The Double Life of Karolina Pavlova


Arts & Culture

Karolina Pavlova. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

In the nineteenth century, when its literature equaled that written in any place at any time in history, Russia had no “great” woman writer—no Sappho, no Ono, no Komachi or Murasaki Shikibu, no Madame de Staël or George Sand, no Jane Austen or George Eliot—or so we might say when surveying the best-known works of the age. But we now know this truth to be less than true.

Karolina Pavlova, born Karolina Karlovna Jaenisch in Yaroslavl in 1807, died in Dresden in 1893 after having lived outside Russia for four decades. She had abandoned her native country not because of czarist oppression but because of hostile criticism of her poetry and her personal life. She died without friends, without family, without money, without renown (not a single Russian newspaper gave her an obituary) but with an unyielding dedication to what she called her “holy craft,” which had produced a body of fine literary, largely poetic, works.

In 1848, when she had completed her only novel, A Double Life, Pavlova was not only devoted to art but also enjoyed other, more transient pleasures like love, friendship, and respect, which she was to lose later on. To judge from the irony that pervades her otherwise romantic description in this book about a young girl who has everything, Karolina Pavlova had come to expect little from the world beyond what her own talents and personality could bring to it. The theme of conflict between poet and society had informed the works of the great lyric poets who were her predecessors, Alexander Pushkin and Mikhail Lermontov.

Pavlova returned to this theme again and again, translating her emotions into verse of abstract classical precision, which her detractors called cold, heartless, and remote from the so-called real problems of life. Even when there was admiration for her poetry, it was mixed with ridicule of her personally. Thus, a letter of her fellow poet N. M. Iazykov in 1832 contains hints that this extraordinary phenomenon—a woman poet—was somehow ridiculous when reciting her poetry, as was then the custom. In this way was engendered a more subtle conflict than that of poet versus society: that of woman poet versus society and ultimately, of woman versus poet within Pavlova herself.


As much as any woman of her time could in Russia, Pavlova lived in a man’s world. Her father, Karl Jaenisch, was a professor of physics and chemistry at the School of Medicine and Surgery in Moscow; many university professors in Russia were, like him, of German origin. Jaenisch adored his daughter and saw to it that she received a superb education at home—the only place in Russia where a woman could get a higher education (Moscow University was not officially open to women until 1876, although various so-called women’s courses existed beginning in the early 1870s).

Her first romantic love was the great Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz, who tutored her in Polish (she already knew French, German, Spanish, Italian, Swedish, and Dutch, as well as Russian) and was stunned by her literary talent. In the late 1820s, Karolina Jaenisch was already attending the important literary gatherings in Moscow, translating poetry, and writing her own works in German and French. In 1833, her first book appeared—a translation of Russian poets into German called Das Nordlicht.

In December 1836, she married Nikolai Pavlov, a minor figure in the world of letters whose talent soon ran dry. Pavlov’s friend B. N. Chicherin wrote in his memoirs that Pavlov confessed to having married Karolina for her money—“a social misdemeanor,” Chicherin says, “that is quite usual and looked upon with indulgence.”

On Thursdays in their Moscow house from 1839 to 1844, the leading figures of the day attended the Pavlovs’ literary salon. Poets would read aloud from their latest works, and the exponents of the two social philosophies of the age, the Slavophiles and the Westernizers, would gather for sharp debate until their mutual hostility grew too great for social gatherings to countenance. The Pavlovs had a son named Ippolit, who recalled how his mother would often retire from her large and noisy household and compose her verses by speaking them aloud, walking back and forth in her room, repeating, rearranging, and modifying words and phrases.

An alien figure both because she was perceived as being “German” and because she was a woman poet, Pavlova lived above all for her art. The recurrent theme in her relationships with all her famous contemporaries is her need, through their friendship, to confirm her view of herself as a poet. In poetry dedicated to them, she constantly reiterates what she wrote to Yevgeny Baratynsky in 1842: “You have called me poet, / Liking my careless verse; / And I, warmed by your light, / Believed, then, in myself.”

But circumstances of her life conspired to undermine this belief. If Pavlov married Karolina for her money, he soon began to gamble it away, sometimes at the rate of 10,000 to 15,000 rubles in an evening. Friends noticed that as her literary fame increased and his declined, he grew jealous: “Soon her poetry will be read more than his short stories. It seems he fears this.” Pavlov set up a separate household with a younger cousin of his wife, whom Karolina had taken in and helped support.


The loneliness of Pavlova’s position was greatly intensified by the fact that, despite the long list of famous men among her acquaintances, most of her male contemporaries disliked her intensely and interpreted her shaky pride as haughtiness, and her love of poetry as theatrical posing. As a Soviet scholar has written: “The ironic references to Karolina Jaenisch are as frequent as the well-wishing ones, if not more frequent, and the latter in their tone … invariably include a shade of irony and mockery. The number of epigrams aimed at Jaenisch appear not less in number than the number of album verses full of praise and ecstasy.” To many, Pavlova’s claim to live only for her art seemed a monstrous thing in a woman—or at best something to be indulgently patronized.

From I. I. Panaev, the powerful editor and minor writer and publicist, comes the most consistently unfavorable picture of her. He claims to have felt “timidity” in her presence:

Before me was a tall, extremely thin lady, stern and majestic in appearance … In her pose, in her glance was something affected, rhetorical. She stopped between two marble columns, with dignity she inclined her head slightly at my bow and then extended her hand to me with the majesty of a theatrical empress … Within five minutes I learned from Mrs. Pavlov that she had received much attention from Alexander [von] Humboldt and Goethe—and the latter had written some lines to her in her album … then the album with these precious pages was brought forth … Within a quarter of an hour Karolina Karlovna was declaiming to me some verses translated by her from German and English.

By drawing attention to her work, promoting it to an influential man of letters, Pavlova may have thought that she was acting in the normal professional manner, but this way of being a poet was perceived as grotesque in a woman. Panaev also relates that Pavlova treated her husband rudely (as well she might have, considering that by then, Nikolai was gambling away her entire estate). Panaev, too, seems to be responsible for the glib slanders against Pavlova’s verse, which followed naturally from his dislike of her personally. Once, when Timofey Granovsky began to praise her poetry, Panaev set him straight by reading a parody of Pavlova, and from then on, or so he claims, Granovsky had nothing further to do with her.

Panaev’s poem, like all his “parodies,” is actually a satire directing itself at Pavlova’s person, rather than an attempt at parodistic imitations of the qualities of her verse. Another and more genuine parody of Pavlova, called “My Disillusionment,” by another critic on the left, the poet Nikolay Nekrasov, bemoans the possibility that women might want to give up jelly-boiling and pickle-making for philosophy and literature. One can only regret that Nekrasov, who often expressed in his poetry a voyeuristic sympathy for “fallen women” (as prostitutes of the time were romantically called), was incapable of extending the same sympathy to women of his own class.

Even Pavlova’s literary friends wrote, if not articles and memoirs, then private letters condemning her as a woman. The Slavophiles appreciated Pavlova as a poet not only for the nationalist content of some of her verses but also for making Russian poetry known abroad through her translations. Yet when Pavlova finally took matters in hand and initiated proceedings that led to her husband’s arrest after he mortgaged her property in secret, even her closest friends turned against her. She could not have foreseen that Pavlov’s reputation as a liberal would bring about a search of his library, which contained some banned books; as a result of this discovery, he was jailed and sentenced to a ten-month exile in Perm. He was later pardoned by the authorities and returned to live with his wife’s cousin, but their friends never forgave Pavlova.


During the early months of 1853, Pavlova wrote nothing. She left for Petersburg, where her father died in a cholera epidemic. Trying to avoid contagion, she left without attending his burial, and a new scandal arose because of her treatment of the dead man. In May 1853, she settled in Dorpat with her son and mother. In the midst of her distress, she met a law student named Boris Utin, twenty-five years younger than she, who became the profoundest love of her life. Her long poetic silence was broken in January 1854 with a poem that celebrated their meeting and the rare relationship of equals that Pavlova needed to have with men.

In February 1854, Pavlova’s son, Ippolit, went back to Russia to live with his father and attend university the following year. Pavlova settled in Dresden in 1858 and remained there for the rest of her life—in exile from the language in which she wrote, from the poetic tradition that she had admirably continued, and from the country and the city she loved, scorned by the prominent people she had known best, who at their best were her literary peers.

Pavlova continued writing. She reminds one of George Sand, who worked eight hours a day regardless of the emotional turmoil in her life. One of Pavlova’s former literary friends, Ivan Aksakov, visited her in 1860 in Dresden, where she was living on a strict budget. Aksakov chose to give a negative interpretation to what might have been a refusal to let her grim life drag her under:

She, of course, was extremely happy to see me, but within ten minutes, even less, was already reading her verse to me … This is such a curious psychological subject, it should be studied. It would seem that the catastrophe which has befallen her, a true misfortune experienced by her, the separation from her son, loss of her place in society, name and wealth, her poverty, the necessity of living by her labors—all this, it would seem, would strongly shake a person, leave profound traces on him … nothing of the sort, she is the same as always, has not changed at all except that she has grown older and everything that has happened to her has only served as material for her verses.

In exile, Pavlova came to view life as a challenge to survive. As she wrote to Olga Kireeva from Dresden on July 22, 1860, when alone and beset by financial difficulties, “I am occupied with the contemplation of an interesting experiment; I wish to see whether everything that befalls me will strengthen me; whether I will withstand it or not.” But even in exile, Pavlova, who was never closed to life, was able to form her last great literary friendship with a man who treated her not as a monster, but as an admired equal—Aleksey Konstantinovich Tolstoy, the poet, playwright, and humorist. They met in Dresden in 1860, and she translated his poetry and plays into German so that they could be acclaimed outside his native country. As his letters show, she also helped him with the Russian originals. He in turn secured a pension for her from the Russian government and corresponded warmly and solicitously with her until his death in 1875. Pavlova outlived him by eighteen years and died worse than reviled—she died utterly forgotten.


To be more than charitable, we might say that Pavlova’s life and art were so badly misread by her contemporaries because she was such a unique phenomenon in Russia. The eminent scholar B. Ya. Bukhshtab writes of how the first century of the new Russian poetry, from 1740–1840 approximately, brought forth not one notable woman author. Pavlova’s only contemporary female poet of note, the Countess Evdokiia Rostopchina, was as different from Pavlova as were the cities in which they lived, St. Petersburg and Moscow. Rostopchina’s poetry, aside from being stylistically less interesting than Pavlova’s, reads more like a chronicle of her vastly more successful life.

This more intimate, domestic sort of poetry (“I am only a woman … ready to be proud of this,” Rostopchina wrote in her lyric “Temptation”) was and is generally considered appropriate to women writers. Pavlova’s own verse—its feeling restrained, and lyric meditation or elegy being her preferred genre—was considered by her contemporaries, as it was by the modern Russian poet Vladislav Khodasevich, as “above all not feminine.” Pavlova’s lyrics, such as the cycle of poems inspired by her love for Boris Utin, can hardly be termed cold or abstract, but even when her poems reflect personal emotion, the feeling is both intensified and generalized, as is true in the case of most good poetry.

The publication of A Double Life in 1848, when Pavlova was at the height of her fame as a poet and translator, was a literary event that drew the attention of all the important literary journals of Russia. One chapter of the novel had been published a year before, and the full work was eagerly anticipated. The fact that it was part prose and part poetry seemed to bother no one; the reviewers understood the purpose of this structure and praised the quality of the poetry highly. Even The Contemporary’s anonymous reviewer called Pavlova’s new work “original in form, in the highest degree remarkable in content.” In one of the peculiar tributes to which women poets are subject, he stated that the poetry was so sharp and energetic that “it is difficult to recognize in it the tender hand of woman.”

A Double Life, a novel in ten chapters, is the story of a young girl named Cecily von Lindenborn, whom we see being trapped into a meaningless life and marriage by the people closest to her—her well-meaning mother; her best friend, Olga; and Olga’s mother, an experienced social manipulator. In the last chapter, Dmitry, Cecily’s suitor, marries her for money. Pavlova does an excellent job of describing this kind of man of little will, who is teased by his friends into a pledge of faithlessness to his marriage even before it takes place. As one of the bachelors says, “Who would want to get married if the blessed state of matrimony made it necessary to give up wine and good times?”

Like most of the great Russian novels of its time, this one is set in the aristocratic world. Pavlova excels in the topography of social relations: who sits near whom and who walks with whom determine whole years of a character’s life. The breaking of a blossom or closing of the latch on a jeweled bracelet symbolizes a future life broken or encircled.

Pavlova logically restricts her heroine to the female quarters of this world—enclosed and protected in domestic interiors or carriages traveling from house to house or from house to church. In the rare moments when Cecily steps onto a balcony or rides on horseback, she experiences a short-lived sense of exhilaration and of control over fate: “She gave herself over to the joy of riding horseback, to the attractions of this living force, this half-free will that carried her off and that she was guiding.”

Nevertheless, it is in the most secluded place, in her bedroom, that Cecily is the least constrained. Here, we see the revelations of her mind freed from its mental corset (to use Pavlova’s image). Every chapter has the same structure, with some variation—a day of society’s vanities and cruelties followed by a night of dreams. Each chapter begins in prose and ends in verse, with the verse expressing a kind of interior monologue to reflect the double life that Cecily leads. The sections linking them are often in rhythmical prose and describe a state of drowsing, between reality and dream. There are other links as well: she dreams about people she hears about in the drawing room by day and thinks in her waking hours of what she has seen in her dreams. Finally, dreams and waking have an inverse emotional correlation; the better that Cecily’s real life seems to become as her marriage approaches, the greater the anguish expressed in her poetic dreams.

Pavlova, as unabashedly as any of the nineteenth-century male writers that were her contemporaries, makes clear in her fiction her own preferences and values in life. Thus, the novel’s attitude toward poetry is the measure of the society of the novel. When a poet suffers and is ridiculed, society is condemned. Even Cecily dares set her creative mind free only in dreams; in her waking life, she knew “that there were even women poets, but this was always presented to her as the most pitiable, abnormal thing, as a disastrous and dangerous illness.” She describes men posing as carefully as women in society (they are equal in vanity); but her men have a particular crudeness that her women are free of, and some of her women have certain attractive virtues that her men at best only seem to have—“that violent female daring which is so far from manly valor.”

Pavlova possesses a romanticism that is characteristic of her time but mixed with an ironic sense of reality. We are told repeatedly that Cecily’s love for Dmitry is good even if Dmitry himself is not. Cecily’s mysterious sickliness both enhances her worldly beauty and brings her closer to the other world of which she dreams. The novel begins in the spring, when Cecily dreams of love, and ends in the autumn, when she is married. The coming winter is strongly implied.

The strength of this novel, as of Pavlova’s view of life, is that both merge these romantic concepts into an ultimately clear realism. The countless ironic touches in A Double Life—from purely lexical ones, such as the use of the word satisfied, to larger metaphors, like the one comparing marriage to a mother pushing her daughter out of the window onto the pavement below—prevent the reader from becoming too lost in the enjoyment of the details of how rich aristocrats live. Similarly, as much as we could wish a happier ending for Cecily, Pavlova leaves her, and us, with the one weapon against life that does not destroy life: consciousness. The double awareness that this is the way things are and ought not to be, and the high quality of Pavlova’s narrative and poetic style, are themselves a vivid protest against the destiny of women.

And the first sentence of the first chapter (“ ‘But are they rich?’ ”) is the best opening line of any Russian novel. In Russian, it takes only two words: “A bogaty?”


Barbara Heldt is professor emerita of Russian at the University of British Columbia. Her books include Koz’ma Prutkov: The Art of Parody (1973) and Terrible Perfection: Women and Russian Literature (1987).

Excerpted from A Double Life, by Karolina Pavlova, translated by Barbara Heldt (Columbia University Press), part of the Russian Library series.