Literary Reputation

As suggested in the preceding discussion, the gender ideology that shaped accounts of Rostopchina's life also played a large role in her re ception and literary reputation. Viewed chronologically, the criticism of Rostopchina's work reveals some surprising changes—and continuities.

To those who have read only twentieth-century Rostopchina criticism, the high praise she received in the 1830s and 1840s comes as a surprise. Vissarion Belinsky and Petr Viazemsky compared Rostopchina's work with Pushkin's, while after Pushkin's death Petr Pletnev called her "without doubt the first poet now in Russia."30

Although Belinsky revised his opinion of Rostopchina's work downward starting in the 1840s, her literary reputation, according to her brother Sergei, started to fall to its present low level around 1852, as a result of her increasingly religious, patriotic, and antirevolutionary beliefs. As mentioned previously, these attitudes led radical critics such as Dobroliubov, Chernyshevsky, and others who increasingly controlled the periodical press to launch ad feminam attacks on Rostopchina, whom they disparaged as an immoral, boring writer.31 By the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century modernist critics such as Petr Bykov, Vladislav Khodasevich, and Sergei Ernst found Rostopchina's work banal and trivial. They ignored or noted with embarrassed incomprehension the praise she had received from prominent male contemporaries.32

During the Soviet period literary scholars treated Rostopchina ambivalently. Up to the 1960s they published nothing by her and almost nothing about her, presumably because of her social background and high-society themes. Starting in the 1970s and 1980s, however, Ros-topchina's work began to appear in anthologies and in several separate collections. In introductions and notes Soviet scholars, following the radical critics, dismissed Rostopchina as a second-rate poet, denounced her as a privileged aristocrat, and cringed at the references to sexuality in her work. But while condemning her later political conservatism, they applauded the revolutionary sentiments of her Decembrist poems and of "Nasil'nyi brak." They also attempted to save her for socialist realism by depicting her as a Russian patriot and as one who protested against the inequities of high society—albeit in a limited and ineffectual way.33

Perhaps reacting against the Western women's movement, these Soviet critics anthologized and highlighted Rostopchina's most "feminine" poems. So, for example, the introductory essay to a 1987 collection of Rostopchina's poetry is tellingly entitled "Da, zhenskaia dusha dolzhna v teni svetit'sia'" (Yes, the feminine soul must shine in the shadow), a citation from Rostopchina's poem "Kak dolzhny pisat'

zhenshchiny" (How women should write, 1840). Rostopchina's poem, which encourages women to be "shy singers" who "with shame hide and conceal the dear story of their love and sweet tears," was reprinted in no less than six Soviet collections of the 1970s and 1980s.

Also frequently cited and reprinted was Rostopchina's poem "Iskushenie" (Temptation, 1839), especially its final lines, which at first glance appear to define the feminine as mindless, superficial, and proud of it:

BceM »eHCKHM cMOHHOcraM noKopHa a Bno.me;

(But I, I am a woman in the full meaning of the word,

To all feminine inclinations I am fully obedient;

I am only a woman, . . . prepared to be proud of this, .. .

I love a party! Give me parties!")

I will return to "Iskushenie" later in this chapter.

Other such often-cited poems are "Kogda-by on znal" (If only he knew, 1830), "Nadevaia albanskii kostium" (Putting on an Albanian costume, 1838), "Russkim zhenshchinam" (To Russian women, 1856), and "Chernovaia kniga Pushkina" (Pushkin's notebook, 1838). We very seldom find reprinted in these collections, however, Rostopchina's most intense works about art and social injustice: "Moia Igrushka" (My toy, 1847), which Khodasevich compared to Sologub's poetry, "Poslednii tsvetok" (The last flower, 1835), "Baiu-baiu" (Rockabye, 1836), and "Ne-godovanie" (Indignation, 1840). Nor did Soviet scholars provide any critical context to help readers appreciate Rostopchina's poetry as art.

Western critics, influenced by Barbara Heldt's work on Karolina Pavlova, have reexamined the writings of Pavlova and other women poets in a feminist context but have not done the same for Rostopchina.34 They may have been dissuaded by Rostopchina's often-republished "feminine" poems, which appeared to constitute most of her work. Perhaps, too, the endless stream of criticism that has sexualized and trivialized Rostopchina's life and work has had a numbing effect, discouraging even feminist critics from taking Rostopchina seriously as a poet. An examination of repeated themes in Rostopchina criticism may help clear the way for Rostopchina's recovery as a more complicated and "modern" poet than previously suspected.

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