A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

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Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press

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