A comedy of manners written in 19th-century Russia.
By day, Cecily is “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.” She is a good daughter, impeccably refined, perfectly prepared for high society. This is mid-19th-century Russia, but it could almost as easily be Regency England. Social strictures are stringently maintained. Cecily is of marriageable age; she may be too refined to even recognize her own desires, but her mother, Vera Vladimirovna, would like to see her married to the eligible, and wealthy, Prince Victor. Cecily’s closest friend, Olga, has her own eyes set on Victor—a match Olga’s mother would very much like to encourage. There’s also Dmitry Ivachinsky, a well-behaved but insufficiently moneyed young man. But with the right amount of prodding—by just the right person—Dmitry Ivachinsky might just stake a claim on Cecily, leaving Prince Victor open for Olga. Refined as she is, Cecily is blind to these machinations. It’s only at night that Cecily’s mind becomes unfettered, that her imagination can expand. Each chapter concludes with the end of a day; at each ending, the prose slips neatly into poetry, reflecting the state of Cecily’s mind. Pavlova, who completed this, her only novel, in 1848, was reviled by many of her Russian contemporaries. She had the distinct misfortune of writing at a time when the very idea of a woman writer was at best considered laughable and at worst monstrous. One of her contemporaries wrote that, in Pavlova, “there is nothing serious, profound, true, and sincere.” He couldn’t have been more wrong. Her only novel (she mostly wrote poetry) is brimful with wit and with sharp observations of the class in which she was raised. Pavlova has Jane Austen’s fine eye for social manners and hypocrisies even if she doesn’t quite maintain Austen’s level of subtlety. It’s possible that her own bitterness about her world sometimes thwarts the artfulness of the novel. She writes of Cecily, “Her soul was so highly polished, her understanding so confused, her natural talents so overorganized and mutilated by the unsparing way that she had been brought up that every problem of life perplexed and scared her.”
Rich with wit, Pavlova’s only novel is a masterful sendup of high society.