Many bloggers are participating in “Women in Translation Month, “an annual reading event in August established three years ago by translator-blogger Meytal Radzinski.
I must confess, much of my reading in translation consists of rereading 19th-century French and Russian classics by men. But I recently read Colette’s The Pure and the Impure, an uneven collection of essays about gender and sexuality. (I wasn’t keen on it.)
In honor of WIT, I also made a special point of reading a few women writers I’d never heard of. I especially loved Antonina, a novella by the Russian writer Evgeniya Tur (1851-1892), translated by Michael R. Katz.
Tur was a fan of the Brontes and Turgenev: Antonina is partly a retelling of Jane Eyre, partly a feminist riff on Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man and An Unfortunate Woman. Published in 1851, Tur’s brilliant novella is part of The Niece, a four-part novel (which I have not been able to find. Does anyone know if it has been translated?)
The prose is plain and unembellished, though whether that is the Russian or the translation, who knows? but I loved it and found the story utterly absorbing. Antonina recounts the tale of her life, beginning with her miserable childhood, which is followed by a brief blossoming and independence, and then a complicated marriage. As a child, she is very like Jane Eyre, though her persecutor is her stepmother, not her aunt. To make the novel more poignant, her papa and stepmother, unlike Jane Eyre’s relatives, work as a tutor and governess. After her rich German immigrant father, a widower, loses all his money, they move into the Venin household. His second wife, Madame Stein, resentful of her fall from wealth to governess, is a monster to Antonina. When Antonina stands up to the taunting and ridicule of the Velin children (think John Reed, only the chief tormentor is a girl, Katya), her stepmother locks her in the closet or feeds her on bread and water. Her father tries to intervene, but he is weak.
Eventually Antonina’s father leaves her with Madame Stein: only when he is dying does he write and ask them to join him in Moscow Then Madame Stein returns to the Velins and marries Milkot, a tutor with whom she has long conducted a flirtation. She informs Antonina he is her new stepfather.
God help Antonina! He is a sadist: if she fails to learn fast enough, he beats her.
“Have you learned it all?”
If I hadn’t managed to do so, he sometimes gave me a reprieve of half an hour, which, however, was totally useless, because I couldn’t learn anything when I felt so tormented by fear and anxiety…. At the first mistake he would look at me with his terrible, cold eyes that caused me so much trepidation, my thoughts became muddled, my memory refused to serve me, and very often I would make another mistake.
“Be careful!” he would warn me.
And if she failed, he would call her stepmother and say, “We’ve earned a reward today!” (i.e, a punishment.)
Like Jane Eyre, Antonina stands up to her oppressors: she gets away. She becomes a governess–anything is better than the stepparents–and is much loved by the family, who take her on visits to friends and even to balls. She and a rich young man, Michel, fall in love, though their relationship is not consummated. But gossip is spread, she becomes an outcast, and nighmarishly is dragged back to live with her stepparents. This isn’t the end of her unhappy life, but she becomes numb. After losing Michel, she loses her sexual desire.
In the introduction to the European Classics edition (Northwestern University Press), Jehanne Gheith tells us Antonina was highly praised by critics. Turgenev said, “These pages…will remain in Russian literature,” but the novella has not been republished in Russian since 1851 (as of 1996, when this edition was published in the U.S.). It is very difficult to find her books. The name Evgeniya Tor is transliterated as Eugene Toor at the Internet Archives, where you can download a free nineteenth-century translation of her novel, The Shalonski Family: A Tale of the French Invasion of Russia. (I have not read this.)
Gheith also writes that most Russian women’s prose works of the nineteenth century have “shared the fate of Antonina….It is difficult even to find works by Russian women–in Russian or in English.”
It was very lucky that I found this stunning book! The only other novel by a Russian woman I can think of is The Slynx. If you know any other Russian women’s novels, please tell me.