Anastasija Verbickaja as Autobiographer

Charlotte Rosenthal, University of Southern Maine

Anastasija Verbickaja (1861-1928) wrote a two-volume autobiography, To My Reader (Moemu chitatelju) published in the years 1908 and 1911. When she started, she was almost 47 years old. She had just published the novel Spirit of the Time (Dux vremeni) which would become her first bestseller, bringing her both fame and infamy. As she embarked on her autobiography, she also began and completed the first of six volumes of the blockbuster Keys to Happiness (Kljuchi schast'a) that would make her a real phenom and even more despised by the literary establishment. This paper will look at the circumstances in which Verbickaja wrote To My Reader in order to analyze the uniqueness of this autobiography. While it partly approximates the "classic" tripartite structure of Aksakov's autobiography (Wachtel)--family history, childhood, education--it also displays certain features distinguishing it from that model, such as a focus on only the female family history (Clyman and Vowles), the presentation of female models of individuality, talent, achievement, and strong will--her grandmother, her mother, her sister (also a writer), the actress Ermolova, and George Sand, as well as a host of less prominent women who defy convention. It is also full of modernist motifs: the devotion to art, the uniqueness of exceptional individuals, the role of fate in human life, death and decay. The overriding theme of the autobiography is the restricted lives of women and the overcoming of those restrictions by exceptional individuals who carve out unique spaces for themselves through sheer determination. There is an underlying tension in the autobiography between Verbickaja's generalizing assertions as narrator and the more nuanced portrayal of her family and their relationships found in the detailed dialogues.

Virginia Woolf remarked that "very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies" (quoted in C. Heilbrun, Writing a Woman's Life, p. 13). Verbitskaja's autobiography was no exception, yet her "untruthfulness" is more an act of omission or omissions than false commissions to paper. This issue of truthfulness is particularly relevant to the revised version of volume one which she published along with volume two in 1911. Neverthless the two volumes of autobiography contain some of Verbickaja's most deft writing and they certainly soar above the quality of the two novels which considerably outsold them.

The paper draws on the insights of Slavic scholars who have made significant contributions to the study of Russian autobiography--Clyman and Vowles, Engelstein, Harris, Wachtel, Meisel, Heldt, Holmgren, Kolchevska, Liljestrom, Rosenholm, and Savkina--as well as the work of Western scholars, especially those who have focused on women's autobiography.