The 19th-Century Feminist Novel Pushed Out of the Russian Canon

Karolina Pavlova’s A Double Life examines internalized oppression—and insists on the independence of the unconscious mind.

Columbia University Press

Karolina Pavlova, born in 1807, wasn’t a woman who acted in accordance with social norms. The leader of a respected Moscow literary salon, she was also devoutly committed to her own writing. That trait was greeted with animosity from many of her male contemporaries, who disparaged her readiness to share her work as unwomanly and approached her soaringly emotive poetry with suspicion. Even so, Pavlova’s novel A Double Life shook the Russian literary world when it was published in 1848, earning widespread praise for its revolutionary form and psychological acuity. Pavlova had written a book depicting a woman’s struggle against social constraints, and—a full half century before Freud popularized the idea of the subconscious—insisting on the independence of the unconscious mind.

The slim mixed-genre novel—translated by Barbara Heldt and released this year in a new edition after decades out of print—follows the 18-year-old Cecily von Lindenborn as her mother attempts to find her a husband. Cecily’s days, written in prose, are filled with the pleasures of a rotely feminine aristocratic life: romance, balls, and new dresses. But at night, her dreams are narrated in poetry, sensual verses with an intense pull toward the natural world. Pavlova constructed a strikingly prescient psychological vision: a mind responding to extreme social pressure by slowly and completely separating itself into parts, but giving few external indications of change.

While A Double Life was uniquely experimental in portraying its protagonist’s internal conflict, it fit within a growing tradition of novels interested in the idea that women might suffer internally because of their social confines. Nineteenth-century literature—from Sir Walter Scott’s 1819 novel, The Bride of Lammermoor, to Edgar Allan Poe’s 1839 story “The Fall of the House of Usher”—is full of representations of women driven mad by controlling men. The 1830s saw a number of Russian writers, including Vladimir Odoyevsky and Mikhail Lermontov, begin to center their work on individualistic women who pushed back on their constraints. This theme would reach its pinnacle in 1877, with Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina.

A Double Life marked a midpoint in the development of that literary arc, both in Russia and in Europe at large. Written contemporaneously with Jane Eyre, the first great Western novel of the feminine psyche, the book is less skillfully crafted than its British cousin: The familiar marriage plot has few narrative twists, and while Cecily’s plight is persuasive, her character is too lightly sketched to elicit real empathy. Pavlova’s prose and poetry are so radically distinct in style that seeing the novel as a cohesive whole is sometimes difficult. A Double Life is compelling but unwieldy—too modern for its time, yet also too yoked to its own literary period to transition easily into the present day.

Even so, the book is remarkable for its insights about the workings of internalized oppression. The social system in A Double Life is defined by male supremacy; one of Cecily’s suitors is alarmed when a woman speaks, “not having expected the unseemly retort from this living piece of furniture.” Yet it’s enforced primarily by women, who train one another—both directly and through persistent social sanctions—to conform. In one of the novel’s sharpest sequences, a group of women professes to mourn a deceased peer while criticizing her as an “empty” and “imprudent” woman who “didn’t know how to keep the love of her husband.” Mothers prepare their daughters for marriage by pruning away any traces of individuality. All this coaching, Pavlova writes in Chapter 3, leaves Cecily “so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarment that she took off only at night.” The description is an early indication that Cecily will suppress the rebellious notions introduced in her dreams, no matter how enticing they may be. She can’t notice the restraints on her mind, so how could she be open to the possibilities created when they lift?

In fact, even in sleep Cecily can’t fully shed the acquiescence she’s been taught to accept as natural. Both her prose waking life and her poetry dreams are written almost entirely in third person, making her—true to her training—a mostly passive participant in her own story. As if to underscore the extent to which her experience of oppression comes at the hands of women, the vision of freedom in her dreams takes the form of an anonymous man. He is blunt about both her shortcomings and her potential, declaring, “That prisoner of society’s world, / That sacrifice to vanity, / The blind slave of custom, / That small-souled being isn’t you.” In her rare responses to his provocations, Cecily is attracted by the independent thinking he encourages, but is much more deeply frightened by the threat it poses to her comfort. “You always turn / My happiness to lies,” she accuses him, begging to be left alone even as she acknowledges, “You light a ray of thought in me.” Before her wedding, he bids her a condemnatory farewell, predicting that the future to which she’s “been sentenced” will require her to excise the part of herself that is drawn to freedom. “Silence your own dreams,” he says.

Decades after the publication of A Double Life, as psychological research began to remake long-accepted ideas about identity, modern literature would take the complexity of the mind as one of its great themes. In the early 1900s, when Pavlova’s battles with her critics had long faded from memory, the new Russian avant-garde rediscovered her work, and she became a mascot for its own literary explorations of thought and consciousness. Both Andrei Bely and Anna Akhmatova, two of the most revered Russian writers of the 20th century, cited her poetry as a singularly formative influence.

In her own time, though, Pavlova was an outlier whose pride in her liberated mind led to her social isolation. She made the protagonist of A Double Life her opposite: a woman who stays bound to society, with little interest in breaking free. Yet the novel leaves open the possibility of living between those extremes. As Cecily prepares for her wedding, her sleeping and waking lives briefly cohere. She repeats some of the dream suitor’s lines while completing her bridal attire: “So, go as you’ve been sentenced / Defenseless and alone.” Pavlova lets linger the question of where Cecily’s first conscious connection of her two selves might take her, and closes the book with a poem that is, unexpectedly, in first person. Its speaker is pessimistic, but defiant: “Though I throw treasure after treasure / Into the stormy depths of the sea of life: / Blessed the one who, arguing with the storm, / Can salvage something precious.”