Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 22, 2018

City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov #BookReview

Recommended to me by Guy from His Futile Preoccupations (thanks, Guy!), City Folk and Country Folk is a gentle but sophisticated satire from the pen of a 19th century novelist, somewhat in the manner of Jane Austen but without the resolution of the plot with marriage.

Set in the countryside, the story centres on the visits of the nobility to the estate of Nastasya Ivanova Chulkova.  Unlike her more sophisticated visitors who move in the best circles and feel entitled to express their disdain, Nastasya, a widow of mature years, is self-sufficient due to her capable management of her estate.  Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov is a pompous, pseudo-intellectual hypochondriac who has neglected his much bigger estate for so long that it is now uninhabitable.  So he ends up lodging in Nastasya’s bathhouse while he sorts out his newly legislated responsibilities to his emancipated serfs and indulges his fussy dietary preoccupations.  Nastasya isn’t able to offer the hospitality of her house because she already has a most disagreeable visitor, Anna Ilinishna Bobova.  Anna has fallen out with her patron Princess Paltseva and somehow has contrived to have nowhere else to go.  She is a patronising, sanctimonious woman of ostentatious piety whose condescension flummoxes Nastasya into servile humility.

The one character who sees all this with very clear eyes is 17-year-old Olenka.  Wilful, headstrong and intelligent, Olenka finds everything amusing until her temper flares.  She can’t bear to see her mother’s anxiety about pleasing these pretentious guests, and when not mocking them behind their backs, she tells her mother exactly what she thinks of them.

Ovcharov, of course, thinks she’s in love with him, but Olenka isn’t in love with anybody, and especially not Simon (Semyon Ivanovich) who is being foisted on her for dubious reasons by their interfering, overbearing neighbour Katerina Petrovna.  (Exactly what Katerina’s relationship with this oafish young man isn’t clear.  As is common in 19th century literature, the explanation is coy, but perhaps he was Katerina’s indiscretion and she is finding a match for him so she can keep him close by).

BEWARE: SPOILERS

Despite Nastasya’s forbearance, conflict erupts through one misunderstanding after another.  Anna takes to her room in a huff, alienating Nastasya’s servants from their mistress with false tales of rejection and unkindness – when actually Nastasya has gone out of her way to be generous and respectful.  Ovchorov is so thoughtless and indifferent to everyone’s feelings that he doesn’t even bother to explain to Nastasya when Olenka gets bullied into staying at Katerina’s and doesn’t come home that night.

All this gets resolved in the final chapter when Katerina comes to Nastasya to take Anna’s part, and also to settle the marriage arrangements.  But Nastasya has had enough.  She refuses to reconcile with the unbearable old woman who has caused so much rancour, and she rounds on Ovchorov too when he weighs in with his unwanted advice (which is predicated on his view that Nastasya is inferior and in need of his educative wisdom, and he hasn’t hesitated to tell her how deficient she is!)  And Olenka, who until now has withheld her anger for her mother’s sake, tells Katerina that no, she won’t marry Simon – and she forces Ovchorov to admit to his dislike of Simon too.

What makes this novel so innovative is the way it resolves without any happy marriage in the offing.  There is pride and prejudice but it is not resolved because the women have an independent view of themselves.  Olenka has few marriage prospects and she absolutely doesn’t care.  Her prudent, capable mother – the only one among these nobles who can effectively manage her estate and negotiate with her emancipated serfs – is a role model of an independent, industrious woman who knows what she likes and is respected everywhere.  If the alternative is the condescending attentions of a pompous middle-aged man like Ovchorov or an oaf like Simon, Olenka would rather not have anybody.

Which is apparently how the Khvoshchinskaya sisters felt.  In the excellent introduction by Hilde Hoogenboom, we learn that all three of them lived independently by their writing.  They were among a growing number of women among the Russian nobility who wrote under male pseudonyms.  However the 20th century brought oblivion when the Soviets nationalised the works of 57 writers, unsurprisingly all men, and the works of these women until recently lay buried in literary history, in research libraries and archives.  

If the wit and wisdom of this novel is anything to go by, let’s hope that more of these writers are resurrected with new translations as good as this one.  There are footnotes here and there to explain aspects of Russian life that might not be familiar to the contemporary readers, and the translation is excellent.  City Folk and Country Folk is a good choice for #WITmonth!

Author: Sofia Khvoshchinskaya
Title: City Folk and Country Folk (Городские и деревенские)
Translated from the Russian by Nora Seligman Favorov
Introduction by Hilde Hoogenboom
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2017, first published 1863
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $23.20


Responses

  1. Very glad you liked it. As you know, many books get tons of press while good ones fall by the wayside.

  2. It’s such a good book isn’t it? And what a wonderfully feisty heroine Olenka is! 😁

  3. Glad you and Guy have discovered the Independent Woman in Russian Lit, there’s probably a thesis in there. Given that the second half of the C19th was full of agitation for democracy and women’s rights, I wonder how much other writing like this was hidden.

    • AH well, it wasn’t me who discovered her, it was Guy, and the credit also goes to Columbia University Press who have an imprint called The Russian Library. There may be more books to come because in the Intro it says that the Russian literary market expanded in this period as the population became more literate… in 1830 there were about 260 productive writers, 300 by 1855 and 700 by 1880, and the proportion of women writers rose disproportionately from 3.5% in 1830, to 10.4% in 1855 and 16.1% in 1880. But something to keep in mind is that these writers were all from the nobility though again as the Intro explains, the Russian nobility wasn’t as stable and aristocratic as elsewhere in Europe. (A bit like knighthoods in Britain these days).

  4. INTERESTING LISA, CHINA

  5. I’ve only skimmed, because I have a copy and I have yet to read it, but I am so pleased to see such positivite words in your first and last paragraphs.

    • Hi Jane, I hope you like it too, I was delighted by it:)


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