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Darwin Correspondence Project

Clémence Auguste Royer


Clémence Royer
Clémence Royer, from Les femmes dans la science, by Alphonse Rebière, 1897
Image from the Biodiversity Heritage Library. Digitised by University of Toronto

Getting Origin translated into French was harder than Darwin had expected. The first translator he approached, Madame Belloc, turned him down on the grounds that the content was ‘too scientific‘, and then in 1860 the French political exile  Pierre Talandier rescinded his offer to translate it on the grounds that no publisher was willing to work with such a politically controversial figure. Shortly after, Darwin’s luck changed when Clemence Royer, a French author and economist living in Geneva, agreed to translate Origin into French.

Royer was an extraordinary nineteenth-century woman; a politically active left-wing thinker, she promoted social progression and advocated women’s rights. Royer’s unconventional outlook echoed through her private life, living openly as she did with a married man. Unfortunately for Darwin, her radical politics echoed also through her translation of Origin.

First published in 1862, Royer’s translation of Origin was remarkable. Prefaced with a long anti-clerical rant, Royer added numerous footnotes to the body of Origin which over-ruled Darwin’s apologetic tone. She also took the opportunity to explore the issue of eugenics, to alert readers to the perils of nineteenth-century marriage and to ‘correct’ Darwin’s theory of an ongoing, universal war in nature. Royer even went so far as to edit Origin‘s title, inserting the non-Darwinian, distinctly Lamarckian phrase  ”laws of progress” into her revised subtitle.

Unsurprisingly, on reading Royer’s ‘translation’ of Origin Darwin was perplexed to say the least; “I received 2 or 3 days ago”, he told Asa Gray in 1862, “a French Translation of the Origin by a Madelle. Royer, who must be one of the cleverest & oddest women in Europe”. Royer, he said, was an “ardent Deist & hates Christianity, & declares that natural selection & the struggle for life will explain all morality, nature of man, politicks &c &c!!!.” ”Almost everywhere in Origin,” he told Joseph Hooker, “when I express great doubt, she [Royer] appends a note explaining the difficulty or saying that there is none whatever!! It is really curious to know what conceited people there are in the world”.

Royer’s translation of Origin was often poorly-informed and undeniably politicised. What is interesting, however, is that criticisms of her work always made reference to her sex. In 1862, Edouard Claparede wrote to Darwin to explain that he had tried but failed to prevent Royer from “disfiguring your work completely”. “Mlle. Royer”, he concluded, “is a singular individual whose attractions are not those of her sex”. Here, Claparede echoed the sentiment of French philosopher Ernest Renan who famously described Royer as “almost a man of genius”. [1]

To rewrite and actively politicise another’s work was not just bad scientific practice – it was also, and more importantly, a decidedly masculine way to behave. In the scientific context, a woman’s role was to act silently and diligently (as an editor, proof-reader or translator) in order to aid the flow of men’s ideas. To take a more active and public role was – as a caricature of Royer published in Les hommes d’aujourd’hui in 1881 demonstrated – to display what were deemed to be unequivocally masculine characteristics.

This point was not lost on Royer. In 1874 in front of the Société d’Anthropologie de Paris, she criticized a male-controlled scientific establishment in no uncertain terms: “Up until now,” she declared, “science like law, made exclusively by men, has too often considered woman as an absolutely passive being, without instincts or passions or her own interests; as a purely plastic material capable of taking any form given her without resistance; a being without the inner resources to react against the education she receives or against the discipline to which she submits as part of law, custom or opinion. “Woman,” she concluded, “is not made like this.” [2]

[1] See J. Harvey, Almost a Man of Genius: Clemence Royer, Feminism and Nineteenth-Century Science (London, 1997).

[2] From a paper by Royer titled ‘Sur la natalité which was read before the Societe d’Anthropologie de Paris in 1874.