Contextualizing Nade&zhachekda Durova's Male Persona

Ian Helfant, Colgate College

Nadezhda Durova's appropriation of a male persona in her own life and in certain of her autobiographical and fictional writings has been analyzed from several points of view—as a vehicle that allowed her to escape the constraints of feminine domesticity, as a psychological and social role into which she settled fairly comfortably over time (and abandoned only in part and with reluctance after leaving the military), and as a tactical means of gaining a voice as an author. Focusing especially upon her Notes of a Cavalry Maiden and her military tales, scholars have noted Durova's occasional inconsistency in maintaining her masculine voice, as well as her tendency to emphasize issues that would not typically be foregrounded in accounts of military life by men (Zirin, Savkina, Ornackaja, etc.). In one of Durova's Povesti i rasskazy of 1839, for example, an officer who is secretly female narrates the story of a young girl who has been ruined by marriage to a syphilitic, emphasizing the consequences of male vice for an innocent girl (Gheith).

My paper aims to extend our understanding of the ways in which Durova's particular modulations of a masculine perspective reflected larger narrative strategies adopted by women authors of her day. When Durova, for example, critiques male institutions or behaviors from within her own "mask," how does this relate to similar criticism by other women writers? I pay particular attention to the use of embedded male narrators in society tales of the 1830s by Evdokija Rostopchina and Marija Zhukova. These provide a comparative context for analyzing Durova's narrative personae, as well as the specific means by which gender perspectives are embedded in her autobiographical and fictional writings. For example, I explore the ways in which Durova's narrative voice as an officer who is secretly female differs from that of a hussar officer who serves as an embedded narrator in Rostopchina's 1838 tale "Poedinok." In both cases, female authors express points of view through male "surrogates," but clear differences separate the two narrative strategies. Similarly, Zhukova uses a sequence of male narrators in her Evenings on the Dikanka, several of whom privilege female perspectives. I argue that Durova's use of a male persona, while unique in its combination of real-life and literary incarnations, reflected a pattern of appropriation of male narrative positions by other women authors of her day. Frequently, this tactic was used to offer critical perspectives on masculine institutions and patterns of thought. Durova's narrative strategies can better be understood through this context.