Russians in London: Turgenev

In the history of Russians in London, Ivan Turgenev (1818-1883) in many ways acts as a transitional figure, because although most of his visits were quite short (except during the Franco-Prussian war, when he decamped to England for a year), they were frequent, and span a much longer period than those of his contemporaries. He first visited London in July 1847, and his final visit was in October 1881. In between, in the period from 1856 to 1862, he was in London at least on an annual basis, and his regular visits resumed after his 1871 stay.

Pauline Viardot

The main reason for Turgenev’s frequent stays in London, despite an apparent ambivalence about aspects of English culture, was his long-standing relationship with Pauline Viardot, the opera singer. She regularly appeared on the London stage and, according to Patrick Waddington, a great deal of her success was founded on her London performances (p. 11; all page references are to this book). For many years, Turgenev followed the Viardot family and took lodgings close to where they were staying, and the same happened in London.

Turgenev made so many visits to England that it’s not feasible to provide every detail. Instead, I’ll try to give a general impression of his usual activities and major contacts in London, along with the specifics of the most important events. Anyone who wishes to find out more should read Waddington’s Turgenev and England.

It will come as no surprise to readers of my other posts on Russians in London to learn that Turgenev spent a great deal of time with Herzen, Ogarev and their families. Waddington states that from 1856, Turgenev acted as one Herzen’s major informants on Russian affairs (p. 13), and that Ogarev was the inspiration for the character of Lavretsky in Turgenev’s 1859 novel A Nest of Gentlefolk (p. 22). Fathers and Sons also seems to have some connection with this group, as Turgenev began work on it in 1860 whilst staying on the Isle of Wight with the critic Pavel Annenkov, the Herzen entourage and, seemingly, half of educated Russia (pp. 93-107). And as usual, there is a share of misinformation and uncertainty surrounding these visits. Natalya Ogareva apparently claimed that Turgenev and Tolstoy visited Herzen together in 1861, but Waddington confirms that the dates don’t fit, and suggests Turgenev may not have been in London at all that year (pp. 129-30). But in the very next paragraph, Waddington himself seems to be confused about Bakunin’s whereabouts – he states that in May 1862, when Turgenev finally arrived with the writer Vasily Botkin after many delays, there was no room for him at the Herzen residence on Westbourne Terrace and ‘he had to stay with neighbours, possibly in the very house where Michael Bakunin was now living’. But we know that Bakunin was by this time living at 10 Paddington Green, which by no stretch of the imagination could be described as neighbouring Orsett House. A rift with Bakunin marked the end of Turgenev’s visits to this most famous group of Russian exiles in Russian, but of course they were shortly to leave London themselves.

In contrast to the rather insular life led by Herzen and his extended family, Turgenev cultivated a wide circle of acquaintances among English writers and politicians. In 1857, he met Thomas Carlyle, Lord Macaulay, Benjamin Disraeli, William Thackeray and the philosopher William Whewell, and thereafter was a regular visitor to Carlyle’s house at 24 (at that time no. 5) Cheyne Row, Chelsea (p. 20). On 28 May 1857, Turgenev attended the annual meeting of charity children at St Paul’s, where an audience which also included Hector Berlioz (who Turgenev presumably knew though the Viardots) listened to a children’s choir performing the Hallelujah Chorus and Zadok the Priest (p. 26).

Subsequent visits followed a similar pattern of public events and private visits to public figures. On 5th May 1858 Turgenev attended the 69th annual dinner of the Royal Literary Fund at the Freemason’s Hall, Great Queen Street (p. 63). Other guests included Thackeray and Lord Palmerston. A few days later, on 9th May, he visited Thackeray at his home at 36 Onslow Square, South Kensington (another address to which he would become a regular visitor), where we have the tantalizing prospect that he may have met Dickens. Thackeray’s diary states that they both called on that date, but there is no information about whether the visits coincided (p. 73).

Wyld's Great Globe

There is less information available about what Turgenev did beyond his usual round of visits, and Waddington does indulge in a little speculation to fill in the gaps, although generally in a rather more measured way than that we encountered in relation to Tolstoy’s visit. Certainly it seems quite likely that in May 1857, when Turgenev was staying at the Sablonniere Hotel in Leicester Square, he would have seen the ‘Diorama of Russian Life and Scenery’ showing at the time at Wyld’s Great Globe, which could be found just outside the hotel (p. 20). The possibility of Turgenev visiting London’s other great attractions, such as Madame Tussaud’s, and the Crystal Palace at Sydenham, is also raised (p. 15), although without any particular evidence. But the Crystal Palace reappears in a later connection, as in chapter 14 of his novel Smoke (published in 1867), Potugin states ‘Last spring I visited the Crystal Palace near London; in that palace, as you’re aware, there’s a sort of exhibition of everything that has been devised by the ingenuity of man’. As Waddington suggests (p. 132), Potugin’s description seems to relate more to the 1862 International Exhibition, but the reference to the Crystal Palace lies not only in the name but also in the location ‘near London’. As we saw with Dostoevsky, the two buildings and exhibitions are conflated and Paxton’s original comes to stand for both, but it does seem possible that Turgenev visited both.

After 1862, Turgenev did not return to Britain  for the rest of the decade, but in December 1870 he and the Viardots fled to London from Baden Baden. The Viardots took up residence at 30 Devonshire Place, and Turgenev took rooms nearby at 25 Devonshire Street, but found them very uncomfortable and quickly moved to 4 Bentinck Street, which didn’t turn out to be much better (pp. 143-4). He resumed some of his old acquaintances, and had ‘sustained contact’ with Carlyle that winter (p. 163). He also spent a lot of time with the translator William Ralston, who nominated him for temporary membership of the Arts Club (p. 156), then located in Hanover Square, and Turgenev attended numerous lectures by Ralston, including ‘On Russia: Its Great Reforms during the last 10 years’ on 18th December 1870 at St George’s Hall, Langham Place (p. 157) and at the Royal Institution on Russian folklore on 5th May 1871 (p. 168).

During this year, Turgenev also became friends with George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) and spent a good deal of time at her residence, The Priory, 21 North Bank, Regent’s Park. It was here that he met the artists Edward Burne Jones and Ford Madox Brown, and the novelist Anthony Trollope (p. 171-87). It was at Ford Madox Brown’s house on Fitzroy Square that Turgenev met William Morris (p. 188). By all accounts the two men were not particularly close, but the connection is important. As we shall see, Morris later became associated with Kropotkin and Stepniak. It seems ironic that Turgenev, whose portrayal of the radical generation of the 1860s in Fathers and Sons caused such a rift, proves to be the link between Herzen and the Kolokol generation, and the anarchists and populists of the 1870s and 80s.

On 29th July 1871 Turgenev left England with the Viardots (p. 206). They never returned, but Turgenev visited several more times, although often to spend time outside London, for example staying in Cambridgeshire with Eliot and her partner George Lewes in October 1878. In 1879, he was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in Civil Law by the University of Oxford. Afterwards he visited an exhibition of Vereshchagin’s paintings in South Kensington, and had dinner at the Reform Club with Henry James. Turgenev’s final visit to London is the subject of an essay by Ford Madox Ford, entitled ‘The Beautiful Genius’, whom he visited at Fitzroy Square on 22nd October 1881 (p. 283).


Patrick Waddington, Turgenev and England (London and Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1980)

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