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A Double Life

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Member Reviews

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Many thanks to NetGalley and Columbia University Press!

A Double Life isn’t a new book, but an unsung classic of Russian literature. Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet in the nineteenth century and prior to reading this book, I knew absolutely zero about her. However, her life is really worth a read because here was a woman who was just absolutely dedicated to her craft and was acclaimed at the time actually. Unfortunately, at the time, writing and poetry were considered to be pursuits for men and she was a woman. This might be why she wasn’t as famous as she should be, but reading this book speaks volumes about her talent. It’s just a shame I couldn’t read it in the original.

A Double Life is the story of Cecily, a Russian aristocrat whose life is extremely constrained. She isn’t really supposed to think of anything besides marriage, clothing, and parties, and her creative nature is suppressed by the society she grows up in. She also unwittingly becomes the object of a plot between her mother and her mother’s best friend to marry her to a young man who happens to be the best friend of a prince so that Olga, her best friend can marry the prince.

Despite her wealth and privilege, I really couldn’t help but feel for Cecily. Society considered imagination and inspiration to be enemy of impropriety so she would never have been allowed to write poetry. And yet, poetry comes to her in dreams. They warn of a cloistered life where she might not really be satisfied because she can’t actually do what she wants to do- only what her mother and everyone else around her wants. While this is undoubtedly a feminist work, you can’t really expect Cecily to break free from all of it. And I guess that makes sense- when you’re conditioned to be one thing since the day you were born, it is probably difficult to imagine a different sort of life. Still, I really have to feel for this repressed young woman whose true nature can only reveal itself at night when no one’s looking.

The writing is incredibly beautiful and witty, sometimes verging on sarcastic. It’s clear that the author was also criticizing the society she lived in and there’s this undercurrent of anger which runs through it. Each poem which ends every chapter is also beautiful and I’ve sometimes taken to singing the verses to myself as I read late at night.

For me, A Double Life was a magical read. It’s like discovering a classic you’ve never heard of before which quickly becomes near and dear to your heart. For me, reading late at night while having trouble sleeping might be common, but remembering exactly how I felt while I read this book wasn’t- the anger, the sadness, the awe at the beauty of the words. What an incredible combination of prose and poetry!

A Double Life might be an “unsung classic of Russian literature” but it’s definitely my new favorite work of Russian lit. If you love poetry, please read this novella. You won’t regret it.
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What a great job Columbia University Press’s Russian Library series is doing in reintroducing works that have fallen from view. Nowhere is this more welcome in this reissue of Karolina Pavlova’s fascinating short novel A Double Life, a sharp and critical exploration of mid-19th century Russian upper-class life. Anyone with an interest in Russian literature is probably familiar with the male writers of the time, but in fact, it turns out, there were many women writers as well who have been largely written out of literary history. Karolina Pavlova (1807-1893) was very much part of the mid-century literary scene and for some years even held a salon, attended by her contemporary literary luminaries. She was known as a poet and translator but her dedication to her art made her suspect to her male peers, and eventually she left Russia for Germany. Her one novel was, however, well received at the time and I’m delighted to see it reintroduced now. It’s the story of Cecily von Lindenborn, a typical young lady who has had a typically constrained upbringing subject to the societal norms and expectations of her day. Each of the 10 chapters take us through one of her days, filled as they are with visits, balls, tea parties, gossip and matchmaking. But at night, alone in her bedroom, Cecily enters another world in her dreams, a world in which her imagination and creativity can soar free and untrammelled (and this half a century before Freud introduced the idea of the subconscious). With a sharp and acerbic wit, Pavlova attacks the vacuous and meaningless daily round Cecily is caught up in, a much sharper and less subtle wit than Jane Austen is famed for, but just as cutting. Daily life is described in everyday prose, but Cecily’s nights are described in romantic and lyrical poetry. It’s a risky strategy but one I felt succeeded, although I admit to not being personally engaged by the poetry. Overall it’s a compelling novel which examines the positon and education of women at that time and does it with insight and an obvious frustration. The excellent introduction and afterword are essential reading to fully understand the narrative and make for some fascinating reading in themselves. Altogether a must-read for anyone interested in Russian literature, the position of women and social history in general.
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I enjoyed this 19th-century comedy of manners about the marriage market, translated from the Russian by Barbara Heldt. Witty and bleakly humorous with an intriguing style. The prose and poetry sections depict young Cecily's "double life"—her corseted/cosseted real-life, interspersed with the verse that she writes alone at night when she feels free. The comparison to Jane Austen is inevitable, but the anger Pavlova feels about the condition of women is more readily felt in the writing.
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First published in 1848, Karolina Pavlova's 'A Double Life' was unfairly dismissed by male literary critics who found the very idea of a woman writer ridiculous, if not repugnant. Each chapter follows the daily life of Cecily, a young Russian debutante, and her rigidly structured if shallow existence. She and her friend Olga are manipulated by their mothers with the aim of marrying them off to wealthy and idle young bachelors. However, Cecily's repressed sensibilities are awakened by an encounter with a young poet, who appears to her in dreams (and in verse) at the end of each chapter, warning her of the spiritual imprisonment meted out to such outwardly privileged women of her class. Unfortunately, her waking self has no defences and, oblivious to the machinations of others, she risks ending up with the worst of all worlds. Stylistically, it's a cross between the marriage plots of Jane Austen (albeit rendered with savage irony), and the darker visions of Romantic poetry. One of the first novels to address feminist issues, it also has autobiographical resonance because Pavlova, like Cecily, was tricked into a bad marriage. Furthermore, the young man whose poetry is scorned also recalls her own mistreatment by Russia's literary elite. She also hints at the parallels between herself another underappreciated woman writer of the era, France's George Sand, who (like the Bronte sisters, and later George Eliot, in England), had to adopt a male pseudonym to be published at all. Unlike her heroine Cecily, Pavlova finally escaped her profligate spouse but was cut off by the same literary circle she had nurtured by translating Russian writers and hosting a celebrated salon. She spent the rest of her days living in Germany, her fortune lost and her work all but forgotten, but never gave up on her art even if doomed to obscurity.
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My "mission" when starting this blog was to spread my literary horizons and read more authors from other countries and cultures. A large part of this has been reading novels in translation and publishers liek Columbia University Press and Pushkin Press have been incredible helpful to me in spreading my wings. The latest translated read was A Double Life and it had an incredibly impact on me. Thanks to Columbia University Press and NetGalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

As this translation comes from Columbia University Press, it has a solid introduction which is great. Karolina Pavlova was a fascinating poet and author who has not received the kind of praise she deserves. From an early age she showed incredible talent and, after her marriage, hosted a literary saloon at her home, gathering there with brilliant authors from both Western and Eastern European countries. After her marriage ended she first lived in what is now Estonia, and then Dresden, Germany, continuing to write and translate Russian fiction. Throughout her life she struggled against the criticism she received, not for her poems but for being a female poet. Poetry and literature belonged to the men and so they critiqued her publicly and viciously, even if they privately admired her work. And so she disappeared from the list of of great Russian writers of the 19th century. A Double Life seems to rise from a lot of Pavlova's own experiences, but above all her love for poetry.

In A Double Life we get to know Cecily von Lindenborn, a girl growing up in the Russian elite. Her world has been so restricted to make her proper that to us she seems an almost stunted creature. As Pavlova writes:
'Now, at eighteen, she was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarments that she took off only at night.'
She can only do as she has been told, except at night, when her mind unravels itself and spreads out in the most beautiful poetry. See, in A Double Life Pavlova brings together both prose and poetry, the latter used solely for Cecily's dreams. It is at night that she can rise out of her restraints and her dreams warn her of what is truly happening around her, how she is being played with and how truly unprepared she is for it. Initially I looked at Cecily as a silly girl, distracted and naive, until Pavlova's truth really hit home. This is how we raise girls, not knowing how restrained they are, unaware of the tests they're being set up to fail. A Double Life is heartbreaking, as Cecily's mind clamors at night while completely barred away during the day. She is set up for pain and doesn't seem to realize it until it is way to late. A Double Life is a feminist novel, even if that may not have been Pavlova's attention in mid-1800s. It's message that women suffer under repression, not just physically but especially mentally and emotionally. That not allowing them to express themselves truly cuts off a part of them. That having a daughter only to marry her off is cruel. And we know these things, but the fact that it hurts to read it means it is as true as ever.

Pavlova is a masterful writer. Although A Double Life is typical in many ways, following a young girl in love as she moves between social engagements towards a marriage, it goes much deeper. There is a sharp analysis of the society she is describing. An especially painful passage looks at the poorer relatives kept around as servants, desperate to stay near the glow of the rich. Pavlova finds that sore spot most of us have and isn't afraid to press it, which makes it even more outrageous her work was described as clinical and cold by her contemporaries. There is anger here, and pain, and a thirst for freedom of mind. A Double Life is a novel I will be rereading, often. From the soaring poetry to the honest prose, this is a brilliant, feminist even, novel that should be much more prominent than it is.

A Double Life blew me away in a way I hadn't expected. Set aside the dresses, the mansions and the carriages and you have a story about a girl who's mind is rebelling and in pain, who is unaware of what path she is on because she has never been taught to think of her life critically. A Double Life is an important and beautiful novel I would recommend to everyone.
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Karolina Pavlova was a 19th-century Russian poet, translator and author who failed to receive the same recognition as many of her male contemporaries.  

A Double Life (translated by Barbara Heldt) is her story about 18-year-old Cecily, a naïve and romantic young woman whose best friend Olga and her mother plot to make Cecily fall for and marry a poor but dashing man, so that Olga can have access to a far more profitable match.  

Early in the book, Cecily attends a poetry recital which captivates her imagination, so much as that each of the ten chapters in the novel then takes the form of prose about her external world in the daytime, followed by poetry about her inner life and dreams at night.  

The book is reminiscent of Jane Austen, whom I'm not keen on, and I'm not a big fan of poetry, but it is certainly interesting as a proto-feministic work decrying patriarchal, aristocratic culture.  In addition, the introduction and afterword are particularly helpful in providing some background to this and giving a critical analysis of the text.
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A dutiful daughter

Written in 1848, A Double Life voices sharp observations on the mentality, attitudes and morals in Russian high society with regard to marriage and the position of women in a patriarchal society. The story revolves around Cecily von Lindenborn, a eighteen year old naïve, dreamy and romantic young woman who becomes the object of marriage plotting – Cecily’s best friend Olga together with Olga’s mother cunningly will trap the ingénue (and her parents) into a to Cecily not so favourable marriage with a spineless (and worse, not rich!) man– to have her out of the way as a rival for Olga, who hopes to seize a far better match, the wealthy Prince Victor. 

Each of the ten chapters of the novel is structured along ‘the double life’ of Cecily – the events taking place during conventional, brainless and banal society life at daytime (balls, dresses, jewels, carriages, tea-drinking) are recounted in prose and are followed by oneiric, poetical almost mystic outbursts closing the day, dreamlike sequences expressed in verses musing on nature, the moon and the soul when Cecily is alone and touched by the ‘melodious thoughts’ and ‘improper delights’ of the muse (Pavlova was mostly a poet; A Double life is her only novel). The juxtaposition of the prose and the poetry structuring the novel by symbolising the stark contrast between Cecily’s outer and inner life is intriguing, but also slows down the pace of the story and as I cannot say the lofty Romanticism of the poetry enthralled me, I had to withhold myself from rushing through those parts. 

As this was the first work of a female Russian author from the 19th century I have come across so far, I was curious to get a glimpse on this period from a Russian woman’s perspective. As a story, A double Life didn’t captivate me much. In my humble opinion, it is interesting to read as a proto-feminist manifesto denouncing in a satirical, almost vitriolic way both the hypocrisy and pretence of the aristocratic class (which Pavlova makes obvious by the frequent use of the word ‘lies’) and their insensitivity to art and poetry as the blatant injustice to deny young women a more proper upbringing and the freedom to live a fulfilling life instead of just preparing them for marriage. Pavlova criticizes how women are turned into docile domestic geese who are merely destined to be ornaments for potential husbands and who, once they have become mothers themselves, don’t know any better than to repeat the same patterns with their own daughters all over again and so essentially sustain patriarchal society – a vicious circle of narrow-mindedness which is also manifest in an indifference to art and poetry:

Although Vera Vladimirovna greatly respected and loved poetry, she still considered it improper for a young girl to spend too much of her time on it. She quite justly feared any development of imagination and inspiration, those eternal enemies of propriety. She molded the spiritual gifts of her daughter so carefully that Cecily, instead of dreaming of the Marquis Poza, of Egmont, of Lara and the like, could only dream of a splendid ball, a new gown, and the outdoor fete on the first of May.

Because of the marriage plotting and the revolting manipulations in that respect of Olga’s cunning mother, I was reminded of the scheming of Jane Austen’s Lady Susan and particularly of the villainous Lady Susan’s plan to marry off her poor daughter to some (rich) nitwit – but where Austen’s sarcasm and irony made me laugh, Pavlova’s razor-sharp wit leaves mostly a bitter and pessimistic aftertaste (which sadly seem to reflect her own experiences). 

Pavlova choses hyperboles, repetition and sweeping statements rather than subtlety to vent her obvious anger and indignation. The contrast between the angelic, refined, hypersensitive femininity of Cecily and the almost caricatural depiction of crude masculine boorishness, weakness and flaws (particularly Cecily’s future husband, Dmitry Ivachinsky is mercilessly bestowed with sins - Suggestible! Gambling! Drinking! Debauchery! Double-faced!) annoyed me rather than fuelling my sympathy for her. Even if Cecily is facing a bleak future, the way Karolina Pavlova portrayed her and her sad situation weren’t able to move me much, such unlike the very few lines in which Dostoevsky evoked a young Russian woman’s deplorable situation with regard to marriage in the poignant ending of his The Christmas Tree and the Wedding.
Both the introduction from the translator (Barbara Heldt) and the afterword are greatly worth reading and enlightening, as these texts situate Karolina Pavlova’s life (1807-1893) and work among her Russian contemporaries and discuss her vocation as a woman poet in 19th century Russia, her work as a translator (she knew eight languages), the literary salon she held and the reception of her work by her male counterparts and critics (a lot of scorn and ridicule were her part). As some of the autobiographical elements are candidly echoed in this novel (Pavlova’s – née Karolina Karlovna Jaenisch - partly German descent, her disastrous marriage) I’d nevertheless wished I had steered clear from the preface and had read the novella first, as it added a layer of resentment and a veering to self-pity to the story that rather stimulated a dislike of the author’s (apparently theatrical) personality than winning sympathy for poor Cecily’s fate. 

Now, at eighteen, Cecily was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than a silk undergarment that she took off only at night.

However understandable Karolina Pavlova’s anger about the constraints of a woman’s life at that time, I was reminded of what Virginia Woolf wrote about Charlotte Brontë (in A Room of One's Own): 

That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. (…) Now, in the passages I have quoted from Jane Eyre, it is clear that anger was tampering with the integrity of Charlotte Brontë the novelist. She left her story, to which her entire devotion was due, to attend to some personal grievance. She remembered that she had been starved of her proper due of experience—she had been made to stagnate in a parsonage mending stockings when she wanted to wander free over the world. Her imagination swerved from indignation and we feel it swerve.

Revenge is a dish best served cold and I wonder if both Karolina Pavlova’s searing rage as well as the society she lived in might have encumbered her creativity. 

160 years after this novella was published, now a proper education fortunately is open to more people regardless of gender, I wonder if we – men and women alike – could boast we have become so much wiser. Like Cecily, we might not be immune yet from the risk to throw away our lives in the tunnel of love. We don’t have to fear to be forced into the straitjacket of marriage anymore but might still hope and dream of love. Which doesn’t have to be bad thing. 

Dreams fly away faster than the years!
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This is marvellous – oh, I’m so glad it came into my life. 

This book is an even more cutting Jane Austen set in 1800s Russia. 

If I’m being honest, the least compelling part for me is the poetry, but poetry is just not my thing. That being said, it is lovely poetry and the combination of prose and verse in each chapter is really effective. Each chapter follows Cecily, our ingénue protagonist, during a day of her youth and courtship and engagement [as well as the days of those surrounding her (with all their deviant machinations regarding the young lady)]… and then concludes in poetry which comes to Cecily in her dreams.  The poetry is dreamy and melancholy and lovely while the prose is pure sass, seriously Pavlova knew how to write a barb. It is needle sharp. The contrast between the two is dissonant, but compelling. I think it speaks to the tension between Cecily's experience and worldview and her (to use an expression the author would be more comfortable with than I am) 'artistic soul'.

The Introduction and Afterword add some much needed scholarly context for the story and the author. I don’t think Pavlova is as well known as she should be with stories like this!
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I really liked this story. There are a lot of Russian novels about family life written from a man's point of view so having a story from a woman's point of view was really refreshing. The story itself was pretty small, but I liked that about it. The story is all about two women trying to marry off their daughters and their maneuverings. It felt realistic to the time period. Like most Russian books it ends on a melancholic note, very realistic not idealistic. The only thing I was eh about is that Pavlova is first and foremost a poet and she wrote a poem at the end of every chapter. I don't care for poetry and I tend to get nothing from translated poetry. I didn't even try to read them, just skipped over them.
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A Double Life
by Karolina Pavlova 
Translated from Russian by Barbara Heldt
Columbia University Press
4.5 / 5.0

#netgalley.      #RussianLibrary

Cecile Alexandrovna, a refined and well behaved daughter, in Moscow, is tired of the social structures of aristocratic society. She dreams of finding a good man, rather than a rich one. Her mother, Vera, wants her to marry the wealthy Prince Victor. She believes he is the only one that's perfect for her daughter.
However, Ceciles good friend, Olga, wants to marry Prince Victor, and begins to set Ceciles and Dmitry together, so Victor will be available for her. 
Cecile does not know Olga is setting up the romance and believes Dmitry is falling in love with her, and marries him......
Pavlova originally wrote the Classic of Russian Literature in 1848. It is being published this year in the USA, and its premise is so perfect for the times we are living through. This is a work of wit and depth, originally written to show the duality of women in society and the mores of aristocratic society. This story will stay with you, the emotional range done precisely and masterfully. Herxwords are perfected crafted for this novel. Its fantastic.

Thanks to the publisher, author and netgalley for this e- book ARC for review.
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In the Russian poet Karolina Pavlova’s only novel, "A Double Life," published in 1848, she mixes prose and poetry to great effect. Pavlova tells the story of a wealthy young woman, Cecily, who enjoys riding, parties, flirtations, and dancing.  The mood of the novel is often dreamy,  somewhat reminiscent of Turgenev.  Cecily leads a  double life, absorbed in dreams and fantasies of love;  but also apprehensive about where love will take her.  And she is surrounded by manipulative people: her  best friend Olga’s mother, a sophisticated society woman, views Cecily as the rival of her daughter , and plots to deflect an eligible suitor.  Pavlova was apparently unpopular with male poets and writers, who jeered at her poetry. And is this why she disappeared from the canon?   I admired this elegant novel.
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'Madame Valitskaia had decided that Cecily must become Dmitry’s wife so that she would not somehow become the wife of Prince Victor, and she was proceeding toward her goal.'

Karolina Pavlova was a Russian poet and translator born in 1807, who had left Russia due to “hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life”, can you imagine? It lends meaning to the character Cecily, living a passive existence as others arrange her entire future. What else created a life for a woman, particularly of the privileged class, than who she married? Her best friend Olga’s mother is a schemer, she wants to push Cecily in the direction of one Dmitry Ivanchinsky so that Prince Victor is free to marry her girl. Olga is prettier, but Cecily has her own charm and that’s a threat. Olga isn’t much better, she wants the Prince for herself but we are told she isn’t quite as skilled as her mother in deception, instead relies on her mother for ‘directions’. Ha!

Cecily is often described as pale, needing rest as she has been ill. I wonder if the illness in part is an ailment more of the soul. The novel is titled Double Life, where in her dreams her true desires take flight, the writing beautiful poetry.  Is it because the ‘claims of the earth’ on some psychological level take a toll on her body, it is said a woman’s body rejects that which it doesn’t desire. So we get these ailments, headaches, fatigue… Upon waking, all around her is smiles and flattery, all her nearest and dearest convincing her to fall in love with Dmitry. It is done so convincingly, a perfect dance of charlatans, that even his poverty is romanticized by Cecily! Poverty as a more noble choice? This from a young woman given everything, looking down from great heights of society that the happenstance of birth has placed her and thinking how impossible it is to imagine poverty so terrible one cannot even afford to order a beautiful dress. You poor little fool!

Women as pawns, that’s all I could think of the time and place. Sacrificial lambs, because once the excitement of this new life wears off and the celebrations fall by the wayside the truth will be revealed by a long life with an unworthy spouse. We know throughout the tale she has nothing to compare this with, so sheltered her world, reliant on her mother “The first obligation of a mother,” remarked Madame Valitskaia. “We should always be able to read into the souls of our daughters, in order to foresee any harmful influences and keep them safe in their childlike innocence.” Kept in a bubble of ignorant bliss, and afterwards once settled and fooled, it’s too late.

Pale, headaches due to her nights of restless sleep, there lives within her poetry like a song that has been circling her head and at the end she whispers the words and Olga after asking her what she is saying responds “What nonsense”, but she is really going forth as if sentenced, which speaks volumes about what Pavlova felt about such marriages, such lives for women.  On some level, Cecily is aware of walking the plank, so to speak. She smiles along with the fools by day, playing her part in this quiet tragedy and is only truly alive in her night escapes. Very much a young woman of the times, what choice than to go along with those who are older, wiser, and love her so? They all want what’s best, right? What else is there for her, anyway?

Fascinating literary fiction, a 19th Century Russian classic by a female author that is far heavier than it seems. Do take the time to read the afterword and the introduction.

Publication Date: August 6, 2019

Columbia University Press
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A poignant commentary on both women and societal structures told in an experimental form; Pavlova's chapters open in prose, to describe the protagonist's day-to-day life, and end in verse, as the heroine drifts off to sleep.
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My quest to respond with the opinion of the average reader found on the average street to these high-falutin' Russian translations from this publishing house continues…  This is a great academic volume for those who might have an interest in this piece, with an introduction from the lady that translated it in the 1970s, and an afterword by a more modern author.  It itself is an interesting piece – who knew how comedies of manner and society would have leapt from Bath and Austen to Moscow and Pavlova in the 1840s?  But to the regular reader this piece is not quite as great as it needed to be.  I think I was on side with the young woman, complete with her burgeoning love for men and poetry and all that the adult world might entail, but I didn't find the telling of her tale completely to my taste.  I never once enjoyed Austen, so perhaps I'm the wrong audience for this none-more-arch look at upper class life, with a Deb of her day getting engaged.  What was certainly fun was the way the machinations of the engagement were played out elsewhere, and that really is universal.  But the core of the piece, where the poetic spirit tries to dissuade the woman from expecting true happiness, was more than a bit too woolly.  In presenting it as bland blank verse (and allegedly poetic dialogue) it really doesn't help the general browser get charmed by this 'double life', and that's a shame, for the way the muse of poetry was supposed to be an alternative for our heroine was both vital to the piece, and autobiographical for our author.  Still, if you enjoy Austenesque tales of young women trying to requite their beaux and their destinies, this is certainly worth looking at.
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We all know the names of those great 19thC Russian authors, even if we haven't read any of their works. Their names are part of our cultural zeitgeist. They're all men, though! So I was delighted to discover that there were women authors working in 19thC Russia, too - and rather less than delighted to learn that their names and their work have been suppressed. 

Karolina Pavlova is one of those women authors, and I very much enjoyed reading her novel A Double Life (1848), translated by Barbara Heldt (1978). I found the novel very accessible and easy to read - in fact I read it twice in succession in order to appreciate better its depths. It's not half so daunting as some of the other Russian masterpieces can seem! And there are aspects of the story and the characters that we readers of English literature will find familiar. 

Pavlova is as clear-sighted as Jane Austen, for instance, and the novel considers similar subject matter to Austen - specifically, the very limited options available to a gentleman's daughter, and the many ways in which the one choice they're allowed in life can often go very wrong. Though I must say that the manipulative mothers of Cecily and her friend Olga make Mrs Bennet look like a lovable goodhearted blunderer! 

Cecily has been repressed and stunted into nothing more than a marriageable young woman, but at night her true nature reveals itself as she dreams in poetry. This reminded me in some ways of the character Katharine in Virginia Woolf's Night and Day, who pours tea for her mother's "at homes" in the afternoon, and works secretly on mathematics in her room at night. Cecily isn't conscious yet of her true nature, but she does start growing into more self-awareness as the story progresses.

I can't really talk about how the story ends without spoilers, but I will note that Austen and Woolf were working within a more optimistic worldview than we tend to expect from Russian novels. So there is plenty in here that we will find familiar, but it doesn't necessarily play out as we might wish.

Meanwhile, there are some terrific observations and clever wordplay to delight in along the way, such as a gentleman making a remark "with an unbearably meaningful laugh". Ugh! But what a clever way to convey his insinuation! Then there's the ironic "well-lighted and enlightened drawing room". And Cecily, of course, "so used to wearing her mind in a corset". Brilliant stuff.

Recommended for anyone interested in 19thC literature. You really can't go wrong!


The publisher kindly gave me an ARC of this book via NetGalley. The views expressed are my own, and are (always) still evolving.
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An absolute classic of the women writing genre, that ought to be read alongside A Room of One's Own... which I haven't read. I'll admit that here, since few of us have read A Double Life. 

Or that's the way I saw it. My interpretation emphasized that Cecily's nightly episodes, which are written in verse after each day's social life in prose, indicate she is as much a poet as her author. But she'll never know it except in these glimpses at the end of the day -- pre-marriage -- because she has been so straitjacketed, de-individualised, by her polite upbringing. Pavlova pulls no punches about how ruinous this upper-class socialisation is for the human being. She's compared to Austen, and I see that, but she is more at odds, at battle, with society -- not a reformer but a bomb-throwing protester. This is more tragedy than satire, though it's both.

The verse sections are necessary for the story: they have story in them, they have Cecily's underground reactions to her daytime life and its news. She talks to her muse, who is a random dead society acquaintance (as far as I can make out), reinvented as her voice of truth to herself, and who must leave her on her marriage, for there's no point after that. 

This new edition from the Russian Library at Columbia University Press -- the 
Barbara Heldt translation, previously published -- has a biographical introduction and an afterword on translation: on Pavlova as a working translator, and on translation of her text. I thought the biography at the front was worth getting the book for in itself. Rarely has the question 'Why wasn't there a woman Tolstoy, Dostoyevksy?' been answered in this devastatingly real way, simply through a frank look at Pavlova's life, without avoidance tactics.  

Pavlova knew how much it cost to become 'a woman writer'. She knew that the vast majority, like Cecily, who have the potential, cannot pay. It isn't Cecily's fault, either. Her subconscious poet struggles. To be stifled in marriage at the end.
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