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It Didn’t Come Off (1)

June 23, 2017

It Didn’t Come Off

A Novella

I had turned 17 when my mother moved to Moscow from the country for my coming out. My education was over, though I remained a child in the literal sense of the word. I still played with dolls, and everything that might have left me inclined to any even slightly serious occupation was painstakingly kept away from me.

Now I am forty, and the system of educating children has changed significantly since my youth. Then the task was not complicated: to bring the child to the point where it would think as it was told, or would not think at all. Once I started a sentence this way:

“I think…”

Madame Petitpierre, my governess, interrupted me: “You think? In that case you will have dinner in your room tonight. Children do not think.”

Thought was hateful to our preceptors, and no less hateful was the word “love.” It was not only avoided in conversation, but inked out in books. Speaking of books: at 17 I knew the name Pushkin only by hearsay, and in our house Gogol was called a “hayseed writer.” One understands that his works were not permitted in the drawing room. As for our children’s library, it was composed, as if by design, of the dullest books, mostly French ones. I remember one in particular that was called Les Annales de la vertu. It was given to me on my name-day to distract me from my lessons, but they made an instrument of torture out of it. The moment you would do something wrong, the voice of the governess was raised: “Prenez à l’instant Les Annales de la vertu.”

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“It Didn’t Come Off” is a translation of “Не сошлись” (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt).





Мне минуло 17 лет, когда мать моя переселилась из деревни в Москву, чтобы вывозить меня в свет. Мое воспитание было кончено, хотя я осталась ребенком в буквальном смысле слова. Я еще играла в куклы, и от меня тщательно удаляли все то, чтó могло бы меня приохотить к cколько-нибудь сериозному занятию.

Мне теперь сорок лет, и cистема воспитания значительно изменилась с моей молодости. Тогда задача была не сложная: довести ребенка до того, чтоб он думал как прикажут, или вовсе не думал. Раз я начала фразу таким образом:

— Я думаю…

Мадам Петипьер, моя гувернантка, меня перебила:

— Вы думаете? в таком случае вы будете обедать сегодня в своей комнате. Дети не думают.

Нашим наставникам была ненавистна мысль, и точно тaк же ненавистно слово любовь. Его не только избегали в разговоре, но вымарывали чернилами в книгах. Кстати о книгах: в 17 лет я знала имя Пушкина лишь понаслышке, а Гоголя у нас прозвали избeным писателем. Понимается, что его произведения до гостиной не допускали. Наша же детская библиотека была составлена, как на подбор, из самых скучных книг, большею частию французских. В особенности мне памятна одна, под заглавием «Les annales de la vertu». Мне ее подарили в имянины для развлечения от уроков, но сделали из нее орудие пытки. Кaк, бывало, в чем-нибудь провинишься, возвышался голос гувернантки: «Рrenez à l’instant «Les annales de la vertu».

6 Comments leave one →
  1. July 2, 2017 5:04 pm

    “Les annales de la vertu,” by Madame de Genlis, if I understand correctly? What a curious choice. One can’t help but think of Leskov’s “Дух госпожи Жанлис,” which you wrote about two years ago.

    I can now better understand Sergey Soloviev (the historian, born 1820) writing appreciatively about his “free” Russian upbringing, without a foreign tutor. As a side effect, he could not speak foreign languages as fluently as a tutored child would, but, according to Soloviev, he enjoyed reading in French, Italian, and English as much as in Russian. “I can’t speak well any of the foreign languages I know, and I know four” as he put it – actually, he knew more than four.

    • July 6, 2017 9:08 pm

      Thanks for pointing that out! I think you’re right, and I hadn’t made the connection. It’s easier now to see why the mother in Leskov’s “Дух госпожи Жанлис” chose that author (albeit wrongly) as guaranteed to be safe and inoffensive.

      Looking at Annales de la vertu, ou Cours d’histoire a l’usage des jeunes personnes on Google Books, it seems dry in a different way than “Не сошлись” led me to expect: the bits I looked at aren’t heavy-handed didactic stories about the most admirable people in history, but a reference book written to pack in names so efficiently that there isn’t one interesting detail. To be fair the 22 pages on Japan (193-214) look better than the half a page on the soul (313) or the page on Roman poetry (309-10).

      • July 13, 2017 9:27 am

        There’s also the gaping difference between Mmes de Genlis and Petitpierre as educators, whether Engelhardt was aware of it while writing her story or not: “Il lui avait été ordonné, en naissant, d’être le plus gracieux et le plus galant des pédagogues,” Sainte-Beuve wrote of Genlis in 1850. She might have been authoritarian at times but “children don’t think” was not one of her principles.


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