Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Women in Folklore Month: Leonore Blanche Alleyne Lang

Most of us have heard the saying: "Anonymous was usually a woman." I'm not here to argue the veracity of that statement--although the field of folklore, especially fairy tales, supports it rather well. Today I want to highlight a woman who is almost completely anonymous despite having contributed to one of the most influential collections of fairy tales in the past two centuries.

She is Leonore Blanche Alleyne Lang and her last name gives the greatest clue to her identity. Better known as Mrs Lang or Andrew Lang's wife, she is virtually unknown and unrecognized for her work, although if you look deeply enough you can find some acknowledgement of her.

Most fairy tale afficiandos are familiar with the colored fairy books. I myself often think of them as Andrew Lang's Fairy Books. Twelve in total were published from 1889 to 1910. While not as easily recognized by today's generations, these books are still in print, thanks to Dover Publications. (All twelve are pictured here in their Dover imprints and clickable to Amazon.) Previous generations were raised on these books and the collection still appears in most reasonably sized library collections. Essentially, this collection inspired many of the fairy tale anthologies that have followed. Few collections had appeared in English previously, especially ones gathered from multiple sources.

Fascinating to me, they were multicultural collections before the term was a buzzword in education many decades later. A hundred years after their first printing, they are still amazing collections of fairy tales, some of the first digitized and shared on the web as ebooks. I've used them repeatedly throughout the building of SurLaLune.

The tales were also gathered and translated in good part from foreign language sources. Many of the tales appeared for the first time--and even the only time--in English. They were also edited with children in mind, a practice maligned by some scholars, but a choice that arguably insured their popularity and endurance. After all, the Grimms made similar choices in their editing with child readers in mind.

The cover and title pages of each book credit Andrew Lang as the editor. That's true enough. Lang was a prolific and well-recognized folklorist and author. His career was laudable. His body of published works is formidable. He was a busy man, well-versed and influential in his fields of interest. But his contribution to the colored fairy tale books is minimal.

In Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, the entry on Andrew Lang states: "The irony of Lang's life and work is that although he wrote for a profession—literary criticism; fiction; poems; books and articles on anthropology, mythology, history, and travel original stories for chldren...he is best recognized for the works he did not write."

In The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales, we read: "Though Lang himself had chosen the stories, nearly all the translation and rewriting had been done by others. This was to be the case thoughout the series, Mrs Lang latterly undertaking most of the work."

In other words, Mrs Lang was a partner in her husband's career. This was not a great secret and he didn't seek to take credit away from her. In the preface to The Lilac Fairy Book, he writes:

The fairy books have been almost wholly the work of Mrs. Lang, who has translated and adapted them from the French, German, Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, Catalan, and other languages.

My part has been that of Adam, according to Mark Twain, in the Garden of Eden. Eve worked, Adam superintended. I also superintend. I find out where the stories are, and advise, and, in short, superintend. I do not write the stories out of my own head. The reputation of having written all the fairy books (an European reputation in nurseries and the United States of America) is 'the burden of an honour unto which I was not born.' It weighs upon and is killing me, as the general fash of being the wife of the Lord of Burleigh, Burleigh House by Stamford Town, was too much for the village maiden espoused by that peer.

Finally, this entry was not intended to diminish Andrew Lang's work or achievements. He made a sizable contribution to the field. His name and reputation made it possible for these books to be published in the first place, for as obvious as they are now, they were rather innovative at the time and a risk for the publisher. We do not know the inner workings of his marriage and why his wife was not given as much credit in print for her work on these volumes. Their marriage was a product of a different time and place, albeit one in which women were more easily accepted as writers in their own rights than they had been previously. Perhaps Leonore preferred to work in relative anonymity, the quiet partner behind the scenes. Perhaps the publisher demanded as such for the first volume and kept the packaging the same in later volumes to avoid tampering with a bestselling series. There simply isn't enough known about the situation to provide answers.

Nevertheless, it is established and accepted that overall Mrs Lang's contribution of work was greater in these volumes than that of her famous husband. And yet most people are completely unaware of her work, thanks to the vagaries of publishing in which her husband's name appears alone on the title pages.

In the end, Leonore Blanche Alleyne Lang was a talented translator, author and editor, making these many tales readable and even beloved by generations of readers. If you've ever tried translating a story from one language to another, you can appreciate her gifts even more. Her work has had a lasting impact and today I wanted to recognize her contribution. Arguably, her husband's career would not be as well-known today without her work as partner and helpmeet.

And, if you explore the prefaces to the books, you'll discover that many of the translators she worked with were also women. So while men's names--Lang's as well as those of his illustrators--appear on the cover and have received the glory for these books, most of the translating and writing was done by women.

PS: Mrs Lang did have a few books with her name on the cover, by the way, including The Red Book of Heroes (1909) and The Book of Saints and Heroes (1912) .

1 comment:

  1. from what I remember of the prefaces, I think Mrs. Lang did more and more of the work as they progress; she was only one of the translators for the first one, but by the end, he wrote the preface that it really should be Mrs. Lang's book on the cover --

    Of course, by that point you had branding issues.