Karolina Pavlova’s Reminiscences and the Issue of Poetic Identity

Donald Loewen, University of Wisconsin, Madison

When Karolina Pavlova, one of nineteenth-century Russia’s most prominent woman poets and a woman widely known for her passionate devotion to poetry, decided to write her autobiography it would seem natural that she would provide some clues about her views on poetry and an assessment of her identity as a poet. Instead, the only known segment of Pavlova’s autobiography contains virtually nothing to mark its author as a poet. Granted, this fragment describes only Pavlova’s childhood and youth: one might argue that her years of poetry were to be treated in succeeding installments. Yet the autobiographies of Fet, Cvetaeva, Pasternak, Deržavin and others all show significant “markers” which identify the writer as a poet from childhood. In Pavlova’s case there is an abundance of witty, ironical prose, but no sign of the poet who emerged to become one of the pivotal figures in Russian literary society of the mid-1840s.

I would like to explore the striking dichotomy between the proud, poetry-obsessed Pavlova presented in memoirs and biographies, and the sensitive, imaginative figure revealed in Pavlova’s Reminiscences. Because of the peculiar character of Pavlova criticism, where the absence of substantial historical data about Pavlova’s life has been obscured by the constant recirculation of several very colorful, very derogatory memoir descriptions of Pavlova by her contemporaries, I will make a special effort to juxtapose the picture of Pavlova found in secondary literature with the portrait that emerges in Pavlova’s own prose. I will focus particularly on the “missing material” in this autobiography, the striking absence of any indication that the writing subject of this work was in fact an accomplished poet whose very survival depended on her literary gifts.

Throughout, my approach is based on a methodology similar to that used by Lidija Ginzburg, Paul John Eakin, Jurij Lotman and others who believe that the connection between autobiography and “real life” is an important element in the study of autobiography.

A second element in this paper, and one which is inextricably bound together with the issue of Pavlova’s self-identity as a poet, is the issue of gender politics. I will briefly analyze the biased attacks aimed at Pavlova during her lifetime and in succeeding decades, as well as recent corrective attempts by feminist critics. I will argue that Pavlova’s autobiography actually betrays virtually none of the anxiety that one might expect to find in the autobiography of a woman poet at this time (see Clyman and Vowles, Russia Through Women’s Eyes), and suggest why Pavlova might be an unusual example of a woman entering the “gender gap” in Russian literary circles of the nineteenth century.