Book review / Unsuperfluous women

RUSSIA THROUGH WOMEN'S EYES: Autobiographies from Tsarist Russia ed Toby W Clyman & Judith Vowles, Yale pounds 25
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The Independent Culture
THIS anthology consists of 11 previously untranslated autobiographical writings by Russian women whose lives "span the [19th] century and cover a wide range of classes and professions". The second part of this claim in the book's blurb is slightly misleading. Seven of the 11 are educated women of the upper classes. One of the remaining four is Liubov Nikulina- Kositskaia, a daughter of domestic servants ("house serfs"), whose career was entirely untypical: she joined the provincial theatre in her early teens and became a leading actress of her day. As for professions, most of those here who did work were writers or doctors. So this is not a representative selection of women's voices from Tsarist Russia.

One could hardly expect it to be, given that the majority of 19th-century Russian women did not have the ability, let alone the urge, to write an autobiography (the literacy rate for the whole population by the end of the century was perhaps 40 per cent). As for the urge, the editors rightly stress that these are literary productions, and they devote much of their preface to describing the established genres of autobiography in 19th-century Russia, and how they differ from equivalents in the West.

What is interesting, meanwhile, is to note the degree of social mobility that actually did exist in what, to many Western visitors, seemed a rigidly hierarchical society, subject to unalterable custom and the whim of the Tsar.

The autobiographies (some complete, some extracts) vary in length from about 12 pages to nearly 50. Each has an introduction, setting it in the context of the writer's life and saying how it came to be written. There are also explanatory footnotes, a copious bibliographical note for each author and a six-page general bibliography. Most readers would probably have sacrificed some of this impressive critical apparatus for the sake of an index, and the editors' own proofreading should have corrected footnotes referring to the "Narodnoi Teatr" (for Narodnii) and to "chap 18, verse 29" of Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin (a verse-novel of eight chapters, divided into stanzas).

Clyman and Vowles seem to be faintly suspicious of high culture. They chide Praskovia Tatlina for trying to show the extent of her reading or her "attempts at lyricism and novelistic techniques". Tatlina's "Reminiscences", however, with their modest literary pretensions, could equally well be seen as evidence of the value a woman from the "lower bureaucracy" attached to education, and the extent of her self-instruction. The debate on the proper education of women is implicit in all the women's accounts of their early lives, including Sofia Khvoshchinskaia's rather grim recollections of boarding school.

Several belong to the tradition of the literary "reminiscence" (of which Tolstoy's Childhood is the best example): self-consciously lyrical and nostalgic evocations of the past. The actress Kositskaia's "Notes" show the difficulty of distinguishing fact from literary embellishment: her friend Ostrovsky used elements from her eventful early life in his plays, and her own account, written not long before she died, is probably influenced by his dramatisations of what she had told him. But art need not detract from authenticity. The most informative items in the anthology are arguably the most "literary": Ekaterina Slanskaia writing about a day in her life as a doctor in St Petersburg, and Emiliia Pimenova on the fictitious marriage that allowed her to enrol in medical school.

Although three of these women worked in medicine, there was considerable hostility to the idea of women doctors in Russia in the 19th century. The women's medical courses that Pimenova attended were a reluctant concession, originally intended for training midwives; Pimenova needed permission from a parent or husband to enrol, and got married for that purpose to a compliant engineer; the marriage was eventually to become a genuine one. Slanskaia graduated from the same course and served as one of the salaried doctors employed by the local authorities in St Petersburg to give free treatment to poor patients. She wrote an account of a typical day's work for the journal Vestnik Evropy, which tells us much about the society in which she lived and is full of rage at the ignorance, suffering and superstition around her - rage which she sometimes turns on her patients. "I am so angry that I am ready to kill this awful woman, this inept mother who has given her sick child rotten fish to eat ..." She is on the point of refusing treatment, then relents, but tells the mother that next time she will leave the young girl to her fate - and goes out quickly, choking back her tears. A remarkable woman, like most of those represented here. Their accounts of their lives well deserved to be disengaged from the tangle of sources quoted in Clyman and Vowles' bibliographies.

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