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Translating Rousseauism: Transformations of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie in the works of Helen Maria Williams and Maria Edgeworth

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Laura Kirkley


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This article explores two 'translations' of J.-H. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre's Paul et Virginie (1788), a text that brought Rousseau's sentimental philosophy to bear on a narrative of two children who grow up, and eventually fall in love, in the pastoral idyll of the Ile de France. The 'translations' are Helen Maria Williams's Paul and Virginia (1795) and Maria Edgeworth's Belinda (1801). Writing from opposite sides of the Channel and in remarkably different circumstances, Williams and Edgeworth each responded to Paul et Virginie and its Rousseauvian roots under distinct ideological conditions. Only Williams translates in the literal sense of the term, but both writers are metaphorical 'translators', insofar as each appropriates and transforms elements of Bernardin's text to promote her particular agenda. I argue that both women appropriate and adapt Bernardin's female characters to engage with the Rousseauvian language of sentiment, constructing corrective models of femininity which take their shape from the politics and culture of their respective milieus. In doing so, Williams and Edgeworth constribute to a cosmopolitan network of women writers who draw on and critique the Rousseauism of the period as part of their intersecting analyses of culture, society, and gender politics. In conclude that, in their different ways, Paul and Virginia and Belinda redefine the place of feeling in the female psychic economy and its changing role in gender relations at a time of political turbulence and cultural transformation.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Kirkley L

Editor(s): Dow, G; Brown, H

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Readers, Writers, Salonnières: Female Networks in Europe, 1700-1900

Year: 2011

Pages: 93-118

Publisher: Peter Lang

Place Published: Bern, Oxford, Brussels, Frankfurt-am-Main, Berlin, New York, Vienna

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9783039119721