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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

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Ursula Stohler

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.
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The aim of this study has been to explore women authors’ responses to Sentimentalist literary conventions as they manifested themselves in Russia in the late 18th and during the first two decades of the 19th century. In particular, the study has shed light on the lives and works of three Russian women writers who have so far been marginalised or overlooked by literary history. Their writings reveal various ways in which women perceived, and responded to, their society’s political, cultural, and aesthetic concepts.

Inspired largely by the writings of republican thinkers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, these concepts included the creation of a public world of politics for men, and a private world of feelings for women, as well as a belief in democratic and egalitarian principles which led to an increasing popularity of the notion of the unconditional value of each human and, hence, to a critical view of the institution of serfdom and of the social inequality of women. However, increasing criticism of the latter did not bring about fundamental revisions of traditional gender patterns.

On a cultural level, salons offered a platform for intellectual exchange for both sexes. In literature, Sentimentalism’s essentialist assumptions manifested themselves in the worship of nature, a belief that women were alienated from culture and had a duty to embody harmony and virtue. These values found their most prominent expression in the genre of the pastoral, where the traditional function of female characters was to arouse male poetic...

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