I can never resist an elegantly written (or, at least, elegantly translated) comedy of manners, particularly when it is suffused with anger – and it was no different with A Double Life (1978, tr. Barbara Heldt. Original: Двойная жизнь, 1848).
Our protagonist, 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn, has been trapped her whole life inside a bubble, under the watchful eye of her controlling mother, Vera Vladimirovna. A good daughter of considerable means and marriageable age, Cecily has been brought up to think that her sole purpose in life is to find a husband. She is “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.”
Her mother has her eyes set on a suitable match with the wealthy Prince Viktor. However, things are not as smooth as Vera would wish, and Cecily’s closest friend, Olga, encouraged by her mother, is also intent on winning the Prince’s heart. To make matters more complicated, Dmitry Ivachinsky, a young gambler with insufficient means, is about to be nudged by Olga’s mother, Madame Valitskaya, to try his luck on Cecily’s naïve heart (thereby leaving Prince Victor open for Olga…). Dmitry “falls in love” with Cecily the minute he hears that she might inherit a considerable amount of money.
We follow this group of rascals through a complicated web of gossip and intrigue, while you distil all your delicious venom against the false moralism and the double standards of your time.
Her narrowminded upbringing has left our Cecily completely blind to society’s duplicitous machinations, and her mother’s watchful eye has pruned away any promising traces of creativity, individuality, or “any development of imagination and inspiration, those eternal enemies of propriety”.
Even Cecily’s talents have been toned down to the minimal necessary to secure a good (which, to her mother means rich) husband: “Her mother’s lessons and moral teachings were about as useful to her in relation to life as are the endless commentaries of zealous scholars to Shakespeare and Dante. Once you have read them, you can no longer grasp even the clearest and simplest meaning in what the poets have written. Her morals and intellect had been improved as arbitrarily and thoroughly as the pitiful trees in the gardens of Versailles, shamelessly pruned into columns, vases, spheres, and pyramids so that they looked like anything but trees.”
Each chapter describes a day in the closeted life of our protagonist, and ends with a poem, where her unconscious mind seems to be finally given free rein. During the day, we follow her colourless mind to meaningless balls, soirées, and visits; during the night, however, when she is asleep, her mind dazzles us with poetry, as she struggles to break free from the narrow confines of her day.
In her poetic dreams, Cecily’s sleeping mind takes off the undergarment to which she has been brainlessly trained to conform in her waking life: “That prisoner of society’s world, / That sacrifice to vanity, / The blind slave of custom, / That small-souled being isn’t you”, the voice in the poem warns her. “You always turn / My happiness to lies”, the sleeping Cecily seems to be accusing this voice (her muse? herself? her guardian angel?), “You light a ray of thought in me.”
Our protagonist can only experience a sense of freedom when sleeping, when she experiences art, or when she is riding on horseback: “She gave herself over to the joy of riding horseback, to the attractions of this living force, this half-free will that carried her off and that she was guiding.” She is leading a double life of which she is still unconscious: confined in prose during the day, and freed in verse during the night. “You will understand earthly reality / With a maturing soul: / You will buy a dear blessing / At a dear price.”
I like how the book is structured in an interplay of opposing forces: conscious/ unconscious, day/ night, truth/ lie, freedom/ restraint, male/ female. This interplay is suggested both by the novel’s dedication and its epigraph. You dedicate the book to “You Cecilys unmet by me, / All of you Psyches without wings, / Mute sisters of my soul!”. You frame your book as an offer to them of “One sacred dream mid sinful lies, / In the prison of this narrow life/ Just one brief burst of that other life.” In a similar vein, you borrow the opening lines of Byron’s “The Dream” for your epigraph: “Our life is twofold: Sleep hath its own world, / A boundary between the things misnamed / Death and existence.”
The contrast between two opposing lives (the inner life experienced during the night, and the public life during the day) also plays into the idea that some real core feature is being left in the dark, while a superficial role is played in daylight, so as to please an audience. The contrast also hints at society’s duplicity and double standards, as well as to a woman artist’s double life – confined to the domestic sphere, but craving for a public voice.
In Cecily’s world, women are not expected to be more than a fancy piece of decoration. In one scene, a man gets alarmed when a woman speaks, “not having expected the unseemly retort from this living piece of furniture.” Our protagonist has been trained to think that a woman with a gift is a cursed woman: “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.”
While professing to like poetry, Vera Vladimirovna “considered it improper for a young girl to spend too much of her time on it”: in one sentence, you create humour by disclosing the way she is unconsciously trying to please two opposing gods – Vera is paying her respects to a socially well-regarded craft, while also submitting to society’s contradictory sense of propriety regarding this craft.
I love the fierceness with which you poke fun at society throughout the book: “How and by what means may one in an aristocratic drawing room distinguish the vulgar man from the brilliantly intelligent one? Surely only by the fact that the former usually seems more clever”.
Cecily’s mother has taken special care to stifle every sign of the girl’s individuality to a very narrow set of conventional features, beyond which our protagonist cannot see. Vera was “very proud of her daughter’s successful upbringing, especially perhaps because it had been accomplished not without difficulty, since it took time and skill to destroy in her soul its innate thirst for delight and enthusiasm.”
Despite her mother’s best efforts, however, Cecily’s inner life unfolds in poetry and cannot be entirely suppressed. Some of her dreams trespass into her waking life, and she has the uncanny feeling that everything is happening twice, or that she is forgetting something, or a feeling that there is something she is failing to understand. “And she felt and knew that everything going on now had definitely already happened to her once, that this moment was a repetition of something in her past and that she had already lived through it once before”. Lines from her dreams come back to her out of the blue, when she is awake, and she whispers: “So, go, as you’ve been sentenced, / Defenseless and alone…”
The ending of the book reads as if her dreaming and waking life were briefly touching – as in Byron’s poem, dreams “do divide our being; they become / A portion of ourselves”. The shift from the third to the first person in the last poem in A Double Life also hints at a possibility of growth: as her dreams trespass into reality, Cecily is given a voice of her own, and is finally able to look beyond the narrow confines of her upbringing. She most probably will not be able to trespass such confines, but she will not remain blind to their existence: “Though I throw treasure after treasure / Into the stormy depths of the sea of life: / Blessed the one who, arguing with the storm, / Can salvage something precious”, Cecily vows to herself, reclaiming agency at the very moment when she has lost the possibility to make an informed choice. From her dreams, she has received the gift of vision, and this is a doomed but precious gift.
“Society, with all its strictness is sometimes kind-hearted: depending on the circumstances, it looks with such Christian forgiveness upon powerful people, upon prominent and wealthy women! And besides, in the aristocratic educated world, everything is angled so smoothly, the sharp edges so blunted, and each monstrous and rotten affair called by such decent language that every shameful thing is glossed over in such fine circumstances, effortlessly and quietly.” ― Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life
“Society women have achieved the wondrous art of contriving thirty variations on a phrase that means nothing even the first time” ― Karolina Pavlova, A Double Life
About the book
- Columbia University Press, 2019, tr. Barbara Heldt, 160 p. Goodreads
- This translation was first published in 1978
- Original: Двойная жизнь, 1848
- My rating: 4,5 stars
- Projects: The Classics Club; A Century of Books; Back to the Classics, hosted by Karen; European Reading Challenge, hosted by Gilion; #Siberianary, hosted by @sofareader; Winter TBR.
- This book was kindly sent to me by Columbia University Press for review.