I’ve been working my way through my latest acquisition in the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (see this LH post), Russian Literature in the Age of Realism, and I just read the entry on Sofya Engelgardt (Софья Александровна Энгельгардт, 1828-1894), which provides a telling illustration of how hard it was to make a mark as a woman writer in nineteenth-century Russia. Engelgardt published in all the important “thick journals” of the day and was friends with many of the important (male) writers, but she’s been so thoroughly forgotten there’s hardly anything online about her (and most of it is taken straight from the condescending Brockhaus and Efron entry, which says she wrote “in the manner of the second-rate female writers of the 40s and ’50s, almost exclusively on the themes of love and family relations,” as if those subjects were damning in and of themselves). The author of the DLB article is Mary F. Zirin, herself an admirable figure, an independent scholar who’s been working for decades to raise the profile of Russian women writers and, if necessary, rescue them from oblivion (she was responsible for the existence of the remarkably thorough Dictionary of Russian Women Writers and has had a prize named after her); she writes that Engelgardt “never took the final step toward professionalism by arranging to republish her works in collected editions. Left moldering in journals and slender volumes, her talented tales were soon forgotten, as was she: no obituaries marked her passing in 1894.” Someone should do a Selected Works and/or translate her into English; I’d love to read her, and I’ll bet others would too. At any rate, I want to quote here Zirin’s vivid description of her Francophone upbringing:
[Engelgardt and her three sisters] were educated by governesses and grew up immersed in French culture. In one of Engel’gardt’s stories the female narrator explains that “at seventeen I knew the name of Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called an ‘izba [peasant-hut] writer.’ . . . Our children’s library comprised, as if selected on purpose, extremely boring books, mostly French. Particularly memorable to me is one entitled Les annales de la vertu (The Annals of Virtue). . . . Oh, virtue! how early our instructors, in all innocence, taught us to hate you.” In “Vospominaniia na dache” Engel’gardt includes an anecdote about her young narrator’s first encounter with Russian as a drawing-room language: after Iuliia sees a performance by the famous St. Petersburg-based actor Vasilii Andreevich Karatygin, she sneaks out to a neighbor’s home to attend a soirée in his honor. To her horror she discovers that “Karatygin was speaking Russian, and I couldn’t assemble two Russian phrases and, for the first time in my life, was vexed at my ignorance of my native tongue and realized that in Russia it might possibly be of use.” Engel’gardt learned the Russian language rapidly once she set her mind to the task. Although editors had to correct her grammar at first, her fiction was packed with closely described realia and aphoristic turns of phrase, and she had a keen ear for adages, idioms, and colloquial speech. She continued including French passages in her stories to indicate the prevalence of that language in Moscow society; in a couple of tales, too, she poked fun at social climbers for their bad French. In 1860 Engel’gardt put her Francophilic upbringing to journalistic use and contributed three “Zagranichnye pis’ma” (Letters from Abroad) on current events in France to a Moscow newspaper. Her translation into French of Aleksandr Sergeevich Pushkin’s dramatic works appeared in Paris in 1875.
I love “was vexed at my ignorance of my native tongue and realized that in Russia it might possibly be of use.”