Ugly and Laid(e)

As we saw in the last section, Noémi Lesbazeilles-Souvestre’s French version of 1854 translates ‘plain’ in chapter 23, with a word, ‘laid(e)’, which she also uses to translate ‘ugly’. This matters because Brontë maintains a distinction between those two terms. ‘Plain’ is associated with Jane and has the range of meanings that we have been exploring. ‘Ugly’ is associated with Mr. Rochester: it is used mainly of his physical appearance, but it can also apply to his behaviour (‘bigamy is an ugly word!’ —as he exclaims in chapter 26.) A good three-word summary of Jane Eyre in English might be ‘plain meets ugly’, with all that this entails: feminine meets masculine, directness meets deceit, clarity meets obfuscation, poverty meets wealth, innocence meets exploitation. But in the French of Lesbazeilles-Souvestre the verbal dynamic is altered. The differences between Jane and Rochester are reduced and the likeness is made more visible. In her translation, ‘laide’ meets ‘laid’.

This shift is in tune with the idiom of French nineteenth-century fiction. Women characters in novels by Honoré de Balzac, George Sand, Victor Hugo, Eugène Sue and others frequently declare ‘je suis laide’ (‘I am ugly’), as a search of the ARTFL-FRANTEXT database of French literature reveals, whereas the equivalent English database, LION, yields only one instance of a woman saying ‘I am ugly’ in a nineteenth-century novel (Priscilla, in George Eliot’s Silas Marner).

So as a translation choice in this instance, ‘laide’ is entirely justifiable. Neverthelesss, as similar decisions are made throughout the novel, and the word ‘laid(e)’ proliferates, a decisive change is effected in the web of words that describe people’s looks. The animation shows you all the instances in the novel where Lesbazeilles-Souvestre reaches for the term  ‘laid(e)’ (or, in one case, ‘laideurs’); the English words that it is used to translate  are shown in bold.

As you can see, in Brontë’s English these instances are divided between ‘plain’ and ‘ugly’ – and occasionally other terms. In the French of Lesbazeilles-Souvestre they are all brought together into the embrace of a single word.

List of translations quoted.

Text, animation and research by Matthew Reynolds.