Miss Herbert (2015)

G.N. Forester and M.J. Nicholls, ed.: Verbivoracious Festschrift Volume 3:
The Syllabus

Adam Thirlwell, Miss Herbert (2007)

Adam Thirlwell. Miss Herbert: A book of novels, romances, and their translators, containing ten languages, set on four continents, and accompanied by maps, portraits, squiggles and illustrations. 2007. Vintage Books. London: The Random House Group Limited, 2009.

Adam Thirlwell: Miss Herbert: An Essay in Five Parts (2007)

Dear Mr. Thirlwell,

Permit me to introduce myself.

I am, in and of myself, of little interest. My name will not mean much to you, still less the fact that I was (until retirement) a teacher of French language and literature.

Were I, however, to inform you that there has long been a tradition in my extended family that it was my Great-Great-Great-Great-Great-Aunt Juliet who was the “Miss Herbert” once privileged to instruct Gustave Flaubert’s niece in the rudiments of English style (as well as – possibly – her uncle … in various other matters), you might perhaps be more readily inclined to listen to me.

The title of your fascinating book seized my attention immediately when I saw it in our small local bookshop (remaindered to clear, I’m very sorry to say). I was especially intrigued to read the passages on pp. 29-30 and 87-88 where you describe the relations between the two (albeit an account substantially indebted to Hermia Oliver’s Flaubert and an English Governess: The Quest for Julia Herbert (1980), as you acknowledge on p.440).

You also quote, on p.29, from one of the Master’s letters to his best friend Louis Bouilhet: “at table my eyes willingly follow the gentle slope of her breast. I believe she perceives this. For she blushes five or six times during the meal,” following this with another quote praising the contours of “Miss Herbert’s” bottom!

But I should get to the point. Not – alas – the discovery among family papers of her famous lost translation, completed under the Master’s own eye, of Madame Bovary, but of a single scrap of paper, which may or may not be in her handwriting (no unequivocal samples of which have survived), in one of my Great-Grandfather’s books, Ford Madox Ford’s Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (1924), opposite the phrase: “the first words of Conrad’s first book were pencilled on the flyleaves and margins of ‘Madame Bovary’” (p.7), containing some scribbles which do appear to be an attempt on the very first sentence of that novel:
Nous étions à l’étude, quand le Proviseur entra, suivi d’un nouveau habillé en bourgeois et d’un garçon de classe qui portait un grand pupitre.

This is Eleanor Marx-Aveling’s 1886 translation:
We were in class when the head-master came in, followed by a “new fellow,” not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk.

The scrap of which I have just spoken, however, reads:
The school bell had just struck half past one when the Headmaster entered our classroom, followed by a “new bug” in mufti and a servant boy bearing a large desk.

The word “mufti” surprised me most of all, I must say. However, my Shorter Oxford Dictionary does confirm this usage as dating back at least to 1816. The addition of a striking clock to Flaubert’s opening phrase also gave me pause, though I note that this variant is recorded as belonging to the “ms. autographe, dans son dernier état, après correction” in the 1971 Garnier edition of Madame Bovary.

This might perhaps be taken as evidence that the translation in question was made from the “author’s own manuscript” rather than any printed edition of the novel – which might, in turn, allow us to associate it with that fabled lost version. Who can say? It may be a complete coincidence. Such as it is, I offer it to you in homage.


Verbivoracious Festschrift Volume Three: The Syllabus. Ed. G.N. Forester and M.J. Nicholls. ISBN 978-981-09-3593-1 (Singapore: Verbivoracious Press, 2015): 209-10.
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