In the translation of The Count of Monte Cristo I am reading, I noticed in Chapter 51, in the exchange between Valentine and Maximillian, Valentine makes repeated reference to her father's second wife as her "mother-in-law". Wouldn't this be her step-mother? Your mother-in-law would be the mother of your spouse, but my understanding is Valentine is unmarried. Also, other context clues lead me to believe this "mother-in-law" Valentine is referencing is, in fact, Madame d'Villefort.

For example, Valentine making reference to her "mother-in-law" preferring her own son, Edward, to herself. Edward being Valentine's half-brother, the son of her father and his second wife.

Is this a mistranslation or some kind of confusion on my part?

3 Answers 3


This is a translation error! The original French is as follows:

— Oh! monsieur, dit-elle, pourquoi donc êtes vous venu si tard aujourd’hui? Savez-vous que l’on va dîner bientôt, et qu’il m’a fallu bien de la diplomatie et bien de la promptitude pour me débarrasser de ma belle-mère qui m’épie, de ma femme de chambre qui m’espionne, et de mon frère qui me tourmente, pour venir travailler ici à cette broderie, qui, j’en ai peur, ne sera pas finie de longtemps?

Alexandre Dumas (1845). Le Comte de Monte Cristo, volume 7, p. 283. Paris: Pétion.

The French “belle-mère” means both “mother-in-law” and “step-mother”, and the anonymous translator of the 1894 Crowell edition picked the wrong one:

“And why do you come so late today? It is almost dinner-time, and I had to use no little diplomacy to get rid of my watchful mother-in-law, my too-devoted maid, and my troublesome brother, who is always teasing me about coming to work at my embroidery, which I am in a fair way never to get done.”

Alexandre Dumas (1845). The Count of Monte Cristo, volume 1, p. 516. New York: Crowell & Co (1894).

The mistake was corrected in the 1901 Crowell edition, which has “stepmother” on page 516, but Project Gutenberg used the 1894 edition as the basis for its e-book, and the mis-translation duly appeared in chapter 51 (but no longer; see below).

Another answer points out that “mother-in-law” can be used with the sense “stepmother” in English too, but this doesn’t apply to The Count of Monte Cristo, for the following reasons:

  1. The Oxford English Dictionary marks this sense as “now regional”: that is, it is not standard usage, and so is the wrong register to represent the speech of Valentine, a member of the aristocracy who has grown up in Paris.

  2. The fact that Crowell issued a corrected edition shows that they considered it a mistake.

  3. The translator chose “stepmother” in six other places to refer to the relationship between Valentine and Héloïse, for example, this passage:

    Elle extra donc, et voyant près de sa mère l’étranger dont elle avait tant entendu parler déjà, elle salua sans aucune minauderie de jeune fille et sans baisser les yeux, avec une grâce qui redoubla l’attention du comte.

    Alexandre Dumas (1845). Le Comte de Monte Cristo, volume 8, p. 7. Paris: Pétion.

    became, in the 1894 Crowell edition:

    She entered the apartment, and seeing near her stepmother the stranger of whom she had already heard so much, saluted him without any girlish awkwardness, or even lowering her eyes, and with an elegance that redoubled the count's attention.

    Alexandre Dumas (1845). The Count of Monte Cristo, volume 1, p. 526. New York: Crowell & Co (1894).

Accordingly, I submitted some errata to Project Gutenberg, and the six occurrences of “mother-in-law” in chapter 51 are now corrected to “stepmother”, following the 1901 Crowell edition.

  • 10
    Is it in fact an error, or did English at the time (like French) use the term for both types of relationships?
    – Alex
    Oct 15, 2021 at 0:11
  • 1
    Anothertranslation error from the same book, pointed out on this site: literature.stackexchange.com/a/9504/4483
    – Alex
    Oct 15, 2021 at 15:48
  • @Alex Unfortunately archive.org is missing volume 2 of the 1901 Crowell edition, so I can't tell whether the "three hundred centigrammes" mistake was corrected there. Oct 15, 2021 at 16:44

When was this translated?

In David Copperfield, there are references to his "father-in-law" meaning his stepfather, so there was indeed a time when "in-law" could mean "step."

‘I was aware that you sustained a bereavement, sir, some time ago,’ said Mr. Chillip. ‘I heard it from your father-in-law’s sister. Very decided character there, sir?’

‘Why, yes,’ said I, ‘decided enough. Where did you see her, Mr. Chillip?’

‘Are you not aware, sir,’ returned Mr. Chillip, with his placidest smile, ‘that your father-in-law is again a neighbour of mine?’

  • 1
    This is the correct answer. In nineteenth-century English, mother-in-law could very well be used to refer to one's spouse's mother, not just to one's stepmother. It meant simply someone who was a mother by marriage, irrespective of whether the marriage was one's own or one's father's. It had the same ambiguity as belle-mère, and so was a perfectly legitimate translation, not a mistranslation as the accepted answer has it.
    – verbose
    Dec 29, 2023 at 10:16

A bit of digging has revealed the (probable) answer.

In French, both "mother-in-law" and "step-mother" are "belle-mère". The reader/listener must use context clues to understand the difference.

The original French must have been "belle-mère" and whoever did the English translation must have, either through carelessness or confusion, went with "mother-in-law" even though "step-mother" was the real intended meaning.


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