The woman question in nineteenth-century aristocratic Russia
With Elena Gan’s story we plunge into nineteenth-century drama. Olga is a poor but beautiful, bright and clever woman who is stuck in a marriage of convenience with the forty-year-old Colonel Holzberg; he knows all about cannons and munitions, but little of a woman’s heart which to him is an inextricable labyrinth. He had married because he had reached the age of 40 and wanted to settle down.
Olga finds herself thrown into a world which is alien to her, made of duties, norms and appearances and where her soul, which nourishes itself with beauty and poetry, is totally lost. Resigned to lead a life that does not belong to her but one to which she has to submit, mechanically carrying out the tasks assigned to her, she only comes back to life when she is alone with herself. And then Olga meets Anatolij, a poet celebrated by the polite society of Saint Petersburg and who represents – to her – the embodiment of the ideal man.
Sure enough, their time together leads the heroine to secretly fall in love with him, a love sublimated in a loving friendship but far from a sinful sensuality. But the handsome Anatolyi does not feel the same way and, flattered by such devotion, courts his innocent admirer with the sole purpose of seducing her. Disillusionment unfolds in the last pages, when Olga, dejected but not defeated, finds a love that is worthier of her.
Although the plot may seem alien to a contemporary reader’s sensitivity, the greatest strength of this long story lies in the portrayal of its characters, the protagonist above all. What strikes you is the modernity of a female character who, in the first half of the 19th century, asserts her own diversity. Olga/Elena overtly states her own suffering in having to comply with a model of womanhood – that of the wife-mother – which is so foreign to her. Her aspiration to poetry and beauty is her only escape from this alienating condition.
The refined language and the irony employed to taunt the upper classes definitely make this short novel anything but trivial. Olga’s passionate inner torments anticipate the dilemmas of other nineteenth-century sisters – first above all, Anna Karenina – and makes it an ante-litteram declaration of women’s empowerment.
Translation by Valentina Ornaghi (edited by Ester Tossi)