Disrupted Idylls

Nature, Equality, and the Feminine in Sentimentalist Russian Women’s Writing (Mariia Pospelova, Mariia Bolotnikova, and Anna Naumova) – With translations by Emily Lygo

by Ursula Stohler (Author)
©2016 Thesis 357 Pages
Open Access
Series: Slavische Literaturen, Volume 47


The study provides a close analysis of literary works by women in late-18th- and early-19th-century Russia, with a focus on Anna Naumova, Mariia Pospelova, and Mariia Bolotnikova. Political, social and feminist theories are applied to examine restrictions imposed on women. Women authors in particular were fettered by a culture of feminisation strongly influenced by the French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. As Sentimentalism and its aesthetics began to give way to Romantic ideals, some provincial Russian women writers saw an opportunity to claim social equality, and to challenge traditional concepts of authorship and a view of women as mute and passive.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Abstract
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on Conventions
  • Introduction
  • Chapter One: Sentimentalist Gender Concepts: Their Western Socio-Political Origins and Their Reception in Russia
  • Chapter Two: Literary Impacts of Sentimentalist Gender Conceptions in Russia
  • Chapter Three: Responses to Sentimentalist Gender Conceptions
  • Chapter Four: The Woman Writer as Interpreter of Creation: Mariia Pospelova
  • Chapter Five: Criticism of Sentimentalist Conventions: Mariia Bolotnikova
  • Chapter Six: Revisions of Sentimentalist Gender Concepts: Anna Naumova
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix
  • Pospelova
  • Bolotnikova
  • Naumova
  • Bibliography
  • Index

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Many people and institutions have generously assisted me in the writing of this book, for which I am profoundly indebted to them.

First of all I would like to thank my teachers at Kantonsschule Oerlikon near Zurich, in particular history teacher Ursula Verhein, who first drew my attention to gender aspects in the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and English teacher Verena Dedial-Lutz, whose feminist views and love of British culture were a great inspiration. I would also like to thank Professor emeritus Rolf Fieguth at the Department of Slavistics, University of Fribourg, Switzerland, who encouraged me to explore Russian Sentimentalist women’s writing, both in written assignments and in my Lizentiatsarbeit (comparable to a Master’s thesis), Anna Buninas Übersetzung von Boileaus Art Poétique im Problemkontext weiblicher Autorenschaft zu Beginn des 19. Jahrhunderts (Anna Bunina’s Translation of Boileau’s Art of Poetry in the Context of Female Authorship in the Early 19th Century).

A three-year Graduate Teaching Assistantship from the Department of Modern Languages, Russian Section, at the University of Exeter, UK, enabled me to explore the topic in depth and to complete my PhD thesis, Women Writers of the 1800–1820s and the Response to Sentimentalist Literary Conventions of Nature, the Feminine and Writing: Mariia Pospelova, Mariia Bolotnikova, and Anna Naumova. I am immensely grateful to my supervisors, Katharine Hodgson and Carol Adlam, for their continuous support, encouragement and invaluable advice, for their assistance in search of funding, and their generosity which allowed me to research this fascinating topic. Moreover, I am grateful to Wendy Rosslyn, without whose numerous comments as an external examiner of my thesis this book would not have seen the light of day.

The Overseas Research Student Award Scheme (Universities UK, England) provided generous additional financial assistance during those three years, as did contributions from two Swiss foundations, Dr. Max Husmann Stiftung für Begabte (Dr. Max Husmann Foundation for the Gifted), and Stiftung für die Frau (Women’s Foundation). Finally, the Postgraduate Research Fund of the School of Modern Languages at the University of Exeter, and the British Association of Slavonic and East European Studies funded research visits to Russian archives and libraries that were of crucial importance for the gathering of material for my study.

Various parts of this book were presented at conferences and research meetings, which produced valuable feedback from scholars in my field. In 2000, during the ← 9 | 10 → Osteuropa-Tage (Days of Eastern Europe) at the University of Fribourg, Switzerland, I presented work on Anna Bunina. In 2001 I compared Anna Bunina and Mariia Pospelova at the Junges Forum Slavistische Literaturwissenschaft (Young Forum for Slavonic Literary Studies) in Freiburg im Breisgau, Germany. At the Postgraduate Research Seminar at the University of Exeter in October 2001, I focused on women and poetry in imperial Russia.

In 2002, I explored the question of Russian women poets and the craft of writing at the Postgraduate Research Seminar, Schools of Modern Languages, Universities of Bristol and Exeter, UK. Subsequently, I gave a public lecture on the topic of early-19th-century Russian women writers, presented a paper on Sentimentalism’s potential for social criticism to the Interdisciplinary Conference ‘Beyond Anthropocentrism’, and addressed the question of the feminine myth in Russian Sentimentalism in a presentation to the Feminist Research Network, all at the University of Exeter.

In 2003 I presented a paper on women’s opportunities to become writers in the Sentimentalist era to the Annual Meeting of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia at Hoddesdon, UK, and to Professor Dr Natal´ia Kochetkova’s Study Group of Russian Eighteenth-Century Literature at Pushkin House in St Petersburg, Russia.

In 2005 I discussed the Russian reception of the French poet Mme Deshoulières’ meditative idylls during a research meeting of the Junges Forum Slavistische Literaturwissenschaft (Young Forum for Slavonic Literary Studies) in Bern, Switzerland, and–in 2006–at the conference Translators, Interpreters, Mediators: Women Writers 1700–1900 at Chawton House Library in Alton, UK, and at the conference Crossing Borders: Transpositions and Translations in Russian Culture in Cambridge, UK. Contrasting ideals of family structures in the work of Anna Labzina were at the centre of my presentation to the conference Familiengeschichten: Familienstrukturen in biographischen Texten (Family Stories: Family Structures in Biographical Texts) held in 2006 at the University of Bern, Switzerland.

In 2007 my presentation to the XIIème Congrès International des Lumières in Montpellier, France, focused on the research potential of texts by Russian Sentimentalist women writers which I had published online: The Corinna Project1 ran from January 2002 to October 2003 at the Department of Russian at the University of Exeter in collaboration with what was then the University’s Centre for Nineteenth Century European Literature. In 2008, at the conference Going European? ← 10 | 11 → New Approaches to European Women’s Writing in Utrecht, The Netherlands, I presented a paper on research opportunities in transcultural influences in Russian women’s writing. Finally, I presented a paper on conceptions of the muse in Anna Naumova’s writings during a panel on 18th-century Russian women at the National Convention of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies (formerly the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies) in Philadelphia, USA.

I am as grateful to participants of the aforementioned conferences for their advice, comments and discussions, as to the editors and reviewers of Aspasia and other publishers of articles mentioned below, whose feedback contributed to improving various aspects of this book. Among them are Maria Bucur, Anthony Cross, Krassimira Daskalova, Francisca de Haan, Amanda Ewington, Diana Greene, Gitta Hammarberg, Catriona Kelly, Joachim Klein, Natal´ia Kochetkova, Marcus C. Levitt, Charlotte Rosenthal, Wendy Rosslyn, Roland Vroon, Andrei Zorin, and the late Mikhail Fainshtein and Lindsey Hughes, who are both much missed.

Some parts of this book were previously discussed in articles, the most significant among them being, ‘Released from Her Fetters? Natural Equality in the Work of the Russian Sentimentalist Woman Writer, Mariia Bolotnikova’, in Aspasia: International Yearbook of Central, Eastern, and Southeastern European Women’s and Gender History: Women Writers and Intellectuals, 2008. The anthology Interdisziplinarität – Intermedialität – Intertextualität (Interdisciplinarity, Intermediality, Intertextuality) includes my publication ‘Parodie als Mittel der poetologischen Selbstbestimmung – Untersuchungen zu Bunina and Pospelova’ (Parody as a Means to Poetological Self–Determination: Bunina and Pospelova). The Newsletter of the Study Group on Eighteenth-Century Russia published my contribution, ‘“I Will Create Whatever I Want to”: Naturalness as a Source of Mastery in the Works of Sentimentalist Women Poets’. These publications were instrumental in helping me clarify the thoughts and reflections presented here.

A great source of inspiration was the tireless enthusiasm for transcultural influences in European women’s writing shown by Suzan van Dijk, with whom I had the welcome opportunity to co-author ‘NEWW: New Approaches to European Women’s Writing (before 1900)’ for the 2008 edition of Aspasia.

Amanda Ewington most kindly permitted me to read the manuscript of her work on Russian women poets of the 18th and early 19th centuries, and gave generous permission to use her translation of the preface and of one poem by Pospelova included in my book. I am grateful to Robert Chandler for referring me to Emily Lygo, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for translating all the other poems under the most extraordinary circumstances. ← 11 | 12 →

Daniel Henseler, Carolin Heyder and Ute Stock shared their opinions on my research topic. Professor Hans Badertscher at the Department of Didactics at the University of Bern, Switzerland, generously provided financial support for me to participate in some of these conferences, and gave me leave from teaching for this purpose. I am grateful to John Murray for his emotional support when I was about to embark on an academic career in the UK, and to Katia Terioukova and her family for their hospitality in St Petersburg during my research visits.

My thanks are also due to numerous diligent library staff at the Universities of Exeter and Bern at Unitobler; at the Rare Books and Manuscript Sections of the Russian National Library, at the Institute for Russian Literature (Pushkin House) and the Scientific Library of St Petersburg State University, all in St Petersburg; and at Moscow’s Russian State Library.

I am grateful to the Swiss National Science Foundation, the University of Zurich’s Open Access Publishing Fund and the Gender Equality Commission at the University of Zurich for their financial support of this publication.

Finally, I would like to thank Margret Powell-Joss for her assistance in the editing process and Marlène Thibault for proofreading the manuscript.

While this book was being written, I enjoyed the invaluable emotional and material support of my parents, Hansueli and Milu Stohler, of my husband, Andres von Känel, and of my parents-in-law, Lisi and Edi von Känel, who demonstrated their appreciation of how much I value academic study by cooking meals for us and spending time with my three wonderful children, twins Benjamin and Raya and their younger brother Leon, allowing me to focus on my research.

This book is dedicated to my children, my husband and my family: You light up my life.

1 Russian Department, University of Exeter, England: The Corinna Project, accessed on 8 December 2014, www.ex.ac.uk/russian/corinna.

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Note on Conventions

The Appendix reproduces in full those poems that are the object of exhaustive analysis, or which encourage reflection on topics relevant to the argument of my thesis. It includes poems by Mariia Bolotnikova and Anna Naumova which clearly illustrate my argument. As many of Mariia Pospelova’s essays and poems are summarised or excerpted in the main text to highlight features which occur in a significant number of her works, only a few of her works are given in the Appendix. The Appendix does not give full quotations of poems by Bolotnikova and Naumova that feature in the main body of this book only to lend weight to a specific aspect of my argument without being analysed in greater detail.

Some of the English translations are taken from Amanda Ewington’s Russian Women Poets of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries; full references are given in footnotes.1 All other poems, quotations or titles of works have been translated from Russian into English by Emily Lygo.

I have used capital letters for ‘Fate’ and ‘Fortune’ to indicate when the words refer to allegories; lower-case letters are used for references to an impersonal force which determines the course of human lives. Moreover, the adjective ‘classical’ refers to cultural products, including literary works, which give evidence of the humanist foundations of Western European society, while ‘Classicist’ refers to the literary period known as ‘Classicism’.

Quotations in Cyrillic reproduce source-text spelling, regardless of possible deviations from contemporary usage (e.g., Pospelova’s spelling of ‘истинна’, which moreover differs from Naumova’s ‘истина’). No attempts have been made to harmonise any variant spellings which may occur in a text by the same author (e.g., ‘счастие’ and ‘щастие’). The genitive adjective endings, ‘–ыя’ and ‘–аго’ remain unchanged, as does ‘–зс–’ in words such as ‘разсуждение’. However, ‘hard’ signs in words ending in a consonant have been omitted and the pre-Revolutionary letters ‘Ђ’ and ‘і’ have been replaced by ‘e’ and ‘и’, respectively, turning ‘здЂсь’ into ‘здeсь’, and ‘безмолвіе’ into ‘безмолвие’. ← 13 | 14 →

Transliteration conforms to the Library of Congress system. With the exception of bibliographical references, poem titles and historic transliterations of Russian texts, the older spelling of ‘Mar´ia’ has been replaced by the more modern (and more easily readable) ‘Mariia’, and the transliterated forms, ‘Aleksandr’ and ‘Aleksandra’, have been replaced by the more common forms, ‘Alexander’ and ‘Alexandra’.

1 Amanda Ewington (ed. and transl.): Russian Women Poets of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries. Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies at the University of Toronto: Toronto 2014.

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The present study examines the ways in which Russian women writers responded to Sentimentalist literary conventions during the first two decades of the 19th century, in particular to the notion that women have an inherent affinity with nature, which literary works of the time often presented as an earthly paradise. The study considers particular features in writings by several 18th- and early-19th-century Russian women authors including Anna Bunina, Alexandra Khvostova, Anna Volkova, Anna Labzina, Mariia Sushkova, Mariia and Elizaveta Moskvina, Ekaterina Ursusova, Alexandra Murzina, Anna Turchaninova and some of their anonymous colleagues. Particular features in works by non-Russian female writers including Isabella Lickbarrow, Charlotte Smith and, especially, Antoinette du Ligier de La Garde Deshoulières (Mme Deshoulières) also come under scrutiny. Particular attention is paid to works by three women authors who have so far received scant scholarly attention: Mariia Pospelova (1780/1783/1784–1805), Mariia Bolotnikova (dates unknown; published 1817), and Anna Naumova (c. 1787–1862). A chapter has been dedicated to each of them.

To contextualise Russian women’s writing of the period, I have compared specific aspects with features in works by contemporary male Russian writers, primarily Nikolai Karamzin, but also Iakov Kniazhnin, Mikhail Popov, Ivan Khemnitser, Denis Fonvizin, Nikolai L´vov, Vasilii Zhukovskii, Andrei Bolotov, Mikhail Kherasov, Ivan Dmitriev, Alexander Radishchev, Alexander Sumarokov, Vasilii Trediakovskii, Mikhail Lomonosov, and Gavrila Derzhavin. Alongside Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose writings greatly influenced Russian Sentimentalism, other non-Russian male authors relevant to my study include Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, François René de Chateaubriand, John Locke, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, Charles Bonnet, Bernard Le Bovier de Fontenelle, James Thomson, Edward Young, and the Swiss painter and poet, Salomon Gessner.

Rather than attempting to present a comprehensive overview of Russian women’s writing in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the study addresses responses to specific Sentimentalist conceptions of writing, nature, and the feminine in the literary discourse of the time. A chapter each is dedicated to Pospelova, Bolotnikova, and Naumova because of their different responses to the broader literary and social constraints and potentials which governed their writing lives. The most important chapter focuses on Naumova’s copious and wide-ranging collection of poems in order to do justice to the complexity, diversity and fascinating nature of her response to Sentimentalist conceptions of writing, nature and the ← 15 | 16 → feminine, and to the way in which she addressed topics relating to fate in the emerging Romantic period. In contrast, shorter chapters cover Pospelova’s copious but less diverse work and Bolotnikova’s writings, which address an intriguing diversity of topics but take up fewer pages than Naumova’s.

For the past two decades, Sentimentalist Russian women’s writing has commanded a considerable amount of attention. In particular, the feminisation of women’s writing subsequent to Karamzin’s stylistic reforms has generated a great many works.1 Studies dedicated to the lives and literary activities of men and women who lived in the provinces have also been published.2 Moreover, the Sentimentalist conception of nature as an earthly paradise has been investigated, as has the reception of Rousseau in Russia.3 ← 16 | 17 →

Two aspects which have yet to receive due scholarly attention, however, are the gender connotations of Sentimentalist conceptions of nature, and the way in which they affected the choice of topics by Russian women writers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. My study attempts to close this gap.

Another aspect which has so far escaped scholarly attention is the democratic potential of Sentimentalism as applied to the woman question. Socialist literary studies found at least some revolutionary egalitarian potential in writings from almost any period. In the two decades after the fall of the Socialist regime in the early 1990s, many attempts to explore the implications of democratisation and egalitarianism met with resistance from Russian literary scholars: as one of them pointed out to me, ‘we have heard so much about egalitarian potential in literary works, we do not need any more research on this topic.’ However, an overlooked aspect is precisely the Sentimentalist egalitarian discourse which encouraged some women—Bolotnikova among them—to raise their voices in criticism of the patriarchal social order and to claim their right to be authors. Moreover, scholarly attention has yet to be directed towards revisions of Sentimentalist gender conceptions as manifested in depictions of nature and the feminine. My chapter on Naumova is of particular interest in this regard; it also addresses literary ← 17 | 18 → manifestations of salon culture and divination, which have been the object of important recent studies.4

The book is structured as follows: Chapter One discusses Sentimentalist gender concepts and considers their Western origins, in particular Rousseau’s paradigms, e.g. his conception of civic virtue; his wish to exclude women from the republic; and his characterisation of women as elements of disorder, the female character of Fate in particular. Given that these notions were highly influential across Europe, the chapter also considers their reception in Russia, with a special focus on the concept of a male public sphere and a femal private one.

Chapter Two examines the impact of Sentimentalist gender conceptions on Russian literature. It argues that the democratic potential of Sentimentalist discourse shifted formerly marginalised groups such as serfs or women to the centre of literary attention. At the same time it instrumentalised women by requiring them to be virtuous and by equating them with nature conceived of as an earthly paradise. The chapter also explores literary representations of Fate in emerging Romantic literature.

Chapter Three considers the ways in which women authors responded to Sentimentalist notions of nature and writing, arguing that women wishing to be published were expected to be decent, modest, pious and virtuous. Some of them may therefore have felt the need to justify their writerly activities by adopting Sentimentalism’s essentialist conceptions of women. One of these notions was women’s alleged affinity to nature and estrangement from culture; another was that women were particularly suited to writing as a spontaneous act. Female authors also found subtle ways of challenging Sentimentalist topoi such as pastoral gender patterns or representations of Sappho.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Open Access
Publication date
2016 (April)
Sentimentalism Russia Female authors Feminisation
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2016. 357 pp.

Biographical notes

Ursula Stohler (Author)

Ursula Stohler, University of Zurich, has a PhD from the University of Exeter, UK. She specialises in gender and transcultural studies, education, digital humanities, Czech literature and Russian studies, and has done research at universities in several countries as well as giving numerous talks.


Title: Disrupted Idylls