Autobiographical Poetry, or Poetic Autobiography? K. Pavlova’s 1847 Invective Epistle “We Are Contemporaries, Countess”

Russia’s two leading women poets of the mid-nineteenth century, Karolina Pavlova and Evdokija Rostopčina, never enjoyed friendly relations. Yet, to judge by the invective tone of Pavlova’s January, 1847 epistle to Rostopčina, “My sovremennicy, grafinja,” their relations had reached an all-time low point at this time. In the epistle, Pavlova contrasts the emancipated travelling and writing of “Russia’s George Sand,” Rostopčina, with her own quiet example: Pavlova stays at home and minds her husband. Pavlova’s epistle became widely known, and memoirists writing subsequently about Pavlova and her husband quote this poem as biographical fact. Yet, autobiographically, the poem’s claims are exaggerated, if not outright false. Why did Pavlova insist that she played a submissive role in her marriage? Why did she feel compelled to attack Rostopčina in 1847? Why does the poem, nevertheless, work on many levels?

In the melee of the real lives of those involved, much was at stake: (Rostopčina’s alleged) out-of-wedlock daughters stashed abroad for upbringing, an allegory on Poland that enraged Nicholas I, and the attention of Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. Scandal and rivalry, reflected in Pavlova’s epistle, have claimed the attention of readers and historians for a century and a half. Yet, where the poem’s autobiographical claims may be tenuous at best, the poem’s poetic innovations may have been overlooked: the poem covers new ground in formal areas such as genre, lexicon and voicing. The poem’s sharp wit and invective tone might be considered unacceptably bold stances for a woman author, if not for the implication that this poem, like Pavlova’s other verse, had already received her husband’s stamp of approval.

Such gestures of submission to male authority may allow Pavlova to appropriate authorial stances comfortably used by male, but not by female, poets. Without these gestures of submission, such an authoritative, invective and playful narrative voice might have proven indigestible to her audience. Pavlova’s successful appropriation of narrative stances from “male poetic territory” may have inspired Rostopčina herself, the target of the invective, as well as later women poets, to use similar devices to their own advantage.