The Boarding-School Girl, tr. Karen Rosneck (2000. Original: Пансионерка, 1861), very much like your sister’s novel City Folk and Country Folk, tr. Nora Seligman Favorov (2017. Original: Городские и деревенские, 1863) is as layered as a Russian doll: inside the social satire and comedy of manners, we can glimpse a coming of age story; further inside, if we keep taking out doll after doll, we then find a subtle discussion of two of the most pressing topics of your day (women’s education and political repression), carefully rendered in allegories.
The novel centres around the sentimental education of the 15-year-old Lolenka, the eldest child of a large family, in the provincial city of N.. A studious girl and dutiful daughter, Lolenka is about to take important exams at the boarding-school she attends as a day-student. One day, as she is reciting her lessons in the garden, our protagonist meets her neighbour, Veretitsyn, who starts to talk to her across the fence.
Veretitsyn is a disillusioned, exiled poet in his late twenties who had been forced by the authorities to move to this provincial town and to take on a menial job as a copyist, because of his political opinions. Bored with the limited scope of his life in N., and deeply disappointed with the hypocrisy of the people around him, Veretitsyn plunged into self-pity and idleness, wasting his life away. To make matters worse, he is in love with Sofya Khmelevskaya, a woman in search of a more suitable husband than Veretitsyn could ever dream to be.
When Veretitsyn spots Lolenka in the garden, he is feeling particularly bitter and bored, and her diligence irritates him. Intent on making her feel miserable, and looking for an easy outlet for his spleen, Veretitsyn addresses the girl with a sharp, cynical speech about the meaningless of her schoolwork. He points out to her that true knowledge did not consist in mechanically memorizing information or getting good grades and approval, but in critically evaluating what she reads and, eventually, challenging established authority.
Veretitsyn’s speech in the garden has far more influence over our protagonist than he had anticipated. She realizes not only that the kind of education she receives is limiting and meaningless, but also that it would lead her to a boring, confined life of subservience to abuse and hypocrisy. Rather than liberating or empowering her, this kind of education would only trap her further more in a role she wasn’t sure she was willing to play. Rebellious for the first time in her life, Lolenka starts to question the way her parents live. She intentionally fails her exams and refuses to marry the suitor her father had chosen for her.
The novel subtly touches upon gender and class inequalities in 19th-century Russia, as well as on women’s education and women’s new roles in society. The book also gives us a glimpse into Russian censorship and political repression. Taking the narrative into a more allegorical level, we could trace back a complex intersection between repression (in the person of Veretitsyn, the exiled poet) and the search for independence (in the person of Lolenka, the ‘new woman’): in an unassuming way, you illustrate how one cannot help but unwittingly pour into the other; moreover, Veretitsyn’s threat to established authority ends up by fuelling Lolenka’s own rebellion against all forms of authority – including the authority of men over women, and that of mentor over pupil.
The highlight of the book, for me, was the fact the all the characters are flawed, contradictory, and not particularly likeable. I enjoyed the way you played with the trope of the outcast, the socially superfluous man who meets a younger woman, intelligent and pure of heart, and fails to be up to her. Veretitsyn fits the trope perfectly: banned from the city, he sinks into idleness and, in turn, starts to unwittingly harm the people around him. True to the trope, Lolenka falls in love with him, because he seems more sophisticated than the people she has met until then, and she re-evaluates her family according to what he represents. However, you then introduce a slight deviation from the trope: instead of becoming a spinster, a nun, killing herself, or marrying someone she does not love, our protagonist becomes an independent and accomplished young woman; she moves to the big city, finishes her studies, and starts to work as a painter. When confronted with the imperfection of reality in the person of Veretitsyn, Lolenka doesn’t sink back into self-sacrifice and passivity, but struggles for independence and growth.
I also enjoyed the way you played with the trope of the male mentor. While Veretitsyn ends up by having a great effect on Lolenka’s future, he does so carelessly and unwittingly; he is not so much interested in imparting knowledge, as he is in crushing the girl’s innocence. All he manages to achieve is to instil in her the will to get free – from her family, from the provincialism of her immediate society, and even from men like him. Furthermore, the story is crossed through by a subtle but indelible layer of irony: the ‘mentor’ himself has never been enlightened by the knowledge his ‘pupil’ achieves in the end; while Lolenka thrives, Veretitsyn keeps running around his own failures, lost in the endless cycle of self-pity, inaction, and bitterness. He, who had once emphasized her need to think critically, cannot himself handle criticism well.
When the two meet, eight years later, Veretitsyn takes back what he had said before. Like in their first conversation, he tries to crush Lolenka’s self-assurance, by extolling the virtues of women who sacrifice their lives to their husbands. Lolenka, however, is not so easily influenced anymore: she has consciously chosen the life that had always been a man’s privilege. Veretitsyn argues that women should sacrifice themselves for their family, but he suffers from the same shortcomings he criticizes in independent women: Veretitsyn is as self-centred as Lolenka, but, as a man, he somehow finds that more acceptable in his case. The book ends on an ambivalent note: Lolenka couldn’t care less for what was traditionally expected of her – and that may also be, in its own way, when taken too far, as lonely and alienating as the subservient role she had once shunned away.
“You’re a fine, obedient, affectionate daughter; you’re only doing your duty. Always behave that way. Always live that way. Always live entirely for your father and mother. Grow bored when it pleases them (…) Parade yourself around when they show you off – it’s their will. It’s nice for them: you’re their property.” – Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, The Boarding-School Girl
“I don’t understand anything.” “All the better. You’ll learn it that way; you’ll remember it better.” “Why?” “Just as I said. But, if you understand it, you’ll begin to think about it; you’ll get mixed up – you’ll memorize nothing.” – Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, The Boarding-School Girl
“I’m studying for myself. Let them give me whatever grades they want: I know what I know, and that’s that. (…) I don’t want them to reward me for nonsense,” she continued. “I don’t want to learn nonsense.” – Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya, The Boarding-School Girl