A Woman’s Lot: Realism and Gendered Narration in Russian Women’s Writing of the 1860s

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Dr Margarita Vaysman is a Lecturer in Russian at the University of St Andrews, Scotland.

In March 1862, the first part of a novel titled Zhenskaia dolia (A Woman’s Lot) appeared in the leading Russian literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). The publication was signed “N. Stanitskii” and loyal readers would have recognized a name that had appeared in nearly every issue of the journal for the last fifteen years. Like the rest of “Stanitskii’s” fiction, Zhenskaia dolia offered a contribution to the debate on women’s rights. Not many of Sovremennik’s subscribers knew, however, that “N. Stanitskii” was in fact Avdot’ia Panaeva (1819-1893), a writer for whom the issues addressed in Zhenskaia dolia were a matter not merely of rhetoric but of personal experience.

A hostess of the Sovremennik’s influential literary salon and Nikolai Nekrasov’s co-author and common-law wife, Panaeva was a successful writer in her own right who had, by 1862, already published ten popular short novels. Although publishing under a male pseudonym was an established practice among mid-nineteenth-century women writers, Panaeva’s use of the ostensibly male narrative persona in Zhenskaia dolia was not just a marketing strategy. As the novel’s plot unfolded, the subject of realist narration as male privilege emerged as one of its main concerns, alongside the more common ruminations on the issues of female emancipation, tying the two inextricably together. Reflecting on the most pressing issues of the day, such as the utilitarian uses of literature and the political power of fictional narratives, Panaeva also addressed the problems contemporary critics specifically identified with women’s writing, such as excessive attention to detail, sketchy character description and weak plotting.

Instead of assuming the straightforwardly male “voice of authority,” Panaeva uses a self-consciously transgressive narrative voice to negotiate the novel’s problematic status as a realist narrative created by a woman writer. Throughout the novel, Panaeva’s narrator takes advantage of the division of readers into those aware of Stanitskii’s female identity and those who were not, oscillating between male and female narrative personae. First one and then the other are performed through complex rhetorical strategies of merging the identity of the narrator with that of his addressees. This double identification undermines the established narratorial voice of an objective male observer, borrowing the voice of authority whilst indirectly exposing its limitations.

Panaeva’s transgressive narratorial strategies do not just single her out as a woman writer self-consciously questioning the nature of her literary work. They also raise a number of questions that illuminate the importance of her texts for ongoing research on the gendered history and aesthetics of European realism: how did the transgressive narrative voice in Zhenskaia dolia relate a story composed by a woman but narrated by a man? How did it negotiate the literary and political status of a text at odds with the masculine aesthetics of Russian realism?

Panaeva’s transgressive narrative voice revealed to her readers the gendered nature of one of the fundamental narrative techniques of literary realism – focalization. Multiple switches from male to female narrator throughout the novel expose the privileged position of a male point of view. A male narrator is placed higher in both social and aesthetic hierarchies, is more reliable as a witness and is not hindered by aesthetic setbacks of feminine literary styles. Gendered focalization is used at structurally significant points in the novel to, for example, legitimize first-hand accounts of female suffering through a male perspective on the issue, narrate experiences of marginalized social groups, and challenge prescriptive discourses of femininity. Realist narration, a fashionable and politically approved style of literature in Panaeva’s milieu, is presented as a part of a wider framework of male privilege in society and the arts.

Zhenskaia dolia, Panaeva’s most polemical novel, came out in Sovremennik in March, April, and May 1862, serialized in three installments in issues 3 to 5. A novel in two parts, Zhenskaia dolia tells the story of the equally unhappy fates of several women of different ages, classes, backgrounds and dispositions. What unites these women are the tragedies inflicted on them by the men in their lives: treacherous and abusive lovers, husbands, fathers, grandfathers, employers and even evil travel-companions. Panaeva’s title immediately lets readers know that this is a text about the tragedy of a Russian woman’s lot. Dolia in Russian is rarely used to describe a happy fate, and mostly refers to “heavy lots” [tiazhelaia dolia]. The expression also presupposes certain fatalism—one’s “dolia” cannot be chosen; it is meted out and has to be borne. Most of Panaeva’s fiction tells stories of victims: of parental tyranny in Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh [The Tal’nikov Family] and the tyranny of men in Bezobraznyi muzh [Hideous Husband], Neobdumannyi shag [Reckless Step] (1850), Stepnaia baryshnia [Lady of the Steppes] (1855), Domashnii ad [A Domestic Hell] and other novellas. Zhenskaia dolia is no exception to this rule.

Up to a point, Panaeva’s narrator does not give any indications of his or her gender: grammatically, a first-person omniscient manner is used to convey reflections on the characters’ fates. But as the novel progresses, the persona of the narrator becomes more defined: he is himself male, as Panaeva’s chosen pen name “N. Stanitskii” suggests, but very concerned with the issue of female emancipation. Grammatically, the author remains male and addresses male readers (as the gendered verb flexes indicate) but rhetorically he is aligning himself with the women whose cause he is advocating.

At the same time, the narrator wants to make sure he is not perceived as someone who “sees all men as villains”—his text is intended for “young men.” Panaeva’s narrator occupies an ambivalent transgressive position and, oscillating between the male voice of authority and female voice of empathy, utilizes the narrative potential of both. But, at the same time, Panaeva’s choice of a male pen name and a male narrative voice put her in a vulnerable position as a realist narrator. On the one hand, adopting a male narratorial voice, she, as a woman, was only borrowing the male voice of authority. On the other, if the narrator was authenticating the events of the narrative by claiming first-hand knowledge of same events, then the non-gendered narrative voice could invalidate this strategy. The unavoidable division of readers into those who know the writer was a woman and those who do not created a space of gender ambivalence, in which the same statements could be in interpreted in at least two different ways. Are we to trust the narrator because, as a woman, she has herself experienced the kind of suffering she portrays, or are we to respect the narrator’s opinion because he is a man and, therefore, an objective distanced observer?

Panaeva’s narrator is reflecting on his own struggles to accommodate his style to the demands of contemporary realist prose. As a result, the reader is often offered a running commentary on the issue the narrator is trying to resolve: over/under descriptions of characters, the constraints of gendered narrative voices, realistic authentication of the events of the plot, the creation of narrative suspense and the dialogue with ideologically divided audiences. Zhenskaia dolia keeps up with the realist tradition, but exposes its limitations by bringing to the fore the issue of gendered focalization: the difference in how the story is perceived depending on whether it is told by a man of a woman. The narrative voice in Zhenskaia dolia is challenging the constraints of dominant contemporary aesthetic and political narratives, testing their boundaries and looking for opportunities for those brave enough to explore them. By following the rhetorical thrusts of the novel’s transgressive narrative voice, we can re-trace Panaeva’s strategy of negotiating a style of literary realism that, while acknowledging the limitations of gendered narration, makes full use of its advantages.