“Давно хотелось нам своей певицы!
Поешь ли ты? Скажи иль да, иль нет.”
– Anna Bunina
I think about how moved I am sometimes by the discoveries I make of certain female writers and I wonder if it must seem rather silly to others. Yet in some contexts it’s so much harder to find the words of women than it is those of men; and when I think of the factors that have stood in our way (politically, culturally, economically, all the rest), and how much is simply lost with time, it’s a marvel to me that any of our writing survives at all.
I realised when I was studying Vera Pavlovna’s famous dream sequence in Chernyshevsky’s What is to be Done? that, of the Russian literature and thought I had studied last term, everything was written by men. Failing the words of a woman herself, it was so exciting finally to reach someone whose work dealt with the женский вопрос, the ‘woman question’; I wanted to know what he had to say, and I was curious as to how much of Vera’s story I would be able to identify with.
This line, as Chernyshevsky describes the position of women throughout history, struck me most of all, and stays with me still:
But soon the consciousness that she too was a human being began to awaken in her. What grief must have seized her at the dawning of even the weakest notion of her own human dignity!
And I thought, yes, he gets it, and I suppose it rather surprised me that he did. For it is painful, I think. I remember when I began to read in earnest what other women had to say about patriarchal culture, and how painful it was to realise the ways I have been subjected to it, how inescapable it is, how deeply ingrained hatred of women is in different facets of our society – and how it would take more time than a woman has in her life to undo the ways it becomes part of one’s mind. So thank you, Chernyshevsky, for articulating all that so succinctly. And yet – how good it would be, I remember thinking, to see a woman write about this.
The backstory is over, and so: in my quest to find some women’s voices from the same era, someone recommended Catriona Kelly’s Anthology of Russian Women’s Writing 1777-1992 to me, and it is the book I’ve always wanted but never known I could actually have.
One of the earliest works in the book, from 1818, Anna Bunina’s Разговор между мною и женщинами (Conversation between me and the women) brought me to tears. As I read that poem, and lingered over the line at the beginning of this post, which has stayed with me the most (“How long we’ve lacked a songstress of our own!/So, do you sing? Pray answer, yes or no?”), I thought of all the male Russian writers of that century I had read and studied – Chekhov to Chernyshevsky, Bakunin to Belinsky, Gogol’ to Grigoryev – and I thought of what a gift it was, then, to have hundreds of pages of women’s writing before me. I never cry at books, usually; the last, perhaps three years ago, was a collection of the letters of Eleanor Roosevelt and Lorena Hickok, but that was perhaps for the same reason: joy and relief at finding myself (specifically, in that case, my lesbian identity) where I had not expected it, and all the pain that comes with it and sharing in the ideas expressed. The elation, for example, of the women in the piece at finding a poetess who can write for them in ways men cannot was true then, and I experience their same feelings now (‘Сестрица-душенька, какая радость нам!’), two hundred years later. But so, also, do I share in their difficulty in finding that, and their feelings of wanting and waiting.
Here is the opening of the poem, from the perspective of the eponymous women:
Сестрица-душенька, какая радость нам!
Ты стихотворица! на оды, притчи, сказки
Различны у тебя готовы краски,
И верно, ближе ты по сердцу к похвалам.
Мужчины ж, милая… Ах, боже упаси!
Язык – как острый нож!
В Париже, в Лондоне, – не только на Руси, –
Везде равны! заладят то ж да то ж:
Одни ругательства, – и все страдают дамы!
Ждем мадригалов мы, – читаем эпиграммы.
От братцев, муженьков, от батюшков, сынков
Не жди похвальных слов.
Давно хотелось нам своей певицы!
Поешь ли ты? Скажи иль да, иль нет.
And another layer of sadness (does it ever end? is it just me?): as exciting as it is to discover poets like Bunina (those who speak Russian can find an archive of female Russian poetry at Бабий бунт), it makes me think also of all the women who must have written in the past – not only in Russia, but in all of Europe and further afield – that I will never get to read. Women who wrote and who were never published; women who kept their writing to themselves, and never let it see the light of day; women who so kept it to themselves that they never even put pen to paper; women who doubted themselves; women who would have written, but were illiterate. I can walk into a library and find a great wealth of women living and writing in this day and age, but when one looks to the past the search becomes much harder.
Cixous wrote about this necessity of women writing for themselves, I think (in The Laugh of the Medusa), but it’s been years and years and I cannot remember her words well, only that they were something very new and striking to my fourteen-year-old self, and I don’t want to mis-remember or misinterpret them; so those are other thoughts for another day.
I had the same feeling this week when I came across The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon in a charity shop. I’ve been meaning to read it for years – Aidan Chambers drew from it for the last (and in my opinion best) book in the Dance Sequence, This Is All, so that is how I first came to know of it, but I’ve never been able to find a copy until now. The opening line had the same bittersweet effect on me as it did to read Bunina:
In spring it is the dawn that is most beautiful.
I look, despite our cultural differences, for the similarities there are in the way that we look at the world. It does not take a woman to write about the dawn. That I know; but these words mean more to me because they were. I treasure them because they were written by someone like me; and because they crossed a language for me to be able to read them in English, and lasted a thousand years to reach me; it is a blessing and a very great gift.