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Mrs Skewton and Kleopatra Petrovna

November 14, 2014

Last year I was wondering why Pisemskii had female characters named Cleopatra in two novels (1863, 1869) and a play (1873). I haven’t read the play yet, but in the two novels, no one acknowledges that this name is unusual.

I have a new theory: Pisemskii’s first Cleopatra, Kleopatra Petrovna in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), owed something to the Cleopatra in Dombey and Son (1846-48) by Charles Dickens:

In this manner the Major and Mr Dombey were walking arm-in-arm, much to their own satisfaction, when they beheld advancing towards them, a wheeled chair, in which a lady was seated, indolently steering her carriage by a kind of rudder in front, while it was propelled by some unseen power in the rear. Although the lady was not young, she was very blooming in the face—quite rosy—and her dress and attitude were perfectly juvenile. Walking by the side of the chair, and carrying her gossamer parasol with a proud and weary air, as if so great an effort must be soon abandoned and the parasol dropped, sauntered a much younger lady, very handsome, very haughty, very wilful, who tossed her head and drooped her eyelids, as though, if there were anything in all the world worth looking into, save a mirror, it certainly was not the earth or sky.

[…]

The discrepancy between Mrs Skewton’s fresh enthusiasm of words, and forlornly faded manner, was hardly less observable than that between her age, which was about seventy, and her dress, which would have been youthful for twenty-seven. Her attitude in the wheeled chair (which she never varied) was one in which she had been taken in a barouche, some fifty years before, by a then fashionable artist who had appended to his published sketch the name of Cleopatra: in consequence of a discovery made by the critics of the time, that it bore an exact resemblance to that Princess as she reclined on board her galley. Mrs Skewton was a beauty then, and bucks threw wine-glasses over their heads by dozens in her honour. The beauty and the barouche had both passed away, but she still preserved the attitude, and for this reason expressly, maintained the wheeled chair and the butting page: there being nothing whatever, except the attitude, to prevent her from walking. (chapter 21)

(In Dickens the narrator immediately explains the Cleopatra nickname, which clearly meant something to the people in the fictional world.)

In chapters 9 and 10 of part 2 of Troubled Seas, we hear that Kleopatra Petrovna is old, but had been a beauty and possibly even a lover of Emperor Paul back in 1797. She had countless suitors, one of whom supposedly threatened to shoot himself if she wouldn’t have him. Where Mrs. Skewton has one man pushing her in a wheelchair and one young female dependent, Kleopatra Petrovna has two servants helping her walk home and two young female dependents in tow. Despite her age, Kleopatra Petrovna is still elaborately dressed. It seems like a plausible intertextual connection to me, especially since Dombey and Son was well-known to Pisemskii and his audience; you can judge for yourself:

“My friend, let’s go to Dubny for the holiday tomorrow,” said Iona Mokeich. “We can say our prayers in God’s church first, and then we’ll head over to her excellency Kleopatra Petrovna’s house and have a big dinner.”

“Is she still alive, then?”

“Sure is, and full of piss and vinegar. But hang on, my lad,” said Iona, poking a finger into his forehead, “how many years ago was it… in ’97, she supposedly, you know,” and at these words he made a strange gesture with his hands.

“Oh, that’s nonsense!” Aleksandr interrupted him. “He had a girl… everyone knew…”

“It’s true, don’t you argue…! And then, when it happened,” — and once again Iona made a hand gesture — “his sons and his widow say to her, ‘go back to the country’… I remember that myself — she had about fifteen hundred souls registered to her village… and my God, the suitors that rained down on her after that…! One of them came to see her with a pistol and got down on his knees, ‘either make me a happy man,’ he says, ‘or I’ll shoot myself!’ She just points at the porty-air and says, ‘look who I was loved by!’”

Petrusha too was listening to this conversation with visible attention.

“An intelligent woman, you can tell she’s spent time in the capital,” concluded Iona with a serious expression. (2.9)

[…]

Along the wooden planks that went all the way from the church to the house, two servants in enormous three-cornered hats worn sideways were indeed leading the old fraulein herself by the hand. She was completely hunched over, but still wore her hair in curls and had on an extremely sumptuous dress. Behind her, their arms modestly folded over their chest, walked her two hangers-on, one named Alina, the other Polina. (2.10)

By the way, I love thinking about Pisemskii and the censors in passages like this. As I read it, he’s pretty plainly having Iona the Cynic make crude hand gestures to show the emperor having sex and to show the same emperor being killed after a palace coup in 1801. In Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) he manages to communicate pretty clearly that a woman stops having sex with her husband after she takes a lover. It’s as if he goes through the motions of not saying a thing directly, but doesn’t take much trouble beyond that, and the usually prudish censor lets him get away with it. (That’s also a reminder that the censor really was more lenient in much of Alexander II’s reign than in Nicholas I’s; talk of glasnost in the 1860s wasn’t all talk.)

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2014 8:05 am

    Fascinating, and the Dickens connection makes perfect sense to me.

    • November 17, 2014 11:51 am

      I haven’t changed my mind about Dickens, but I suppose Kleopatra Petrovna is a bit like the Countess in “The Queen of Spades” too (an old former beauty with aristocratic ties in a mysterious past that we learn about through reported rumors).

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