Paul Debreckzeny’s Criticism of Pushkin’s Robber Novella ‘Dubrovsky’

Dubrovsky cover

I orginally wrote this post nearly five years ago, just before I published my spoof historical highwayman romance ‘Ravensdale’.

I am posting it again, as I am again writing a spoof historical novel that features highwaymen, and I have never lost my admiration for this uncompleted novella of Pushkin’s.

At that time,  I was reading the traditional robber stories, including Christian Auguste Vulpius’  1798 ‘Penny Dreadful’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ and Freiderich Schiller’s  1781 play, ‘The Robbers’.  Besides these, I read some well known highwayman romantic novels, including Georgette Heyer’s  1917  ‘The Black Moth’.  Not then knowing about Project Gutenburg, I didn’t realise that I would have been able to get hold of a copy of Harrison Ainsworth’s 1834  ‘Rookwood’. which features Dick Turpin, or to read some of the Blood and Thunder novels of  Jeffrey Farnol which feature highwaymen.

Besides these, I read an unfinished novella on a landlowner turned brigand by ‘The Russian Shakespeare’ Aleksander Pushkin”s 1832 ‘Dubrovsky’. This I found to be by far the best of them all, despite the unedited long legal document in the middle of it. Some critics think that this project of his, to write a piece of popular literature was a failure. I think that he gave up on it too easily.

There is a paucity of criticism on Pushkin’s prose works in English, and this is particularly true of his robber story ‘Dubrovsky’ which I described in my previous post (before pc was down for some time!) as notably Pushkin’s attempt to reconcile popular and ‘worthwhile’ literature in a novella form.

As I said there, there has been critical division (when isn’t there?) on how far he succeeded in this aim of bringing together popular tastes – excitement, romance, and a high literary quality to a story.

This is, of course, an area that impinges on all writers who are out to produce something of quality – how far to cater for popular taste?

Rosemary Edmonds, in her introduction to ‘The Queen of Spades and Other Stories’ describes ‘Dubrovsky’ as ‘One of Pushkin’s masterpieces’.

‘Melodramatic in subject, it is extremely simple in style. The fairly elaborate plot develops swiftly against against a background which presents an illuminating picture of rural conditions in Russia and Russian legal procedure under Catherine II…The two noblemen, Troyekurov and Vereisky, along with the Byronic hero, the young Dubrovsky, are impressive creations in Pushkin’s portrait gallery.’

She considers that ‘The heroine is more of a lay figure’ and indicates that this is one of the reasons why Maria Kirilevna doesn’t elope with Dubrovsky when she is given the chance after her forced marriage (which, as she hasn’t made the marriage vow, is no marriage at all in fact); having thought it ‘most romantic’ to be kidnapped from the alter by her brigand suitor, when the enforced marriage to the elderly prince goes ahead she is quite happy to slip into the role of another ‘heroine’ – that of the ‘devoted wife’.

Another critic writing of Pushkin’s prose works – Lezhnez in his book, ‘Pushkin’s Prose’, while only mentioning Dubrovsky in passing, makes a telling point about the strangely uplifting quality to be found in this, as in all Pushkin’s works, however sad their content.

‘Life in him smiles, though sometimes with a terrible, but charming, smile…Dubrovsky leaves without taking revenge, and without tearing Masha out of the arms of the old prince; he has lost his name, his love, and his property…But the sun shines. And the moving shadows of leaves tremble on the earth. And people know how to love selflessly and to sacrifice themselves. There is a spirituality in them, simplicity, generosity. They have faith in life, and Pushkin injects us with this faith….’

For my own part, I agree with this judgement, and think it is one of the reasons why, for all the drawbacks to it’s melodramatic romantic plot, ‘Dubrovsky’ is a great story.

With regard to the weaknesses in the presentation the melodramatic romance, Paul Debreczeny in  ‘The Other Pushkin’ is almost merciless on this topic and comes to the conclusion that Pushkin himself stopped writing the novel because he could see that his attempt to combine ‘the serious with the entertaining’ had failed.

Debreckzeny takes the view that the problem begins with the presentation of Vladimir Dubrovsky, which is at first detached and ironic, in much the same way that the depiction of the tyrannical Kiril Petrovitch and the elder, proud and unbending Dubrovsky are portrayed; when we first meet Vladimir, he is a rakish officer of the guards, with little thought for the future ‘Irresponsible and ambitious…Occasionally, the thought crossed his mind that sooner or later he would be obliged to take to himself a rich bride’.

Later, the narrator remarks that young Dubrovsky, who has been from home since boyhood, values family life all the more highly for ‘having had so little opportunity to enjoy its peaceful pleasures’. However, Debreczeny remarks that the portrayal of Vladimir Dubrovsky soon becomes ‘the unhumorous stock in trade of romantic literature.’

Dubrovsky image

Certainly, the meetings between Dubrovsky and his true love Maria, Kirol Petrovitch’s daughter, are depicted in a straightforwardly melodramatic way as Eugene Onegin’s courtship of Tatiania, for instance, never is. When Dubrovsky tells Maria of his developing love for her, for example, he admits to having stalked her in her grounds: ‘I followed you in your careless walks, dodging from bush to bush…I established myself in your house (as a French tutor).These three weeks were days of happiness for me; the memory of them will be the joy of my melancholy existence…’

Debreckzeny’s point if very valid; this wild devotion of Vladimir Dubrovsky to Maria is touching, but the picuture it sums up of his stalking her in the garden is also faintly ludicrous and the turns of phrase are too melodramatic (in fairness, this is a translation; the effect may have been different in the original Russian, though one doesn’t get the impression from Debreckzeny that it is).

It is arguable that the problem could have been overcome by Pushkin using his habitual ironical detachment as narrator, so that the reader feels both moved by Dubrovsky’s hopeless passion and amused by it. It may have been Pushkin’s intention to revise the work, and do away with this ‘straight’ presentation of the lovers contrasting with his detached one of the other main characters.

That, anyhow, is my opinion, but Debreckzeny takes a dimmer view of the central cohesion of the novel: ‘Although the robber theme could be fused with the theme of social or political protest, in Pushkin’s novel it does not serve to shed light on or further elaborate the problem of peasant rebellion…It’s only function is to somehow bring a romance into relation with a revolt…’

I don’t personally see why story of social protest can’t also involve a romance, and think that one of the fascinating aspects of ‘Dubrovsky’ is its combination of romantic melodrama and it’s depiction of a nobleman rising against his society in company with his erstwhile serfs.

Debreckzeny however is of the opinion that a lack of interest in ‘Dubrovsky’s love life’ leads to the various oversights in the text, the timing of the old princes’ proposal and Dubrovsky’s offer to Maria to rescue her from a forced marriage distasteful to her and so on, even down to peculiarity of Maria refusing to run away with Dubrovsky when he does belatedly rescue her, which the critci argues is based on literary precedent (ie, from Walter Scott’s writings) rather than a moral stand.
This critic is dismayed at a scene I particularly enjoyed – the one where the ‘French tutor’ unmasks himself as the Dubrovsky the leader of the robber band in the dead of night to the treacherous man who perjured himself to help Kirol Petrovitch take his estate: ‘Be quiet, or you are lost. I am Dubrovsky.’

Pushkin was a perfectionist and seems to have been unable to appreciate the literary value of even those works he considered failures; while a lesser talent, delighted by what s/he had achieved in this novella, might well have carried on with the story, attempting to work out the problems in the plot, varying tone, narrotor objectivity, etc, Pushkin cast it aside and never returned to it.

Instead, he went to work on his history of the Pugachev rebellion. He also completed a long short story or novella connected with it, ‘The Captain’s Daughter’ which I actually found far less absorbing than the flawed but fascinating robber melodrama ‘Dubrovsky’.

Dubrovsky

Some Popular Victorian Reading: ‘Jack Sheppard: A Romance ‘ by Harrison Ainsworth.

CRIME/JACK SHEPPARD

These last few days, I have been reading Harrison Ainsworth’s ‘Jack Sheppard.’  I knew little about this writer before, save that he wrote sensationalist literature at about the same time as Charles Dickens, including a novel called ‘Rookswood’ which reputedly featured a highly glamorised version of Dick Turpin.

It seems that he was at one time massively popular with the Victorian reading public for his ‘neck and axe’ adventure novels. ‘Jack Sheppard’ was his third novel, and ran concurrently in serialised form in one of the Victorian literary magazines, ‘Bentley’s Miscellany’, with Charles Dickens’ ‘ ‘Oliver Twist’.  It seemed that there was a controversy between the two men over the subject of ‘Newgate Novels’. Though Dickens left the magazine as a result, he was the eventual victor, for while the public greedily devoured Ainsworth’s melodramatic blood-and-thunder novels, he was despised by critics, and never came to equal Dicken’s stature as a writer. His fame barely outlasted his lifetime. These days he is largely forgotten.

One critic even wrote of him: ‘ Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored.’  I think this criticism is undeservedly harsh, though of course, this was written around 1875, before Charles Garvice’s romantic melodramas showed critics what successful bad writing truly is.

I can see from the half of the novel that I have read so far that Ainsworth’s prose is often turgid, and he has a passion for the lurid and melodramatic. However, in an age when novels moved along at a snail’s pace, his tales are comparatively eventful and fast moving: I found it difficult as a modern reader not to find this a great relief. His stories are gripping and the action is vividly portrayed.  While Thackeray and Dickens wished to stimalate thought, and often, indignation in the reader, Ainsworth is obviously less out to point a moral than to give the reader an exciting tale.

Not only that, but if Ainsworth’s prose is turgid, his research immediately struck me as impressive. I know how exacting and time consuming research can be, even with the internet to hand. Ainsworth knew all about the topography of  London, the sort of buildings extant in 1703 in  The Mint, the ‘rookery’ where Jack Sheppard was born, and the architecture of the first London Bridge. He could depict the dress and manners of all classes of society in that era, and also, bring to life the famous (or infamous) characters who featured in Jack Sheppard’s tragic history; for instance, the dreaded informer and thief catcher Jonathon Wilde, and the ruffianly Bueskin.

This industrious research is not a quality one associates these days with a poor to mediocre author, and it is intriguing that while Harrison Ainsworth acquired a name as a purveyor of sensationalist tales that tickled popular taste in the Victorian era, Dickens – whose writing also has very strong senstationalist themes – is seen as the writer of a grander form of literature, the ‘social protest novel’.

Well, I promise I won’t rant here about the lurid popular view of the French Revolution, all rolling heads and snapping guillotines, that began with Dickens.

Certainly,  it is true that Dickens was the writer of the Victorian age who set to work to expose social injustice, who attacked hypocrisy and who had a wonderful sense of the ludicrous.

Still, Dicken’s writing also comes with a great supply of  faults – for instance, the infamous sentimentality and male and female leads so dull I wonder that he could bear to  write about them at all.

And I have to say that if you compare Ainsworth’s style with that of various other generally far more respected writers – and the earlier Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney immediately comes to mind – this novel at least comes out as a good deal less lurid and improbable.

Of course, the tragically short life of the anti-hero  of the story, the eponymous Jack Sheppard, in itself reads like something made up by a writer of ‘Penny Dreadfuls’.  A renegade London apprentice carpenter turned thief, he soon became famous – or infamous, depending on the point of view – for his escapes from prison.

His career was short but brief, for he made an enemy of the hated thief taker and informer Jonathan Wild, who schemed to destroy anyone who would not work for him.

At last chained to the stone flooring of his cell, the young man managed to escape again, but was captured when blind drunk.  In gaol in chains and a secure inner cell, he was painted by the king’s painter James Thornhill. The gaolers charged high society figures four shillings a time to view him. There were petitions for leniancy from various well known figures, but these were rejected.

Stealing a sum valued at above five shillings in those days meant a death sentence.  Jack Sheppard was offered a reduced sentence if he informed on his associates, but refused, and huge, admiring crowds turned out to follow the procession to Tyburn on 15 November 1724.

He had planned to cut himself down from the gallows with a penknife, but unluckily the guard found it.   Failing that, he had hoped to be revived following his official death by the gruesome process of hanging by a short drop, and perhaps that is why the crowd did not surge forward to give him a quick death by swinging on his legs, or perhaps the platform was too well guarded for this to be possible. His slow death is not mentioned in the novel, but is in other accounts, and makes a grim end to a likable villain. However, there seems to be some disagreement as to whether or not people who are being hanged are conscious after about twenty seconds, as they usually die of strangling (cutting off the blood to the brain) rather than oxygen strvation (cutting off blood to the lungs) although the body still makes spasmodic movements until brain death, so hopefully he did not suffer as much as the crowd imagined.

To our own age, to hang a man of of such obvious talents and wit at the age of 22 seems an absurd waste.

Harrison Ainsworth, writing 120  years after Jack Sheppard’s death, was hardly the first to recount the dramatic story of his life. Within weeks of his hanging a pantomime was performed about him, and he influenced the depiction of Macheath in  John Gay’s ‘The Beggars’ Opera’ and other dramas.

220px-Jackandbessescape

I knew well enough that the eighteenth century was a brutal and violent age, but even so, the amount of beatings that this anti-hero endures in the course of one day at the grand old age of twelve is astounding. He is beaten for idling by the master carpenter to whom he is apprenticed, knocked down by the master’s stepson Thames for saying he wants a kiss from that master’s daughter, then slapped in the face by the girl herself (whom he is inclined to worship, as he does Thames himself), slapped much harder by the master’s wife, who resents his being in the house at all, and finally beaten by the constables in Wild’s pay. However, he is still apparently not too stiff to be able to break free from custody.

Such treatment would surely be enough to make a rebel out of anyone, even in an age when thrashings were the general form of chastisment, and in the story it is the slap in the face from his master’s wife which finally tips the balance and makes Jack decide on a life of crime.

Whether this depiction of so much corporal punishment in a day is a matter of sloppy editing on Ainsworth’s part, or was put in by him to indicate the harshness of life among the London poor, it certainly makes the latter point vividly.

Here are a couple of  typical samples of Ainsworth’s writing in ‘Jack Sheppard’, showing both his excellent background information and his lively style.

Here is Jack making his first prison break:

‘As Jack concluded his ditty, the door flew open with a crash, and Thames sprang through the aperture. This manoeuvre was so suddenly executed that it took Abraham completely by surprise. He was standing at the moment close to the hatch, with his ear at the keyhole, and received a severe blow in the face. He staggered back a few paces; and, before he could recover himself, Thames tripped up his heels, and, placing the point of the spike at his throat, threatened to stab him if he attempted to stir, or cry out. Nor had Jack been idle all this time. Clearing the recess the instant after his companion, he flew to the door of the he flew to the door of the inner room, and, locking it, took out the key. The policy of this step was immediately apparent. Alarmed by the noise of the scuffle, Quilt and Sharples rushed to the assistance of their comrade. But they were too late. The entrance was barred against them; and they had the additional mortification of hearing Sheppard’s loud laughter at their discomfiture. “I told you the prison wasn’t built that could hold me,” cried Jack.’

And here is a depiction of his mother’s house:

‘The room in which this interview took place had a sordid and miserable look. Rotten, and covered with a thick coat of dirt, the boards of the floor presented a very insecure footing; the bare walls were scored all over with grotesque designs, the chief of which represented the punishment of Nebuchadnezzar. The rest were hieroglyphic characters, executed in red chalk and charcoal. The ceiling had, in many places, given way; the laths had been removed; and, where any plaster remained, it was either mapped and blistered with damps, or festooned withdusty cobwebs. Over an old crazy bedstead was thrown a squalid, patchwork counterpane…’

220px-Jack_Sheppard

Whatever the criticisms that the critics may have levelled at Ainsworth, he tells an engaging story, and I am puzzled that this book has disappeared so completely from view. In that, of course, it shares the fate of another robber novel,  Christian Auguste Vulpius’ ‘Rinaldo Rinaldini’ (1798).