“Don’t We Know Our Own Minds?”: A Rediscovered Russian Woman Writer of the 19th Century

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“Don’t We Know Our Own Minds?”: A Rediscovered Russian Woman Writer of the 19th Century

IN HER INFORMATIVE introduction to Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk, Hilde Hoogenboom writes, “In the 1860s […] Russia had its own trio of writing sisters. Like the Brontës, the Khvoshchinskaya sisters wrote under male pseudonyms, endured hardships, and lived in the provinces.” The analogy is fitting, but, as Hoogenboom notes, only to a point: “The Brontë sisters became well known not long after their deaths, [but t]he story of the Khvoshchinskaya sisters remains to be told.” While the sisters’ eventual obscurity is a “familiar situation for women writers,” they themselves contributed to this erasure from literature by publishing under pseudonyms and generally attempting to stay out of the spotlight. Writing was not considered a suitable profession for women, particularly not for those from the upper classes.

And yet, despite all odds, they achieved a degree of recognition during their lifetimes. Of the three, the older sister, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, remains the best known today, although “known,” in this case, is a very relative term. Sofia Khvoshchinskaya (1824–1865), the middle sister, died relatively young, but her literary output, which includes novels, novellas, and sketches, was considerable (that of the younger sister, Praskovia, was less so). City Folk and Country Folk (Gorodskie i derevenskie) was published in the March and April 1863 issues of Notes of the Fatherland (Otechestvennye zapiski), one of the leading 19th-century “thick” journals in which Russian writers debuted their works; sadly, unlike the novels of her male contemporaries, Khvoshchinskaya’s was not subsequently published in book form (the translator graciously emailed her own scanned copy of the Russian original for the purposes of this review). Like other Russian women writers of their generation, the Khvoshchinskaya sisters are familiar mostly to a small number of Slavists. Nora Seligman Favorov’s excellent translation of City Folk and Country Folk now introduces the novel to a much broader English-speaking readership. It is a major step toward telling the untold story of these remarkable Russian sisters.

City Folk and Country Folk takes place a year after the 1861 Emancipation of the Serfs, the most significant of Alexander II’s reforms, during a period of seismic changes in Russian society. The country folk are the protagonists, Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova and her 17-year-old daughter, Olenka, members of the lower gentry and owners of a provincial estate. The city folk are several of their acquaintances who, believing themselves morally superior due to their higher social status, attempt to take advantage of mother and daughter or otherwise make their lives difficult. The trouble begins when Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, owner of the neighboring estate, takes up residence in Nastasya Ivanovna’s not-quite-finished bathhouse because he has squandered the family wealth, rendering his own estate uninhabitable; his experience reflects the impoverishment of the Russian upper classes by the mid-19th century.

Nastasya Ivanovna treats Ovcharov with affection, having known him since he was a boy, but Ovcharov rebuffs her generosity of spirit, insisting on the formality of drawing up a price list for his stay, down to the whey he drinks to improve his failing health. He adopts a condescendingly pedantic tone with the lower-class Nastasya Ivanovna, while his initially friendly flirtation with Olenka turns into unwanted advances and, when she forcefully rejects him, attempts at revenge. Compounding Nastasya Ivanovna’s troubles is her relative, the “holy” Anna Ilinishna, a religious zealot whose all-too-human “squabble about money” gets her thrown out of her benefactress’s house in Moscow; she unceremoniously moves in with the Chulkovas in the country. A thoroughly unpleasant individual, Anna Ilinishna repays Nastasya Ivanovna’s kindness by locking herself in her room, temporarily turning the servants against her hostess, and causing a public scene whereby she makes herself out to be a victim of her hostess’s tyranny. The final complication comes from the self-important matchmaker Katerina Petrovna, who presents her endeavor to find a match for Olenka as a generous offering from the higher to the lower classes, while in reality it is a machination for her own sordid ends. The fact that Olenka, and, with her help, Nastasya Ivanovna, ultimately triumph over all of these obstacles illustrates that Khvoshchinskaya’s novel is squarely on the side of the country folk.

This contrast between the simple yet decent provincial gentry and the intellectually superior but morally spent city dwellers — which partakes of some well-worn symbolic associations found throughout Russian literature — is the central motif of City Folk and Country Folk. Overflowing with self-importance, Ovcharov considers himself one “of the foremost representatives of our generation,” a statement made more ironic by the fact that he has spent much of his time outside of Russia in Western Europe (the positive Russianness embodied by Nastasya Ivanovna and the less positive West Europeanism associated with Ovcharov is another Russian cultural cliché Khvoshchinskaya relies on in her novel). In his assessment, Ovcharov embodies the period’s ethos of enlightenment and progress, declaring it his duty as an educated member of the upper classes to ameliorate social conditions: as he says, “Benefit to society — that is our watchword.” Khvoshchinskaya aims a heavy dose of satire at such empty sloganeering by the upper classes. Despite his own proclamations of usefulness, “[n]owhere did he leave a strong impression; he was easily liked and easily forgotten.” His labor in Nastasya Ivanovna’s bathhouse consists of pedantic and often unfinished articles on how to educate peasants and women, constant quarrels with the peasants on his estate because he has no idea how to manage household affairs, and pompous lectures to Nastasya Ivanovna on how she should live her life. Ovcharov’s treatment of his temporary landlady underscores his hypocrisy. Insisting that he is an enlightened progressive, he nevertheless adheres to the traditional view that only the upper classes can teach the lower ones how to live and that the latter, as the matchmaker Katerina Petrovna opines, “should know their place,” because a change of the old order would be “the downfall of society.” Katerina Petrovna likewise treats Nastasya Ivanovna and Olenka as crude provincials requiring her guidance. Her hypocrisy, meanwhile, is of a more conniving kind than Ovcharov’s: while she proclaims, “there’s nothing I hate more than depravity,” the marriage she attempts to orchestrate for Olenka is a sham to enable her own illicit relationship at Olenka’s expense.

While Nastasya Ivanovna and Olenka lack the city dwellers’ social standing and education, they are far superior at the simple task of being human. Mother and daughter share a strong bond, and Nastasya Ivanovna’s unconditional affection extends to those around her, including Ovcharov and the insufferable Anna Ilinishna; she would gladly take care of both, if only they would let her. Unlike Ovcharov’s contentious dealings with peasants, Nastasya Ivanovna’s relationship with her servants is much more familial. Moreover, while Ovcharov proclaims his progressivism but treats the peasants as a lower species, Nastasya Ivanovna is a progressive in deed, not just in word. After Anna Ilinishna sets her servants against her, Nastasya Ivanovna goes down to the kitchen, the peasants’ domain, to discuss the matter, a gesture that indicates a new approach for the changing times: as the narrator says, “she did sense that no one before her […] had ever before done what she was doing now,” a scene that Hoogenboom calls “one of the most extraordinary […] in Russian literature.”

Olenka, for her part, is a spirited, strong-willed young woman. She stands up for herself and her mother, who is often too meek to do so. Olenka successfully takes on the powerful Katerina Petrovna, extricating herself from a disastrous potential match, and she is instrumental in helping her mother restore her reputation after Anna Ilinishna’s stunt. It is she, more than her mother, who bids good riddance to the city folk who have disrupted their lives. Whereas Nastasya Ivanovna tries to see only the good in people, frequently to her own detriment, Olenka sees the city dwellers’ hypocrisy, rebelling especially against Ovcharov’s attempts to teach the lower classes how to live; capturing the ethos of Khvoshchinskaya’s novel, Olenka tells her mother, “Please, don’t let anyone […] get the better of you. Don’t we know our own minds? Can’t we live as we please?” And yet, despite Khvoshchinskaya’s clear indication that these are the novel’s positive characters, it is hard not to be put off by some of their traits. Nastasya Ivanovna’s kindness and generosity are just this side of excessive, and her ready acceptance of convention and her position in society, rather cloying. Olenka is adamantly non-intellectual, completely unbothered by her lack of knowledge; she hates reading, and when Ovcharov asks her about studying, she replies, “I can’t stand it!” Nastasya Ivanovna and Olenka are characters readers know they should like but might find hard to identify with.

City Folk and Country Folk is a novel written by a woman that features female protagonists who triumph over adversity — but can we read it as a feminist work? Khvoshchinskaya wrote City Folk and Country Folk at a time when the “woman question” was hotly debated in Russia, and her novel does evidence some feminist leanings. Ovcharov’s musings about women needing men to educate them on life and men being solely responsible for endowing women with their newly gained freedoms are exposed as patronizing nonsense, just like his disquisitions on the upper classes’ edification of the peasants. When he admonishes Olenka, saying, “Something that may be permissible for me […] is not suitable for a woman. Reason and judgment are our domain — while yours is humble faith,” she replies, “What are you talking about, you can and we can’t?”

However, as Hoogenboom notes, while the Khvoshchinskaya sisters “disagreed with antifeminists, they also argued with feminists” by insisting that women’s first duty was to the family. A good example of this ambiguity are the Malinnikov sisters, who never appear as characters but are mentioned briefly. Nastasya Ivanovna tells Ovcharov, in a “conspiratorial whisper,” that the sisters became writers and moved to St. Petersburg, while Olenka says, “with a note of mockery,” that they “took up their studies again […] Their brother brought them with him to his classes.” According to Nastasya Ivanovna, such intellectual endeavors, being fundamentally out of keeping with women’s traditional domestic roles, consign the sisters to a most unenviable fate: “[T]hey’re bound to be spinsters.”

The fact that this negative assessment comes from the novel’s positive protagonist suggests that Khvoshchinskaya expected her readers to agree. As dangerous as it is to speculate about a writer’s personal psychology, it’s tempting to read the portrait of the Malinnikov sisters as autobiographical, an encoded expression of the conflict experienced by women writers in a rigidly patriarchal society. Not conforming to gender norms might have brought the Khvoshchinskaya sisters professional success, but it entailed risks and sacrifices. While City Folk and Country Folk may not quite read as a feminist novel, resurrecting a forgotten woman writer by translating her work constitutes a feminist project — a project that should give great reading pleasure to lovers of Russian and women’s literature.

¤

Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian-American literature, and Chekhov.

The post “Don’t We Know Our Own Minds?”: A Rediscovered Russian Woman Writer of the 19th Century appeared first on Los Angeles Review of Books.


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24 October 2017 | 5:00 pm

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