French, so they say, is the language of love. You may wonder why, then, when I speak and write fluently in both French and English, I choose to write in English.
As a child I grew up speaking French predominantly – which was easy for me because my governess, Zula, was part French. Though my parents encouraged me to learn English, and I duly learnt the language, I was more interested in French at first. I read French literature extensively at school, and my imagination and love of writing was stirred by classic authors like Victor Hugo, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert and Molière.
Then, I entered my teenage years, and the world of popular culture drew me in. I moved on from sewing on the balcony of my living room while listening to classical musical. I discovered Elvis! My father began taking me to the cinema once a week with my sister, and I fell in love with a whole host of Hollywood movie stars. The English language became more romantic to me when spoken by these handsome actors and crooned by heart-melting singers.
Womanhood beckoned, and I donned my travelling shoes, exploring other cultures and myriad languages. Then, years later, I met my wonderful husband, an Englishman, and fell in love, thus fixing my destiny: to live in England. And I loved it – the patchwork of fields all around, the hopping of little rabbits down the lane, the scones and jam, the hazy sunshine, the windswept coast. Now that I was speaking English each day, my mind adjusted and I found myself thinking in English as well.
I wrote my first novel in French, and then had it translated into English. I wasn’t happy with the result, so I re-translated it myself. A lot of work!
From that point on, I decided to write straight into English, to find the poeticism in the English language first, rather than trying to wrestle with French phrasing to make it work so well in English. Usually, as I write these days I’m thinking the words in English before I write. But sometimes it’s a French phrase that sticks in my mind, and I struggle to find an English equivalent. One word in French can translate into three or four in English! And then there is the sheer beauty of the French language – the sounds, the rhythms – which can be hard to recreate in English (compare, for example, the sound of the French Il n’est rien de réel que le rêve et l’amour with its English translation: Nothing is real but dreams and love.)
I think because French is my first language, the one I spoke chiefly as a child (and I’m told I speak with a French accent still), it has a profound effect on my writing in English. It makes me think carefully about the vocabulary I select, because I want to ensure the meaning that’s in my mind comes through in the language. It makes me look closely at the structuring of sentences, which often differs across the languages. But most of all, I hope that I take a touch of what’s magical about the French language and infuse it into my English writing. For whatever language in which an author writes, for romantic fiction, she must use the language of love.