We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Constance Clara Garnett (1861–1946), by unknown photographer, 1903 [with her son, David Garnett] Constance Clara Garnett (1861–1946), by unknown photographer, 1903 [with her son, David Garnett]
Garnett [née Black], Constance Clara (1861–1946), translator, was born at 58 Ship Street, Brighton, Sussex, on 19 December 1861, sixth of the eight children of the solicitor David Black (1817–1892), afterwards town clerk and coroner, and his wife, Clara Maria (1825–1875), daughter of the portrait painter . Her grandfather Captain Peter Black (1783–1831) designed a steamer for the Russian government but died on delivering it to Kronstadt. Her eldest sister was , the novelist and social reformer.

Constance had an unhappy childhood. A perhaps unnecessary operation at the age of three for tuberculosis of the hip left her an invalid for years; she suffered from headaches and rheumatism, and was extremely short-sighted; her moody, irascible father became paralysed in 1873; and two years later her mother died, having ruptured herself by lifting him. Constance became a lifelong sceptic and atheist. Taught at first by her family, she went to Brighton high school and achieved examination distinctions in arithmetic, French, and especially English, for her top marks in which she was awarded a scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. On taking up residence there in October 1879 this shy and fragile figure, rather small, with fair hair, blue eyes, and steel spectacles, threw off her Victorian yoke and lived intensely. She read classical languages and philosophy, and particularly enjoyed Greek unseens; in her final examinations in 1883 she obtained a first class, and qualified for (but as a woman could not take) the Cambridge BA degree.

In her last year at Newnham, Constance gave tutorials, and was considered businesslike, if too lenient. She afterwards taught privately in London before becoming co-librarian of the new People's Palace, Mile End, in 1887; she was later its head librarian, and published its catalogue, but resigned to marry at Brighton register office on 31 August 1889 , editor and book reviewer. In 1891 the couple rented a cottage at Henhurst Cross in Surrey. There the pregnant Constance entertained guests such as W. B. Yeats and the Russian exile F. V. Volkhovsky; the latter taught her Russian and supervised her first translation exercise, Goncharov's Obyknovennaya istoriya (A Common Story). Through him she met other revolutionaries, including Stepniak (S. M. Kravchinsky), with whom she was in love for a time, and who helped to edit her work. He encouraged her to move on to Turgenev, already a favourite of hers, but Heinemann, whom Edward persuaded to accept the Goncharov, asked her to tackle next Tolstoy's Tsarstvo bozhiye vnutri vas, translated as The Kingdom of God is within you.

Following the difficult birth of her son, , born at Brighton on 9 March 1892, Constance had no more children and virtually no sexual relations with Edward. He assisted her professionally, writing prefaces as required, but they agreed to live together yet apart—as would be confirmed by his liaison with Nellie Heath. Constance, who hated scenes, overcame her frustration by a will to work and be independent.

An early test of Constance's self-sufficiency was her first trip to Russia. Carrying messages from her revolutionary friends, she left on the last day of 1893 for St Petersburg, where she accepted an invitation to travel to Tver, Moscow, Nizhniy Novgorod, and on by sledge to the Arzamas district. In Moscow she called on Tolstoy, who praised her current translation and encouraged her to attempt others. In Nizhniy she saw the writer V. G. Korolenko, whom she had met previously at Stepniak's. In the remote countryside she witnessed the poverty and sickness of the peasantry, tempered by their intelligence and dignity. Her seven-week tour gave her valuable first-hand experience of Russian life and ways of thinking, and improved her facility with the language.

The Goncharov and Tolstoy translations came out in 1894, followed by Constance's first two Turgenev volumes, Rudin and Dvoryanskoye gnezdo (A House of Gentlefolk), each with an introduction by Stepniak (despite Heinemann's misgivings). Stepniak's participation was such that Constance intended to give him twenty per cent of her receipts. His untimely death in 1895 came as a serious blow, but the Turgenev set in fifteen volumes was completed in 1899.

In 1896 the Garnetts settled at The Cearne, their mock-ancient house near Limpsfield Chart on the Surrey–Kent border north of Edenbridge. Its visitors included Conrad, Galsworthy, D. H. Lawrence, Ford Madox Ford, and H. E. Bates. David Garnett recalled that, as his mother translated, Russian words turned into expressions on her face before being Englished onto paper. D. H. Lawrence watched rapt while she filled page after page, throwing them to a pile on the floor. Books lay open everywhere, when not propping up furniture.

After an interlude for Duckworth with Ostrovsky's Groza, translated as The Storm (1899), Constance reverted to Heinemann and to Tolstoy, beginning with Anna Karenin (1901). But work on War and Peace (1904), by which she most wished to be judged, damaged her eyesight and caused her great difficulties. In 1904 she was somewhat revived by a second journey to Russia, with David; her enthusiasm for things Russian was also sustained by the political ferment of the times. She had long promoted socialism; in 1894, rather to the chagrin of her friend Bernard Shaw, she had even been elected to the executive of the Fabian Society. In London in 1907 she saw and was impressed by Lenin, but mistrusted the other Bolsheviks. She rejoiced in the triumph of the Russian people in 1917, but thereafter became more conservative.

Constance found that she could continue to pursue her career by dictating to assistants. In 1910 Heinemann, following critical demand, invited her to translate Dostoyevsky, thinking him a gamble worth taking despite the commercial failure of the Tolstoy series. Beginning with The Brothers Karamazov, their comprehensive Dostoyevsky (12 vols., 1912–20) actually provoked a literary craze. However, disagreements over royalties led Constance to switch to Chatto and Windus for her next project, Chekhov, whom she had wanted to translate as early as 1893, and with whom she had corresponded. The Tales (13 vols., 1916–22) and Plays (2 vols., 1923–4) set off another craze in Britain. For Chatto, Constance also undertook the works of Gogol (6 vols., 1922–8) and, concurrently, Alexander Herzen's Byloye i dumy (My Past and Thoughts; 6 vols., 1924–7).

By now Constance was frail, white-haired, and half-blind. She retired from translating after the publication in 1934 of Three Plays by Turgenev, and after Edward's death on 19 February 1937 she became quite reclusive. She developed a heart condition, with attendant breathlessness, and towards the end had to walk with crutches. She died at The Cearne on 17 December 1946.

Constance Garnett's requirements for a good translation were sympathy for the author and a love of words and their meanings. She herself had faults: her dialogues are sometimes stiff; her transliteration of Russian names is illogical and inconsistent; she makes many errors. But the speed at which she worked, which was partly to blame for these, allowed her to maintain stylistic unity. Her descriptive passages are often exquisitely done and she eschews linguistic fads or slang. Conrad, for whom Turgenev was Constance Garnett, compared her to a great musician interpreting a great composer. For Katherine Mansfield, Constance Garnett transformed the lives of younger authors by revealing a new world. Without her translations, H. E. Bates believed, modern English literature itself could not have been what it is (Bates, 120).

Patrick Waddington

Sources  

R. Garnett, Constance Garnett: a heroic life (1991) · G. Jefferson, Edward Garnett: a life in literature (1982) · C. G. Heilbrun, The Garnett family (1961) · D. Garnett, The golden echo (1954) · C. Garnett, ‘The art of translation’, The Listener (30 Jan 1947), 195 · A. Tove, ‘Konstantsiya Garnet: perevodchik i propagandist russkoy literatury’ [Constance Garnett: translator and propagandist of Russian literature], Russkaya Literatura (1958), no. 4, 193–9 · Tea and anarchy! The Bloomsbury diary of Olive Garnett, 1890–1893, ed. B. C. Johnson (1989) · Olive and Stepniak: the Bloomsbury diary of Olive Garnett, 1893–1895, ed. B. C. Johnson (1993) · E. Crankshaw, ‘Work of Constance Garnett’, The Listener (30 Jan 1947), 195–6 · G. Turton, ‘The Garnett translations’, in G. Turton, Turgenev and the context of English literature, 1850–1900 (1992), 183–200 · L. G. Leighton, ‘Chekhov in English’, A Chekhov companion, ed. T. W. Clyman (1985), 291–309 · C. A. Moser, ‘The achievement of Constance Garnett’, American Scholar, 57 (1988), 431–8 · A. N. Nikoliukin, ‘Dostoevskii in Constance Garnett's translation’, Dostoevskii and Britain, ed. W. J. Leatherbarrow (1995), 207–27 · R. Rubenstein, ‘Genius of translation’, Colorado Quarterly, 22 (1974), 359–68 · H. E. Bates, The modern short story (1972) · G. Jean-Aubry, Joseph Conrad: life and letters, 2 vols. (1927) · IGI · d. cert.

Archives  

priv. coll., unfinished MS autobiography and family corresp. · Ransom HRC, letters |  Eton, letters to Edward Garnett · Eton, letters to Nellie Heath


Likenesses  

photograph, c.1894, repro. in Garnett, Constance Garnett, facing p. 82 · photograph, 1903, priv. coll. [see illus.] · photograph, 1920–1929?, repro. in Heilbrun, Garnett family, facing p. 176 · D. Garnett, photograph, 1937, repro. in Garnett, ‘The art of translation’, p. 195 · E. L. Mahomed (Black), portrait (as young woman), repro. in D. Garnett, Great friends: portraits of seventeen writers (1979), 17 · group photograph (Newnham Hall, 1880), Newnham College, Cambridge · portraits, repro. in Garnett, Constance Garnett

Wealth at death  

£8181 5s. 6d.: probate, 5 May 1947, CGPLA Eng. & Wales