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March 7, 2015

Recently I’ve been reading Russian novels in parallel with English ones, and I’ve been struck all over again by the perhaps obvious point that the world of Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Leskov, and Pisemskii was very different from the world of Dickens, Gaskell, and Trollope. Even the most “realist” fiction doesn’t directly show us the true nature of the time and place it was written in, of course, but if you make numerous and substantial allowances for different writers describing different characters in different genres for different purposes, the real world still must have put different constraints on Russian and English writers. What was believable in one place would ruin the illusion of reality in the other.

Leskov and Trollope both created a lot of literary clergymen who were somewhere between one-trait caricatures and three-dimensional portrayals, portraits with some real bite and some real warmth, mixed with a bit of humility in the “are you and I any better, reader?” vein. But a clergyman in Trollope is a different animal than a clergyman in Leskov.

Archdeacon Grantly and his wine cellar couldn’t have existed in Russia, where the clergy were a nearly hereditary class separate from the gentry, instead of a career for the gentry’s younger sons. Bishop Proudie’s struggles to escape his wife’s domination couldn’t have happened if only the lower ranks of priests could marry. Intrigues about the clerical appointments of Whig and Tory parliaments have only the slightest similarity to the slower comings and goings of Russian tsars and ministers.

And could this bishop from Leskov’s “The Little Things in a Bishop’s Life” (Мелочи архиерейской жизни, 1878-79) have occurred in an English novel? The anecdote is introduced with the observation that women can drive a clergyman to be guilty of faults quite unlike him, even if the clergyman is a bishop known for his liberalism and the women are a respectful group of nuns. The bishop had given a service at the nuns’ convent; they had tried to thank him with a valuable icon; he had thanked them but refused the gift because he knew it was beyond their means; but the nuns bribed one of his subordinates to give it to him anyway, and the subordinate pocketed the money.

A good deal of time has passed; the bishop is doing his scholarly work and proofreading Zyrian books with his assistant, when once he suddenly needed his cell-attendant, who by ill luck had gone off and did not present himself at the bishop’s call. The assistant wanted to go call him, but the speedy Innokentii anticipated him and went to the cell-attendant’s room, where he thought he would catch his servant sleeping. But he did not find the cell-attendant here, and instead found a familiar icon on his wall, the work of the sisters of the Vologda sanctuary. The bishop got mad. Calling the cell-attendant to him, he immediately beat him, not just striking him but kicking him. The upset bishop beat the bribe-taker until he was exhausted and, abandoning said practice, he promptly sent this very “insatiable brute” to the abbess to take back the icon, through which that insistent woman, by her disobedience and stubbornness, had brought her bishop to such fury that he, in the words of an eyewitness, “in spite of his frustratingly small stature, manifested the energy and strength of Peter the Great.” (chapter 6 in the 1956-58 collected works, emphasis in original)

Now, this wasn’t a typical way to write about bishops in Russia either, and Leskov had trouble with the censors. The beating was less energetic and didn’t include kicking in chapter 8 of the last major prerevolutionary collected works (1902-03): most of the paragraph is the same, but that part is just “…he immediately beat him and sent him to the abbess to take back the icon…” with no italics.


2 Comments leave one →
  1. March 7, 2015 6:58 pm

    Funny, my wife and I are currently reading Barchester Towers in the evenings, and I’m frequently struck by how very un-Russian it all is!

    • March 13, 2015 9:53 am

      I love that book! I’m thankful to the world of book bloggers for introducing me to Trollope – I’d never read him before hearing about him from Tom/Amateur Reader, Maya/between4walls, and a few others.

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