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E. H. Carr on women

I’ve been re-reading parts of E. H. Carr’s The Romantic Exiles (1933) in preparation for a couple of forthcoming posts on Alexander Herzen, and it’s left an unpleasant taste that I have to address before I can even get onto Herzen. Clearly I’m far from being the first person to take issue with Carr – Norman Stone’s damning review for the LRB of The Twilight of the Comintern (25% of the article is available without subscription), as well as some the correspondence it provoked, and a review of Jonathan Haslam’s biography of Carr, give a flavour of some of the bile he has inspired – so I don’t think I’m going to say anything particularly new here. Nevertheless, because of the subject of my next posts, it has to be said: Carr’s attitude to women was appalling.

My main concern, because of the period I’m going to be writing about, is his treatment of Natalia Ogareva and Malwida von Meysenbug. I’ve previously felt a bit uncomfortable with his portrayal of Ogareva, both here and in his Bakunin biography, because he seems happy to blame her for the love triangle, whilst absolving Herzen and viewing Ogarev merely as a pitiable patsy. What got to me this time was how condescending Carr is. This is already apparent in the fact that he always refers to women by their first names, as though they are children, whilst the men are addressed by surname, like proper grown-ups. But it’s also evident in other ways. His snide commentary on the first days of the Ogarevs’ life together reveals what he really thinks of Ogareva:

Natalie rapidly exhausted the pleasing novelties of housekeeping. She tried self-education, and found herself a dull pupil. She tried her hand at fiction, and sent one of her stories to the popular journal Notes of the Fatherland; but the editor returned it with the comment – surely written with his tongue in his cheek – that a tale about the mistress of a married man was unfit for insertion in his respectable columns. She tried gardening, and found more satisfaction than she had anticipated in the sheer physical labour of digging. (p. 161)

This sort of insinuation, branding Natalia Ogareva with the soul of a navvie whilst apparently discussing her search for an outlet for her creative energies, seems quite typical. Back-handed character assassination is, in fact, something of a speciality: introducing Malwida von Meysenbug, who played such a central role in raising Herzen’s daughters, Carr notes, ‘A light touch and a careless joie de vivre were qualities which she neither possessed herself nor admired in others.’ (p. 128). Why is the absence of such traits deemed so noteworthy? I don’t get the impression that Herzen, particularly after the death of his wife and son, had much joie de vivre either, but Carr overlooks that. Presumably women’s only role in life was to be decorative, and certainly Malwida failed to qualify, as Carr goes on to make clear:

She was not […] destined to inspire a lasting passion. Her photographs suggest a strikingly handsome woman. But dignity of profile was nullified by a poor complexion and weak, obviously myopic, eyes; and her contemporaries did not find her attractive. Herzen, a few years later, bluntly refers to her as ‘an awful fright’. (pp. 128-9)

Emphasizing the failure of her love-life, Carr makes no reference to Meysenbug’s talent as an artist (this will become relevant to the story in my forthcoming posts), or the importance of her very interesting Memoirs of an Idealist.

Most significantly, Carr repeatedly tars both women with the same brush: hysteria, arising from their maternal instincts. Upon first realizing how attached she was Herzen’s younger daughter Olga, whilst on holiday apart from the family in Broadstairs, Meysenbug ‘became almost hysterical with loneliness.’ (p. 132) When the Ogarev’s arrive in London, Ogareva and Meysenbug are presented as mirror-images of each other: ‘The two childless women, both sexually unsatisfied and both possessed by an almost hysterical yearning for children, were predestined rivals.’ (p. 164) This rivalry ultimately causes the break-up of Herzen’s family: ‘Before Natalie returned from the Continent, Malwida asked and obtained permission to take Olga with her to Paris for the winter. The child never returned, except as an occasional visitor, to her father’s house. Herzen had to thank Natalie for the loss of one of his children’ (p. 177). Evidently Herzen himself was incapable of intervening and bore no responsibility for the arrangement of his own household.

Ogareva’s hysteria is not only seen as the root of everything, but also provides additional scope for insinuations about her character:

The years of social ostracism had made her morbidly sensitive. The first symptoms of the hysteria of later years began to appear. She felt herself, probably without reason, ignored and despised. She was sure that Turgenev, who years ago had dedicated a story to her, now hated her. Tolstoy, when invited by Ogarev to their lodgings, failed to appear; and she took his absence as a personal slight to herself. The only one of her husband’s literary friends with whom, curiously enough, she was completely at home was the rather simple-minded Ostrovsky, the popular author of bourgeois comedies. (p. 162)

Am I alone in spotting the echoes of Anna Karenina in this description? It really makes me wonder how close it is to the reality of the situation. These similarities re-emerge in later rifts with Herzen over the sacred memory of his wife, caused by Ogareva’s ‘frenzy of self-pity and self-assertion’ (p. 219), and again, Herzen is presented as entirely passive and blameless.

Perhaps these are accurate descriptions – it’s impossible to tell because of the absence of proper references. But when the same accusation is levelled against two of the key female figures in the story as the cause of all the problems of the innocent, piggy-in-the-middle, man, one has to be suspicious. If nothing else, the constant criticisms of the characters and actions of Malwida von Meysenbug and Natalia Ogareva are completely uncalled for. I’ve had my fill recently of biased and judgemental biographies, as they do not do justice to their subjects even if they believe they are defending them. Carr’s misogyny is bad enough in itself, but it also skews his portrait of Herzen, and I’m bloody annoyed on both counts.

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  1. Martin Barlow

     /  October 6, 2011

    I recently read the selection from the later parts of Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts published under the title Ends and Beginnings in Oxford’s The World’s Classics series, having read Childhood Youth and Exile, the first part, immediately before it. I knew nothing about Herzen before reading them, but from Ends and Beginnings it was pretty obvious that however brilliant he may have been and dedicated to his cause, he was a ‘difficult’ person, no more so than in his personal and family life. The way some things he says do not add up, inconsistencies, reading between the lines, his self-justification, all left me thinking that his accounts of the personalities and behaviour of the people around him were not to be trusted. I haven’t read Carr’s book but it sounds as though he was happy to absolve Herzen of any responsibility for the debacles and unpleasantnesses of his personal life and, like Herzen himself, pin the blame for them on those around him – and how easy from that to then find that it’s women and their characters and personalities which are the ‘problem’.

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