Monthly Archives: December 2013

Pushkin’s Ambiguous Relationships (Part 5)

Leaving on one side the implications for d’Anthes’ relationship with Hekkeren that his use of the second person singular must involve, not to mention the fact that a worldly man aged twenty-three does not normally feel the need to write to his father about his feelings for a married woman at all, let alone at such length and in such terms, these two letters prove that, at any rate at the date on which the first letter was written, d’Anthds’ ‘new passion’ had swept him off his feet. The way in which he describes his loved one and her ‘revoltingly jealous’ husband, however guarded, leaves the present-day reader, as it must have been intended to leave Hekkeren, in no doubt which was the married couple in question. In particular, the combination of the words ‘the most delicious creature in St.’ Petersburg’ and ‘the husband is a man of revolting jealousy’ point unmistakably to Natalya Pushkina and her husband. What cannot automatically be accepted at its face value is d’Anthes’ conviction, expressed in both his letters, that Natalya returned his love in equal measure. Not that d’Anthds deceived Hekkeren about Natalya’s feelings, but the possibility cannot be excluded that, like many another man in a similar position, d’Anth6s deceived himself.

The second letter, in which d’Anthes reports that during the ‘explanation’ between himself and Natalya, she refused ‘to violate her duties for a man whom she loves’, raises a further problem. By mid-February Natalya was six months pregnant. She gave birth to her fourth child, a daughter, on 19 May and she did not go out again in society until the very end of July 1836. Clearly much depends on the significance attached to the epithet ‘new’ which d’Anthds adds to the word ‘passion’ at the end of his first letter. At first sight, this does not square with Pushkin’s use of the phrase ‘two years’ perseverance’. It has been argued that, on the contrary, whereas Natalya may well have continued to harbour the same feelings for d’Anth?s at the end of 1836 as she did at the beginning, d’Anthes’ love for Natalya was something of a flash in the pan; and that by the fatal autumn of 1836, it was in reality all over, so far as he was concerned, however much he continued to flirt with her in public.

It is easy to make the word ‘new’ bear too much weight; d’Anthes’ use of it is susceptible to more than one explanation. Moreover, there is no evidence of the effect that d’Anthds’ letters had on Hekkeren in January and February, nor of what passed between them after Hekkeren’s return to St. Petersburg in May 1836, following a long absence abroad. For example, did Hekkeren regard Natalya as a rival in his affection for d’Anthes? Was he perhaps, in his own way, as jealous a man as Pushkin undoubtedly was ? We simply do not know. Russian Pushkinists take it as read that Pushkin could not fail to see ‘what was thrown in the eyes of everyone’31 at the beginning of 1836. They may well be right, but there is no hard evidence of the extent to which he was aware of the extreme point then reached by d’Anthes’ infatuation with Natalya; nor of what exactly Pushkin believed about the nature of her feelings for d’Anthds at that time. Husband and wife certainly had a frank exchange nine months later, but in quite different circumstances that were deeply humiliating for both of them.

Confronted with this mishmash of conflicting evidence, a British biographer of Pushkin might hope to find some enlightenment from the pen of a shrewd English observer of the St. Petersburg scene at the time: John Lambton, first Earl of Durham, who served as ambassador there from 1835 to 1837. A man of wider vision than most of his British political contemporaries on questions both of domestic and of external policy, Durham was no ordinary ambassador; the value of his judgement on Russian society and the Russian government of the time has since been recognized in Russia.32 ‘Radical Jack’ was the leader of the left wing of the Whig Party; and part of the reason for his appointment to St. Petersburg was that when Lord Melbourne (an easy-going, right-wing Whig) was invited by the king to form a government in June 1834 – remarking, before he agreed to do so, ‘I think it’s a damned bore’33 – decided to exclude from his cabinet the two leading radical members of the previous Whig administration, one of whom was Durham.34

Apart from his intelligence, Durham had other qualifications for this important post. He was immensely rich; it was said of him that he spent nearly a million pounds on doing up his house in Britain. On an earlier visit to St. Petersburg he had got on well with Nicholas I; as Princess Lieven, for twenty years the Russian ambassadress in London, put it, ‘we drowned him in courtesies’.35 Pushkin must have known Durham, as he did other members of the diplomatic corps in St. Petersburg.36 And the similarities between the characters of the two men are striking. Many adjectives – impatient, hot-tempered, hypersensitive to criticism, vain and prone to take offence at fancied slights, but also generous and never vindictive – could equally well be applied either to Durham or to Pushkin. Some empathy between the two men might perhaps have been expected. Moreover, the British Embassy’s report on Pushkin’s death was signed by a man who had himself grown up in the fast Regency set – Durham’s first marriage had been at Gretna Green – and it was addressed to a foreign secretary, Palmerston, known in the British press as ‘Lord Cupid’, who was no stranger either to love affairs or to the ins and outs of Russian society. Although he never went to Russia – indeed he never travelled further than Berlin – he was at one time rumoured to have been Princess Lieven’s lover.

In the light of this, there is disappointingly little to be gleaned from Durham’s despatch of 3 May 1837. A routine document, probably drafted by a junior member of the Embassy staff, it consists of little more than a covering document to its principal enclosure, the French version of the ukase which published the findings of the governmental enquiry held in St. Petersburg after Pushkin’s death. In fairness to Durham (with one important exception), his diplomatic colleagues’ reports to their governments did little better;37 and his despatch does at least leave little doubt that he did not have a high opinion of Hekkeren.

Today, the historian has more material to base his conclusions on than observers in St. Petersburg did in 1837, whether they were Russians or foreigners. In spite of the documents that have gradually come to light since then, however, the evidence remains contradictory and partial; and the lacunae are still large. Yet Pushkin’s biographer cannot afford to overlook these complex and ambiguous relationships, because it is only against the background that he can seek to explain the turgid drama that unfolded in St. Petersburg during 1836 and the first month of 1837.

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Ambiguous Relationships (Part 4)

The third question, about Natalya and d’Anthes, is the one that is critical to any assessment of the circumstances of Pushkin’s death. Was she, as Pushkin publicly maintained, as pure as driven snow? Did she, as d’Anthes claimed privately, return his love? Or was the Russian poetess Marina Tsvetaeva right when she wrote over half a century ago:

Just as Helen of Troy was the occasion, but not the cause, of the Trojan war (which itself was nothing else but the occasion of the death of Achilles), so also Goncharova was not the cause, but the occasion, of the death of Pushkin, predestined from the cradle. Destiny chose the simplest, the most futile, the most guiltless weapon: a beautiful woman . . ,

Once again there can be no simple answer to this question. But no attempt to answer it can afford to overlook two letters from d’Anthes to Hekkeren. These were published only in 1946, after they had been discovered among the d’Anthes family papers at Soultz.26 (Even the Goncharovian revisionists have felt obliged to devote several pages to these letters, whose authenticity they have made a lonely and unconvincing attempt to demolish.27) The flavour of these crucially important letters is as significant as their content. In attempting to form a judgement, it is important to bear in mind the effect of his use of the French second person singular, which cannot be rendered in English at all.

St. Petersburg, 20th January 1836

Mon tres cher ami

I am truly guilty of not having replied straight away to the two good and amusing letters that you have written to me, but, you see, the night spent dancing, the morning at riding school and the afternoon asleep, this has been my existence for the past fortnight, and I have just as much of this ahead of me, and what is worse than all this, is the fact that I am madly in love! Yes, madly, because I do not know where to turn my head, I shall not give you her name, because a letter can get lost, but recall to yourself the most delicious creature in St. Petersburg and you will know her name. And what is most horrible in my position is the fact that she also loves me and that we cannot see each other, something that has been impossible so far, for the husband is a man of revolting jealousy: I confide all this in you, mon bien cher, as to my best friend, and because I know that you will take part in my grief, but, in God’s name not a word to anybody nor any information to find out to whom I am paying court, you would destroy her without wishing it and I myself would be inconsolable. For, you see, I would do everything in the world for her, only in order to please her, for the life that I have led for some time is a torture at every moment. To love one another and not to be able to say so to each other except between two ritomellos of a counterdance is an awful thing: I am perhaps wrong in confiding all this to you and you will treat it as nonsense, but I have a heart so heavy and so full that I need to pour it out a little. I am certain that you will excuse me this folly, I agree that it is a folly, but it is impossible for me to use my reason, although I need to do so badly, because this love is poisoning my existence: but rest assured, I am being prudent and I have been so much up to the present moment, that the secret belongs only to her and to me (she bears the same name as the lady who was writing to you about me and who was in despair [for] the plague and the famine had ruined her villages); you must understand now that it is possible to lose one’s reason for such a creature, above all when she loves you! I repeat to you again, not a single word to Broge [or Brage?] because he is in correspondence with Petersburg and it would be enough for him to give some indication on his part to his wife to destroy both of us! For God alone knows what might happen: so, my very dear friend, the four months that you and I still have to spend far from each other will appear to me centuries, because in my position one has an absolute need of someone whom one loves in order to be able to open one’s heart and to ask for courage. This is the reason why I do not look well, because that apart I have never been in better health physically than I am at the moment, but my head is so excited that I no longer have a moment of rest either by night or by day, it is this that gives me an appearance of illness and sadness and not my health .. . Goodbye, mon cher, be indulgent towards my new passion, for I love you too from the bottom of my heart.

In the three and a half weeks that passed between d’Anthes’ two

letters a significant change appears to have taken place.

St. Petersburg, 14th February 1836 Mon cher ami, here the carnival is over and with that a part of my torments : really I believe that I am a bit calmer now that I do not see her every day and then, everyone cannot any longer come and take her hand, her waist and dance and converse with her as I do myself; and that is even better than it is for me, because their conscience is clearer than mine. It is stupid to say this, but it is something that I would never have believed, namely that it is from jealousy that I found myself in a continual state of irritation which made me sound happy. And then, we have had an explanation, the last time that I saw her, which was terrible, but which did me good. This woman, of whom most people suppose that she has little intelligence, I do not know whether it is love that has given it to her, but it is impossible to show more tact, more grace or more intelligence than she did in this conversation, and it was difficult to conduct, for it was a question of nothing less than refusing to violate her duties for a man whom she loves and who adores her; she described her position to me with so much renunciation and asked my understanding with so much naivete that I was really defeated, and I could not find a word to say in reply to her. If you knew how she consoled me, for she saw clearly that I was choking and that my position was awful and when she said to me : I love you as I have never loved, but do not ask me for more than my heart, for all the rest does not belong to me and I cannot be happy except by respecting all my duties, have pity on me and love me always as you do now, my love will be your only reward; but, you see, I believe that I would have fallen at her feet in order to kiss them if I had been alone and I assure you that since that day my love for her has increased still more, but it is not the same thing now : I venerate her, I respect her, as one respects and venerates a being to whom all your existence is attached. But forgive me, my very dear friend, I am beginning my letter by talking of her : but she and I constitute only one person, for to talk about her is also to talk to you about myself, and in all your letters you reproach me for not expatiating enough about myself. I, as I was saying, am better, much better and am beginning to breathe, thank God, because my torture was intolerable : to be merry, laughing in front of the world, in front of the people who used to see me every day, while I had death in my heart, that is an awful position which I would not wish upon my most cruel enemy . . .

(Robin Edmonds)

Pushkin’s Ambiguous Relationships (Part 3)

It is possible that d’Anthds first met the Pushkins soon after the entry in Pushkin’s diary, although the date of Natalya’s miscarriage (March 1834), after which she spent over five months in the country, fixes a terminus ante quern. A more probable dating is sometime in the autumn of 1834, by which time d’Anthes was a member of la bande joyeuse and Natalya had brought both her sisters, Alexandra and Ekaterina, to live with her in St. Petersburg. The consequences of Natalya’s insistence on importing her sisters to St. Petersburg, against her husband’s wishes, were much as Pushkin had feared, although he turned out to be wrong in his forecast that neither of them would receive a court appointment, because the elder of the two, Ekaterina, became a maid of honour at the age of twenty-five, two months after arriving in the capital. The gushing letters written home by these two provincial ladies in October-November 1834 report a swift plunge into the social round, equipped with ball gowns paid for by their rich aunt, Ekaterina Zagryazhkaya. Well before the end of year holiday season had begun an attack of fever (presumably influenza) cost Alexandra – the middle sister, one year younger than Natalya – ‘only one ball and two spectacles’. By early December Ekaterina was waxing enthusiastic about the number of balls she had attended. And by the end of 1835 both of them were never at home for a single evening, thanks to ‘Tasha and her husband’.

Even before the age of the telephone, the amount of noise that all this must have added to a flat which already housed four children and numerous servants, must have been considerable. By day Pushkin, who always ate his main meal late, was able to escape to the privacy of his study, where he would remain well into the afternoon, after which he always went for a walk, whatever the weather. But in the evening there were some invitations which obliged him to accompany all three sisters. Although the jokes to which the sight in public of such an unusual ‘harem’ gave rise were bad enough, the financial implications were worse. Alexandra (Azya in the family) and Ekaterina (Koko) both had annual allowances of 4500 roubles paid to them from the Goncharov estate, but Pushkin’s bills soared, not only because he was obliged to rent a much larger flat – from the Vyazemskys – but also because of what he described in a bitter sentence in a letter written to his wife as ‘l’interet de Monsieur Durier et Madame Sichler’.16 (These were the names of two leading St. Petersburg couturiers.) Natalya herself was obliged to admit in a letter written to her brother: ‘We are in such an impoverished condition that there are days when I do not know how to run the house, my head goes round and round in circles.’

It is a moot point at what stage and to what extent financial and domestic confusion in Pushkin’s household was worse confounded by the sexual behaviour of its members, perhaps including Pushkin himself. Three interrelated questions are involved. The simplest way to address them is separately : the first question concerning d’Anthes, the second Pushkin himself and the third d’Anthes and Natalya jointly. Taking these questions in that order – the fact that d’Anthes flirted with Ekaterina as well as with Natalya is well attested. In the St. Petersburg society of the mid-1830s there is nothing surprising about this. D’Anthes had the good looks, the ready wit and – as a foreigner – the lack of inhibitions which guaranteed him success in this field. However, given the dramatic turn of later events which culminated first in d’Anthes marrying Ekaterina and then in his fighting a duel with Pushkin in January 1837, this first question cannot be left hanging in the air so far as Ekaterina is concerned. Tall, short-sighted and three years older than d’Anthes, she was not only flattered by his attentions, but fell in love with him. The letter that she wrote to her brother on 9 November 1836 – that is to say, five days after Pushkin had issued his first challenge to d’Anthes – includes the sentence: ‘Happiness for all my family and death for myself -that is what I need and that is what I continually pray for to the Almighty .. ,’

What long remained a matter of controversy is whether Ekaterina’s first child by d’Anthes was conceived as early as mid-1836. In order to reach the opposite conclusion, namely that she was not already several months pregnant at the time of her marriage to d’Anthes, it is necessary to suppose that a letter written to her by her mother, bearing the date 15 May 1837 (first published by Shchegolev) was in reality written one year later, on 15 May 1838. This letter includes the following sentence: ‘In your last letter you speak about your journey to Paris; to whom will you entrust the looking after of your little girl during the time of your absence? Will she remain in safe hands? Your separation from her must be distressing for you.’ To accept the supposition of a twelve-months’ error in the dating of this letter requires a considerable effort, but recent research in the Goncharov family archives indicates that Natalya Ivanovna’s letter was indeed written in 1838, in which case the official date of the birth of the d’Anthes’ first child – October 1837 – may be accepted.19

Of the first two questions, the more important is whether Pushkin slept with Alexandra, in addition to flirting with her at parties, which he certainly did. Predictably, Arapova was the principal prosecutor and Akhmatova a passionate advocate in Pushkin’s defence. If it could be proved, which it cannot, Arapova’s story about a ring belonging to Alexandra which Pushkin’s servants were obliged to search for high and low, and which was eventually discovered in Pushkin’s bed, might be regarded as a clear pointer.20 This story was related seventy-one years afterwards, by a heavily biased narrator, but there were those who were close to Pushkin at the time, such as Zhukovsky, who might not have found it impossible to believe -witness, for example, the entry in Zhukovsky’s notes, where he recorded in November 1836: ‘What I said [to Pushkin] about his relationships (otnosheniya)’ and ‘Les revelations d’Alexandrine’.21 (Soviet readers sometimes had to be reminded by editors of such documents that otnosheniya was the term used for sexual relationships as well as for relationships in general.) As against this, it seems well established that, to the end of her days, Alexandra kept a portrait of d’Anthes hanging in her dining room, where it remained until 1940.22 The case remains open. What is certain is that Alexandra was unattractive (she had a pronounced squint); she married sixteen years later, when she was over forty. She was genuinely devoted to Pushkin and, according to earlier accounts, she alone of the three sisters played the role of Martha in his household, which Natalya neglected. These accounts have since been challenged ; and it is now accepted that, at any rate towards the end of Pushkin’s life, his wife played her full part at home. In all probability, however, Alexandra was the only member of his family to whom Pushkin revealed the fact that he had written the fatal letter that finally led to his duel with d’Anthes.

There remains Arapova’s statement, made at the beginning of our own century, that Pushkin frequented brothels after his marriage. Pushkin’s views about grisettes are a matter of record and they have already been quoted in this book. But if he did visit them in 1836-7 he would have been running a considerable risk at the hands of his ‘empress’, as he now referred to Natalya.23 For almost all the time from the end of 1835 onwards he and Natalya were together in St. Petersburg. Arapova’s allegation remains pure speculation.

(Robin Edmonds)