Karolina Pavlova Critical Essays

Introduction

Karolina Pavlova 1807‐-1893

(Full name Karolina Karlovna Pavlova) Russian poet, novelist, short story writer, and translator.

Pavlova is acknowledged as Russia's greatest nineteenth-century woman poet and the first woman of letters in Russia. Despite this, she had a mixed career and even today suffers a reputation as a marginal figure in world literature. Her greatest literary contribution was the development of the “story in verse.”

Biographical Information

Pavlova was born Karolina Jänisch; in Yaroslavl, Russia, on July 10, 1807 to a German father and a French-English mother. Pavlova spoke four languages by the time she was five and took an early interest in drawing and writing poetry. Her father, Karl Andreevich Janisch, educated her at home, where she excelled at her studies. At the age of nineteen, Pavlova met Adam Mickiewicz, the great Polish poet who became her Polish language teacher. The two began a love affair and planned to marry, but the relationship ended in 1829. In the late 1820s Pavlova began translating Russian poetry into German and quickly made a name for herself in literary circles. In 1829 she began exchanging verse letters with the poets Evgenii Abramovich Baratynsky and Nikolai Mikhailovich Iazykov. By the time Pavlova had published her first book of translations, Das Nordlicht (1833), she had established herself as one of the finest translators of Russian poetry. Luminaries such as Johann Wolfgang von Goëthe praised Pavlova's ability to render the subtler aspects of poetry in her translations. When she was thirty, Pavlova married the writer Nikolai Filippovich Pavlov.

In the early 1840s Pavlova was known for her Moscow literary salon, where many of the literati of the day gathered. The salon provided a venue for exponents of the two major social philosophies of the day—the “Slavophiles” and the “Westernizers”—to debate their ideas. Pavlova was associated with the “Slavophile” movement, which emphasized Slavic cultural supremacy over western European influences. She was also a central figure in the Russian “Art for Art's Sake” movement. While Pavlova's salon made her a prominent figure, her German ethnicity and gender caused some antipathy among her peers. She had a reputation for being haughty, “unwomanly,” and overly theatrical in her love of poetry and art. Despite this, Pavlova’s novel, Dvoinaia zhizn' (A Double Life) was well received at its publication in 1848.

Meanwhile, Pavlova's husband gambled away her fortune and set up a separate household with one of her cousins, with whom he had two children. In 1852, Pavlova's father arranged for Pavlov's house to be raided. Pavlov was arrested for possessing banned books and then exiled to Perm. Pavlov's liberal friends and associates saw this as an act of treachery on Pavlova's part and she was thereafter shunned by Moscow literary society. Shortly after this her father died of cholera. When Pavlova did not attend the funeral, she was again heavily criticized. By the mid-1850s she was exiled from the Russian literary scene. Having completely fallen out with her literary associates, Pavlova left Russia for Derpt, Estonia, where she fell in love with a law student named Boris Utin. In 1854 she followed Utin to St. Petersburg and tried, unsuccessfully, to reestablish her literary reputation. By 1855 Pavlova moved to Dresden, Germany after separating from Utin. She continued to translate, focusing on the works of Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoi, who became her close friend. In 1868, Pavlova returned to Russia briefly to read from one of her translations. She was not well received and returned to Dresden. Pavlova died alone, without family, friends, money, or reputation, on December 2, 1893.

Major Works

Pavlova first achieved fame by translating Russian poetry into German. Her translations of works by Alexander Pushkin, Iazykov, and others were collected in Das Nordlicht. The volume included several of Pavlova's original poems, but it was the translations that garnered praise from critics. Pavlova's next publication was a volume of Russian, German, English, Italian, and Polish poetry translated into French, entitled Les préludes (1839). Once again, critics hailed Pavlova's translations for their artistic coloring and faithfulness to the originals. However, Pavlova's work came under attack from some quarters because of the “Slavophile” tendencies of the poems chosen for inclusion in the volume. Pavlova's early poetry was heavily influenced by the German Romantics, and the original works in Das Nordlicht and Les préludes have fairy-tale and fantastic elements, exploring the connection of the human soul with the mysterious powers of nature.

During the 1840s, Pavlova began her distinctive use of storytelling in poetry. Unlike lyric poetry or ballads, her short “stories in verse” included complex tales with distinct plots and psychological details normally found only in prose works. A Double Life is the finest example of her mixed-genre technique. Pavlova's combined use of poetry and prose finds its most imaginative expression in A Double Life. The novel tells the story of Cecily von Lindenborn, a young aristocratic Russian woman who is to be married off to a suitable groom. The prose provides descriptions of the objective world, while the poetry gives expression to the inner life of the heroine. The work comments on the role and status of women in society, as well as exploring society's attitudes toward poetry and the artist. Like much of Pavlova's work, A Double Life draws on her own experiences as a woman and artist trapped in a society that denies her the freedom to choose her own destiny.

Pavlova's later poetry, mostly in the form of longer narratives, continues to use this technique. The poems in Razgovor v Kremle (1854) relate episodes from the Russian past and considering the historical destinies of nations. The narrative poem Kadril' (1859) is made up of four separate stories, each about a different woman and her fate in the world. The work deals with a theme that runs through much of Pavlova's work: woman's destiny.

Critical Reception

Critical assessment of Pavlova's writing remains mixed. During her life Pavlova was both admired for her poetic sensibility and technical mastery and reviled for the “unfeminine” and overly rational nature of her poetry and artistic outlook. During the 1830s she earned praise for her superlative translation work. Her fame as a poet and literary persona grew in the 1840s, although she was often criticized for the lack of serious content in her poetry and many complained that the poet subordinated sense to sound. However, as testament to her importance as a literary figure, the publication of Pavlova's novel A Double Life. drew the attention of all the important Russian literary journals. Reviews of the work called it original and remarkable, though some critics complained of her conspicuous Slavophilic tendencies and unconvincing social critique. Pavlova's later poetry enjoyed mixed success, perhaps due to her personal unpopularity. Critics faulted her supposedly “neutral” position on important social questions. Although she continued writing and translating after her husband's arrest, her reputation never recovered. At her death, not one Russian journal ran her obituary.

In the twentieth century, Symbolist poets reevaluated Pavlova's work and a two-volume edition of her work was brought out in 1915 by Valerii Briusov. The Soviets at first dismissed her work as unprogressive, but did publish two editions of her writings, in 1939 and in 1964. Several Russian women poets, including Cherubina de Gabriak, Sofiia Parnok, Marina Tsevtaevna, and Anna Akhmatova, have held Pavlova in high regard, appreciating her impatience with female passivity and her protest against the strictures that hampered female creativity. Since the 1970s, interest in Pavlova's work has increased. Feminist scholars have revived interest in Pavlova's writings about the role and destiny of women, as well as the story of her own life, as examples of the difficulties faced by women artists in the nineteenth century. Contemporary critics also examine the techniques Pavlova used, especially her combined use of poetry and prose. Some critics find her work to be disorganized, diffuse, lacking in artistic focus, and revealing too much of the writer's personality. Others regard Pavlova's lyric poetry to be masterful in its subtlety, her narrative prose to be exquisitely wrought, and her themes (the role of the artist, the place of women in society, and the strictures placed on feminine creativity) to be ahead of their time.