Ooh, goody, here’s another topic inspired by Mari Biella’s excellent latest blog post about popularity and literary merit (and censorship).
This is a topic which I am going to enjoy. I love going on about books that fascinate me, I only wish I had more time these days…
Aleksandr Pushkin was always intrigued by the notion that it might be possible to emulate Shakespeare in his ability to combine the popular with the outstanding. He wrote to a friend when discussing the possibility of starting a literary journal ‘The populace, like children, demands diversion, action.’
Unfortunately, the literary journal that Pushkin founded was a commercial failure, but these issues were very much on his mind when he wrote his unfinished novella, ‘Dubrovsky’.
He hoped that in order to captivate and in time educate, the populace, it was necessary to ‘stoop to commercial tricks’ as Paul Debreczeny says. He wished to write a novel that was both of literary merit and also had popular appeal. Accordingly, ‘It would have to have an entertaining plot with a love interest’ (to use Paul Debreczeny’s words again).
Pushkin wrote most of the text for his novella ‘Dubrovsky’ in the autumn of 1832, writing almost all of its approximately 30,000 words in a few weeks. He added a last paragraph in February 1833, and never returned to it before his premature death in January 1837.
The novel, which depicts the combined themes of the disaffected aristocrat as bandit and that of social revolt, had various precedents in European literature including
Frederich Schiller’s ‘The Robbers’ (1781) Vulpius ‘penny dreadful’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798) Victor Hugo’s drama ‘Hernani’ (1830) and Walter Scott’s ‘Rob Roy’ (1818).
This latter was not an easy topic to get past Pushkin’s personal censor, the less than democratically inclined Tsar Nicholas, but Pushkin was clever enough to put in his story a speech from the brigand hero to his rioting serfs and later fellow brigands that seems likely to have been intended to mollify Nicholas; ‘The Tsar is merciful. I will appeal to him- he will not see us wronged, we are all his children…’
In Pushkin’s novella, the Byronic hero, Vladimir Dubrovsky, is the victim, as is his impetuous father, of the social tyranny and the corruption of local judicial processes of the powerful landowners, in this case the uncultured, insensitive Kirol Petrovitch Troyekurov, who has fallen out with the older Dubrovsky and in combination with the corrupt assessor Shabashkin, finds a ‘legal’ way of dispossessing his former friend of all his property, claiming it for himself, and taking over ownership of all his ‘souls’.
This leads to a riot amongst Dubrovsky’s serfs. The younger Dubrovsky, outraged at the thought of Troyekurov invading his family home, sets fire to it. The local blacksmith disobeys his order of leaving the doors open, and so the local head of police and the court officials who are sheltering there are killed in the fire and Dubrovsky becomes an outlaw.
He takes to highway robbery, heading a band of former serfs, and living in the forest that formed part of his former estate. He also goes in for a spot of arson (it seems to have become a habit with him) though like Robin Hood and the predecessors in the robber novels, he targets only the wealthy.
He plans to kill Troyekurov by setting fire to his mansion, but his fate is changed when he catches sight of Maria, Troykurov’s daughter…
The novella, then, combines serious themes with the popular themes of a robber hero and a love interest. Personally, I loved it, and enjoyed it all even more than ‘The Queen of Spades’ and regretted that Pushkin never finished it (but then, I am an incorrigible romantic).
Critical opinion seems divided as to how far Pushkin succeeded.
As unfortunately, most of the literary criticism of Pushkn’s work is in Russian, and the greater part of the English criticism concentrate on his better known works like ‘Eugene Onegin’ (another great read for an incorrigible romantic, but that’s by the way), I have only been able to find two books in English that touch on the topic.
Paul Debreczeny and Rosemary Edmonds on Pushkin’s Dubrovsky