Chits and ingénues

one romance novel in French and in English

CHIT, n. / INGÉNUE, n. The usual form of this newsletter requires me to put these words at the beginning, but you’ll have to excuse me, I’m taking the long way around to their definitions and etymologies.

This week’s reading in small-r romance and Capital-R Romance is the same book: Sherry Thomas’s The Luckiest Lady in London, translated into French as Lady Chance by Nicole Hibert. I read this along with my friend Charlotte at Close Reading Romance. Charlotte and I are both romance readers who happen to have doctorates in French literature, and we thought it would be fun to do a sort of crossover of our interests and our blogs by reading a book together.

We discussed reading a romance novel originally written in French, but neither of us is familiar with the genre in French, whereas we both have years of experience sorting through English-language romance novels. Experience has taught me that I prefer to curate my reading based on what people I trust are telling me is good. You can just go to any bookshop or online store that carries romance and pick up the first romance-looking thing you see, of course, and we could have done that in French, but I like to know what I’m getting into. It’s not an accident that I love this genre where the ending is always assured. So for this project, we picked an author we both like: Sherry Thomas.

Sherry Thomas writes historical romance. (She’s branched out into a few other genres over her career, but I mostly know her for this.) She’s a master of a very particular kind of intimate drama, where circumstances lock together two people uniquely suited to making each other either the happiest or the most miserable person on Earth, but they have to do the latter before they understand how to do the former. The conflict is always internal and it is always intense.

Sherry Thomas is also an excellent prose stylist. Her writing is warm and witty, weaving between high and low registers. Sometimes we’re close to a character’s point of view, so their thoughts are not marked with “he thought” and they’re phrased as that character might think them—free indirect style, if you wanna get into it, which I don’t—but Thomas is also not afraid to step back and offer commentary that could only come from an omniscient narrator. That’s become quite rare in recent genre romance, and it makes her stand out. I think she uses it to great effect. Both styles are on display in this book’s prologue, which concludes with these paragraphs:

In 1885, when [Felix] turned twenty-five, he let out the word that he was ready to settle down with the right girl. The matrons heaved a collective sigh of relief. How wonderful. The boy actually understood his duties to God and country.

He had no intention of marrying, of course, until he was at least forty-five—a society that so worshiped the infernal institution of marriage deserved to be misled. Let them try to matchmake. He did say the right girl, didn’t he? The right girl wouldn’t come along for twenty years, and she’d be a naive, plump-chested chit of seventeen who worshiped the ground on which he trod.

Little could he guess that at twenty-eight he would marry, out of the blue, a lady who was quite some years removed from seventeen, neither naive nor plump-chested, and who examined the ground on which he trod with a most suspicious eye, seeing villainy in everything he said and did.

Her name was Louisa Cantwell, and she would be his undoing.

The nameless, outside-the-story narrator is able to report to us the thoughts or speech of the matrons (“How wonderful. The boy actually understood his duties to God and country”) and Felix’s private intentions and opinions, which are opposed to his public image. Marriage is an “infernal institution” for Felix because he grew up as the emotionally abused pawn in his parents’ loveless home. We get a little glimpse of his secret, colloquial self-talk, in which he repeats a term used in his reported speech, “the right girl,” but italicized and further defined this time. I want to linger over his definition: “a naive, plump-chested chit of seventeen who worshiped the ground on which he trod.”

This sentence was a surprise because I read the French first, and in the French, Felix’s right girl is “une ingénue.” The details are the same—naïveté, breasts, worshipping the ground—but “ingénue” struck me very differently. That isn’t to say it’s “wrong” or a bad translation (whatever that means), just that it evokes a different set of connotations. “Ingénue” has a fairly stable definition in French and in English. Both the Oxford English Dictionary and the Trésor de la langue française highlight “innocence” and “naïveté” and young women in their entries, so in context it’s a perfectly appropriate word choice.

“Ingénue” gets used in both French and English to talk about innocent young women and also the theatrical role of Innocent Young Woman. That theatrical connotation might apply to the real woman Felix eventually falls for, as she is painfully aware of her role to play in society, but in this first description of his “right girl,” it’s the simple innocent he wants. To describe her as an “ingénue” sounds pretty and sweet and endearing.

“Chit” does not.

“Chit” has a whopping eight entries in the OED, encompassing baby animals, plant shoots, chickpeas, birds, notes (this one is from Hindi!), some sort of barrel-making tool, a verb meaning “germinate,” and a verb meaning “chirp.” A lot of those are obsolete. What’s relevant right now are the baby animals. People don’t say “chit” for an animal’s young anymore, although we do say “kit” and “kitten.” But don’t let the cuteness distract you. You can call a baby animal a “whelp,” too, and that doesn’t sound nice at all.

“Chit” has persisted as a word for a child or a young woman, and the OED notes that both of these usages are “contemptuous.” A chit is a brat. A chit is childish. “Chit” is scornful, dismissive, and insulting in a way that I’m not sure “ingénue” is—though “ingénue” doesn’t radiate respect. More of a benevolently sexist condescension.

“Chit” is also, to my ear, less formal. But my ear is the trouble. French naturally sounds formal to me. English words that come from French—whether we import them directly, accent marks and all, or whether we borrow them and then anglicize them over time—tend to be more formal than their Germanic counterparts. Take “start” and “commence,” for example, two words with the same meaning. “Start” is Germanic and it sounds regular. “Commence” is fancy. A cereal box in the United States might say “start your day,” but it won’t say “commence your day.” A cereal box in France will say “commence.” If you read those letters printed on the cardboard as an anglophone, it feels like that French cereal box is putting on airs. But it isn’t. “Commence,” in this context, is “start.” Isn’t that a trip? My point is that French doesn’t sound fancy to French speakers, but it does to anglophone rubes like me. So my judgment of the role played by “ingénue” in the French translation probably differs from a native speaker’s.

Still, I think it’s safe to say that ”ingénue” in French or English lacks the contempt of “chit.” “Chit” is not remotely endearing. In the original English, especially in its context of “naive, plump-chested chit,” it is mean as fuck, and we’re supposed to notice it. I do think the horror of Felix’s plan to marry a naive seventeen-year-old for her tits when he himself is forty-five is conveyed in the French, but the particular language Sherry Thomas chose is just so unflinchingly awful.

Felix’s secret intention to marry someone young, pretty, and powerless makes him deeply unlikeable. This is a reversal of the rest of the prologue, when we see him as an unwanted, unloved child and feel sympathy for his plight. In this one brief paragraph, Sherry Thomas has made us long for Felix to fail.

And then, in that beautiful omniscient-narrator style, she delivers what we want. Here are the last two paragraphs of the prologue again:

Little could he guess that at twenty-eight he would marry, out of the blue, a lady who was quite some years removed from seventeen, neither naive nor plump-chested, and who examined the ground on which he trod with a most suspicious eye, seeing villainy in everything he said and did.

Her name was Louisa Cantwell, and she would be his undoing.

“Little could he guess” indicates to us that we’re no longer in Felix’s point of view; now we’re getting a sneak peek into his future, something only the omniscient narrator can provide. The narrator dismantles Felix’s plan briskly and methodically, listing all the ways in which his wife will not meet his stated requirements. It’s such a thrill to arrive at that final sentence. “Her name was Louisa Cantwell,” not Lady so-and-so. The introduction is direct and straightforward, and it gives us a sense of not only how pragmatic and smart Louisa is, but also of how inevitable the ending is.

There are so many good things about romance novels—somebody should write a newsletter about it—but one of my favorites is that because we all know the ending, readers can take smug pleasure in watching characters, say, swear up and down that they’ll never fall in love, or make doomed plans to marry somebody that they couldn’t possibly care about, all to protect their wounded, vulnerable hearts. Even when there isn’t an omniscient narrator telling us the future, we all know it. And when there is an omniscient narrator telling us the future, it feels even more conspiratorial. We know, and the narrator knows, but the main character doesn’t. That “and she would be his undoing” is the best possible promise this book can make me. I love to be in on a secret and I love to see a man get wrecked.

I should note that Louisa’s expectations also get overturned. She’s first prophetically evoked in the text by this list of all the qualities she doesn’t have. When we turn this last page of the prologue and meet her in chapter one in the very next sentence, we learn that Louisa is herself a maker of lists and that for years, “[Felix’s] name had sat atop her list of eligible young men.” So Felix is making a list of ways to disqualify women from becoming his wife while Louisa is making a list of men she can marry—and she has, we learn from the narrator, instantly disqualified Felix as being too rich and too perfect for her. She’s not wrong about his money, but she’s wrong about his character, and the rest of the book is about both of these characters discovering each other’s secrets and slowly correcting their initial, wrong assumptions. Because it’s a Sherry Thomas novel, they make some big, painful mistakes, but—also because it’s a Sherry Thomas novel—I always believed they would prove to be right for each other in the end.

I know I haven’t said much about reading this book in translation, other than the single word choice of ”ingénue” for “chit,” even though reading this book in French was the whole idea. What this translation demonstrated for me is how rich and lively Sherry Thomas’s writing is. I don’t mean to knock the translator when I say that. Translation is hard, beautiful work. There are some very nice moments in Hibert’s translation, moments where she used features of French, like the formal and informal “you,” to wring more out of the sentences. Charlotte gives a great explanation of that, as well as few other divergences in the translation, in her excellent post.

For me, there is nothing quite like reading for pleasure in my native language in my most familiar genre—and, on top of that, an author whose work I know—so any comparison would be unfair to begin with. This reading experience did give me an unexpected gift in the form of surprise, though. I don’t think I would have lingered over the word “chit” if I hadn’t read it as ”ingénue” first. Briefly defamiliarizing this very familiar thing made me appreciate it even more, and that is something to be grateful for.