Fanny Reybaud (1802-1870) was a successful French writer who wrote 30 novels as well as short stories and poems and was a frequent visitor to the best literary salons mingling with figures such as Honoré de Balzac, Frédéric Mistral and Alphonse Daudet .
Today, however, the mention of the name is more likely to result in a “blank stare”, Barbara Basbanes Richter said, even among Richter’s French friends.
“In France, she’s quite unknown,” Richter said. “She dies. She disappears.”
If the reason for that is a bit of a mystery, Reybaud employs plenty of mystery as well as haunting twists in his best-selling 1854 novel, “Mademoiselle de Malepeire,” as we try to figure out who the main character really is.
A portrait of her in her mysterious young beauty intrigues the novel’s narrator when he sees her on vacation at her uncle’s country house in Haute Provence.
It is an obsessive plot, but he will have many surprises when he learns little by little through the accounts of his uncle’s visitors the details of the stubbornness of the privileged Mademoiselle de Malepeire who led to disappearance and even murder at a time when the French Revolution was also in full swing.
A final twist at the end may have dropped jaws in 1854. Not just in France, but in countries where Reybaud’s works have been translated into English, German and Spanish. “Mademoiselle de Malepeire” has been translated into Arabic by a Syrian publisher.
Now 2020 readers can make their own discoveries with Richter’s English translation of “Mademoiselle de Malepeire” published by Bancroft Press.
Richter, who grew up in North Grafton and graduated from Worcester Academy, hopes the post will help spark renewed interest in Reybaud.
The book is the first translation published by Bancroft Press in its 30-year history, its publisher, Bruce L. Bortz, said. He called the new translation “nothing less than an American literary milestone…this startling and worthy translation will capture the attention of contemporary readers and scholars.”
“Mademoiselle de Malepeire” is a relatively short novel that moves at high speed. “It’s a fun little read. It’s quick. It’s a synthesis of all his (Reybaud’s) talents and skills,” Richter said.
“I think it’s easy to read. It’s something you can read and disappear for about an hour.”
As the mystery of the story unfolds, Reybaud sometimes shows a dry sense of humor as well as a keen eye on French society and particularly on the role of women at the time.
“I think that makes it relevant today,” Richter said.
Reybaud “ran in these amazing literary circles”, but little is known about her now. “So much is missing,” Richter said.
She had a “strange relationship with her husband, Charles. They were separated but not divorced.” When Charles (“a skirt chaser”) went on various journeys, he asked his brother “to watch her… In the end they made up.”
Charles died in 1864 and Reybaud died in 1870, some of his literary popularity having apparently already faded. The couple’s only child, Emile, died in 1874 and Reybaud’s granddaughter, Marie, who had his papers and correspondence, “disappeared”.
“His literary legacy was not nurtured by those around him,” Richter said.
Reybaud appears in some accounts of the time she lived. “Hans Christian Anderson mentions her,” Richter said. “George Sand never mentions her.”
“Mademoiselle de Malepeire” remained good enough to be plagiarized by English writer Charles Reade for a story he titled “The Picture” which was published in Harper’s Magazine. Richter said he was “called out” by an article in The Saturday Review in 1884.
Richter met Reybaud while she was taking a graduate course in French literature at Tufts University. The course focused on the French romantic novelist George Sand, the pseudonym of Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin. “Mademoiselle de Malepeire” was offered as a counterweight to Sand.
“Sand is a very different type of writer. If she has any love conflicts, it’s on the page,” Richter said. “Reybaud’s characters do not bring his own experiences to life… Unlike Sand, Reybaud hardly offers an idealized look at love.”
But “Mademoiselle de Malepeire” marked the spirits. “I remember reading that and thinking it was worth coming back to.”
Eventually she did, and another thought came with re-reading the novel: “Wouldn’t it be fun to translate to see if it holds up in English?”
For Reybaud’s translator, “the French is so clean”, notes Richter. “The challenge is that it’s written for readers of the 1850s. It’s not written for a contemporary audience in 2020.”
There have been earlier English translations, but they appear dated, Richter said. A 1905 translation “is very revealing of this era. There are even instances where the vocabulary does not match.”
To facilitate certain explanations of time, place and history, Richter puts in footnotes.
The translation process itself “was kind of fun. It was something I really enjoyed.” Completing the translation took “six months spread over a two-year period,” she said.
Richter, who now lives in Larchmont, New York, is a daughter of Nicholas A. and Constance Basbanes of North Grafton. Nicholas Basbanes was a reporter for the former Evening Gazette and book editor for the Sunday Telegram in Worcester and also a columnist for syndicated books before becoming a well-regarded published author in his own right, with several acclaimed works that explored the world of books. His first biography, a fascinating look at 19th century American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow titled “Cross of Snow”, was published earlier this year by Knopf.
Richter recalled books arriving regularly at the Basbanes. With her parents and her sister Nicole, she became a bibliophile.
“It was like Christmas every day. I had nightmares of the house collapsing under the weight (of the books).”
During this time, she said she was introduced to French at elementary school level, and at Worcester Academy her love of the language was reinforced by “a really solid language program. The teachers I were great.”
She found the French language “Simply beautiful. I felt I could make it my own. I loved the way it sounded. There’s this beauty that you can create these structures with French that you can’t. do with English. And I stuck with it.”
Richter received a bachelor’s and master’s degree in French literature from Smith College and Tufts University, respectively. She taught French and Latin for the better part of a decade and, as department head of a world languages program in Fairfax County, Virginia, led the development of a languages of the world and resuscitated the French and Latin programs.
As a writer, Richter has interviewed authors, illustrators “and other influential people in the book world” for Fine Books and Collections Magazine and for Literary Features Syndicate.
Most recently, Richter is the founder of In Ink Ghostwriting where she and her team write and edit bestselling books for clients ranging from Fortune 500 CEOs to professional athletes and Grammy-winning musicians. Two of the books were national bestsellers and one was chosen for the cinema.
Richter said she had written children’s books as well, but was continually told “”this is a good book but nobody knows who you are. “‘With ghostwriting,’ there are people who have a platform but may struggle to sit down at a computer (to write). It’s growing. There are people who want to write books in various fields. People want to share their experience.”
She also persevered with her own writing and, after finishing translating “Mademoiselle de Malepeire”, decided to see if she could get a readership.
Through all of his writing endeavors, “both parents have been very supportive of him,” she said.
Her father told her “be prepared to hear a lot of no’s”, but “if you don’t try, you never know”.
Trying to get a translation of a now-obscure 19th-century novelist published was a bit of a drag, but after Richter sent Bortz a question, he replied, read the book, “and he loved it,” said Richter.
Now she has published her own book for the first time, although Richter has added a caveat.
“It’s still not mine, is it?” she said Reybaud was the author.
“It’s always exciting when the books come out. But it’s a bit more like mine, even though it’s a translation.”
Nicholas Basbanes had no qualms about seeing his father and daughter publish books in the same year.
“My two daughters grew up in a house full of books, so it’s no surprise that Barbara will one day become an author and her sister, Nicole, will become a librarian,” he said. “The greatest thrill for me as a professional writer has always been seeing my books appear between hard covers. To this I can now add the joy of seeing my daughter experience the same sense of joy and accomplishment.”
Richter said that “Mademoiselle de Malepeire” has “been a bit of a victim of the pandemic”. It was officially released on October 6, but while it can be found in e-book form, the hardcover version will now be out in a week or two.
Still, Richter said, “people are accessing it” and she got an early positive reaction.
A Zoom presentation with “francophiles” in New York was followed by a question-and-answer session that lasted more than half an hour, Richter said.
“There are people reading the translation and going back to the original, which I think is exciting.”
If there is enough interest, readers here might hear about Reybaud and Richter.
When asked if she would undertake further translations of Reybaud’s novels, Richter replied: “It depends if people ask for more like they did when she was alive. So, of course, I’ll go for it. .”