Rostopchina, Evdokiya (1811–1858)
Rostopchina, Evdokiya (1811–1858)
Russian poet, author, and host to one of Russia's most active 19th-century literary salons. Name variations: Evdokia or Evdokiia Rostopchina; Countess Rostopchina. Born Evdokiya Petrovna Sushkova in Moscow on December 23, 1811; died on December 3, 1858; her mother died while Evdokiya was still young, and her father, due to his civil service, was frequently absent; married Count Andrei Rostopchin (a conservative aristocrat), in 1833.
Evdokiya Rostopchina was a Russian poet, author, and host to one of Russia's most active 19th-century literary salons. Countess Rostopchina gained renown throughout Russia because of her intellect, her well-respected poetry, and her salon which was visited by all of the major literary personages of the era. Her principal literary legacy is her poetry, and although it has not received ample critical attention since her own day, the poetry possesses considerable merit. By any account, Rostopchina herself remains a significant component of the intellectual and literary history of Russian Romanticism of the 1830s and 1840s.
Evdokiya Petrovna Sushkova was born in Moscow on December 23, 1811, shortly before its evacuation during the war with Napoleon. Her mother died while Evdokiya was still young, and her father, due to his civil service, was frequently absent during her childhood. Consequently, the young Sushkova was raised primarily by her maternal grandparents. According to her brother, her childhood was not particularly happy due to her mother's early death and to her general isolation. However, she clearly found reward in her education. Her family provided her with a governess and the standard domestic education of a young aristocratic girl: lessons in languages, literature, history, geography, and piano. Her passionate interests in languages and literature motivated tireless study and reading, even during her adolescence. She learned French as a natural consequence of being a member of the Russian gentry, and German was included in her education. This passion would continue throughout her life, leading her to independent study of English and Italian. Her love for literature led her to exhaustive reading of the family library, and her own poetic endeavors apparently started at a early age. While still young, she met several established Russian poets, and the assistance of Prince Pyotr Vyazemskii and Baron Anton Delvig led to Sushkova's first major publication, the lyric "Talisman," in 1831.
Sushkova matured into a debutante of Moscovite aristocratic society. In 1833, she married Count Andrei Rostopchin, a conservative aristocrat of high social standing. All contemporary accounts of the marriage indicate that the new Countess Rostopchina (Russian family names add the feminine ending of "a") had little attachment to her husband. Count Rostopchin was considered a "good match" for the well-educated and socially graceful Sushkova. The couple first lived in a Rostopchin country estate and then moved to St. Petersburg in 1836.
Although not necessarily rewarded by her marriage, Rostopchina flourished during the 1830s in terms of social interaction and literary involvement. The congenial Rostopchina developed relationships with all of the literary and artistic luminaries of the age. Aleksander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Nikolai Gogol—the two principal poets and the principal prose writer of Russia in the 1830s—were regular guests and correspondents, and Rostopchina was among the last members of St. Petersburg society to see Pushkin before his death in a duel in 1837. Similarly, Lermontov stayed with Rostopchina during his last visit to St. Petersburg in 1841. The list of her associations encompasses virtually every noted personage of Russian society during the period. Rostopchina's best-remembered activity of the 1830s was her creation of one of the most active literary salons in Russian society. Indeed, she soon acquired such respect and status that appearances in her salon came to be career accomplishments for emerging, aspiring poets and writers. The salon also received virtuoso musicians, including the international celebrity Franz Liszt.
Rostopchina was herself active in literary endeavors, primarily lyric poetry. Among the principal contexts for literary exchange during Russian Romanticism were readings given at salons, such as Rostopchina's own, and the interchange of so-called "album verse" (individuals possessed a personal "album" in which others would write poetic entries). Rostopchina was quite active in both these areas. She also composed verse of a more serious nature and published a number of lyrics in preeminent literary journals. In 1839, she released a book containing two of her more noted prose tales, "Rank and Money" and "The Duel," and her first verse collection was compiled and released in early 1841. She would continue to compose verse for the rest of her life, publishing primarily in journals.
In 1845, the Rostopchin family went abroad and spent two years in Poland, Germany, France, and Evdokiya's beloved Italy. Upon their return to Russia, they went to Moscow, and Rostopchina would spend almost all of her remaining years either in Moscow or in the Rostopchin country estate outside the city. The late 1840s and the 1850s were fruitful years for the tireless author and poet. She quickly reestablished her custom of hosting "literary evenings," and in Moscow, as in St. Petersburg, Rostopchina attracted all of the established and emerging literary personalities of the day. During this period, the countess composed a number of her longer works: the drama in blank verse, "The Woman Recluse," in 1849; the novel in verse The Poetry and Prose of Life: The Diary of a Young Woman and several prose novels during the 1850s; and several more society tales. Moreover, her production of lyric verse from this time includes some of her most remembered pieces and two of the more controversial ones: "A Marriage by Force" in 1845, which aroused imperial censure due to its political subtexts concerning the Russian control of Poland, and "To My Critics" in 1856, which responded to assaults by political-ideological literary critics who were gradually assuming editorial control over the journals. Regardless of politically or socially motivated criticism, most rigorous critics, poets, and authors responded warmly to Rostopchina's oeuvre, and especially to her poetry.
Rostopchina's evolving political perspectives bear mention in her biography, for she was a significant and especially paradoxical influence on the view of social issues within the Russian literary community. Nineteenth-century Russian intellectual life, particularly during the 1840s, experienced the debate between what were then known as the "Slavophiles" and the "Westernizers." Most individuals, other than the most ideologically strident advocates, did not pledge slavish adherence to one group or the other, and Rostopchina warmly received both Slavophiles and Westernizers into her salon. As for her own perspectives, she has been regarded both as a Western-leaning figure and as a political and social conservative. She was certainly concerned with a woman's opportunities to participate in the literary community, and conservative criticism, saying that a woman should not (or could not) write poetry, was not an uncommon response to Rostopchina's compositions. Her advocacy of "womanhood" and her vision of "how women should write" (the title of one of her compositions) led her to be called the "Russian George Sand ." The title is, however, somewhat misleading, for Rostopchina's vision of the feminine was far more aesthetic and largely unpolitical. She, like most male poets of her day, saw "the Muse" and "Beauty" as feminine quantities, and as such certain inspirations and observations on beauty were accessible singularly to women. Her most politically charged observation on women concerned a woman's role in the beau monde, and as one who valued her privacy and often wrote of female withdrawal from society, Rostopchina was not favorably disposed to the social edicts which constricted a woman's pursuit of solitude.
If such attitudes bespeak a Western-oriented perspective, other aspects of Rostopchina's life point in quite the opposite direction. The countess was a Russian patriot, albeit a Russian patriot who loved to go abroad. Her social attitudes and her perspectives on the power of artistic beauty were perhaps firmly in tune with the Romantic spirit of the 1830s, but by the rise of the utilitarian and "democratic" critics in the 1850s, Rostopchina was seen as retrograde and perhaps even reactionary. These critics advocated equality of the sexes according to a pre-Marxist style of socialism and believed that literature, particularly literature dealing with women, should have a primarily political goal of achieving social change. Rostopchina, with her vision of beauty and her idea of the linkage between the feminine and the beautiful, rejected the notion of literature as social force and rejected this view of women. For her love of Russia and her rejection of such utilitarian literature and utilitarian social organization, Rostopchina frequently acquires the label of "conservative" in the 1850s. The label is perhaps appropriate insofar as she clung to her Romantic world view long after the decline of Romanticism. Yet it misleads the modern reader in light of the 20th-century political connotations associated with the word, and Rostopchina never displayed slavish adherence to the imperial Russian government or to conventional, aristocratic reactionary politics.
The last two years of Countess Rostopchina's life marked a period of gradual deterioration of her health and extended physical suffering borne with courage and good spirit. Despite the visibly evident pain, she still received visitors with her renowned warmth and hospitality, and she still worked regularly. Her last visitor of note, the French novelist Alexander Dumas, arrived in the fall of 1858 with a request for her reminiscences on Lermontov, and he observed both her poor health and her good cheer in his own notes on the meeting. Rostopchina fulfilled Dumas' request and added a translation of a Pushkin lyric into French. She accompanied the reminiscences with a poignant note saying that she would likely be dead by the time he received the material. In fact, she was right, and Evdokiya Rostopchina died on December 3, 1858.
Evdokiya Rostopchina contributed to Russian literature with her literary salons, her prose fiction, and her poetry. The significance of the literary salons should not be discounted, for such salons represented the venues of literary and intellectual exchange. Thus, in a manner of speaking, they constituted the geographical site of literary evolution and ferment. Furthermore, as a woman, Rostopchina—like the other significant woman belletrist of the age, Karolina Pavlova —encountered resistance within the conventional literary society. That is, writing was often seen as an "inappropriate" activity for women of high society. The leading men of Russian literature largely did not share such an opinion, however, and reminiscences of Rostopchina uniformly express respect for the countess and testify to her insight and wit. As a salon host, Rostopchina acquired a reputation as a keen reader and listener, and her opinions exhibited an identifiable impact on the "spirit of the age."
Rostopchina's prose, while widely read during her lifetime, is not the strength of her literary corpus. Her poetically oriented literary mind does not translate well to prose, and these works often suffer from "over-stylized" and "over-written" prose and a cumbersome excess of description. The literary structures, moreover, rely heavily on Romantic conventions. In short, the works reflect the age and do not translate well beyond the Romantic context. Nevertheless, within that context, the prose and particularly the society tales exhibit a keen eye for satire. The most well-remembered tales—"Rank and Money," "The Duel," and "A Happy Woman"—comprise clever exposures of social vanities, empty pursuits, and aristocratic pride.
Rostopchina earned most of her praise for her poetry, and her verse is her primary literary legacy. Unfortunately, although numerous contemporary critics placed her among the premier poets of the late 1830s and the 1840s, her star faded quickly after her death. The socialist and utilitarian critics' condemnation led to the branding of Rostopchina as an aristocratic, salon poet, and this appellation placed her out of favor with the Marxist critics dominating the Soviet period. Nonetheless, Rostopchina composed a number of works esteemed by poets both of her day and of subsequent generations.
Her poetry is not of uniform quality, but certain pieces well deserve the esteem expressed by Pushkin and Lermontov. The stronger pieces emerge from her paradoxical persona, and they reflect a strong, passionate intellect grappling with troubling truths. The weaker pieces suffer from the same shortcomings apparent in her prose, and to the 20th-century reader, such works appear overstated and affected.
The paradoxes about Rostopchina are numerous: she loved her salon and her solitude; she was renowned for her good cheer but was said to have had an unhappy childhood and marriage; she was expressive but restrained. These qualities translate to her poetry, and thus it is characterized by the suggestion of passion without explicit statement, by a call for restraint and feeling, and so on. Perhaps the most interesting paradox lies in the fact that Rostopchina employs the implicitly "confessional" nature of lyric poetry—an illusion of internal reflection in a form intended for public reading—to express her need for privacy. Such is the case of her lyric "How Women Should Write." Here she describes the ideal "poetess" who feels deeply but who alludes to such feeling with restraint:
Speech not completed with an understanding smile
Embellished with a warm tear;
The inner impulse forged by the imagination,
Decorum would struggle with enthusiasm,
And wisdom guard every word.
Yes! A woman's soul must shine in the shadow,
Like a lamp's light in a marble urn,
Like the moon at dusk through the cover of storm-clouds;
And warming life, unbeheld, glimmers.
Rostopchina frequently wrote poetry about poetic composition itself, and she often combined these contemplations of inspiration and creation with her notions of the feminine. This impulse produced a poetic credo whereby women poets, by virtue of being women, had something distinct to offer the literature; they viewed creation differently and indeed created according to different standards. In a poetic epistle to Vasili Zhukovski, a prominent male poet, she writes, "I am a woman! … in me thought and inspiration / should be bound together by gentle humility." In this same vein of poetry on poetry, the countess often composed contemplations expressing doubts about her poetic gifts, celebrations of her love of poetry, and reminiscences on her poetic career. More than once she reflected on her childhood spent with numerous poetry readings. By the 1850s, such lyrics assumed a more melancholy tone for she had become a personality out of place with changing literary tastes and standards. In her well-known "To My Critics," she observes:
I have parted with the new generation,
My path diverges from it;
In understanding, spirit and conviction
I belong to another world.
I revere and invoke other gods
And speak in a different tongue;
I am a stranger to them, amusing, this I know,
But I am not embarrassed before their judgment.
She continues the metaphor of "revering other gods," and the metaphor recollects the Romantic notion of poetry as divine communion. Yet in the age of socialism, utilitarianism, and pragmatic literature, the divine becomes nothing more than an outmoded convention, and the lyric concludes: "Unwisely, as a solitary priestess, / I stand before an empty altar!"
Countess Rostopchina concluded her 1841 collection of verse with the lyric "The Unfinished Sewing," and the work is based on a metaphor equating a woman sewing with Rostopchina's composition of verse. "The Unfinished Sewing" represents yet another example of poetry on poetry, but in this instance, Rostopchina appears to let us a bit further into her creative world—or at least she suggests that we press deeper beyond her poetic restraint, for beneath the understated exterior lies her "disburdened" soul:
So many sweet and lively memories
Return when I survey them,
So many feelings, meditations,
Were worked into this gaudy cloth,
As I disburdened here my soul!
The hour when woman sews her modest seam
Brings silence, peace, and space for sweet reflection;
Far from the worldly crowd, she's sunk in contemplation;
Enjoys a rest from parties, carriage rides;
Has respite from the world, from visitors, from strife;
Then she may read her soul, may gaze upon herself.
Full work-table to hand, she sits at her round frame,
And stitches rapidly, absorbed in what she sews.
Kelly, Catriona, ed. An Anthology of Russian Women's Writing. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Perkins, Pamela, and Albert Cook, eds. The Burden of Sufferance: Women Poets of Russia. NY: Garland, 1993.
Rostopchina, Evdokiya. "Rank and Money" (short story), in Russian and Polish Women's Fiction. Ed. and trans. by Helena Goscilo. Knoxville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
Unfortunately, although several good collections of Rostopchina's literature exist in Russian, she has rarely been translated into English and has not attracted substantial English-language critical commentary. Works cited above appear in translation.
Andrew J. Swensen , Western Michigan University, Kalamazoo, Michigan