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)