarah Fielding’s own lifetime or shortly after. Why, for example, was there no French translation of The Governess; or, The Little Female Academy (1749)? This pioneering novel for children saw four English editions in the decade after its first publication, versions appeared throughout the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and English imitations – including Mrs Sherwood’s The Governess: or, The Little Female Academy (1820) – proliferated. It is not the case that there were no cross-Channel exchanges in writing for children in this period. Jeanne Marie Leprince de Beaumont (1711-1780) was an influence on British educationalists, and her Magasin des Enfants (1756) resembles Fielding’s The Governess in its own use of dialogue. Dialogues are, of course, at the heart of Stéphanie-Félicité de Genlis’s tales and plays for children, published from 1779, and much translated and imitated in Britain. In the opposite direction, and a generation later, Maria Edgeworth was educating French children via translations of her own tales for children throughout the nineteenth century. The absence of Fielding’s “Gouvernante” in this context seems striking, and – according to Pignot’s bibliography, it was matched in other European countries: there are eighteenth-century David Simples in German, Spanish and Dutch, but no foreign governesses. Arrangements for undertaking translations, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a somewhat haphazard affair, and an author certainly needed a translator to champion their work for love as well as for money. Maria Edgeworth benefitted from the persistence of her “official” translator Louise Swanton Belloc; Genlis from a veritable army of devotees, ready to promote her work with British children. Viewed in this context, Pignot’s study adds usefully to our understanding of translations practices in the period as much by what it does not include, as what it does.

8It is not the role of one scholarly monograph to be comprehensive, not should such studies ever sacrifice complexity for the convenience of a compelling unifying thesis. Pignot’s careful, archival work reminds us of the sheer messiness of mid-eighteenth-century cultural exchanges. She points us, too, towards the fruitful approaches that the scholars of the future might take in writing their own histories of novels, of women’s writing and lives, of literature for children, and of eighteenth-century translations. Sarah Fielding – in all her glorious diversity – demands no less.

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Gillian Dow, « Hélène Pignot, Sarah Fielding en France : enquête sur la réception d’une romancière anglaise du siècle des Lumières »Strenæ [En ligne], 22 | 2023, mis en ligne le 05 mai 2023, consulté le 24 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Gillian Dow

University of Southampton

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