Zinaida Volkonskaya.

The prevalence of the French language in 19th-century Russia has been a frequent theme at LH (e.g., 2008, 2013, 2014, 2019), and Alessandra Tosi’s Waiting for Pushkin: Russian Fiction in the Reign of Alexander I (1801-1825) provides a good example — it has a whole section (III.2, p. 131ff.) on Zinaida Volkonskaya (one of the Volkonskys mentioned in the 2008 post), who wrote almost exclusively in French:

Zinaida Aleksandrovna Volkonskaia (1789-1862) is renowned as a grande dame of the Russian and European beau monde in the first half of the nineteenth century rather than for her literary exploits. Born into one of the most illustrious Russian families (her father was Prince Aleksander Mikhailovich Belozelsky-Belozersky, a leading diplomat during Catherine’s reign) Zinaida belonged to the Emperor Alexander’s entourage from an early age. After the death of her father, she was made to marry Prince Nikita Grigorevich Volkonskii, a member of the highest Russian aristocracy who was to serve as aide-de-camp of Alexander I. In 1808 the nineteen-year-old Zinaida became lady-in-waiting to the Dowager Empress Maria Fedorovna and for a time, during the Napoleonic wars, was romantically involved with the tsar himself, to whom she remained close until his death in 1825. Around this time Volkonskaia’s salon in Moscow became an important venue for writers and musicians alike. […]

Volkonskaia’s role in nineteenth-century European and Russian culture is now generally acknowledged thanks to the numerous biographical studies devoted to the “Queen of the Muses and beauty”, as Pushkin called her. What is still missing is a
comprehensive study of Volkonskaia’s literary output that – apart from a few mentions in histories and dictionaries of Russian women writers and in the biographies devoted to her – has so far been overlooked. Yet Volkonskaia’s work deserves critical attention for at least three reasons: the high literary standard of her writing, the topical issues she addresses in the novels and stories, and her position as the leading Russian francophone writer of the age.

In some respects Volkonskaia is an exception to the rule, for her literary endeavours clashed with accepted notions of women’s role in the cultural and literary sphere, notions that very few of her contemporaries dared to question. In the vast majority of cases, works penned by women at the time fully complied with the tenets of sentimentalism, a trend that gave some scope to female artistic expression, providing that it was limited to a purely “feminine”, immediate outpouring of the heart. In other words, women’s intellectual activity was meant to be an amateurish exercise, serious study and professionalism being allegedly alien to the female nature and possibly devious. Volkonskaia swam against the tide by embracing a completely different set of values and striving towards intellectual rigour and a markedly rational approach to the act of writing which is ahead of her time. Her unaffected, “brainy” style marks her out from the bulk of female writers in the age of Alexander. In an epoch when relatively few women wrote fiction (Mariia Izvekova, Iuliia Krüdener, Natalia Golovkina, Mariia Pospelova, Ekaterina Puchkova and to a lesser extent Anna Bunina) and an even smaller number escaped the prescriptions of sentimentalism as the feminine trend, Volkonskaia’s choice of themes, styles, literary models and overall originality is in advance of her time.

Her unconventional approach to writing is partly explained by her upbringing and goes hand in hand with the phenomenon of the cultural bilingualism of Russia’s intellectual elite in the long eighteenth century. As with many representatives of the highest echelons of Russian society, Volkonskaia’s formative years were marked by the spirit of the French enlightenment passed on by her father, a true eighteenth-century cosmopolitan who was also a minor writer in French, an art-collector and an amateur philosopher, corresponding – among others – with Kant, Voltaire and Rousseau. Imparting the sort of broad education generally (but not exclusively) reserved to young men, he took particular care in the upbringing of his favourite daughter, nourishing her natural artistic gifts and feeding her intellectual curiosity with a good dose of encyclopedic culture from an early age. As a consequence, the writer acquired a truly broad education that included Latin, Greek, Italian and French, European history, literature, and music making her a true cosmopolitan and one of the leading figures of both Russian and European high society during the reigns of Alexander and Nicholas I. […]

As with many women at the top ranks of the aristocracy, French remained Volkonskaia’s dominant written (and spoken) language throughout her life, although the author tried to improve her Russian later in life without ever properly mastering it. Thus Volkonskaia forms part of a small group of early nineteenth-century Russian women writing in French, including Natalia Golovkina and Iuliia Krüdener, although in Krüdener’s case the appellation of “Russian writer” is perhaps doubtful. The literary production of Russian authors writing in French is the tip of the iceberg of the cultural bilingualism characterizing Russia’s elite culture for over a century, and as such forms an integral part of modern Russian literature. Not only do these authors belong to the Russian literary tradition, but they also unveil specific features of elite culture in the long eighteenth century. […]

In Volkonskaia’s case, although the vast majority of her work was written in French, the bulk of it either came out in Russia, or she commissioned Russian translations or attempted to translate it herself. Moreover, Volkonskaia was universally regarded as a Russian writer both in France, where some of her works were published, and at home. Volkonskaia also regarded herself as Russian, her choice of writing in French being a direct consequence of her cosmopolitan, enlightened upbringing marked by the dominance of French civilisation, in terms of tutors, readings and, more generally, her social entourage and cultural orientation. For this reason Volkonskaia’s works in French represent not just a sample of Russian literature but, more generally, a sample of elite culture at the time.

Interestingly, while in the late eighteenth century this phenomenon concerns mostly male writers (such as Fonvizin and N. Karamzin), women writers including Nataliia Golovkina, Iuliia Krudener and Volkonskaia dominate the Franco-Russian scene at the beginning of the nineteenth century. From Pushkin onwards until the post-revolutionary period a lesser, more sporadic, use of French again involves mostly male authors (such as the early Pushkin, Petr Chaadaev, and Fedor Tiutchev).

According to Catriona Kelly, early nineteenth-century Franco-Russian women authors stand out from other female authors in two respects: for their focus on female psychology and for the recognition, implicit in their work, that literature can represent a viable pursuit for women. Among the Franco-Russian authors, Lotman has singled out precisely Volkonskaia for her fine description of female psychology, going as far as stating that her masterpiece, Quatres nouvelles, marks the passage from the “feminine” type of literature promoted by Karamzin and his followers to the psychological prose of pre-romanticism.

Volkonskaia’s broad education nurtured her natural skills as a singer and actress, as well as an author, a set of eclectic cultural interests that led to excursions into various genres, including an opera, Giovanna d’Arco (Joan of Arc, 1821), some travel notes, Pis’ma iz Italii (Letters from Italy, 1825), and a pseudo-historical narrative, Tableau slave du cinquième siècle. In Russia the reception of these works was, as a whole, far from positive, and both the travel notes and the historical narrative were rejected by Russian critics on either historical or linguistic grounds. In France, on the contrary, Volkonskaia was well received, as witnessed by the influential critic Saint Jullien, who in a review of Tableau slave wrote that Volkonskaia “is a worthy rival of the best among our French women writers for the freshness of her style, which is always pure, elegant and harmonious”.

Volkonskaia’s oeuvre also includes a few works of imaginative prose: lyrical fragments such as Kniagine Marii Volkonskoi (1826, dedicated to her sister-in-law, one of the Decembrists’ wives who followed their husbands into exile after the 1825 failed coup), the sketch Portret (The Portr[ai]t) and the short narrative Mechta. Pis’mo (The Dream: A Letter). Arguably, the highest literary achievements of the “Russian Corinne”, as Volkonskaia was often called, are the Quatres Nouvelles; among them the story Laure deserves special attention. These collected stories, which came out in 1819 during a period of withdrawal from social life, represent the author’s first substantial work of fiction. As with most of her literary output (only the “archaeological novel” Skazanie ob Ol’ge (Tale of Ol’ga, 1836) was written originally in Russian), the Quatre Nouvelles were written in French.

The novella Laure is a textured, sophisticated work of fiction engaging the reader at a number of levels. […] The autobiographical component, the fine psychological analysis and the dissecting quality of the narrative voice endow this work with a topicality rare in early nineteenth-century Russian fiction by both male and female authors. […] As for contemporary reception of this novel, unlike in the case of other works by Volkonskaia, very little seems to have been written on it, apart from a letter of prince Viazemskii to Aleksandr Turgenev of 1819 where he describes Laure as being full of sensitive observations and beautifully written.

I’m not sure why Tosi gives titles like Portret and Mechta. Pis’mo in Russian when they were written in French, but never mind the nitpicking: this is a clear example of a writer who deserves more attention than she’s gotten, and Tosi’s book as a whole is an important examination of a period in Russian literature that’s also gotten too little attention.


  1. Belos[s]elsky[-Belozersky] but apparently not Belozelsky-Belozersky?

  2. ….early nineteenth-century Franco-Russian women authors stand out from other female authors in two respects: for their focus on female psychology and for the recognition, implicit in their work, that literature can represent a viable pursuit for women.

    Does anyone know a female author who does not recognise that literature can represent a viable pursuit for women? :-/ (I checked Kelly – it seems by “recognition” she means “feminine forms of the first person in their narrative”. ).

  3. Kelly:
    By 1820, the date when ‘Laure’ appeared, Franco-Russian women had already established a tradition of prose writing which was both coherent and diverse. It was coherent in its emphasis on the female psychology, and especially on the capacity of this for sensibility; in its presentation of incentive and disincentive models of male and female behaviour; and in its recognition of literary activity as a possible pursuit for women.

  4. Does anyone know a female author who does not recognise that literature can represent a viable pursuit for women??

    Surely you’re aware that in the early 19th century literature was, in general, not a viable pursuit for women, and most people thought it shouldn’t be. Women were expected to be wives and mothers, end of story, unless of course they were peasants. A few women did manage to get work published, but it was not respected and was quickly forgotten because women authors, unlike men, did not get Собрание сочинений that would be preserved on the shelves of libraries and literary homes.

  5. Actually, I just was in the mood to grumble, but I’m of course, grateful to LH and both authors. I was not taught this literature in school and I did not learn about it later:-/

    It’s just that the formulation is really perplexing (do Tosi and Kelly also stand out in their implicit recognition…?).

    P.S. (just refreshed the page)
    @LH, yes, but I think any woman who writes (or publishes, depending on what we call literature as a pursuit) a novel implicitly recognises this, and any woman who puts her name on the cover does it explicitly…

    It were words “stand out from other female authors” that I found so perplexing. Kelly and Tosi are female authors too – and they do not use feminine grammatical forms (because their language does not have gender).

    As for feminine forms, the narrator is not the same as the author. If in a (hypothetical) language where feminine grammatical gender is available narrator remains masculine even when the author uses a female name, I would expect a distinct convention about the narrator. “Because literature is not for women!” would not be my first idea.

  6. I really don’t understand your conflation of the present with the early 19th century. Are you also surprised when people write about the sufferings of serfs because you don’t see any serfs today? The situations of Kelly and Tosi have literally nothing to do with those of Volkonskaya except that they are all women.

  7. @LH, that Tosi is a modern woman is a minor detail compared to that she writes and publishes books. Any female author explicitly recognises what Tosi said they recognise, and I don’t need to look at “feminine forms” or her culture when I know that she writes and publishes books.

    The situations of Kelly and Tosi have literally nothing to do with those of Volkonskaya except that they are all women.” – yes, and that they all are female authors is enough, because the claim was “early nineteenth-century Franco-Russian women authors stand out from other female authors“.

    The claim was not that in their time and place this recognition was more impressive than elsewhere. The claim was that they recognised that women can write/publish books, and other women who wrote books and put their names on the cover (in other times and places) did not.
    Which is absurd.

  8. Should it be read as “early nineteenth-century Franco-Russian women authors stand out from other early nineteenth-century female authors”?

  9. drasvi, I think the claim is more subtle. I think the claim is that Volkonskaya et al. realized that women authors can write prose on any subject and not be confined to sentimentalism.

  10. @mollymolly, I think they pointed at female authors from different time OR space, but I think they were thinking about Europe in 18-19th centuries.

    But it would be still thoroughly absurd to claim that Tosi recognises that women can do literary history because she is modern and an Uzbek poetess from 19th century (we know many such poetesses) did not recognise that women can write poetry, what with the more clearly delineated male and female domains in local culture.
    She wrote poetry, she knew and recited poetry written by other women, her poetry was also recited and she knew this. What else is “recognition”?

    It is like claiming that a bath from antiquity is not a bath because they did not have that many of them as we do. No, if it is a bath, then it is a bath. Period.

    @all, I did not mean to attack Tosi or Kelly! I am grateful to them and merely think that it is a funny formulation.

  11. The claim was that they recognised that women can write/publish books, and other women who wrote books and put their names on the cover (in other times and places) did not.

    am i right, drasvi, that you’re expressing incredulity that there are published women writers who explicitly say that women cannot and should not be published writers? there are an impressive number of examples of exactly this dynamic, in a wide array of spheres, both in the recent past and in our time – it’s one of the most consistent elements of the antifeminist far right. phyllis schlafly and anita bryant are the big names of the genre’s recent u.s. past: vocal and effective activists on the far right whose message was largely about how inappropriate it was for women to be political activists. they exempted themselves from this condemnation through various forms of rhetorical gymnastics: “i’m not an *activist*, just a concerned wife and mother”; “what i’m doing isn’t *political*, it’s just speaking my mind”; etc. i imagine the right wing of the russian orthodox church alone could provide you with dozens of similar examples, just as any right-leaning protestant denomination can in this country.

  12. @rozele, no.

    It occured to me that there must be such women, though I personally never heard about one (not because they don’t exist). I just thought that writing a book and putting your name on the cover is a more direct expression than using feminine forms (and, of course, if you use feminine forms in your writing, you still can hold any weird political views).

    But I realised that perhaps those Franco-Russian authors used their initials instead of names, even if everyone knew who wrote the book. That would explain this attention to grammatical forms. Yet there were female writers who wrote in English and did use their names (could not use “feminine forms” even if they wanted). The Russian writers could not “stand out” from them (Tosi), but still could be “coherent” (Kelly)

    I don’t even think those activists are necessarily illogical. If you want everyone to shut up and listen to some quiet (natural) sound, you can even yell “shut up and listen!”.
    I am just a proponent of feminisation of the segment of our culture from where they want women to wirthdraw:-) I agree though, that becoming a politician is not a very good idea for both girls and boys.

  13. @D.O. well, the formulation does not look so, and the reference to “feminine forms” is not consistent with your explanation.

    (And just as an association… in Arabic the female object of male desire still can be referred to in masculine, as the dancer in this poem (I use this song to illustrate the voiceless pharingeal fricative when I need). Not lack of recognition of her agency as a producer of erotic verse, much less erotic dance (don’t move your lips, just shake your hips! Aman aman aman aman).)

  14. David Marjanović says

    Uh, these “feminine forms” are not word forms that are grammatically feminine. They’re art forms culturally associated with women.

  15. Feminine forms of the first person?

  16. David Marjanović says

    Oh, interesting. Unfortunately I can only get a snippet preview, so I can’t see the context.

  17. Yes, Google Snippets. The preceding few lines are in my comment.

  18. John Cowan says

    vocal and effective activists on the far right whose message was largely about how inappropriate it was for women to be political activists

    It is one thing to be a woman and behave as a political activist while denying that women should be political activists: such women are asserting (however hypocritically) that what they are doing is not political activism. It would be another to be a woman and give a speech whose content is that women should not give speeches. That’s up there with All-Cretans-Are-Liars Epimenides, who was so famous that he was even quoted in the New Testament, though it seems clear that Paul didn’t get the point. In his letter to Titus, the apostle to the Cretans, he says (Titus vv. 10-15):

    10 For there are many rebellious people, full of meaningless talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision group [those Christians who held that goyim must become Jews before they can become Christians]. 11 They must be silenced, because they are disrupting whole households by teaching things they ought not to teach — and that for the sake of dishonest gain. 12 One of Crete’s own prophets has said it: “Cretans are always liars, evil brutes, lazy gluttons.” 13 This saying is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, so that they will be sound in the faith 14 and will pay no attention to Jewish myths or to the merely human commands of those who reject the truth.

  19. “… evil brutes, lazy gluttons.”

    _Did_ Epimenides claim that bit? It didn’t come through to my Philosophy class on the Epimenides Paradox — but then wikip is doubtful the Paradox has much at all to do with Epimenides (C7th-6th BC).

    What’s this business with the only source being a C9th Syriac commentary? Any number of liars could have made up any amount of character-assassination of Cretans over the 800 years since the actual Apostles actually Acted.

    It couldn’t have been Paul who didn’t understand, but rather this Mar Isho’dad of Merv/Bishop of Hdatta.

  20. John Cowan says

    It’s not like there are any end-quote marks in the Epistles. The Ode on the Greasy Urn has a similar problem: does the inscription (explicit or implicit) just say “Beauty is truth, truth beauty”, or does it also include the words “That is all ye know and all ye need to know”? The 1820 handwritten transcription by the poet’s brother has no quotation marks at allses.

  21. I just got to this paragraph on p. 213 of Tosi’s book, which is a useful summary of the early-19th-century situation:

    Yet one important difference exists between male and female writers of the time: while men explored a variety of topics and styles, the range of topics and devices explored by women is much more limited. As a rule women conformed to the idea that a narrowly defined sentimentalism and, increasingly, romanticism was the unique domain for the feminine pen. This is hardly surprising given that women, unlike men, were not part of the supportive network of literary groups and societies within which new trends were tested and discussed, new devices tried out in informal readings prior to publication. Women authors were not just few in numerical terms, but also out of touch with each other and rarely part of the male-dominated literary establishment. Moreover, their right to be taken seriously still hung in the balance, a situation that put their published work, once outside the realm of the family and the salon, under intense critical scrutiny.

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