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Vera, or The Nihilists

My interest in British views of Russians recently led me to read Oscar Wilde’s first play, Vera, or The Nihilists, apparently inspired by Vera Zasulich’s attempted assassination of the Governor of St Petersburg in 1878. It’s spectacularly bad, and I’m surprised neither that its first productions, in London in 1880 and New York in 1882, bombed, nor that it has seldom been revived since. From the Russian yokels straight out of central casting who appear in the prologue, the lack of authenticity is quite remarkable, and it’s never explained how Vera and Michael, the love-struck friend who follows her to become a nihilist, manage to transform themselves from peasants to people who can move easily in good society. I had to grit my teeth at the confusion of Moscow and Petersburg – I suppose the play had to be set in Moscow, as it was more exotic and unknown, but it also had to be the capital, because the czar and court have to live there – hence characters cross ‘St Isaac’s Place’ to get to the czar’s palace. Unfortunately, rather than coming across as a clever amalgamation of the old and new capitals, it just looks as though Wilde knew bugger all about it.

There are a couple of moments when the play raises above the commonplace, notably when the Czarevitch (Wilde’s spelling) speaks up in defence of the Russian people: ‘Warmed by the same sun, nurtured by the same air, fashioned of flesh and blood like our own, wherein are they different to us, save that they starve while we surfeit, that they toil while we idle, that they sicken while we poison, that they die while we –‘ (act 2), which in its first phrase especially echoes Shylock’s ‘If they prick us, do we not bleed’ speech from the Merchant of Venice, and equates the persecution of the Russian people with that of the Jews. Given that the pogroms against the Jews began in large scale and organized fashion in 1881 after the death of Alexander II (of course, they had occurred before this as well), the reference, in a play about the assassination of the czar, seems prescient. Or perhaps I’m giving Wilde far too much credit, as in the main it just peddles the old ‘good czar/bad advisors’ chestnut, and the ending is incredibly conservative.

Nevertheless, the play is interesting as contemporary portrait of Russian revolutionaries. Regular readers may recall that in my post about the anarchist threat, I suggested that in this period, Russians were perceived primarily not just as conspirators but as double agents – frequently suggesting the most fanciful combinations of double-dealing imaginable. And this is definitely the case in Vera. The revolutionaries are basically noble (although they seem more interested in dressing up and exchanging secret passwords than anything else), but duplicity and changes of allegiances are prominent: first we have the czarevitch being a member of the nihilists, and then when he, betraying his principles, becomes czar following the assassination of his father, the prime minister, no less, joins the nihilists in order to plot against him (apologies for the plot spoilers, but I promise you, you don’t want to read it, and just in case you were thinking of taking a look, I hope the latter utterly daft plot development is enough to put you off).

In comparison with Oscar Wilde’s melodrama, and indeed the hysterical stories in the press I mentioned in my previous post, Conan Doyle’s depiction of ‘nihilists’ in The Adventure of the Golden Pince-Nez, is a model of sobriety. But here too, a similar (if somewhat less convoluted) conception of Russian revolutionaries as both noble and treacherous is apparent. The story is set in 1894 (although written in 1904) and, as one of the protagonists has been served her sentence in Siberia, clearly refers back to Narodnaia volia’s campaign of the late 1870s and early 1880s. The nobility of Anna, her crime notwithstanding, is remarked upon when she finally appears:

She was brown with the dust and draped with the cobwebs which had come from the walls of her hiding-place. Her face, too, was streaked with grime, and at the best she could never have been handsome, for she had the exact physical characteristics which Holmes had divined [‘a remarkably thick nose, with eyes which are set close upon either side of it’, Holmes has deduced, from the shape of the pince-nez – SJY], with, in addition, a long and obstinate chin. What with her natural blindness, and what with the change from dark to light, she stood as one dazed, blinking about her to see where and who we were. And yet, in spite of all these disadvantages, there was a certain nobility in the woman’s bearing, a gallantry in the defiant chin and in the upraised head, which compelled something of respect and admiration.

Her steadfastness, loyalty and self-sacrifice for the revolutionary cause are emphasized in the denouement — even now, she will not fully betray the man who has betrayed her. Meanwhile, we suspect ‘Professor Coram’ is a scoundrel even before his true identity and treachery are revealed.

Both works indicate an uneasy attitude towards Russians, a sense of admiration and understanding of the justice of the revolutionary cause, combined with a fear of Russians’ ruthlessness, which applies as much to the authorities as to their opponents. This duality is then intensified by a strong feeling of uncertainty about who is on which side, as identities are obscured and deception is perceived as the norm. I will be investigating the subject further, in other fictional works and returning to press reports, in future posts.

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  1. Richard Armstrong

     /  May 19, 2011

    Are you familiar with Anthony Cross’s The Russian Theme in English Literature (1985)? I have not actually had a chance to read Oscar Wilde’s work, but I came across the reference in Cross’s work.

  2. I know of Tony Cross’s book, but haven’t read it yet, though I think I’ve read all his other books on Russian-British relations. This theme is really one for the future, as I have too many other things to occupy me at the moment, so I’m only pursuing leads intermittently…
    Donald Rayfield gave an entertaining keynote address to the BASEES conference on a similar theme last year, but I don’t recall him mentioning Vera, or indeed The Adventure of the Golden Pince Nez.

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