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)