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  • Grace Norton and Lucy Allen Paton:The Transatlantic Correspondence of Two Early "Women in French"1
  • Cathleen M. Bauschatz (bio)

Writing for the American periodical the Nation in 1885, Grace Norton quotes Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) to the effect that "Almost all books [of travel] are either defective or fabulous. I have observed that the only true intelligence of distant countries is to be had from those who have passed [time in] them, without a design of publishing their remarks." Norton goes on to suggest that a handbook for Italy or another country "might be made by bringing together the observations and impressions of famous and remarkable men and women as recorded in their informal letters and diaries."2 Norton could not have anticipated that her own letters to fellow French scholar Lucy Allen Paton would become a source for our knowledge about both women, their travels in Italy, and their attempts to publish not travel writing, but scholarly work on early French literature. This correspondence, and the light it sheds on the two women's travel as well as on their activities as French scholars in the early twentieth century, will be the subject of this essay.

Two French Scholars from Boston

Grace Norton (1834-1926) was an early twentieth century French literature scholar, who published five books on Montaigne between 1904 and 1908 as well as numerous articles and around [End Page 289] forty-five reviews, many on French literature and criticism. She also corresponded (in French) with European Montaigne scholar Pierre Villey and cooperated with him on the famous "Edition Municipale" of the Essais, which came out in 1933 after her death. Norton was the sister of Harvard art-history professor and Dante scholar, Charles Eliot Norton (1827-1908), and helped to raise his children after the death of his wife in 1872. Grace also became a friend of novelist Henry James, who wrote many letters to her, first during her travels in Europe with the Norton family in the early 1870s, and later from England and Europe after the Nortons' return to Cambridge, MA, until his death in 1916. These letters are often quoted by James scholars to document aspects of his career, but they also show us much about her own. For example, at Christmas, 1897, Henry writes: "How is the mighty Montaigne? I don't read him a millionth part as much as I ought. …"3 Then, at Christmas 1898 he writes: "How is Montaigne? But you needn't tell me—I see how you are getting your foregleams of immortality. …" (James, Letters 4: 94). Despite his slightly ironic tone here, we can see that Henry James did appreciate Norton's scholarly attainments.

Clearly Grace Norton was an important member of the elite intellectual world of Cambridge around 1900, described in Louis Menand's The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America. Like most of the other women in her circle, Norton had no formal education, but had been tutored at home. In the 1880s and 1890s, in addition to writing reviews for The Nation, Grace gave soirées at home and lectures around Cambridge on topics related to early modern French literature, including French women writers.4 Despite the support of Henry James and Harvard French Professor Ferdinand Bôcher (1832-1902), the women in her circle, among them the James women, tended to ridicule her for her pretensions to scholarship as well as for her "refined spinsterhood."5 She had no female role models as a scholar and corresponded almost exclusively with the male literati of her time.

Lucy Allen Paton (1865-1951), a younger acquaintance of Grace Norton, received B.A., M.A. and Ph. D. degrees from Radcliffe College, which had just been incorporated from the "Annex" of Harvard University, in 1892. Paton's Ph.D. thesis, [End Page 290] Studies in the Fairy Mythology of Arthurian Romance (1903) showed her immense erudition on the Breton and Celtic versions of Arthurian legends. Thirty years younger than Norton, Paton received the degrees which her older friend was never able to obtain. Lucy lived much of her later adult life in Europe, traveling with her brother, classical archeologist James...


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