The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giantsby Alexandra Popoff
“Behind every good man is a good woman” is a common saying, but when it comes to literature, the relationship between spouses is even that much more complex. F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence used their/b>/b>
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Muses and editors, saviors and publishers: Meet the women behind the greatest works of Russian literature
“Behind every good man is a good woman” is a common saying, but when it comes to literature, the relationship between spouses is even that much more complex. F. Scott Fitzgerald, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence used their marriages for literary inspiration and material, sometime at the expense of their spouses’ sanity. Thomas Carlyle wanted his wife to assist him, but Jane Carlyle became increasingly bitter and resentful in her new role, putting additional strain on their relationship. In Russian literary marriages, however, the wives of some of the most famous authors of all time did not resent taking a “secondary position,” although to call their position secondary does not do justice to the vital role these women played in the creation of some of the greatest literary works in history. From Sophia Tolstoy to Véra Nabokov, Elena Bulgakov, Nadezdha Mandelstam, Anna Dostevsky, and Natalya Solzhenitsyn, these women ranged from stenographers and typists to editors, researchers, translators, and even publishers. Living under restrictive regimes, many of these women battled censorship and preserved the writers’ illicit archives, often risking their own lives to do so. They established a tradition all their own, unmatched in the West. Many of these women were the writers’ intellectual companions and made invaluable contributions to the creative process. And their husbands knew it. Leo Tolstoy made no secret of Sofia’s involvement in War and Peace in his letters, and Vladimir Nabokov referred to Véra as his own “single shadow.”
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The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants
By Alexandra Popoff
PEGASUS BOOKSCopyright © 2012 Alexandra Popoff
All rights reserved.
Anna Dostoevsky: Cherishing a Memory
Few writers describe their day of birth as a festive event, but for Anna it portended her later mission of being married to Dostoevsky. She was born in St. Petersburg on August 30, 1846, the feast day of St. Alexander Nevsky, near the monastery built in his name. When a cheerful procession, which included the Emperor himself, began to move out of the monastery gates to the tolling of church bells and holiday music, Anna set out on her life's road. Being born on a feast day was believed a good omen. "The prophecy came true," Anna writes. "Despite all the material misfortunes and moral sufferings it has been my lot to bear, I consider my life to have been one of exceptional happiness, and I would not wish to change anything in it."
She was christened in a parish church of Alexander Nevsky Monastery, the place where her parents had been wed; Dostoevsky would be buried in the monastery cemetery thirty-five years later. In her mind's eye, the two great names were interrelated: Alexander Nevsky, a national hero and a saint, flared at her dawn and sunset, while Dostoevsky was, in her words, the sun of her life as well as her god.
Anna came from a family whose parents became drawn to each other at first sight. They did not even speak the same language when they met: Anna's mother was Swedish and her father Ukrainian. Maria Anna Miltopeus grew up in a Swedish community in Finland, in the ancient city of Turku (Åbo in Swedish). Some of her prominent ancestors, clerics and scholars (one was a Lutheran bishop), were buried inside the Cathedral of Turku, the Westminster Abbey of Finland. At nineteen, Maria Anna became engaged to a Swedish officer, but he was killed in action in Hungary. For ten years after his death, she did not consider marrying—even though her strikingly good looks and fine soprano voice (she had dreamed of a stage career) had attracted suitors. Later, her relatives in Petersburg, with whom she was staying, hosted a party with several young bachelors. Grigory Ivanovich Snitkin, an unimposing civil servant of forty-two, was not considered a possible match (he simply came with one of the guests), but he alone impressed the young Swede. As Maria Anna told her family, "I liked the old fellow better—the one who kept telling stories and laughing." Because their different faiths presented an obstacle to marriage, Maria Anna, a Lutheran, decided to enter the Orthodox Church. (After converting, she took the name Anna Nikolaevna.) Later, she integrated Orthodox rites with her Lutheran prayer book.
Although occupying a modest rank, Snitkin was a well-educated man who had graduated from a Jesuit school and worshiped literature and the arts. A theater connoisseur since youth, he revered a prominent tragic actress, Asenkova. When Anna and her sister were small, he took them to Asenkova's tomb and asked them to kneel and pray "for the repose of the soul of the greatest artist of our time." This incident made a deep impression on Anna, who would revere Dostoevskys' talent as her father had admired the late actress.
Anna's family lived "without quarrels, dramas, and catastrophes." Her parents' characters were well matched: a strong-willed and practical mother and a romantic and timid father. Snitkin accepted his wife's authority, only reserving one liberty for himself—collecting curios and antique porcelains. The family's friendly atmosphere generated Anna's balanced and cheerful character, which would enchant Dostoevsky, who himself was tempestuous and grim. Anna—a middle child with an older sister and a younger brother—was her father's favorite. Like Snitkin, she would live for a month under the spell of the opera and ballet performances the family attended on holidays.
For a girl of her time, Anna received an excellent education. She studied in a primary school where most subjects were taught in German, the language her mother spoke at home. (Anna would become Dostoevskys' translator in Germany and in Switzerland, where they traveled shortly after marrying.) Enrolling in the newly opened Petersburg Mariinskaya Gymnasium, a secondary school for girls, she graduated with a silver medal, a distinction that, in her eyes, would justify her marriage to the brilliant writer.
Dostoevskys' name was familiar to her in childhood: her father called him the greatest among living writers and subscribed to his literary magazine Time. Fresh issues of this magazine with installments of Dostoevskys' novel Insulted and Injured were fought over in their family; his characters' names became household words. Anna was dubbed Netochka Nezvanova, after the heroine of Dostoevskys' novel of the same title. At fifteen, she cried over Notes from the House of the Dead, an account of Dostoevskys' life in the Siberian prison camp he was sent to for dissident activity. In the late 1840s, with European revolutions in the air, Dostoevsky had briefly participated in the Petrashevsky circle, an intellectual group that discussed socialist utopian ideas. Anna was three years old when in 1849 Dostoevsky was convicted and sentenced to exile with hard labor.
She belonged to the generation of Russian women who pursued higher education and careers following the Great Reforms of the 1860s under the Tsar Alexander II: "The idea of independence for me, a girl of the sixties, was a very precious idea." In 1864, she entered the recently opened Pedagogical Institute to study natural sciences: "Physics, chemistry, and zoology seemed a revelation to me, and I registered in the school's department of mathematics and physics." But lectures on Russian literature interested her more than science classes, and after her first year she left this school without regret.
It was also a time when her elderly father became ill and she wanted to be with him to care for her "beloved invalid." She read Dickens's novels to him, unaware they were also Dostoevskys' preferred reading. Her father was upset that she left school and, to assuage him, Anna enrolled in an evening course in stenography, then a novelty in Russia. A newspaper announcement said that graduates would be employed in the law courts, at meetings of learned societies, and during congresses; this, Anna felt, would give her the economic independence she yearned for.
While the first public lecture was not recorded in Russia by a stenographer until 1860, stenography had long been practiced in Germany and in England: Dickens mastered it as a young reporter covering Parliament. The first course available in 1866, which caught Anna's attention, was taught by Professor Pavel Olkhin, who used the Gabelsberger System. A medical doctor, Olkhin also wrote books on popular subjects; one of them, a book about the final days of suicides, fascinated Dostoevsky because of his longstanding interest in the subject.
Olkhin's stenography course became instantly popular and drew a hundred and fifty students, but the majority soon quit. Like others, Anna was saying that it was "all gibberish" and she would never be able to master it, but her father reproached her for lack of persistence, saying she would become a good stenographer—a prophecy on his part.
When her father died later that year, Anna was so distraught that she could not attend classes. Her professor allowed her to complete the course by correspondence, and after three months of practicing shorthand Anna had mastered the skill. By September 1866, she was the only student Professor Olkhin could recommend for literary work.
The day she received her first assignment—and with her favorite author—was the happiest of her life. Dostoevsky wanted to dictate his new novel, she was told, and would pay fifty rubles for the entire project. The idea that she was becoming independent and was able to earn money delighted her so much that "if I were to inherit 500 rubles I wouldn't be as glad...." Olkhin, however, warned Anna that Dostoevsky was difficult to get on with: "He seemed to me such a surly, gloomy man!" This did not shake her confidence because she needed the job: her family was struggling financially after her father's death, and although they had two rental houses, generating two thousand rubles annually, there were also debts.
Anna spent a sleepless night before her appointment, worrying that Dostoevsky would examine her on his novels. "Never having known any literary celebrities in my social circle, I imagined them as being exceptional creatures who had to be spoken to in a special way." She would discover that she remembered Dostoevskys' works better than the writer did himself: he had only "a vague recollection" of what The Insulted and Injured was about, he would tell her during their courtship.
On the fateful day of October 4, she left home early to buy a supply of pencils and a portfolio to make her look more businesslike. The Alonkin house where Dostoevsky lived was a large multistoried apartment building occupied by merchants and artisans, and it instantly reminded her of Raskolnikov's house in Crime and Punishment. Anna was entering the world of Dostoevskys' heroes: a maid who opened the door was wearing a checked shawl, as in the novel, where it was a shared property of Mrs. Marmeladov and her children. She was told to wait in the poorly furnished dining room, but within minutes Dostoevsky appeared. He led her to his study, a long room with two windows and a high ceiling, which appeared strangely gloomy and hushed. Perhaps it was the dark wallpaper: "You felt a kind of depression in that dimness and silence," Anna would remember.
Dostoevsky, of average height, was dressed in a worn blue jacket. He looked rather weary and old, his face unkind, his reddish-brown hair pomaded and carefully smoothed, resembling a wig. But it was his eyes that most struck her because they were not alike—one was dark brown, while the other had a pupil so dilated that she could not see the iris. "This dissimilarity gave his eyes an enigmatic expression."
This appearance was a result of Dostoevskys' injury: during a recent epileptic attack, he had fallen against a sharp object. Almost at the start of the meeting, he announced that he suffered from epilepsy and had had an attack a few days earlier. As she sat at a small table by the door, Dostoevsky nervously paced the room, smoking incessantly and asking random questions.
He asked Anna why she had become a stenographer, whether it was because her family was poor. Wanting to begin the relationship on an equal footing, she replied in a businesslike way that did not allow for familiarity. Her proper behavior at once appealed to Dostoevsky, who thought his stenographer might be a Nihilist, the new type of young person, already captured in literature. (Turgenev had portrayed Russian Nihilists in Fathers and Sons, where he also satirized a smoking and vulgar bluestocking, Kukshina.) Moreover, proper young girls did not come to men's apartments unaccompanied. Still nervous and unable to collect his thoughts, Dostoevsky repeatedly asked Anna her name and repeatedly offered a cigarette, which she declined, saying that she did not even like to watch women smoke.
To test her abilities, Dostoevsky dictated a passage from a literary magazine, beginning extremely fast, so that she had to ask him to slow down. When she transcribed her notes, he quickly read them and sharply reprimanded her for a missed comma. Eventually, he told Anna that he was unable to dictate until later that evening, but did not bother to inquire whether this suited her; she felt that he treated her "as a kind of Remington typewriter." Seeing Anna to the door, Dostoevsky told her he was glad his stenographer was a woman because she was less likely to fall into drinking habits and disrupt his work.
It is impossible to put in words what a depressing and pitiful impression Fyodor Mikhailovich produced on me during our first meeting. He seemed to me absentminded, heavily preoccupied, helpless, lonesome, irritated, almost sick. He looked so oppressed by his misfortunes that he did not see one's face and was unable to lead a coherent conversation.
This impression was somewhat mended when she returned in the evening and Dostoevsky began to reminisce about his arrest in 1849. Incarcerated in the Peter and Paul Fortress with other members of the Petrashevsky Circle and sentenced to death, he was awaiting the verdict with the other condemned, when suddenly the drums sounded a retreat. That day, when his death penalty was commuted to hard labor, was the happiest of his life, he told Anna: back in his cell, he was singing out loud. Dostoevskys' frankness both surprised and appealed to her: "This man, to all appearances withdrawn and severe, was telling me of his past life in such detail, so openly and naturally, that I couldn't help feeling amazed.... His frankness with me on that day ... pleased me deeply and left me with a wonderful impression of him."
Sensing that his reminiscences put him in the right mood for work, Anna would herself encourage Dostoevsky to talk about his past. He told a whole sequence of sad stories—his harsh childhood, an unhappy marriage to Marya Isaeva, who died of consumption, and a broken engagement with the writer Anna KorvinKrukovskaya.
When next day she arrived late for the morning dictation, Anna found Dostoevsky in panic: he imagined she had decided to quit and that the portions he had dictated would be lost. He had to deliver a full-size novel in less than a month or lose the rights to his work for nine years. The enslaving contract had been forced on him when he was completing Crime and Punishment and under pressure from creditors for his late brother's debts. Anna took this trouble close to heart, becoming determined to meet the deadline and even working nights to transcribe her notes.
Despite the pressure, they established a good working pattern with interludes to discuss the novel. It told about an obsessive gambler living in the fictional city of Roulettenburg, a story based on Dostoevskys' own gambling escapades. When Anna condemned the gambler for his weakness, Dostoevsky explained to her the nature of the addiction he knew firsthand. She liked their evening chats—about his past and the novel—and was pleased that the brilliant writer heeded her "almost childish remarks." He also told her about his travels abroad, how he lost at roulette in Homburg and had to pawn his suitcase. It flattered her vanity that she sat at Dostoevskys' desk when taking his dictations, the very desk where Crime and Punishment was written.
Anxious about his looming deadline, Dostoevsky asked whether they could finish in time, and Anna would count up pages of the manuscript to reassure him. "He would often ask, 'And how many pages did we do yesterday? And how many do we have altogether?'" The growing number of completed pages cheered him tremendously: Dostoevsky no longer paced the room while dictating but sat across the table from Anna reading to her from a draft he had prepared the night before.
When the work on the novel was coming to a close, he told Anna it was terribly sad for him to think he could not see her again, for where could he see her? She invited him to visit her and her mother at home. Dostoevsky asked to fix a date immediately and demanded her address (her mother lived in a desolate neighborhood near the Smolny Institute for Noble Maidens); he wrote it down in his blue notebook.
On October 31, Anna brought the final pages of The Gambler: the novel had been completed in twenty-six days, just before the deadline. She wore a lilac dress for the first time (while mourning her father's death, she had dressed in black), and when she came in Dostoevsky blushed. She sensed that he would most likely propose, but did not know whether to accept, having written in her diary, "He pleases me very much, but at the same time frightens me because of his irascibility and illness."
Dostoevsky pinned hopes on her for a better future: "But I haven't had any happiness yet ... I still go on dreaming that I will begin a new, happy life." He also sought her "advice" on whether he should remarry and, if so, what kind of wife he should choose—a kind or an intelligent one. She suggested an intelligent one, but he argued he needed a kind wife: "She'll take pity on me and love me."
Excerpted from The Wives by Alexandra Popoff. Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Popoff. Excerpted by permission of PEGASUS BOOKS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Alexandra Popoff grew up in Moscow, was educated at the Gorky Literary Institute and is now a professor at the University of Saskatchewan. She is the author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, and lives in Canada.
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A wonderful book, great look at women, who in their right were talented, strong and with these strenghts their partners were able to produce some of the worlds greatest literary achievements.