Anastasia Marchenko.

As I wrote here, I’ve been reading Anastasia Marchenko’s 1847 collection Путевые заметки (“Travel notes”); having finished the two stories in that first edition, Три варьяции на старую тему (“Three variations on an old [in the 1853 edition, одну ‘one’] theme”) and Гувернантка (“The governess”), I’m ready to add her to the ranks of the unjustly forgotten. I am glad to see that Belinsky, who calls it (in his last article, a review of Russian literature for 1847) the most remarkable literary book published separately that year, agrees with me that the first is the prize of the pair. The narrator is a woman recalling the great adventure of her life, an on-again-off-again sort-of-romance with a man whom she met when she was twenty and he fifteen; the first chapter is called “Lyolya” (the diminutive by which he was then known), the second “Alexis” (the Frenchified form he used as a cocky young man with a European education), and the third “Aleksei Petrovich,” his official name (to match his by then official personality), and it’s told with a winning brio that promises well for the author’s career — it’s astonishing that she was a teenager when she wrote and published it (in Odessa). It brought to my mind Lermontov’s lines “Герой известен, и не нов предмет;/ Тем лучше: устарело все, что́ ново!” (“The hero’s known, the subject isn’t new; so much the better — all that’s new’s grown old!” from a poem she quotes several times for chapter epigraphs, along with Pushkin and — God save the mark! — Bulwer-Lytton). The other story, while decently written (if overlong), is basically just another society tale of the sort that had been so popular in the 1830s, full of balls and card tables, confessions and renunciations, flaming cheeks and rosy lips; the novelty was that the narrator was a governess (a profession the author tried briefly). Either would make a good entry in an anthology of women’s writing from tsarist Russia, but it’s the first that makes me want to read more of her. Olga Demidova says of her in Dictionary of Russian Women Writers:

Her main themes were love and marriage. In all of her writings, Marchenko propagated George Sand’s message that a woman should be free to love whomever she chooses and that the first freedom was to be found in an equal relationship and marriage. Thus, Marchenko was addressing the “woman question” as early as the 1840s although, as was later noted, “her experience gave her a broader perspective on work and on the necessity of enjoying life than that expressed by strict followers of the theory of emancipation” […]

Many of Marchenko’s stories are in the then popular form of a woman’s diary (zapiski), with the narrator-observer always present. As was typical of women’s literature of the period, Marchenko has constant recourse to lyrical digressions, pouring out the complaints, dissatisfactions, and emotions flooding her soul. Consequently, not all of her writings are of equal quality: among her numerous stories and novels “Around and About” (Vokrug da okolo, 1855), “Hills” (Gory, 1856), “The Salamander” (Salamandra, 1859), and Soap Bubbles (Myl’nye puzyri, 1858) are considered her best. […]

Marchenko remained one of the most popular women writers from 1847 through the mid-1850s, when she married a man named Kiriakov and followed him first to St. Petersburg and then to Kherson, interrupting her literary career.

A man, of course, didn’t have to interrupt his literary career when he got married.


  1. A man, of course, didn’t have to interrupt his literary career when he got married

    Yet it doesn’t look like Marchenko suffered from the usual married women’s burdens of children, household chores, or lack of control.

    Marchenko’s husband Mikhail M. Kiriakov was a Hussar Guards colonel and a very wealthy landlord in Ukraine, and a son a famous agronomist by the same name who pioneered planting tree belts in the Steppe to protect agricultural lands from erosion (similar to FDR’s Great Plains Shelterbelt a century later). (Kiriakov (Кирьяков) is a rare name, most likely indicating clergy roots <= Greek Κυριάκος “Lord”).

    Marchenko and Kiriakov marriage lasted only about 10 years, marred by conflicts about their substantial wealth. She managed to declare her husband incapable of controlling the estate, and appointed a legal guardian to supervise him, before ultimately divorcing him and spilling all the bitter details of their enmity, divorce, and affairs, in an 1869 autobiographical novel.

  2. That should be an interesting read! Thanks for that great information on her life and career.

  3. From the retrospective 1978 introduction to Le Guin’s Planet of Exile (1966):

    Once I was asked what I thought the central, constant theme of my work was, and I said spontaneously, “Marriage.” I haven’t yet written a book worthy of that tremendous (and staggeringly unfashionable) theme. I haven’t even figured out what I meant. But rereading this early, easygoing adventure story, I think the theme is there — not clear, not strong, but being striven toward. “I learn by going where I have to go.”

    (The last line, as I didn’t know until this minute, is a quotation from Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking”.)

  4. Good old Roethke, one of my favorites. (Pronounced RETT-key, for those who don’t know.)

  5. I love villanelles, by the way. My own.

  6. That should be an interesting read!

    It must be this Google book? The date of publication matches, although many reputable sources claim, one after another, that the book was called “Разлучница” rather than “Разлучники” (I guess it wasn’t a popular book to actually read…). Темризов is Marchenko’s nom de plume.

  7. Yeah, it must be. And if there’s one thing I’ve learned in excavating the forgotten areas of Russian literature (and other things), it’s that reputable sources are very often wrong. (They copy each other’s mistakes rather than going to the original source.)

  8. @Hat: Is it then RETT-key and not RETH-key? I think I learned the latter from Willis Barnstone some forty years ago.

  9. People use both versions; I don’t know how the poet himself said it, but I tend to assume on the principle of lectio difficilior that he said it the first way, because if he said RETH-key I can’t think of any reason for anyone to say it differently (whereas to pronounce “th” in the usual English way requires no explanation).

  10. Per Wikipedia, it is indeed /ˈrɛtki/ RET-kee.

  11. Makes sense – the name looks German, and in various historical German orthographies the “h” in “th” is either totally ornamental or, sometimes, indicates vowel length.

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