Dashkova's Memoirs and the Mystery of the Brooke Manuscript

Kelly Herold, Grinnell College

What we are reading when we read Dashkova's memoirs has been the subject of intense debate since the 1880s. As is well known, the autograph of the memoirs did not survive and only two copies of the French-language original (1805) remain-one in London (the Brooke Manuscript) and the other in St. Petersburg. Martha Wilmot, an Irish friend and guest of Dashkova's at the time of the composition of the memoirs, published an English translation in 1840. It was this translation that became the basis of all further editions--including ones in French and in Russian--until 1881 when Petr Bartenev published the St. Petersburg copy in Arxiv Voroncova.

On the eve of the publication of the St. Petersburg text, scholars, political figures and Martha Wilmot's own daughter became involved in a heated debate as to the authenticity of the Brooke and St. Petersburg manuscripts and as to the faithfulness of the 1840 Wilmot translation. The accuracy of the 1840 translation was of utmost importance to Russian critics as it was the text the majority of readers knew. While it has been shown that the Wilmot translation omits much from the Brooke manuscript and, indeed, includes some new "linking passages" (as termed by Wilmot), the changes have become essential to how we read and know Dashkova today.

Of course translation in the mid-nineteenth century was different from what it is today and, thus, we must not believe Wilmot when she claims the text is entirely faithful. The changes Wilmot made (changes that were emulated in almost all later copies and translations) were not insignificant. Most obviously, Martha omitted dangerously overt political commentary. Secondly, Martha excised passages relating to Dashkova's personal and familial failures (her daughter's debt and prosecution, for example, is glossed over by Wilmot). And, finally, and most importantly, Martha adds a number of "humility topoi"--passages in which "Dashkova" implores the reader not to find her too presumptuous in her opinions or too impressed by her own abilities--into the text. The end result is a portrait of a woman who found herself in the center of power and is amazed and humbled by her good fortune. In reality, Dashkova made no such assertions when writing her memoirs. She was not surprised by her mental abilities or by her proximity to power in late eighteenth-century Russia. Martha Wilmot and her translation of Dashkova's memoirs changed how we perceive Dashkova "in her own words" and, moreover, how we see and have seen women in power in eighteenth-century Russia.