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“Fallen but Charming Creatures”

May 21, 2020

Да снобы юные! Камельи молодые!
Цветы без запаха, но слишком дорогие,
Мир самых грубых чувст и самых тонких блонд,
Санкт-Петербургского уезда демимонд!
(from the album of prints by Krestovsky and Lebedev; see p. 117 of Lucey’s article)

Almost a year ago I started a post on Colleen Lucey’s article about the demimondaine in 1860s Russian culture, which I could easily have called “Words new to me: камелия,” since it was only from her article that I learned камелия ‘camellia,’ which I’d skipped over when I saw it in 1860s Russian texts, could mean not the flower but a woman who took money and gifts from wealthy men in return for an implicit offer of her sexual favors, like a character in a (somewhat later) Zola novel. (The term camellia actually comes from an earlier French book, as Lucey points out, 103.)

Lucey looks at the short story “A Fallen but Charming Creature” (Погибшее, но милое созданье, 1861) by Vsevolod Krestovsky—the one who seems to have unintentionally displaced Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaya from her pseudonym—and an album of 60 prints by Krestovsky and the caricaturist Aleksandr Lebedev with the same title but in the plural, Fallen but Charming Creatures (Погибшие, но милые созданья, 1862–63).

The prose piece (106–11) and the collection of visual art (111–20) are different from earlier Russian portrayals of down-and-out prostitutes in Gogol or Nekrasov, and they’re also different from each other.

The demimondaine can rise up economically on her own by using the money she gets to appeal to ever wealthier men, unlike the downtrodden women in 1830s and 1840s texts about prostitutes who either needed to be rescued or were altogether doomed. Similar women occasionally appeared in Russian writing before the 1860s, but were condemned as manipulative (108). In Krestovsky’s story, the demimondaine deserves compassion no less than the streetwalker, redeemed from possible moral censure by the narrator focusing not only on her arousing performance of the can-can, but also her role as a loving mother shedding tears over her child (107–08). Lucey, following Jann Matlock, sees this as a narrative method of “contain[ing]… the demimondaine’s sexual potency” (111; see also 105–06).

The album of prints, on the other hand, doesn’t try to contain the demimondaine’s sexuality through the “Madonna/whore paradigm, frequently encountered in depictions of fallen women” (110). Instead, buying the prints serves as a cheaper substitute for “the fantasy of possessing a demimondaine—or, in the case of a female viewer, of becoming one herself” (120). The images (one of which you can see in this post) represent the demimondaine as both consumer and product in a culture of luxury consumption (112, 118).

In fiction, it seems that Krestovsky played the Madonna/whore angle up more as he revised the story. In the journal version, after the naive and smitten main male character Vakhliukov happens to see the demimondaine character playing a waltz at home with her young daughter, we read:

“Who are you? Who are you…?” he whispered involuntarily and was himself frightened by the sound of his own whispering: he was afraid that she, this magical apparition, would hear, notice him, and stop playing. (210)

In editions of Krestovsky’s collected works (including the one quoted by Lucey), this passage is slightly expanded:

“Who are you? Who are you? Saint Cecilia…?” he whispered involuntarily and was himself frightened by the sound of his own whispering: he was afraid that she, this magical apparition, would hear, notice him, and stop playing. (vol. 2, p. 637)

I assume this is the same “chaste Saint Cecilia” who will appear in Leskov. where a very different male character is also erotically fascinated with the idea of virginity.

See Colleen Lucey, “‘Fallen but Charming Creatures’: The Demimondaine in Russian Literature and Visual Culture of the 1860s,” The Russian Review 78 (2019): 103–21. Disclaimer: I know the author of the article.

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