Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 27, 2021

A Double Life (1848), by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt

Another contribution to #WITmonth.

Karolina Karlovna Pavlova (1807–1893) was a Russian poet, translator and novelist.  I discovered A Double Life (1848) because I was peeved that George Saunders in his book derived from a short story course that he teaches, features Russian short stories as exemplars but does not include even one story written by a woman. I felt sure that the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press would offer fiction by a Russian woman writer, and I was right. I ordered A Double Life there and then.  At only just over 100 pages, it turns out to be more of a short story than a novella, and would IMHO be an ideal inclusion in the Saunders’ course.

Wikipedia tells me that there is also a short story called At the Tea-Table (1859), in An Anthology of Russian Women’s Writing, 177-1992, Oxford, 1994, should Saunders care to rise to the challenge.)

This edition includes a lengthy Introduction by Barbara Heldt, and an Afterword by Daniel Green.  Much is made of the gender barriers that Pavlova faced, and indeed she seems to have had a difficult time and in the end did the smart thing and abandoned her critics in Russia to go and live in Germany in 1858.  A Double Life, however, was written when she was still in Imperial Russia, and is a witty critique of aristocratic life.

The story features Cécile, her BFF Olga, the machinations of their mothers to have them marry well, and the actions of men which doom them to a dreary fate.

Written in 10 chapters which follow the narrow confines of Cécile’s life, each concludes with verses of poetry which represent her dreams of freedom and fulfilment.  In other words, it is the structure of the novel itself that portrays the double life of a woman who wants more from life than the one imposed on her and all women in aristocratic Russia.

Vera Vladimirovna was, as we have seen, very proud of her daughter’s successful upbringing, especially perhaps because it had been accomplished not with difficulty, but because it took time and skill to destroy in her soul its innate thirst for delight and enthusiasm.  Be that as it may, Cecily, prepared for high society, having memorised all its requirements and statues, could never commit the slightest peccadillo, the most barely noticeable fault against them, could never forget herself for a moment, raise her voice half a tone, jump from a chair, enjoy a conversation with a man to the point where she might talk with him ten minutes longer than was proper or look to the right when she was supposed to look to the left. Now, at eighteen, she was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarment that she took off only at night.  She had talents, of course, but measured ones, decorous ones, les talents de société, as the language of society so aptly calls them.  She sang very nicely and sketched very nicely as well.  Poetry, as we have said earlier, was known to her mostly by hearsay, as something wild and incompatible with a respectable life.  She knew that there were even women poets, but this was always presented to her as the most pitiable, abnormal condition, as a disastrous and dangerous illness. (p.29)

Cécile breaks out from the constraints upon her on just one occasion.  On a ride towards the Ostankino gardens, she takes the reins and breaks into a gallop.  Her mother, watching keenly from a carriage with Madame Valitskaia, reacts differently to Prince Victor’s ‘rescue’ of Cécile from this wild ride. Both mothers fancy the prince as an eligible suitor; and there are machinations to manipulate both him and Dmitry Ivachinsky (a gambler who needs to marry well) to achieve their opposing ends.

Neither Olga nor Cécile have a realistic idea of the importance of money to their lifestyle.  With Austenesque wit, Cécile romanticises it:

She dreamed of how sweet it would be to live in poverty; to wear the simplest of dresses, sewn by Madame André, whose style would be worth twice as much as the material itself; to furnish small rooms with skill and elegance; to ride in a light, beautiful carriage, harnessed with only a pair of fine greys; even sometimes in good weather to walk with her husband in a smart cloak or in a velvet coat lined with ermine. (p.93)

Pavlova’s satirical pen takes aim even at the constrained domestic architecture of society:

Several days had passed since Vera Vladimirovna had moved into one of those nice pseudo-Gothic-Chinese buildings scattered around Petrovsky Park.  Here too, everything corresponded to the demands and conditions of society.  Surrounding the luxurious cottage was a luxurious garden, its greenery always an excellent, a choice, or one might say an aristocratic greenery.  Nowhere was there a faded leaf, a dry twig, a superfluous blade of grass; banished was everything in God’s creation that was coarse, vulgar, plebeian.  The very shrubbery around the house flaunted a kind of Parisian haughtiness—the very flowers planted in every available space took on a certain semblance of good form; nature made herself unnatural.  In a word, everything was as it should be.  (p.35)

This is a fine example of 19th century women’s writing, taking aim at the excesses of her society.

The translation is very good indeed.

Author: Karolina Pavlova
Title: A Double Life (Двойная жизнь)
Translated from the Russian by Barbara Heldt
Cover design by Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich
Publisher: Columbia University Press, 2019, first published 1848
ISBN: 9780231190794, pbk., 137 pages including the Introduction and Afterword
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond


  1. Oh thank you Lisa! Just checked and found that book on Kindle and got it pronto. I’ve read so many and much of Russian male authors that until Anna Akhmatova came along I doubt I could name the other woman authors. Of course I know there were many but they all get drowned out by the big boys.


    • You’re welcome, Becky… if you want to find more, check the catalogue at The Russian Library at Columbia University Press. This is, I think, the only novel (though I don’t think it’s long enough or has enough character development to be a novel) but I’m pretty sure there are other women writers there.


  2. Sounds great Lisa! I’ve read a good number of the CUP Russian Library imprint but not this one, though I agree they really are doing a grand job bringing those missing women writers – there are some from that era, but just not translated I think.


    • I’ve only read one other from this imprint — City Folk and Country Folk, by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, translated by Nora Seligman Favorov, which is also C19th, but 20 years later than this, in the 1860s. I’ve been reading The Russians since forever but always The Great Men, so it’s been really interesting to make these discoveries.
      (Though I don’t know if this what CUP does, and certainly not to imply that the translation is amateurish), it seems like a marriage made in heaven to have a university language-learning faculty integrated with a publication arm so that wannabe translators have a destination to work towards. T

      Liked by 1 person

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