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.

Addendum (Feb. 2021). Anne Lounsbery has an interesting discussion of this story in Life Is Elsewhere: Symbolic Geography in the Russian Provinces, 1800–1917; I’ll quote some chunks of it (warning: spoilers!):

Up to a certain point, Khvoshchinskaia’s plot would seem to recapitulate a pattern we know well from Pushkin, Lermontov, and other male writers: sweet young girl encounters cynical older man who both enlightens and wounds her. But the difference is that in this text the girl, rather than serving as a vehicle for the male hero’s development, keeps hold of the narrative, which comes to be about her transformation and her life. Veretitsyn lacks the intellect and magnetism of an Onegin or Pechorin: his ideas are ready-made, and he is full of self-pity. After he has tutored Lolenka—condescendingly, sententiously—in vaguely radical ideas, and after she has dutifully taken them all in, Lolenka creatively (mis)interprets what Veretitsyn has taught her, and she uses it to transform her life. In the end the male character becomes merely a vehicle for the heroine’s development: Lolenka turns out to be the extraordinary one, as evidenced by her ability to pull herself out of the provincial slough. […]

As the words “I am not a slave” suggest, there is always the possibility of physical violence in this text, though most of it happens offstage or is just hinted at. Lolenka goes home to “supper and abuse”; the entire household fears her father’s rage; her schoolmates will be beaten for failing exams; her little brothers are tied to table legs to force them to study. Occasionally Khvoshchinskaia comes close to representing the abuse: Lolenka’s siblings are beaten, and after Lolenka fails her exams, we are told in passing that “her mother beat her, and not just once.” All of this violence, whether depicted or alluded to, is domestic; Veretitsyn, for example, suffers no physical violence as a result of his political crime. In fact domesticity in this book basically is institutionalized violence, with a little forced labor thrown in; child-raising and family life are at best pointless drudgery. […] Khvoshchinskaia focuses on domesticity and women’s liberation as a way of raising questions about politics and about everyone’s liberation. At the end of the book we learn that Veretitsyn’s love, the angelic Sofia, has devoted herself to a specifically domestic version of feminine self-abnegation, forsaking all personal satisfactions in in order to serve her family in an offstage world that we never see—a solution Veretitsyn says makes Sofia a saint and a martyr, but not an option that the text would seem to be endorsing.

Given the meagerness of the resources (cultural, social, and economic) at Lolenka’s disposal, and the formidable power of her adversaries, the reader expects her to give up and “submit.” But instead Lolenka rebels, thereby effecting her own transformation: having formed the “stubborn, ardent, burning conviction” that her life is bad, she acts on this conviction. And since Khvoshchinskaia does not illuminate the source of her heroine’s strength, when we read the final words in what seems to be the main body of the book—“Mama, you can kill me on the spot, but I will not marry”—we are struck above all by the inexplicability of Lolenka’s metamorphosis. Immediately after these dramatic words, we encounter an ellipsis, then a chapter break, and finally a chapter that functions as a kind of epilogue.

At this point—“you can kill me” followed by an ellipsis—the reader is likely to assume that Lolenka has either died or has been consigned to a death-in-life provincial existence: so convincingly has Khvoshchinskaia described the hellish constraints of provincial life that any other ending seems impossible. However, the next words we read are “eight years had passed since that time”: having just left Lolenka a virtual prisoner in a provincial hellhole, we now meet her—suddenly, miraculously—as a free subject in the midst of utter cultural plenitude: she is sitting in the Hermitage. Lolenka is now an artist, serenely occupying the museum’s Spanish Room and painting copies on commission (a fact to which I will return in a moment). We are left with the question: how did Lolenka get here? And why is her escape—so obviously a crucial juncture in the story—not narrated?

The text makes quick work of the implausible development, informing us that Lolenka wrote a desperate letter to her aunt/godmother in Petersburg, with the result that the aunt rescued her: apparently the only mechanism Khvoshchinskaia could find to ensure Lolenka’s deliverance was an auntie-ex-machina. Once in Petersburg, the brief explanation concludes, Lolenka studied art and languages, living with her aunt; when she was able to support herself through translations and paintings, she stopped accepting any help from her relation. […]

Lolenka has not only escaped the provinces, she has made her way to the anti-gorod N: against N’s deadly cultural attenuation, the capital—which is represented, none too realistically, as a giant museum open to all—is a distillation of everything that capital-C Culture can do for you. One thing the capital does for Lolenka is allow her to win the battle that Veretitsyn initiated in their far-off provincial town. There Lolenka would have lost, but in Petersburg the roles are reversed, and she wins: in the Hermitage it is she who first observes and identifies Veretitsyn, laughing at his confusion; she is serene while he is flustered. Above all Lolenka makes a strong case for the life she has chosen, justifying her “abandonment” of her parents against Veretitsyn’s accusations of disloyalty and egoism. Veretitsyn charges that “as long as there were still people” (family members) to whom she had obligations, Lolenka had no right to escape, to which Lolenka retorts, “Injustice, persecution had reached an extreme … didn’t I have the right to tear myself away, to come to hate the memory of the past?” […]

Khvoshchinskaia’s heroine has joined history, history in the sense of “public time” (“time experienced by the individual as public being, conscious of a framework of public institutions in and through which events, processes and changes happened to the society of which he perceives himself to be part”)—a history to which the provincial Town of N provided no access. […]

Only in the metropolis can Khvoshchinskaia’s heroine recreate herself as a markedly modern subject; her only possibility of a future is located in the capital, where she can replace the vertical relationships that structured her past life with the up-to-date horizontal idea of the cohort (“our generation,” as she says repeatedly). If in the end the alternatives Khvoshchinskaia imagines seem imperfect as well as improbable (as is suggested by the stridently doctrinaire nature of her heroine’s diatribes: “Slavery, the family! . . . Precepts of submission to tyranny! […]”), it is not hard to understand why: the text’s unconvincing ending—much like the flimsy ellipsis that stands in for any real explanation of exactly how a girl like Lolenka might escape the provinces in order to make her way to Petersburg and modernity—signals to us that The Boarding School Girl is probably trying to imagine an escape that is not yet quite imaginable.

I don’t know why Lounsbery uses “Lolenka” for Lyolenka; it’s annoying but one gets used to it.

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’).

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  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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