The Boarding-School Girl.

I just finished reading Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya‘s 1861 novella Пансионерка, which (amazingly for a largely forgotten nineteenth-century writer) has been translated (by Karen Rosneck) into English, as The Boarding-School Girl. It was kind of a pain to read, since to have it on my Kindle I had to download the entire issue of Otechesvennye zapiski as a pdf file and squint at the resultant smudges through the already somewhat smudgy screen. But I persevered, because it’s important to me to read as much literature by women as possible, and it was worth it.

It starts off unexcitingly, with a conversation between two youngish men who had become friends elsewhere and now meet again in a provincial town: Ibraev has been sent there as an important official as a stepping-stone in his career, Veretitsyn as a political exile who will have to cool his heels as an ill-paid, overworked scribe until the authorities allow him to depart. Ibraev is condescending and self-absorbed, Veretitsyn sarcastic and self-pitying; after they’ve talked for a while, they notice children playing next door, and a fifteen-year-old girl in a boarding-school uniform studying a book. She will turn out to be our heroine, Elena (“Lyolenka”) Gosteva. Ibraev leaves, discomfited at having unwittingly compromised himself by associating with a man under police surveillance; Veretitsyn chats for a bit with the girl, making fun of her book and her studies, and gets into the habit of talking with her over the fence from time to time, laughing sarcastically at everything she says.

These conversations mean nothing to Veretitsyn, who is obsessed with his situation and his love for the beautiful Sofya Khmelevskaya. But they overturn Lyolenka’s life; from a diligent student and obedient daughter, she becomes a rebellious girl who half-deliberately fails her exams and is increasingly frustrated by her home life. The thing is, though, that she is not a conscious rebel; she does not understand what is happening to her, does not even realize that she is falling in love with her ironic neighbor. The middle chapters of the book are an acute psychological investigation of the development of an adolescent girl that reminded me of both Avdotya Panaeva‘s Семейство Тальниковых [The Talnikov family] (see this post) and Pasternak’s Детство Люверс [The Childhood of Luvers, also translated Zhenia Luvers’ Childhood and The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers]. Ironically, she was chastised at the time by people like Saltykov-Shchedrin for excessive attention to psychology (he complained about the same thing in George Eliot) — they wanted plot and politics, not girls trying to figure out who they are and why they do the things they do. But she got great reviews in general; in 1880 Pyotr Boborykin wrote that she had no equal in Europe except for George Eliot. After her death in 1889 she was forgotten, like all her female contemporaries (Elena Gan, Elena Kube/Veltman, Sophie Engelhardt — whose “Не сошлись” Erik at XIX век is now translating as “It Didn’t Come Off”: introduction here, first installment here).

The book takes a sudden turn towards the end which I won’t spoil for you; I’ll just say that it gets more and more satisfying as it goes along, is never dogmatic, and has penetrating and acerbic things to say about female education, family life, and art. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the life of women in nineteenth-century Russia, or indeed anywhere, and I hope more such works get translated.

Comments

  1. The Childhood of Luvers, also translated Zhenia Luvers’ Childhood and The Adolescence of Zhenya Luvers

    It wasn’t until the third title that I figured out that Luvers was not a misspelling of Lovers, and not until the second title that it occurred to me it might be deliberate.

  2. Heh. Yes, Google autosuggest also has fun with that.

  3. Also, Люверс [Lyuvers — I don’t know why they all render it “Luvers”] is a very odd name in Russian; I have no idea where Pasternak got it.

  4. SFReader says:

    It’s a surname of English origin. The word люверс exists in Russian and means https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louver

    Женя Люверс is simply Jenny Louvers.

  5. Huh. Well, it’s still a very odd name!

  6. Steve, do you have a post somewhere describing your project of reading through Russian literature chronologically? I’ve been following your posts on that project with interest, but don’t remember any kind of summary. What list (if any) are you working from?

  7. Pasternak isn’t a common name either: the author probably meant to convey a certain foreignness by using a name both euphonious and uncommon. In the early drafts, he called the protagonist of his grand novel Патрикий Живульт, but probably decided that a genius doesn’t need to stand out in such a childishly obvious way.

  8. Steve, do you have a post somewhere describing your project of reading through Russian literature chronologically? I’ve been following your posts on that project with interest, but don’t remember any kind of summary.

    I don’t think so, and in fact I don’t even remember when or why I started; I wrote about my leap back to the beginning here.

    What list (if any) are you working from?

    A Russian Prose Literature Chronology that I had to create myself because there was nothing even remotely similar available; if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll e-mail you a copy (it’s a Word doc, now up to 233 pages).

  9. FYI, another Khvoshchinskaya sisters novel, City Folk and Country Folk, forthcoming in translation: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/city-folk-and-country-folk/9780231183031

  10. Excellent news; thanks for sharing it!

  11. if you’re interested, let me know and I’ll e-mail you a copy (it’s a Word doc, now up to 233 pages).

    Yes please! When I first got back from Russia (a long time ago now) I was trying to read through this list from my lit theory professor in Krasnodar: http://polyglut.net/rlist.html

    I have since been trying to fill in gaps from PhD reading lists and so forth.

  12. Sent!

  13. Chris T.: Did you get it? If it didn’t show up in your inbox, check the spam file — sometimes messages with attachments get treated as spam.

  14. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    In Polish the word pensjonarka is obsolete in its basic sense but it has (kind of) survived as an epitome of innocence and naiveté in the literary language (also in its adjectival form; e.g. pensjonarska miłość would be ‘naive emotional love’).

Trackbacks

  1. […] Hat responds to a newly-translated mid-19th century Russian novella, Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya‘s 1861 novella […]

  2. […] have judged her hastily, based on this one work from very late in her life that I skimmed; this post by Languagehat makes me want to read her. So does this qualified praise by Nekrasov in 1856 (which follows a long […]

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