September 01, 2019

A Double Life

A Double Life
Borisoglebsky Church, Tsaritsa Nikolai Maslennikov (cc)

This is an excerpt from the new translation of a novel by Karolina Pavlova (1807-1893), translated by Barbara Heldt. Pavlova was an exceptional poet and translator whose work was overlooked and scorned in her lifetime because of her gender. A Double Life was her only novel. It combines a mixture of prose and poetry and focuses on the duality of women in high society.

The day was drawing near that Vera Vladimirovna always celebrated – Cecily’s birthday. This time, too, she had made various preparations to spend the day as gaily as possible: a dinner, a concert, a bal champêtre, a supper – every possible thing that could be done was done, with great effort and at great expense. The festivity of people of the highest circles is wondrously expensive. When Cecily woke up that day, she found her mother’s gifts lying on her sofa: two charming dresses – one a dinner dress, the other an evening dress – and the most marvelous lace scarf, ordered from Paris. In the course of the morning, she received approximately two dozen bouquets and three dozen notes from friends – all saying precisely the same thing, to which it was necessary to respond with precisely the same variations. Society women have achieved the wondrous art of contriving thirty variations on a phrase that means nothing even the first time. Then Madame Valitskaia arrived with her daughter (on that morning, no other people were received). Cecily went into the garden with Olga to rest from her correspondence a bit. They settled into a far corner, where there was a bit of shade, and began to chatter away; they talked of twenty different subjects, and then Olga’s voice grew lower and more mysterious.

 “Listen,” she said, “you’re killing Ivachinsky. He was so upset by your coolness yesterday that out of desperation, he lost all night at cards at Ilichev’s and almost went out of his mind.”

“Who told you that?” Cecily asked.

“My cousin told it to Mama. He was there and saw Dmitry. You’re really driving him to goodness knows what. He’s becoming a gambler.”

A Double Life

It was not Olga herself who was saying these things – it was her mother’s prompting. Only Madame Valitskaia knew the great power and naivete of female vanity; only Madame Valitskaia knew how much more interesting to a woman a man becomes, and how much dearer, the moment she sees the possibility of changing him after her own fashion, reforming him from vice, saving him from destruction. The greater the danger, the deeper the abyss ready to swallow him; the more glorious the triumph, the more tempting the success, and the greater the pleasure in stretching out to the one who is perishing a saving hand, fragile and yet all-powerful. Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal. Olga, for her part, was also of a mind to keep the precious prince for herself and did not trust Cecily much in this respect. Although Olga was too young to think up what levers to pull, she was clever enough to use them according to her mother’s directions. In society’s lexicon, this sort of move is called adroit or clever.

Instead of answering, Cecily bowed her head and fell to thinking. But that day, she had no time for lengthy reflection; the time to dress for dinner was approaching. Madame Valitskaia and her daughter left so that they too could dress and return in a couple of hours, and Cecily went to her room, called the maid, and sat down at her dressing table, loosening her black braids. She was so full of thoughts and daydreams that she paid no attention to her hair, over which the maid Annushka was laboring. Looking into her mirror, she thought only of what Olga had said. So she was capable of bringing Dmitry to desperation! – a possibility always flattering and satisfying to a woman, as a result of which she began to await him with great impatience.

But however much these thoughts possessed her, she could not help but be distracted, if only briefly, while putting on the splendid new dress. And indeed, when she was all ready and standing before her mirror, the reflection presented such a picture of grace that, looking at it, she understood perfectly poor Dmitry’s torments of the heart.

The dinner was, like all dinners of this sort, long and boring. Aside from Vera Vladimirovna’s husband and two or three guests like him, who ate with great appetite, everyone was waiting for it to end – Cecily and Olga more than anyone because Prince Victor and Dmitry were not expected until evening. Once dinner was over, they could still have a couple of pleasant hours to themselves.

Karolina Pavlova
Karolina Pavlova,
by Vasili Binemann (1795-1842)

The time for the concert finally arrived. The guests, whose number had increased, pressed into the room and began listening very patiently to variations and fantasias, arias and duets, accompanied by the constant movement of chairs set down for new arrivals. An Italian duet sung by Olga and Cecily ended the concert. It was delightful, of course, since it had been taken from the latest opera, and of course it gave the listeners enormous pleasure. A ripple passed through all three rows of toques and mob-caps in front of the pianos. All the men, mercilessly squeezed into the corners and along the walls, clapped their hands in a storm of delight. Dmitry Ivachinsky, who had just come in, was so unsparing of himself that he tore his gloves to shreds. Prince Victor himself applauded more than when he had heard Grisi in Paris. The duet, in short, produced a huge effect, after which everyone dispersed into the garden with sincere delight.

Cecily took Olga by the arm and ran with her toward her own room in order to escape the general gratitude, correct her hair, and change for the ball. In the doorway stood Dmitry Ivachinsky. He bowed to her and whispered five or six words. Cecily nodded her head and passed swiftly by.

“Olga,” she said, after running upstairs to her room and smoothing the dark waves of her hair before the mirror, “are you engaged for the mazurka?”

“Since yesterday morning,” Olga answered in a voice so content that one could have no doubt as to whom she was promised. “And you?”

“Since just a minute ago,” Cecily said, even more content, throwing her marvelous scarf on the sofa.

She felt extraordinarily happy, somehow wildly and boldly happy. She gave herself over to new, enthralling impressions. She was dimly aware of certain unknown possibilities. The daughter of Eve was tasting the forbidden fruit. The young captive was breathing in free, fragrant, unfamiliar air, and it intoxicated her. This was something that Vera Vladimirovna had never wished to foresee. Those prudent, vigilant, cautious women never do. They rely totally on their maternal efforts. They are extremely consistent with their daughters. In place of the spirit, they give them the letter; in place of living, feeling a dead rule; in place of holy truth, a preposterous lie. And they often manage through these clever, precautionary machinations to steer their daughters safely to what is called “a good match.” Then their goal is attained. Then they leave her, confused, powerless, ignorant, and uncomprehending, to God’s will; and afterward they sit down tranquilly to dinner and lie down to sleep. And this is the very same daughter whom at the age of six, they could not bring themselves to leave alone in a room, lest she fall off a chair. But that was a matter of bodily injuries – bloodshot eyes, frightening, physical pain – not of an obscure, mute pain of the spirit.

One could be consoled if only bad mothers acted in this way: there are not many bad mothers. But it is the very best mothers who do it and will go on doing it forever. And all these educators had been young once, and had been brought up in the same way! Were they really so satisfied with their own lives and with themselves that they are happy to renew the experience with their children? Is all this absurdity as long-lived as those reptiles that continue to exist after they are cut into pieces? Didn’t these poor women weep? Didn’t they blame themselves and other people? Didn’t they look for help in vain? Didn’t they feel the meaninglessness of the support given them? Didn’t they recognize the bitter fruit of this lie?

But many of them, perhaps, did not! There are incredible cases and strange exceptions. There are examples of people falling from the third floor onto the pavement and remaining unharmed; then why not give one’s daughter, too, a shove?

And it also must be said that so much is forgotten in life, the years change and reshape us so strangely! So many young, inspired dreamers in time become tax-farmers and distillers. So many carefree young idlers become owners of Siberian gold mines. So many frivolous scoundrels become merciless punishers of any enthusiasm. Time is a strange force!

Excerpted from A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova (Columbia University Press), part of the Russian Library series. Translation copyright © 2019 by Barbara Heldt.

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