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Catherine's Retinue: Old Age, Fashion, and Historicism in the Nineteenth Century

  • Luba Golburt (a1)


Beside her political and cultural legacy, Catherine II bequeathed to the nineteenth century a certain striking image of the body and spirit of the eighteenth: an aging aristocratic lady, inflexible in her behavioral routines and visibly unaware of historical change. This image was codified by Aleksandr Pushkin in The Queen of Spades and, much later, satirized by Ivan Turgenev in several of his novels. Highlighting the recurrence of these copies of Catherine the Great in nineteenth-century Russian prose, Luba Golburt interprets the narrative and historical implications of fashion and aging in this period that was fascinated with historical knowledge and imagination. The persistence of the past embodied by these figures posed a challenge to the otherwise widely embraced Hegelian notions of progress, underscoring the repetitive and ritualistic rhythms of historical experience. These figures also extended the realist narrative's historical scope and made possible a range of polyphonous temporal structures.



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This paper has benefitted from the invaluable suggestions of Elif Batuman, Monika Greenleaf, Boris Maslov, Anna Muza, Mark D. Steinberg, Cameron Wiggins, Margarita Zaydman, the anonymous readers for Slavic Review, and the audiences at the annual conventions of the American Association of Teachers of Slavic and East European Languages, Washington, D.C., 27-30 December 2005 and the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Washington, D.C., 16-19 November 2006, and at both the University of Wisconsin, Madison and Harvard University. The epigraph is taken from Alexander Herzen, My Past and Thoughts: The Memoirs of Alexander Herzen, trans. Constance Garnett (London, 1968), 3:1438. For the Russian text of Byloe i dumy, consult A. I. Gertsen, Sobraniie sochinenii v 30 tomakh (Moscow, 1956), vols. 8-11.

1. “In our realistic age everything is on the earth, and even part of the other world is in this world.” Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 3:1438 (emphasis in the original).

2. Ibid., pt. l,chap. 5.

3. In that same chapter, for instance, Herzen describes the peculiar assemblies of elderly Russians in French and Italian resort towns: “Next to the actors who have retired from the stage of a small theater the actors of the biggest stages of the world, whose names have long ago been left off the playbills and forgotten, live out their days in peace as Cincinnati and as philosophers against their will.” Ibid., 3:1439.

4. The term historicism is notorious for its divergent meanings. I use it to denote the Romantic tendency, inspired and articulated by the writings of J. G. Herder and G. W. F. Hegel at the turn of the century, to seek and be compelled by historical explanations for the phenomena of contemporary life. Much cultural production, both in Russia and in Europe, was motivated by this new tendency, but most of that will remain beyond the frame of this article, which only alludes to the historical novel, for example. But for thinkers like Georg Lukacs, this would be the logical genre to examine for junctures between historicism and realism. See Georg Lukacs, The Historical Novel (Lincoln, 1983). Although acknowledging the centrality of the genre for the period, I choose to reflect upon historical commentary in works that ostensibly do not belong to the genre of the historical novel proper and do not have the consideration of the past as their core. As a result of this omission, history's ubiquitous explanatory power in the nineteenth century and the narrative strategies that emerge in response to it come into better view. Lukacs's critique of historicism, albeit theoretically relevant, will also remain outside the scope of this essay.

5. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 3:1440. The allusion here is not stricdy to the eighteenth century, but to the turn of the nineteenth, when the generation Herzen describes came to power. My thanks to Ingrid Kleespies who first sparked my interest in Herzen's “men of the 18th century” with her unpublished paper “Dispossessed by History: ‘18th century People’ in Herzen's Byloe i dumy” (paper, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies, Boston, 4-7 December 2004).

6. In part 1 of My Past and Thoughts, Herzen dedicates multiple caustic pages to his father's demeanor and household.

7. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 3:1440.

8. Pushkin, Aleksandr, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii v 10 tomakh (Moscow, 1949), 5:159. Translation in A. S. Pushkin and James E. Falen, Eugene Onegin: A Novel in Verse (Oxford, 1995), 177.

9. Pyliaev, M. I., Zamechatel'nye chudaki i originaly (Moscow, 1990), 163.

10. I. V Kireevskii, Kritika i estetika (Moscow, 1979), 81 (emphasis in the original).

11. Ibid., 80. Kireevskii's journal Evropeets was closed after the publication of the second part of this article.

12. Note, too, that Kireevskii aligns epochs exclusively with European events and figures, in part because Russian epochal shifts were still largely defined by royal succession. A brilliant theorization of the shift in understanding epochs as constituted by the life of the monarch to those that possess an immanent character, see Koselleck, Reinhart, Futures Past: On the Semantics of Historical Time, trans. Tribe, Keith (Cambridge, Mass., 1985). Koselleck credits the early 1800s with the recognition of the historicity of society, culture, and knowledge and demonstrates that we experience time and history at different levels and at different rates of acceleration and deceleration, and that the most important shift in this experience occurred in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Koselleck's theory informs much of my discussion.

13. For an excellent philosophical reading of the implications of the phrase “spirit of the age” in early nineteenth-century England (the period Chandler calls “the age of the spirit of the age“), see Chandler, James K., England in 1819: The Politics of Literary Culture and the Case of Romantic Historicism (Chicago, 1998).

14. Pushkin, Aleksandr, “The Queen of Spades,” The Complete Works of Alexander Pushkin (Norfolk, Eng., 2001), 205-6. All English quotations from The Queen of Spades are taken from this edition.

15. Gershenzon, M. O., Mudrost’ Pushkina (Tomsk, 1997), 8586.

16. Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility, and Other Writings on Media, ed. Jennings, Michael W. et al. (Cambridge, Mass., 2008), 37. Benjamin theorizes: “On the one hand, film furthers insight into the necessities governing our lives by its use of close-ups, by its accentuation of hidden details in familiar objects, and by its exploration of commonplace milieux through the ingenious guidance of the camera; on the other hand, it manages to assure us of a vast and unsuspected field of action [Spielraum]. [ … ] With the close-up, space expands; with slow motion, movement is extended.” It seems far from accidental that Pushkin's novella pairs the techniques of close-up description of interior spaces with slow-motion yet economical reports of characters’ gestures and movements.

17. Delon, Michel, L'invention du Boudoir (Cadeilhan, 1999), 12. Delon offers the boudoir's Begriffsgeschichte: “The boudoir seems linked to intimacy, caprice, and mood swings. One has to wait until 1835 for the Academy to add two ideas: luxury and femininity.”

18. Gender difference is clearly central to the novella's plot as well as to its metatextual reading. Gary Kelly writes on the “masculinization” of Romantic literary practice and the appropriation of female writing by mainstream masculine discourse: “In the Romantic movement, men reacted with a complete remasculinization of writing that professed to reject but in fact subsumed the literature of Sensibility, appropriated ‘feminine’ themes, styles, and genres, combined them with conventionally ‘masculine’ discourses normally barred to women, such as philosophy, scholarship, satire and the erotic, and as a result restricted women even more to acceptably ‘feminine,’ subaltern, and subliterary discourses.” Kelly, Gary, “Feminine Romanticism, Masculine History, and the Founding of the Modern Liberal State,” Essays and Studies 51 (1998): 3. Although it would be hard to insist on The Queen of Spades as a text that has a significant Russian tradition of writing by women and for women to latch onto and revise, there are other intertextual lines that it no doubt agitates. One line connects the novella to the eighteenth-century memoir and the memoirs of Catherine II. Another reinvents the class and gender hierarchy of Samuel Richardson's favorite situation where a young underprivileged heroine hides from the harassments of her wealthy and forceful male employer in the physical and mental confines of her closet. Yet another alludes to the popular French sentimental novels written by such female authors as Sophie Cottin (1770-1807), Germaine de Stael (1766-1817) and Stephanie de Genlis (1746-1830), the kind of reading which, incidentally, Pushkin's Countess most likely expects to receive when she asks for a novel. For a cogent discussion of the feminizing and masculinizing trends in the French literature of the first half of the nineteenth century, see Cohen, Margaret, “ Flaubert lectrice: Flaubert Lady Reader,” Modern Language Notes 122 (2007): 746-58. What is partly at stake in the novella's alignment of femininity with the eighteenth-century past and masculinity with the nineteenth-century present is a gendering of history, but even more important is that Pushkin, unlike Turgenev as we shall see later, is not content to marginalize the Countess, but rather exposes her lasting power, “refeminizing,” to rephrase Kelly, the nineteenth-century social theater, if not literary practice. I would like to thank Diana Greene for this and other helpful bibliographical suggestions on gender in the Romantic period.

19. Pushkin famously criticizes the descriptive clutter in the works of his contemporary French writers (the very clutter that Gershenzon accuses Pushkin of creating): “the nearsighted pettiness of the contemporary French novelists” (blizorukaia melochnost’ nyneshnikh franisuzskikh romanistov). Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 7:324.

20. Stephen Lovell identifies the urbanization of Russian aristocracy as one of the sources of the shifting conceptions of old age and youth in early nineteenth-century Russia: “The late eighteenth century saw the beginnings of significant demographic shifts in the elite, as noble families flocked to the major cities. Now their households were not enclaves of patriarchal stability but part of a more dynamic social world that, at least to some extent, was thought of in generational terms. [ … ] Now ‘old age’ was embodied not by one's own father or grandfather but by the elderly men who congregated in Petersburg and Moscow salons [ … ] . Conversely, ‘youth’ gained a new socio-cultural profile by virtue of the fact that many of its representatives had shared institutional experiences.” Lovell, Stephen, “Biography, History, and Finitude: Understanding the Life Span in Early-Nineteenth-Century Russia,” Slavonic and East European Review 82, no. 2 (April 2004): 249, 253.

21. Catherine II's memoirs were the single most gripping first-person record of female life and power in the eighteenth century. The memoirs were not supposed to reach the general public, but Pushkin had copied and read them in Odessa. In her erudite and thorough preface to the new English translation of the Memoirs, Hilde Hoogenboom emphasizes Catherine's reluctance to publish them. Not only was Catherine understandably unwilling to expose her son Paul's questionable parentage, she also shared, according to Hoogenboom, the Enlightenment prejudice (clearly not shared by the likes of Rousseau) against exposing one's histoire particulière to contemporary judgment. Catherine II, Mark Cruse, and Hilde Hoogenboom, The Memoirs of Catherine the Great (New York, 2005), xlvii. Here we begin to see the parallels between Hermann the nineteenth-century adventurer and Pushkin the nineteenth-century historian. Both succeed in puncturing the feminine interiority of the Russian eighteenth century—Hermann by entering the boudoir and Pushkin by perusing the memoir—but are limited in their understanding and access.

22. Incidentally, among the many Russian courtiers painted by Vigée-LeBrun, we find portraits of several women of the Golitsyn family, relatives of Princess N. P. Golitsyna, the recognized prototype of the Countess. For more on Vigée-LeBrun's sojourn in Russia, see The Memoirs of Elisabeth Vigee-Le Brun, trans. Siân Evans (Bloomington, 1989); Use Bischoff, , “Madame Vigee Le Brun at the Court of Catherine the Great,” Russian Review 24, no. 1 (January 1965): 3045.

23. Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades,” 210.

24. Catherine II died at 67; the only other monarch in the dynasty who lived beyond the age of 60 was Alexander II (assassinated at 63). In the 34 years of her reign, Catherine had 21 official favorites.

25. Many scholars have commented on and attempted to decode the mystery in The Queen of Spades. My interpretation is meant to contribute to this discussion. For readings that foreground gambling, numerology, and mysticism, the dominant line of investigation for the novella, see Helfant, Ian M., The High Stakes of Identity: Gambling in the Life and Literature of Nineteenth-Century Russia (Evanston, 2001); Leighton, Lauren G., “Gematria in ‘The Queen of Spades': A Decembrist Puzzle,” Slavic and East European Journal 21, no. 4 (Winter 1977): 455-69; Leighton, Lauren G., “Numbers and Numerology in ‘The Queen of Spades,'” Canadian Slavonic Papers 19 (1977): 417-43; Lotman, Iu. M., “Tema kart i kartochnoi igry v russkoi literature nachala XIX veka,” Trudy po znakovym sistemam 7 (1975): 122-42; Weber, Harry, “Tikovaia Dama': A Case for Freemasonry in Russian Literature,” Slavic and East European Journal 12, no. 4 (Winter 1968): 435-47. In reacting to these detective readings, Caryl Emerson suggests that “in the story, he [Pushkin] parodies our search for system [ … ] In the seductive fragments of an explanation that are strewn around his story, we glimpse what might be the real logic of the tale: an allegory of interpretation itself.” Emerson, Caryl, “The Queen of Spades’ and the Open End,” in Bethea, David M., ed., Pushkin Today (Bloomington, 1993), 37.

26. Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades,” 219.

27. The Countess's Russian also abounds in colloquialisms, which the English translation unfortunately neutralizes: a

28. In this portrait, Pushkin elaborates what Monika Greenleaf has identified in reference to Catherine's Memoirs as “the connection ofvisuality and corporeality with the Old Regime's world of feminized and personal power.” Greenleaf, Monika, “Performing Autobiography: The Multiple Memoirs of Catherine the Great (1756-1796),” Russian Review 63, no. 3 (July 2004): 424.

29. Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades,” 205-6.

30. Quoted in Vera Proskurina, “Krylov i Ekaterina II: Stikhotvoreniie ‘Umiraiushchaia Koketka’ v kontekste russkogo libertinazha,” Novoe literaturnoe obozreniie 45 (2000): 114. Proskurina persuasively demonstrates that many of Krylov's and his circle's satires targeted Catherine II as an aged libertine.

31. Monika Greenleaf suggests quite a different purpose for separating the self from the costume in Catherine's Memoirs: “She [Catherine] treats what her body had been subjected to as a domain of appearances, beneath which her purity of will and honor have survived intact. This is the way male lives are told: their spirit or character rise enriched above the body's vicissitudes, while a woman's bodily fate tends to be strictly correlated with the state of her soul.” Greenleaf, “Performing Autobiography,” 413. If masculine virtus throbs underneath the female costume in Catherine's memoirs, Krylov and, in a much more complex fashion, Pushkin find there a disintegrating female body.

32. Wachtel, Andrew, “Rereading ‘The Queen of Spades,'” Pushkin Review 3 (2000): 16.

33. While Alexander I referenced his grandmother Catherine II in his iconography of power, Nicholas I explicitly reoriented it away from Catherine II toward the Petrine masculine model. See Wortman, Richard, Scenarios of Power: Myth and Ceremony in Russian Monarchy (Princeton, 1995).

34. Pushkin, “The Queen of Spades,” 212.

35. Ibid., 218. 36. Ibid., 225.

37. V V. Vinogradov, “O ‘Pikovoi Dame’ iz knigi ‘Stil’ Pushkina,'” O iazyke khudozhestvennoi prozy: Izbrannye trudy (Moscow, 1980), 256.

38. Pushkin, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 3:171-72. Translation is mine.

39. Catriona Kelly reads “K vel'mozhe” as Pushkin's autobiographical projection that reveals his anxieties about class and social standing: “Pushkin's celebration of eighteenthcentury elegance expresses an identification with a culture that he could never have been part of and yet lays claim to, and gives voice to a poignant desire for a world from which he has been separated in terms not only of time and space but also of social position.” Catriona Kelly, “Pushkin's Vicarious Grand Tour: A Neo-Sociological Interpretation of ‘K vel'mozhe’ (1830),” Slavonic and East European Review 77, no. 1 (January 1999): 4. V. E. Vatsuro's brilliant intertextual reading of the poem treads more carefully upon biographical criticism and, instead, places the poem in a broader context of polarized contemporary reevaluations of the eighteenth century, the role of the aristocracy and the system of cultural patronage. From this reading, “K Vel'mozhe” emerges as Pushkin's attempt to revalorize the past century in opposition to the lackluster commercialized 1830s, populated by the likes of Hermann. Vatsuro, V. E., “K Vel'mozhe,” in Pushkinskaia pora (St. Petersburg, 2000), 179216.

40. Nikolai Polevoi anticipated Herzen's critique but aimed his own more at Pushkin than at Iusupov, following the publication of Pushkin's “K vel'mozhe” with his damaging “Morning in the Study of an Eminent Noble,” where readers, including Pushkin, recognized the poet in the petty figure of an Italian abbé, a hanger-on to an aristocrat. Polevoi, Nikolai, “Utro v kabinete znatnogo barina,” Moskovskii telegraf, 1830, no. 3: 160-80.

41. Herzen, My Past and Thoughts 1:87. Catriona Kelly demonstrates that in working on his multiple drafts of “K vel'mozhe,” Pushkin increasingly deemphasized sensual luxuries, which Herzen foregrounds here, in favor of the intellectual pleasures. Kelly, “Pushkin's Vicarious Grand Tour,” 9-10. Vatsuro notes uiat even Pushkin's first readers in the 1830s were more prepared for a satirical treatment of an aging grandee, especially of Iusupov's notoriety, than for an idealizing episde. Vatsuro, “K Vel'mozhe,” 189.

42. Ritualizing the dressing and undressing of the Countess's moribund body, Pushkin activates the image of the mummy in his readers’ imagination. Just as Napoleon supplied the acknowledged model for Hermann's character and appearance, Napoleon's avaricious invasion of Egypt, a land guarded by pyramids and mummies, offers a parallel to Hermann's own transgression, and thereby the new science of paleontology provides a model for the new science of history.

43. The Bronze Horseman, another of Pushkin's studies of eighteenth-century Russian idols and their enduring symbolic command over the nineteenth-century individual, was written in 1833, the same year as The Queen of Spades. The two tales can be viewed as companion pieces within Pushkin's greater project of interpreting the eighteenth century, which includes such other paired works as The Moor of Peter the Great and The History of Peter the Great; The History of the Pugachev Uprising and The Captain's Daughter. On Pushkin's historical writing, see, for example, Blok, G. P., Pushkin v rabote nad istoricheskimi istochnikami (Moscow, 1949); Tomashevskii, B. V., “IstorizmPushkina,“in Pushkin (Moscow, 1961), 154-99; Evdokimova, Svetlana, Pushkin's Historical Imagination (New Haven, 1999); Dolinin, Alexander, “Historicism or Providentialism? Pushkin's History of Pugachev in the Context of French Romantic Historiography,” Slavic Review 58, no. 2 (Summer 1999): 291308 ; Dixon, Simon, “Pushkin and History,” in Kahn, Andrew, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Pushkin (Cambridge, Eng., 2006), 118-30. For a discussion of intergeneric dialogue in Pushkin's historical works, see Wachtel, Andrew, An Obsession with History: Russian Writers Confront the Past (Stanford, 1994).

44. Shklovskii, Viktor, “Iskusstvo kak Priem,” O teorii prozy (Moscow, 1983), 14.

45. All English translations of Turgenev's novels are taken from I. S. Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, trans. Constance Garnett (London, 1896; reprint, New York, 1970), 2:46-47.

46. As the narrator of Turgenev's novella Prizraki (Phantoms, 1864) flies over Germany with his ghostly companion, he has a dream: “And all at once I fancied that in the very centre of one of the avenues, between clipped walls of green, a cavalier came tripping along in red-heeled boots, a gold-braided coat, with lace ruffs at his wrists, a light steel rapier at his thigh, smilingly offering his arm to a lady in a powdered wig and a gay chintz…. Strange, pale faces… . I tried to look into them… . But already everything had vanished, and as before there was nothing but the babbling water.” Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 10:145. In this passage, N. N. Khalfina hears echoes of The Queen of Spades, as she argues for Turgenev's indebtedness to the Romantic notions of history in his construction of historically resonant landscapes. Khalfina, N. N., “Kul'turno-istoricheskii peizazh u I. S. Turgeneva,” in Nauchnye doklady vysshei shkoly (Moscow, 1987), 7476.

47. Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 5:168-69. References to the human “ruin” are interspersed throughout this section of Smoke. For example, “a repulsive old crone, with the odor of sanctity and evaporated sinfulness about her” (5:170); “the ancient ruin, who had long since ceased understanding anything—moreover she was completely deaf—only shook her head” (5:173); or “the ancient ruin with a mighty effort struck him with her fan on the arm; a flake of plaster was shaken off her forehead by this rash action” (5:178).

48. Ibid., 6:201-2.

49. Grigorii Bialyi advances a similar ideological interpretation of this episode in G. A. Bialyi, Turgenev i russkii realism (Moscow, 1962), 183-84.

50. Indeed, the mosaic or spectral quality of émigré life can be considered a topos in nineteenth-century Russian literature. With his characteristic poetic precision, Herzen also takes notice of it: “By the time Cannes and Grasse are reached, shades of time long past stray about, warming themselves in the sun; quietly huddled up, close to the sea, they wait for Charon and their turn.” Herzen, My Past and Thoughts, 3:1439.

51. Irving Howe praises this scene, while Frank O'Connor, among many other critics, believes it to be a flop, contrasting it unfavorably to an undeniably more subde portrayal of eighteenth-century character in Turgenev's 1881 story “Old Portraits,” which remains outside the selective frame of this article. Howe, Irving, “Turgenev: The Virtues of Hesitation,” Hudson Review, 8 no. 4 (1956): 549 , and O'Connor, Frank, The Mirror in the Roadway: A Study of the Modern Novel (Freeport, N.Y., 1970), 143.

52. Turgenev prefaces this remark with one that is telling in its trivialaation of the vignette's contribution to the novel: “Fomushka and Fimushka are an insert, which can be extracted without any damage to the whole… . This alone condemns them irrevocably.” Turgenev, Sobranie sochinenii v 12 tomakh (Moscow, 1953), 12:497-98. Translation is mine.

53. Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 6:201-2.

54. Howe, “Turgenev,” 549.

55. As the guests enter Fimushka and Fomushka's house, Paklin exclaims: ‘“We are stepping into the eighteenth century‘[ … ]And they were, in fact, confronted by the eighteenth century in the very hall, in the shape of low bluish screens covered with black cut-out silhouettes of powdered cavaliers and ladies. Silhouettes, introduced by Lavater, were much in vogue in Russia in the eighties of the last century.” Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 6:215. Here access to the eighteenth-century world is again imagined as trespassing, temporarily crossing the physical boundary from the dynamic exterior to the unchanging interior.

56. While similarly noting in this passage the presence of a narrative style unusual for Turgenev, Bialyi detects there a later Leskovian satirical tradition. Bialyi, Turgenev i russkii realism, 232.

57. Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 6:203-4.

58. Snuffboxes populate almost all of Gogol''s tales, from “How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich” through “The Overcoat” to Dead Souls, but perhaps the most poignant gesture is Kovalev's attempt to take snuff in the absence of his nose in the eponymous story. Not only does this gesture link snuff-taking to emasculation, it also points to the illusory qualities of snuff and snuffboxes, perhaps recalling the tricks of appearance and disappearance, of changing lids and their erotic or otherwise semiprivate messages that were an integral part of eighteenth-, and to a lesser extent, nineteenth-century snufftaking rituals. For a sample discussion of the snuffbox rituals in the period, see Tarabukin, N. M., Ocherkipo istorii kostiuma (Moscow, 1994), 105 ; and Goscilo, Helena, “Cosmetics—or Dying to Overcome Nature in an Age of Art and Artifice,” in Rosslyn, Wendy, ed., Women and Gender in Eighteenth-Century Russia (Burlington, Vt., 2003), 7980.

59. Turgenev, The Novels of Ivan Turgenev, 6:217-18.

Catherine's Retinue: Old Age, Fashion, and Historicism in the Nineteenth Century

  • Luba Golburt (a1)


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