Pierre Villey on Grace Norton, Foreword to Lexique De La Langue Des Essais:
One day in 1913, I was informed that a package had arrived for me from America, and was waiting for pick up in the port. Why were our customs officers so worried about a product of New World industry? Never before was anyone asked to clear such a product from Caen – or any other port. From the other side of the Atlantic I received a lexicon of the language of Montaigne, three large folio volumes, skillfully typed, beautifully bound.
The lexicon was the work of an octogenarian. I have often spoken of Miss Grace Norton to the friends of Montaigne. They know her studies to be of solid and sober erudition. That a foreigner could feel such love for the Essays – three centuries after their publication, more than six thousand kilometers from Gascony – is this not a striking testimony to the universality of Montaigne’s thought? She discovered them around fifty. Since then, not a single day went by without her reading a few pages of her bedside book. She was over seventy when she decided to study Montaigne more thoroughly, which led her to undertake a complete inventory of his language.
She worked alone. She was not a philologist, and, all her life, English was the only language she ever spoke. She had no ambition to publish, but asked me to revise her work. She gave me complete freedom, too, to rework, transform, modify as I saw fit, and to publish the work if I judged that its publication could be useful. For twenty years, during my courses, my students and I have greatly appreciated the services that such an instrument is capable of rendering to us sixteenth-centuryists. A few months before her death, I had the satisfaction of being able to tell Miss Grace Norton that the Municipal Edition would welcome the lexicon, which was an immense joy for her. She was ninety-two years old.
Entry on Grace Norton, Dictionnaire Montaigne, ed. Philippe Desan, 2018
Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1834–1926
A member of a family of Harvard professors and administrators, Grace Norton appears to have had no formal education. Like most women of her generation, she was educated by tutors at the family home, Shady Hill, near the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Massachusetts. During the 1860s, she travelled to Europe with her brother, Charles Eliot Norton (well known for introducing Dante to Americans of the time), and his family, and developed an interest in French and French literature, a passion she kept throughout her life.
Forty years later, Grace Norton became a specialist on Montaigne, publishing five books on the essayist between 1904 and 1908 (Early Writings of Montaigne, 1904; Studies in Montaigne, 1904; Le Plutarch de Montaigne, 1906; The Influence of Montaigne, 1908; and The Spirit of Montaigne, 1908). From 1905, she maintained a correspondence with Pierre Villey, extracts of which she kept, and are preserved in the Houghton Library at Harvard (even though she asked them to be destroyed). Villey wrote very favorable reviews of Norton’s first two books in 1905 (RHLF), as well as her book on Montaigne and Plutarch (RHLF, 1907), and he cited her works several times in his own works on Montaigne, notably in his two books of 1908, and in his Montaigne and François Bacon (1913). Norton reported on Villey’s theses in the Nation (1909), and worked on a Lexicon of the Essays which she sent to Villey in 1913. He published her Lexicon as an appendix to the Édition Municipale des Essais in 1933, seven years after Norton’s death. In the foreword, Villey describes his astonishment on receiving the package, at the port of Caen, twenty years earlier: “That a foreigner could feel such love for the Essays – three centuries after their publication, more than six thousand kilometers from Gascony – is this not a striking testimony to the universality of Montaigne’s thought?"
During the last years of her long life, Norton collaborated on an American translation of the Essays with George B. Ives. Her “Notes” appeared as “Handbook to the Essays” in 1925, as a companion volume to the translation. By the time she died in 1926, Grace Norton had introduced Montaigne to American readers of her time, and had founded American criticism of the Essays. Through her correspondence with Pierre Villey, she became known as a “friend of Montaigne” and she exercised a considerable influence on American and French Montaigne studies, especially from the point of view of the Latin sources of Montaigne, of his method of composition, and his influence on English and American writers.
(Both translations by me.)