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Why did Panaeva stop writing fiction?

June 10, 2022

Quite by chance I found a lecture on YouTube from November 11th, 2021, called “Being a Woman at The Contemporary: Poetry and Truth in the Fiction of Avdot’ia Panaeva.”

I was already happy about this, and then it turned out that one of the co-presenters was Pavel Uspenskii, who I’d just seen on a different channel talking about a different century. Everyone else involved—Uspenskii’s co-presenter Andrei Fedotov, the discussant Mariia Nesterenko, and the host Aleksei Vdovin—was excellent too.

Uspenskii and Fedotov were pushing back against Soviet-era conventional wisdom about Panaeva: that only her memoirs were worth reading and even these were unreliable; that if you were going to read her fiction, it should be the two novels she co-wrote with Nekrasov, and he probably wrote all the good parts; that she stopped publishing after she and Nekrasov separated because she couldn’t write without his help, or because she had never had serious literary ambitions, or because she now had a daughter and that was all that mattered to her. She was defined in relation to men: “Nekrasov’s wife, Panaev’s companion, Chernyshevskii’s friend, Dobroliubov’s protector.” She was made out to be crafty and dishonest so Soviet scholars could blame her for the Ogareva affair (and thereby exonerate Nekrasov).

So Uspenskii and Fedotov looked at her fiction in The Contemporary from the 1840s to the 1860s, finding literary responses to Nekrasov’s “Panaeva cycle” of rather dark love poems and his “When, out of the darkness of error” (Когда из мрака заблужденья, 1845). One thing Panaeva knew well was the contrast between the egalitarian, pro–women’s emancipation position of the feminist men of The Contemporary and the way they lived their lives, with trips to brothels and all-male gatherings for chernoknizhie, the writing of humorous pornographic poetry. She implies the progressive man’s attempt to rescue a prostitute is a pretext for visiting a prostitute.

Kornei Chukovskii apparently suggested Panaeva only cared about children, not writing, and this is why she stopped publishing for many years after 1864. But in Uspenskii and Fedotov’s opinion, the real reason was the reception of her “most radical, most feminist” novel, A Woman’s Lot (Женская доля, 1862). (This is the same novel Margarita Vaysman focuses on.) Panaeva hoped the novel would appeal to the most progressive parts of society, but it didn’t. Pisarev gave it a bad review called “A Puppet-Show Tragedy with a Bouquet of Civic Sorrow” (“Кукольная трагедия с букетом гражданской скорби,” 1864), finding its ideal of women’s emancipation inadequate, and Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia criticized it on aesthetic grounds. Meanwhile, after the young generation saw itself in the new men and new women in Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863), Panaeva’s less optimistically drawn new people were even less relevant (41:50–47:01).

This provoked a lively discussion about whether contemporaries would have known that Khvoshchinskaia’s article had been written by a woman. They came down where I would have (after reading Jehanne M. Gheith’s 2004 Finding the Middle Ground): from early on many readers knew that the name Khvoshchinskaia used for fiction, V. Krestovskii, was a woman’s pseudonym, but only a handful would have realized she was the author a series of nonfiction “Provincial Letters” signed “Porechnikov.” Gheith, by the way, discusses Khvoshchinskaia/Porechnikov’s and Pisarev’s reviews of Panaeva’s A Woman’s Lot in detail (see pp. 111–15). (Uspenskii and Fedotov explicitly mention Gheith and Vaysman, among other scholars—I’m definitely not pointing out things they missed!)

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