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)