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Promissory notes

March 5, 2015

The вексель ‘(promissory) note’ comes up in at least three contexts in Russian books, one of which might be distinctively Russian:

1. Russians traveling to Western Europe would hold векселя, or have them sent from Russia, instead of carrying large amounts of cash.

In The Bypassed (Обойденные, 1865) by Leskov, Dolinskii meets the sisters who will become the two great loves of his life when one of them drops a letter with a вексель in Paris (part 1, chapter 1); later, in Nice, he settles a debt connected with the younger sister’s funeral expenses by giving a вексель to another Russian abroad (3.11).

2. People who wanted money in any form might settle for a promissory note. If they couldn’t borrow on their future prospects or reputation, they would get their wealthier or more trustworthy friends and relatives to sign a note securing a loan for them. Or if they couldn’t get the right person to sign, they might forge someone’s name. These notes were sold to disreputable speculators who paid a fraction of the nominal value and tried to collect the whole. The resulting honor, shame, and intrigue happens at an intersection between moral quandaries and practical necessities that can be useful in a novel.

Dolinskii’s wife in The Bypassed extracts a note from him not to control him, but to get money from him as best she could (3.1). Mlle Blanche has the narrator of Dostoevskii’s The Gambler (Игрок, 1866) sign a note for 50,000 francs and demands the money a week later, but this is just a variation on asking him for 50,000 in cash directly, as she also did (chapter 16). Salov (the mortar-and-pestle guy) in Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) finally finds some comeuppance when he has a merchant’s son forge his father’s name to a note (part 3, chapter 19). Similar things happen in English novels: Phineas Finn signs his name to a bill he cannot pay for his Irish colleague, while Alice Vavasor signs four bills she can pay for her cousin and fiancé George. The devout Mr. Bradshaw’s less devout son forges Mr. Benson’s name on a deed of transfer (not a promissory note, but here nearly equivalent).

3. Women get their husbands or lovers to sign promissory notes as leverage. They do not want money directly but want to be able to live independently, or to protect themselves from being beaten, isolated, or abandoned, through the threat of scandal or debtor’s prison. Is this a specifically nineteenth-century Russian commonplace? Was there a famous extraliterary example that was on Leskov’s, Dostoevskii’s, and Pisemskii’s minds in the mid-1860s?*

Mlle Blanche has her future husband the general sign a few notes at the end of The Gambler and compliments herself on not having made the narrator sign analogous notes for more than he could pay (chapter 16). A poor Ukrainian artist’s Italian common-law wife uses a promissory note as insurance that he won’t tire of her and their children and find another Italian woman in The Bypassed (1.7 and “A Few Lines in Place of an Epilogue”).

In Men of the Forties, there is an elaborate subplot about Fateeva demanding a promissory note from her husband after he attacked her with a knife. Others see this as a disgusting act on Fateeva’s part (1.18), but her second lover Vikhrov defends her as pushed to such action by an abusive husband (2.2). Later Vikhrov himself is, however, surprised she won’t give back the note. Fateeva says her husband is ready to write to the provincial governor to demand his wife return to him, but she has already responded to the same legal demand by saying she came to St. Petersburg for medical reasons, and her husband just wants her to give back the promissory note (2.15). Fateeva wanted her husband to pay her interest on the value of the note, which he refused to do, but fearing scandal she refused to legally demand the principal as her first lover, Posten, had wanted (2.16). When changed circumstances make Fateeva think Vikhrov may marry her, she writes him a letter that refers to “the story of that stupid promissory note” (3.3). Finally we learn that Fateeva and a female friend had practically coerced the dying Fateev to sign a will leaving Fateeva everything, but Fateeva says she would have inherited all he had anyway through the combination of the promissory note and the one-seventh of the estate she was entitled to as his widow (3.8).

If this third use is distinctively Russian, I wonder if it has to do with married women’s property rights in different places. That probably isn’t the whole story: in England, Lady Glencora Palliser doesn’t stop thinking of her fortune as her own after she is married. But from what I can remember, women in English and French novels don’t use the promissory note tactic. Actresses in Zola might get as much ready money as they could from wealthy admirers to preserve their independence, but I can’t think of one living on other means while keeping a promissory note in reserve as blackmail. (Mlle Blanche is of course French, but plans to marry a Russian man in a Russian novel.) Does anyone have an explanation or a counterexample?

* Perhaps the “Ogarev-Panaeva affair,” which started with Ogareva getting a promissory note from her husband and involved many of the famous writers of the time? Here’s Panaeva telling the story in a light favorable to herself and Nekrasov, and here is a 300-page book about the incident from 1933 by Boris Pasternak’s friend Ia. Z. Cherniak.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2015 9:34 am

    I recently got to a scene in Veltman’s Саломея where the feckless young Prokhor Vasilievich, having been lured into gambling with card sharps (a standard theme in Russian literature of the day, of course), is pressed to give a вексель for his debts; he is saved by a woman who spirits him away because she feels sorry for him. (He eventually gets back to Moscow, but when he reaches his father’s house, ready to confess how he has squandered the money entrusted to him, he sees it all lit up and is told by a bystander that it is in celebration of the marriage of the owner’s son Prokhor Vasilievich. How I love Veltman’s cleverly constructed plots!)

    • March 6, 2015 8:34 am

      Was the real Prokhor Vasilievich lured away to make room for an impostor? I need to read more Veltman!

      • March 6, 2015 9:10 am

        No, but his prolonged absence created a vacuum which could be filled by a conman with his wits about him. And yes, you do!

  2. March 9, 2015 10:15 am

    I’ve provided some more tasty bits of the plot in this post.

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