Evdokiia Rostopchina (1811-58), one of the few recognized women poets of her generation, has been the subject of numerous biographical accounts by memoirists and literary critics. One finds, however, a surprising uniformity among these biographies.1 The same episodes repeatedly reappear in the same way, almost in the same words, like scenes from a saint's life. This "official biography" has in turn shaped ideas about Rostopchina's work, influencing her literary reputation. It is worth examining the standard version of Rostopchina's life—the choice and interpretation of events, as well as the assumptions about gender inherent in them. Could these episodes be interpreted in other ways? Are there excluded or underemphasized circumstances that might give us a different understanding of her life and work? I suggest that in addressing these questions we may gain a richer, more complex, and truer appreciation of Rostopchina as a poet.
One often-repeated scene from Rostopchina's life concerns her initiation into literature. Petr Viazemsky, the well-known poet and critic, while visiting the family of the eighteen-year-old Rostopchina (née Sushkova) came upon her poem "Talisman." He secretly copied it, then without Rostopchina's knowledge or permission published it in Anton Del'vig's al'manakh, Severnye tsvety (Northern flowers) for 1831.2 This story differs from accounts of how contemporary men poets entered literature, in its suggestions of a virgin birth.3 As a powerful male spiritual force impregnates Mary without her knowledge or permission, so a powerful male literary force sweeps the equally innocent Rostopchina into literature. As Mary therefore cannot be accused of the sin of lust, so Rostopchina cannot be accused of the sin, for a woman, of literary ambition.
This connection between lust and literary ambition—for women—
emerges even more clearly from another frequently recounted episode: the scandal that erupted when "Talisman" appeared, and Rostopchina's relatives discovered that she, an unmarried woman, was the author of a published poem.4 Rostopchina's brother Sergei writes, "Everyone found that for a well-born young unmarried woman (blagorodnaia baryshnia) to occupy herself with composition was indecent and to print her works was absolutely shameful!" (S. Sushkov, "Biograficheskii ocherk," 1: vi). Although Rostopchina had been "seduced" into literature without her knowledge, her family treated her as a fallen woman— as if the published poem, the evidence of her fall, signified an illegitimate child. The poet's grandmother demanded that she swear on an icon that she would never again write poetry. Instead, Rostopchina agreed not to publish any more poetry until after she was married, when presumably poetry writing, like sex, was considered permissible for women. It is hard to imagine such a scene greeting a man poet on his literary debut. Although we invariably find this episode recounted with amusement, as an indication of the quaintness of old-fashioned Russian high society, no one has speculated on the effect it may have had on Ros-topchina's feelings about herself as a woman poet.
A third, often-recounted story suggests that, just as Viazemsky can be credited for Rostopchina's literary debut, so another powerful male literary figure, Nikolai Gogol, can be credited for her most politically courageous act as a writer. This was the publication of "Nasil'nyi brak" (The forced marriage, 1845), in which Rostopchina used the allegory of a forced marriage to protest Russia's forced annexation and oppression of Poland.5 It was Gogol, we are told, who encouraged Rostopchina to submit the poem to Faddei Bulgarin and Nikolai Grech's conservative literary daily, Severnaia pchela (The northern bee), assuring her that no one would understand the allegory. Rostopchina did so, and the poem passed the censorship, appearing in the December 17, 1846, issue of the paper.6 Within a few weeks, however, people became aware of the poem's allegorical meaning. According to Rostopchina's daughter, Lidiia, the police destroyed all the copies of the offending issue they could find, using subscription lists to retrieve those held by subscribers. Nicholas I threatened to close down the newspaper, and one of its two editors, Nikolai Ivanovich Grech (1787-1867), was asked by the Third Section (Nicholas I's secret police) to explain in writing how he could have accepted such a poem for publication. The other editor, Faddei Venediktovich Bulgarin (1789-1859), without being asked, also wrote an explanation, no doubt feeling vulnerable because he was Polish.
Although the poet Nikolai Vasil'evich Berg (1823-84) claims in a memoir to have heard about Gogol's involvement from Rostopchina herself, the more closely one looks at this story, the more unlikely it appears. By October 1845—when Gogol supposedly encouraged Rostopchina to smuggle into print a poem critical of the Russian government—he had become increasingly reactionary. In July of 1846 he would send to Saint Petersburg the first six chapters of his Vybrannye mesta iz perepiski s druz'iami (Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends), a book that would shock Russia's liberal camp when it appeared in 1847. Nor is there any evidence that Gogol sympathized with the plight of Poland under Russian domination. A third problem is that although Rostopchina wrote the poem in September 1845, and according to the story met with Gogol in Rome shortly thereafter, she did not send the poem to Bulgarin until August of 1846, almost a year later. Gogol, then, was not the immediate cause of her sending Bulgarin the poem, even if the story of their meeting is true. The effect of this story, however, is to give credit to Gogol and depict him as a liberal, while decreasing Rostopchina's responsibility for her own political act.7
Biographers rarely mention that Rostopchina sent Bulgarin along with "Nasil'nyi brak" nine other poetical works, as well as the drama Donna Maria Kolonna Manchini. She requested in her cover letter that three of the poems, "Liubovnik i moriak" (The lover and the sailor), "Nasil'nyi brak" (The forced marriage), and "Sosna na Kornishe" (The pine at Cornish), be printed in that order, supposedly because they would not reveal her gender.8 No one has ever asked whether Rostopchina might have had artistic reasons for grouping these poems together or has bothered to analyze "Nasil'nyi brak" in relation to the accompanying poems. Critics, in focusing on the "scandal" of "the forced marriage" have ignored Rostopchina not only as agent but also as poet.
Many other episodes repeated in these Rostopchina biographies similarly inscribe nineteenth-century gender ideology: Rostopchina Meets and Pleases Pushkin at a Ball, Rostopchina Perhaps Has an Affair with Lermontov, Rostopchina Is Seduced and Abandoned and Spends the Rest of Her Life Pining for Her Former lover, Rostopchina as Salon Hostess Bores Her Guests When She Forces Them to Listen to Her Own Works.9 That is, while Rostopchina was able, very temporarily to please men, including great poets, with her body, she always bored men with her writing.
In conjunction with these accounts of Rostopchina's life, we find prominent and often detailed descriptions of Rostopchina's body as the object of the male gaze—even in the biographical sketch her brother Sergei published thirty years after her death:
She had straight, delicate features and a swarthy color to her face. Beautiful and expressive black eyes edged with long lashes, black hair shiny, fine and not thick. . . . She was of medium height, her figure was not distinguished by a graceful form; beautiful hands; she was not strikingly beautiful, but she was attractive. (S. Sushkov, "Biograficheskii ocherk," 1: xxxiv)
Not of great height, unusually shapely for her thirty-five years with a well-developed bust, a healthy flush that our female generation would envy with big, protuberant [pochti na vykate] extremely intelligent eyes.10
At that time (1849) she was rather young, rather shapely; and could please [men]. . . . [When Rostopchina attended a reading of Ostrovsky's Bankrot (The bankrupt) in 1849] all eyes looked only at her and it seems that everyone found her pleasing.11
Biographies of men poets' lives generally do not contain such sexual-ized descriptions of their bodies.
These stories of Rostopchina's life have affected Rostopchina's literary reputation directly, as their common effect is to trivialize her as a po-etessa whose sexuality defines the significance of her work. No biographers have similarly looked for the meaning of Lermontov's life and art in his love affairs, or highlighted the scandal of Pushkin's ménage à trois with his wife and his sister-in-law, or read Tiutchev's poetry through his fourteen-year extramarital affair with Elena Denis'eva, a woman twenty-three years his junior, with whom he had three children.12 Interestingly, the biographers who trivialize Rostopchina range from nineteenth-century radical critics, to modernists, to Soviet critics, to postSoviet critics. It would appear that despite dramatic changes in Russian literary politics in the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the tendency to denigrate women poets remained constant.
In addition to reiterating the same episodes and focusing on Ros-topchina's physical appearance, these biographies also share the same lacunae. For example, while many of the biographies state that in some way Rostopchina's husband, Andrei Rostopchin, made her unhappy, none specify how he did so, surely relevant biographical information. Perhaps the critics' reticence results from their respect for Andrei Ros-topchin's father, Fedor Vasilevich Rostopchin, the governor general of Moscow during the Napoleonic invasion and a hero of the War of 1812.
We are left, however, with intriguing half-hints. While all memoirists describe relations between Andrei Rostopchin and Rostopchina as antagonistic and characterize him as a spendthrift, Rostopchina's daughter, Lidiia, implies that he also was physically abusive. Rostopchina's brother Sergei Sushkov, Vladislav Khodasevich, and V. S. Kiselev suggest that Rostopchin was homosexual or, in any case, not interested in sexual relations with Rostopchina. It is true that she did not have any children for the first three years of her marriage while she and her husband were living on his estate, Selo Anna, outside of Voronezh. When she returned to Saint Petersburg in the fall of 1836, she appears to have had several affairs and at least two children by another man.13
Another strange gap in Rostopchina's biography is the period between 1841—the year her first book of poetry appeared to very enthusiastic reviews—and the fall of 1845 when she, her husband, and their three children left for a trip to Europe, which lasted until September 1847. V. S. Kiselev-Sergenin in a recent article is the first to discuss this period, when Rostopchina was at the height of her popularity, but he does so exclusively in relation to her affair with Andrei Karamzin, the son of the Russian historian.14 It would be interesting to know more about Rostopchina's literary activities during this time. Addressing these and other neglected aspects of Rostopchina's biography (such as her relationships with women) might reveal a more complex and compelling picture of her life.15 More generally, a fresh look at all the facts of Rostopchina's life would allow new and possibly truer stories to be told about her, stories that also might affect the evaluation of her work.
One obvious but underemphasized fact about Rostopchina's life is that she surmounted childhood abandonment and almost total neglect to become a celebrated poet. On the death of Rostopchina's mother when Rostopchina was five, her father left her and her two brothers with their maternal grandparents in Moscow while he worked first in Orenburg, then in Saint Petersburg. According to accounts by both of Ros-topchina's brothers, their grandparents hired inadequate and dishonest tutors, otherwise ignoring the children, while the two maiden aunts who lived in the household treated them with active malice.16 In 1826, when Rostopchina was fourteen, her father returned to Orenburg, taking his two sons, but not his daughter, to live with him. One need not be a Freudian to imagine that Rostopchina felt rejected by her father and abandoned by her brothers in an unpleasant living situation, as she had already been abandoned by her mother's death, her father's absence, and her tutors', grandparents', and aunts' indifference or hostility.
Many of Rostopchina's male contemporaries—Pushkin, Iazykov, Lermontov, Fet, Tiutchev, Del'vig, and Baratynsky—received excellent formal educations, encouragement in their poetic vocation, and mentoring. Rostopchina, however, with the exception of one governess during her tenth and eleventh years, appears to have been given very little guidance in her development as either a person or a poet and no systematic education. Yet she taught herself to read French, German, Italian, and English literature in the original, while acting on her determination to become a woman poet—a career for which she had no models—in the face of horrified family reaction. She may have been helped to persevere by knowing of the many writers on her father's side of the family: her father's brother, Nikolai Sushkov, writer, critic, and editor of the al'manakh Raut; her father, who wrote and translated plays; her grandmother, Mariia Vasil'evna Sushkova (née Khrapovitskaia, 1752-1831), a poet, essayist, and translator of works into Russian from Italian, French, and English, including Milton's Paradise Lost.17
An overemphasized but underanalyzed factor in Rostopchina's biogra-phy—and, indeed, in the biographies of all aristocratic women writers of this generation—is the significance for them of high society (svet, literally, "the world"). Vissarion Belinsky, echoed by the radical critics, contemptuously described Rostopchina's poetry as "fettered to the ball," and all her thoughts and feelings leaping to the music of a fashionable galope.18 Other biographers have charitably explained that for Rostopchina society was a way to forget her domestic unhappiness or uncharitably called it her drug.19 One could more accurately say that for aristocratic women of Rostopchina's time and social class, society was, indeed, the world. As discussed in chapter 1, upper-class women had no access to the public places available to many men: universities, university discussion groups, literary circles, editorial offices of journals and newspapers, and so on. For such women, society represented their only public forum, as important for a sense of self, association, competition, and achievement as is the workplace today. Rostopchina in her poem, "Tsirk 19-ogo veka" (The circus of the nineteenth century, 1850) expresses how high the stakes seem to guests at a Russian ball by comparing social encounters and their emotional undercurrents with gladiatorial combat in ancient Rome. Similarly, Pavlova in Kadril' has Ol'ga compare herself at her first ball to a raw recruit facing his first battle.20 Although men poets of this generation may not have written as extensively as Rostopchina did about society, certainly many of them also fre quented balls, dinners, salons, and receptions, despite their access to other public venues, without being accused of superficiality by their biographers.21
For Rostopchina, one can imagine, success and popularity in Moscow society as a young woman seemed a solace and a recompense for an unhappy childhood. In a society where the only "career" open to women was an advantageous marriage, a proposal from Andrei Rostopchin, a rich count, represented a social triumph over spiteful relatives as well as a way to leave an unpleasant home. Rostopchina enjoyed even more social success in Saint Petersburg, where she lived from 1836-38 and from 1840-45. Here, according to her brother Sergei, she hosted dinners for Zhukovsky Pushkin, Viazemsky Pletnev, Lizst, and Glinka, received the attentions of Nicholas I at balls, and attended the Empress Aleksandra Fe-dorovna's intimate social gatherings. Rostopchina gave a copy of her first poetry collection (1841) to the empress with a long personal dedication.22
In this context we may surmise that Rostopchina experienced the publication of her protest poem, "Nasil'nyi brak," and its consequences as a fatal watershed in her life. By all accounts Nicholas I never forgave her for it. When, almost a year after the poem appeared, the Rostopchins returned from Europe to Saint Petersburg in the fall of 1846, not only did Nicholas not receive Rostopchina at court, but he also made it clear that she was no longer welcome to live in Saint Petersburg. Rostopchina was forced to return to Moscow, where she had spent her unhappy childhood. She wrote to Viazemsky in 1848 "Moscow is hell for me... . [M]ore and more, more sincerely, more often, more keenly do I regret the sweet past, the enlightened lands and country, and my friends on the shores of the Neva" (Ranchin, editor's introduction, 6). She wrote to Odoevsky the same year, "[I]f I am not completely deceased, I am definitely interred in the filth, arguing, and desolation of what they dare to call 'Moscow life.' A fine life! It is the same as death, but it does not have its advantages—solitude and silence!"23
Rostopchina experienced additional public humiliation in being turned away from a ball to honor Nicholas's visit to Moscow. Even after Nicholas's death, Alexander II refused Rostopchina's request to have her daughters presented to him at his coronation on the grounds that he could not receive the daughters of an individual who had displeased his father. Although Rostopchina tried to make the best of her life in Moscow by establishing a literary salon, her letters suggest that she felt exiled there.24
Taking these and other factors into account would allow critics to cre ate other depictions of Rostopchina's life. One could envision Rostopchina, for example, as a woman who longed equally for social acceptance and for self-expression, but whose society forced her into the role of sexual/political rebel. To be sure, Rostopchina longed for social success and reveled in conducting salons, hosting dinners, and socializing with the emperor and empress. The inscription that she wrote for Empress Alexandra Fedorovna in 1841 suggests that Rostopchina saw her as the ideal woman, perhaps as the mother she had lost: "And to whom, then, Madame, would one address [this book] if not to Your Majesty to Her, the most eminent Woman among all women, the sweetest, most tender, the most right-thinking and the most richly endowed in feelings, imagination, and kindness?"25
Yet there appears to have been another equally strong side to Rostopchina that demanded freedom, self-determination, and self-expression. That is, her rebellion against being sexually confined in an unsatisfactory marriage may have been of a piece with the works of social protest she wrote throughout her life. Her support of the Decembrists, for example, expressed in such poems as "Mechta" (A dream, 1830) and "K stradatel'tsam" (To the sufferers, 1827) did not end with her youth. In the 1840s and 1850s she sent copies of "K stradatel'tsam" with a warm inscription to two Decembrists, Z. G. Chernyshov and Sergei Bolkonsky. On her deathbed she translated Pushkin's Decembrist poem "Vo glubine sibirskikh rud" (In the depths of Siberian ore, 1827) into French for Alexandre Dumas.26 She wrote other works of social protest as well, as shall be discussed later. One could argue that in "Nasil'nyi brak" Rostopchina made the forbidden connections between the oppression of women, the oppression of Russians, and the oppression of Poles (patriarchy, autocracy, and imperialism) and paid dearly for it.
Rostopchina faced an additional problem: the social requirement that she pretend to conform to social standards for women. So in "Vmesto predisloviia" (Instead of an introduction), the foreword to her 1856 collected works, she wrote:
rop^yct a TeM, hto b hhctbix chx CTpaH^ax HeT c.oBa rpemHoro, bhhobhoh flyMLi HeT,— Mto b necHax .h cbohx, b paccKa3ax, b He6ti.n^ax, 3 thxoh ckpomhocth He npe3pe.a 3aBeT! Mto »eH^HHon cMHpeHHo a ocTa.act,
Top^yct a TeM, tto b stoh KHHre hoboh
HaMeKa Bpe^Horo hhkto He no^epKHeT [ ]
Top^yct a TeM, tto floqepn HeBHHHon Ee 6e3 CTpaxa ^acT 3a6oraHBaa MaTt,— Mto fleBymKe, c aymoro ro^y6nHon, Hafl Hen flo3Bo^HTca h nnaKaTt h Me^TaTt! . .
(I am proud that in these pure pages There is not a sinful word or a guilty thought, That neither in my songs, nor stories or fables Have I scorned the command of quiet modesty! That I have remained a meek woman
I am proud that in this new book
No one will underline a harmful hint [ ]
I am proud that a solicitous mother
Will give it without fear to her innocent daughter,
That the girl with a dovelike soul,
Will allow herself to cry and dream over it! . . .)27
Rostopchina protested her "purity" too much, providing a target for radical critics; they could safely invoke the patriarchal double standard to attack Rostopchina as an immoral woman in order to attack her covertly as an aristocrat of increasingly conservative views. Those critics who fought against the inequities of class politics—the autocratic control over men's civil rights—did not choose to extend their analysis to sexual politics, the patriarchal control over women's sexuality.28 Conservative biographers, on the other hand, have "defended" Rostopchina, also on patriarchal grounds, as a "one-man," that is, pure and loyal woman, even if that one man—variously identified as Platon Meshch-ersky; his brother, Petr Meshchersky; or Andrei Karamzin—was not her husband.29 Whether viewed by enemies or apologists, however, Rostopchina remains the titillating object of the male gaze. It is worth repeating that biographers generally do not consider the sexual behavior of men poets central to the evaluation of their work.
Was this article helpful?