The Russian Amazon: Subversive Features of an Early Nineteenth-Century Sentimental Heroine

Alessandra Tosi, Cambridge University

This paper introduces and analyses a counter-example to the received notion of a uniformity in the portrayal of sentimental heroines in the early nineteenth century. With reference to the work of Vinogradov, Levin and Uspenskij on the phenomenon of feminization and of Kelly and Hammarberg on the formation of a “feminine canon,” I suggest that the literary image of the idealized woman is still very much in the making during the first decade of the nineteenth century.

The anonymous novel The Russian Amazon, or of the Heroic Love of a Russian Woman (1809) provides an interesting example of an unconventional portrayal of a positive female character and effectively contradicts many of the staple features of the sentimental heroine. Ol′ga, the “Russian amazon” of the title, is a gentlewoman whose sentimental attachments and patriotic feelings lead her away from the idyllic setting of her father’s home. In order to follow her fiancé, Ol′ga cross-dresses as a man and joins the Russian army in the 1806–7 campaigns against Napoleon. The adventures of this unlikely sentimental heroine span from her heroic deeds in the battlefield and the hazardous liberation of her fiancé from the French, to the explicit description of a string of sexual attacks that Ol′ga endures. In the idyllic ending the “Russian amazon,” who has eventually abandoned her combative persona, returns to the paternal home and marries her fiancé, thus fully reconciling herself with the socially acceptable role of dutiful daughter and wife.

The duality of this heroine—Sentimental and adventurous—is also reflected at a stylistic level where modes typical of “high” Sentimental prose coexist with patterns borrowed from popular eighteenth-century genres, including the picaresque narrative and the novel of adventure. As this paper demonstrates, by encompassing Ol′ga’s warfare and erotic adventures within the framework of the idyll-type story the author attempts to graft features of this transgressive heroine onto “the” early nineteenth-century model for cultivated prose fiction: Sentimentalism.