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“The Ikimsky Family”

August 21, 2016

In the afterword to “The Old Man” (Старик, 1857), I said the story was different from other things written by Russian women of the time: it had a first-person female narrator and no escape plot (Catriona Kelly says the provincial tale with an escape plot is the prototypical piece of women’s fiction in Russia from 1840-1880). I was nervous to say even that much. I haven’t read enough women’s writing from the period to be confident of anything — even with Ol’ga N., I’ve probably only read 10% of what she wrote. But this week I read something by a different woman that seems to confirm the point. It would be hard to find a purer escape-plot story than “The Ikimsky Family” (Семейство Икимских, 1864), which has several kinds of escape (from the father through marriage, from marriage through adultery, and from adultery through suicide).

It’s a straightforward, enjoyable story, in both a casual “what’s going to happen to so-and-so next?” way and an almost as casual “what’s the lesson of the various sisters’ fates?” way. Ikimsky, the father of four girls and three absent boys, uses all the family’s resources for unrestrained self-indulgence, not even helping his seriously ill wife. He’s mean to his bored and miserable daughters, who long to get married and get away. The family is not poor, and the daughters are not ugly, but they don’t attract even the better provincial prospects. The youngest considers herself beautiful, but her sisters think she’s desirable only because she is young, while the oldest sister, who is “well past twenty,” and the next oldest, who is “about the same age,” consider themselves old maids (!).

Their father hurts their chances by making them live on a small allowance, with no money for nice fabric for pretty dresses, and no chance to go anywhere to meet anyone. He sends away their rare suitors if he doesn’t see any advantage in the match for himself (though when a rich man comes, he uses a shameless trick to compel him to propose).

Long passages read like admonitions that young married women must obey their husbands and resist temptation, but the ultimate didactic message is plausibly that a young single woman’s best guide for happiness is spontaneous physical passion.

The second sister, Lidiia, survives the story but without much happiness; her father gets rid of the one man who wants to marry her, and the other man she’s drawn to prefers her younger, married sister Masha.

The oldest sister, Iuliia, takes a late opportunity to marry a raznochinets doctor in his 50s who loves her, and even though he’s neither rich nor good-looking they seem happy… but she dies in childbirth.

We learn the most about the youngest sister. Masha’s eventual husband is perfect in every respect but his body: he loves her, he’s rich, he’s educated, he’s nice, and he’s willing to help her unmarried sisters escape from their father. But he’s a hunchback. When his future wife first sees him, she exclaims “what a hideous man!” (“Ах, какой урод!” 535). It turns out that none of Masha’s husband’s good qualities can make up for the sexual attractiveness he lacks, and she leaves him for the first dashing flirt to come along (to the latter’s chagrin: he hadn’t been serious). Her husband was willing to send her 100 rubles a month so she could live independently if she didn’t love him, but she kills herself when her lover turns out to be an unkind gold-digger.

The third sister, Tanechka, who spends most of the story abroad with a sick aunt, has better luck. Lively and impulsive, she had once tried to find love and escape by blowing a kiss to an attractive young stranger riding by; he stopped, ran back, kissed her, and then rode on. Years later, he comes back to the house as Tanechka’s brother’s friend and the two instantly recognize each other. At the end of the story, they are on a path toward happily ever after thanks to a moment of chemistry and a coincidence.

It looks like “The Ikimsky Family” was written by Anna Vasil’evna Pavlova. It’s signed “Novinskaia,” Pavlova’s pseudonym according to Prince N. N. Golitsyn’s 1889 bibliography of women writers, a 1902 Czech encyclopedia (where the pseudonym is spelled Novická), and Brokgauz and Efron (1890-1907). The funny thing is that more recent sources (including the online Great Biographical Encyclopedia and at least one scholarly book) give Pavlova’s dates as 1852-1877, which means she would have turned 8 around the time Novinskaia started publishing in 1860.

None of the older reference books gives a birth year, so I suspect the solution is that Pavlova was Novinskaia, but was born before 1852. One book attributed “The Ikimsky Family” to Engel’gardt, but I’m increasingly sure that’s a mistake. Engel’gardt had a different story in the previous month’s issue of the same journal, and my subjective impression is that “The Ikimsky Family” wasn’t written by the same person as the things I’ve read by Ol’ga N.

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