Karen Rosneck has provided a very good and detailed introduction to the novel; I'm giving only an abbreviated outline of Khvoshchinskaia's life and work here.
Nadezhda Dmitrievna Khvoshchinskaia was born in Riazan' on May 20, 1824, and died in St Petersburg on June 8, 1889. (Her middle name is the patronymic, an obligatory part of a Russian name, in this case showing that her father's name was Dmitrii.) Besides the prose fiction for which she is best remembered today, she wrote poetry, literary and art criticism, and children's literature, and she was a translator.
Khvoshchinskaia was the eldest of four children; her sister Sofiia was a painter as well as a writer, and Praskov'ia published a few works under a pseudonym. Khvoshchinskaia most often used the pseudonym "V. Krestovskii," -- when another V. Krestovskii began publishing she added "psevdonim" to her signature, to distinguish her work from his. She lived almost her whole life in the provinces; her family was from the gentry, but became impoverished after her father lost his civil service position. Carla Solomon notes that her entry into society "was a resounding failure because she was too intellectual to attract suitors" (p. 262, article cited below). She wrote not only as intellectually and artistically satisfying work, but also to support herself and, after her father's death in 1856, her sisters and mother, and eventually her late brother's children as well. When she began to write, with publication of a poem in 1845, the Crimean War had not yet begun, and it would be 16 years before the serfs would be legally emancipated, in 1861. Khvoshchinskaia was often overworked in her struggle for financial security, and she suffered from health problems worsened by progressive scoliosis. After her mother's death in 1884 she moved to St. Petersburg, where she died in 1889.
Khvoshchinskaia's fiction concentrates on the provincial Russian milieu and is quite politically informed, (a result of the Russian autocracy's habit of exiling troublesome intellectuals to the provinces?). She is exquisitely sensitive to gender inequities in society and often depicts them in exaggerated terms: the 1858 story "Bratets" ['Dear brother'] shows a selfish brother consuming the family's financial resources for his elegant life in the capital city, St. Petersburg, while his sisters live in straightened circumstances and provincial boredom. His conduct is abetted both by the legal inheritance system of the time and by his mother's preference for him over her daughters.
The short novel Pansionerka (The School-Girl, or, as in this edition, the Boarding-School Girl, though the heroine herself does not board at the school but only attends during the day) was first published in 1861, a few years after Ivan Turgenev's Rudin (1856) and Gentry Nest (1859), both well-known explorations of the topic of the Superfluous Man (SM). The SM ("lishnii chelovek" literally means "superfluous person" but is always translated and embodied in literature as a male) is a favorite topos of Russian realism, drawing from heroes traced several decades before Khvoshchinskaia's work -- Nikolai Karamzin's Sentimentalist Erast ("Poor Liza"), Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, and Lermontov's Pechorin (Hero of Our Time). In an autocratic society, as the argument eventually developed, a thoughtful, well-educated and well-intentioned man could find no meaningful role in the government or improvement of his own society, and therefore was apt either to sink into mediocrity and idleness (like Goncharov's Oblomov) or else, and more likely, to do unwitting harm to those around him. These guys were all over the literary landscape, and both left-leaning pre-Revolutionary Russian literary critics and orthodox Soviet critics liked them, since their dilemmas showed the impossility of living right in an unjust society: society must be changed in order to free us to live like human beings! (This is not to say that many authors who liked the figure, such as Turgenev, did not treat it with considerable irony.)
The most frequent foil to the SM is what scholar Jehanne Gheith has dubbed "the necessary woman": perhaps because a true political test would have been unacceptable to the censorship, the SM must be proven indecisive and even harmful with a test of love. He meets a young woman -- of course she is younger than he is, and of course she is beautiful, intelligent or at least pure of heart and quick in understanding, and poised on the brink of marriage. Many of these female figures are among the most beloved fictional characters in Russian literature. The young woman inevitably falls in love with the SM, since he represents more intelligence and sophistication than she has yet experienced in her limited social setting, and she bravely declares herself ready to join him and work for the good cause and better world he has suggested to her. At this point, according to the master plot, the SM falters, cruelly introducing the young woman to the imperfection of reality in his person. (See my note on Heldt, below, if you want more.)
The primary male character in The Boarding-School Girl, Veretitsyn, is a Superfluous Man indeed: his undeniable talents have been removed from the milieu in which he could apply them for what appear to be absurdly trivial infractions; he is bored and miserable within the limited scope of provincial society, and his way of being in the world is cramped by enforced idleness and the falsehood he sees all around him, to the point of changing his behavior and even warping his personality. However, Khvoshchinskaia is more interested in the experience of the girl next door, Lolenka (in Russian it is spelled Lelenka, but pronounced roughly as Lyolinka), whose family is such a pungent example of provincial moral squalor that the impolite, self-centered and slightly deranged-seeming Veretitsyn must be madly attractive in contrast. The book's ending, which shows us both characters several years after they last met in "the city of N," contrasts strongly with the usual ending of such stories: Lelenka has changed her circumstances in a way the reader might never have expected, rather than going into a monastery (like Liza Kalitina in Turgenev's Gentry's Nest), or marrying someone she does not love -- or someone she does.
1. As Khvoshchinskaia is being rediscovered in Russia, and discovered for the first time by readers elsewhere, she is often compared to her better-knwon male peers. What do you expect as you begin to read, based on other 19th-century Russian writers you know, or on what you've heard about them? How much of your experience of the book is one of contrast?
2. The role of education is clearly central in this book, whose title identifies its heroine as someone who attends a "pansion" or boarding school (the term clearly taken from French). What kind of education does Lolenka receive there? In what kind of life would it turn out to be useful?
3. Rosneck quotes Khvoshchinskaia (over the pseudonym "V. Krestovsky") in her introduction: "The reader expects very simple, universal and conventional goals [from a literary work]: the truthful reproduction of reality and the stimulation of serious thought in society about that reality." Is that what we too expect as readers? -- as readers of a book like Khvoshchinskaia's? What kind of writing style would we expect in a "truthful reproduction of reality," and is that the style Khvoshchinskaia uses in this book?
4. With a family as over the top as Lolenka's, how much is the reader tempted to see the book as a grim portrayal of provincial mediocrity -- or else as satire?
5. The male mentor is a standard feature in Russian books from this time, even those that put less emphasis on women's access to education. (One frequent love object is the brother's tutor, who is often only slightly older than the herione concerned.) How do romance and teenage sexuality figure in Lolenka's intellectual awakening?
6. How can you explain Lolenka's "rebellion" during her examinations?
7. Many Russian readers, then and now, might see Lolenka's transformation in the end of the book as deeply problematic, and this seems to have been Khvoshchinskaia's intention. Our heroine has left her family, except for one aunt, and her life looks very lonely and self-centered. Women are supposed to be nurturing supporters of men and other relatives, in fact they're supposed to be like Sofya Khmelevskaya! It's one thing if they wind up living alone (or with female relatives) because no one wanted to marry them, but to choose this kind of life consciously!... As children of 20th-century North America, our backgrounds are likely to be much more individualistic, and we move far away from our natal families as a matter of course: how does this shape our reception of Lolenka's life and philosophy in the end of the book? What elements of the earlier story make her transformation (psychological, professional) believable, or not believable?
8. Karla Thomas Solomon summarizes the story of a young woman who sent an admiring letter to "V. Krestovsky," not aware that the name was a woman's pseudonym: "Khvoshchinskaia responded to the letter without revealing her true identity, and a lively correspondence ensued. Eventually Khvoshchinskaia realized that her young admirer was interested in pursuing a romantic relationship with the pseudonymous V. Krestovskii. Although the writer tried gently to dissuade her admirer from her amorous aspirations, Khvoshchinskaia was forced to reveal her identity when the young woman offered 'her heart, hand, a number of serfs and land with rich black soil.'" This might remind one of the folk song "The Female Drummer," or of a similar incident, taking place in person rather than by mail, in Nadezhda Durova's memoirs of her career as a cavalry officer in the Napoleonic Wars, The Cavalry Maiden, trans. Mary Zirin [Bloomington and Indianapolis: IUP, 1988]). This kind of misunderstanding was certainly not what Khvoshchinskaia intended, but it does complicate the question of her choice to pretend to be a man, while still writing about women's lives and place in society.
The only translation of this novel currently available in English is Karen Rosneck's, from Northwestern University Press (2000), ISBN 0-8101-1744-4. The Library of Congress catalogue number is PG3337 .K42 P3613 1999.
If you read Russian, one interesting recent publication is "Ia zhivu ot pochty do pochty..." Iz perepiski Nadezhdy Dmitrievny Khvoshchinskoi, ed. and intro. Arja Rosenholm and Hilde Hoogenboom, FrauenLiteraturGeschichte, No. 14 (Fichtenwalde: Verlag F. K. Goepfert, 2001), which includes 114 letters written by the author in 1848-1888.
Barbara Heldt's Terrible Perfection: Women in Russian Literature (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1987) examines both the "ideal" and therefore mainly symbolic role of female heroines in the classic works of nineteenth-century Russian realism and the ways Russian women writers, especially in poetry and autobiography, moved beyond those limited roles. Heldt in part builds on earlier work on Russian heroinesby Vera Dunham and Abram Tertz (pseud. of Andrei Sinyavsky); she concentrates on female writers' creation of a self rather than on the heroines and other female characters of women writers.
If you enjoyed this book, you might also like:
Sofya Kovalevskaya, Nihilist Girl (Nigilistka), translated by Natasha Kolchevska with Mary Zirin, introduction by Natasha Kolchevska (New York: The Modern Language Association of America, 2001).
Kovalevskaya (b. Korvin-Krukovskaya, 1850-1891) was a prominent mathematician and the first woman in Europe to receive a doctorate in mathematics (summa cum laude, at age 24, from the University of Gottingen) and to hold a tenured teaching position in mathematics (beginning in 1884, at the University of Stockholm). She had displayed a remarkable aptitude for mathematics from a very young age, but she began to write fiction and memoirs towards the end of her life. Nihilist Girl juxtaposes a female mathematician narrator with a slightly younger woman from a noble family who seeks, and evidently finds, a satisfactory way to contribute to Russia's revolutionary cause after disappointment in love.
Evgeniya Tur, Antonina, translated by Michael R. Katz, introduction by Jehanne Gheith (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1996) is a very different book. Tur was born nearly ten years earlier, and it shows: her novella (later one part of a multi-volume novel, The Niece [Plemiannitsa]) takes part in an earlier phase of the same discussion about women's potential life stories and Superfluous Men. The story is rather melodramatic, and my students have compared it to a Disney movie or to stories of female misfortune for younger readers such as The Little Princess.
* Thanks to Jehanne Gheith for providing the picture, taken by M. Pozhalostin, which has been published in several places; original is in the Riazan' Historical-Architectural Museum.
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