The Spirit of Madame de Genlis has a modest, perhaps even slightly unusual place among the works of Nikolai Leskov (1895-1931). Leskov was a master storyteller and stylist, who was late to be recognized as one of the great classical authors of Russian literature, due to his characters’ colorful and often “faulty” language, which was in the vernacular, as well as the fact that Leskov did not belong to any particular literary group at the time, but rather tried to keep a sense of distance and objectivity in his descriptions of reality. The story lacks the monstrous realism of one of his greatest works, Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District and also the poetic epicism of another one of his most famous stories, The Enchanted Wanderer (which does have a comic basis that should be taken into account). The Spirit of Madame de Genlis was first published in a journal in 1881 as “a Christmas tale”- a genre that borrows from the carnivalesque and typically presents a wondrous transformation of the world or the hero- a triumph of light over darkness by virtue of some form of miraculous intervention. Yet this supposedly lightweight short story, inspired by literariness (literary allusions are abundant), firmly anchored within its time (it features contemporary figures, who are the only ones mentioned by name in the story), raising serious-minded issues that have been circulating since ancient times: what is “good taste” in literature; what is the relationship between the bourgeoisie and art- yet this tale turns everything “on its head”, as is worthy of a joke. What is the “good” and what is “bad”? Have the “forces of light” really prevailed? One cannot know if there is any truth to spiritualism, a fad that was popular in 19th century salons, however what is revealed is definitely a mischievous literary spirit, unveiling bourgeois morality and exposing it to ridicule.
“It is sometimes much easier to call up a spirit
than to get rid of it.” – A. B. CALMET
The strange adventure I intend to tell took place several years ago, and can now be freely told, the more so as I reserve for myself the right not to use a single proper name in doing so. In the winter of the year 186–, there came to settle in Petersburg a very prosperous and distinguished family, consisting of three persons: the mother— a middle-aged lady, a princess, reputed to be a woman of refined education and with the best social connections in Russia and abroad; her son, a young man, who that year had set out on his career in the diplomatic corps; and her daughter, the young princess, who was just going on seventeen.
Up to then the newly arrived family had usually lived abroad, where the old princess’s late husband had occupied the post of Russian representative at one of the minor European courts. The young prince and princess were born and grew up in foreign parts, receiving there a completely foreign but very thorough education.
The princess was a woman of highly strict principles and deservedly enjoyed a most irreproachable reputation in society. In her opinions and tastes she adhered to the views of French women renowned for their intelligence and talents in the time of the blossoming of women’s intelligence and talents in France. The princess was considered very well read, and it was said that she read with great discrimination. Her favorite reading was the letters of Mmes de Sévigné, La Fayette, and Maintenon, as well as of Caylus, Dangeau, and Coulanges, but most of all she respected Mme de Genlis, for whom she had a weakness to the point of adoration. The small volumes of the finely made Paris edition of this intelligent writer, modestly and elegantly bound in pale blue morocco, always occupied a beautiful little bookshelf hanging on the wall over a big armchair, which was the princess’s favorite place. Over the edge of the bookshelf, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, reaching slightly beyond its dark velvet cushion, rested a miniature hand, perfectly formed from terracotta, which Voltaire had kissed in his Ferney, not suspecting that it was going to let fall on him the first drop of a refined but caustic criticism. How often the princess had reread the little volumes traced by that small hand, I do not know, but she always had them near her, and the princess used to say that they had for her a particular, so to speak, mysterious meaning, of which she would not venture to tell just anyone, because not everyone would believe it. From what she said, it followed that she had never parted from these volumes “since she could remember herself,” and that they would go with her to the grave. “I have instructed my son,” she said, “to put these little books into the coffin with me, under the pillow, and I’m certain they will be useful to me even after death.”
I cautiously expressed a wish to receive an explanation, however remote, of these last words— and I received it.
“These little books,” the princess said, “are suffused with the spirit of Felicity” (so she called Mme de Genlis, probably as a sign of the closeness of their relations). “Yes, piously believing in the immortality of the human spirit, I also believe in its ability to communicate freely, from beyond the grave, with those who have need of such communication and are able to appreciate it. I am certain that the fine fluid of Felicity chose itself a pleasant abode under the fortunate morocco that embraces the pages on which her thoughts have found rest, and if you are not a total unbeliever, I should hope that would be understandable to you.”
I bowed silently. It evidently pleased the princess that I did not contradict her, and in reward she added that everything she had just told me was not merely a belief, but a real and full conviction, which had such a firm foundation that no powers could shake it.
“And that precisely,” she concluded, “because I have a multitude of proofs that the spirit of Felicity lives, and lives precisely here!” At the last word the princess raised her hand above her head and pointed her elegant finger at the shelf on which the pale blue volumes stood.
I am slightly superstitious by nature and always listen with pleasure to stories in which there is at least some place for the mysterious. That, it seems, is why perspicacious critics, who kept including me in various bad categories, spoke for a time of my being a spiritualist.
Besides, let it be said, everything we are talking about now took place just at the time when an abundance of news about spiritualist phenomena was coming to us from abroad. It aroused curiosity then, and I saw no reason not to be interested in something people were beginning to believe in.
The “multitude of proofs” the princess mentioned could be heard from her a multitude of times: these proofs consisted in the princess having long since formed the habit, in moments of the most diverse states of mind, of turning to the works of Mme de Genlis as to an oracle, and the pale blue volumes, in their turn, invariably displayed an ability to respond reasonably to her mental questions.
That, in the princess’s words, became one of her habitudes,1 which she never changed, and the “spirit” abiding in the books never once told her anything inappropriate.
I could see that I was dealing with a very convinced follower of spiritualism, who besides was not without her share of intelligence, experience, and education, and therefore I became extremely interested in it all.
I already knew a thing or two about the nature of spirits, and, in what I had happened to witness, I had always been struck by a strange thing common to all spirits, that, appearing from beyond the grave, they behaved themselves much more light-mindedly and, frankly speaking, stupidly, than they had shown themselves in earthly life.
I was already familiar with Kardec’s theory of “mischievous spirits” and was now greatly interested in how the spirit of the witty marquise de Sillery, Comtesse Brûlart, would deign to show itself in my presence.
The occasion was not slow in coming, but since in a short story, as in a small household, order ought not to be upset, I ask for another minute of patience before matters are brought to a supernatural moment capable of going beyond all expectations.
The people who made up the princess’s small but very select circle were probably aware of her whimsicality; but since they were all well-bred and courteous people, they knew enough to respect another’s beliefs, even in cases when those beliefs diverged sharply from their own and could not stand up under criticism. Therefore no one ever argued about it with the princess. However, it might also be that the princess’s friends were not sure whether the princess considered her pale blue volumes the abode of their author’s “spirit” in a direct and immediate sense, or took these words as a rhetorical figure. Finally, more simply still, they may have taken it all as a joke.
The only one who could not look at the matter in such fashion was, unfortunately, I myself; and I had my reasons for it, which may have been rooted in the gullibility and impressionability of my nature.
The attention of this high-society lady, who opened the doors of her respectable house to me, lowed to three causes: first, for some reason she liked my story “The Sealed Angel,” which had been published shortly before then in The Russian Messenger; second, she was interested in the bitter persecutions, beyond count and measure, to which I had been subjected for a number of years by my good literary brethren, who wished, of course, to correct my misunderstandings and errors; and third, I had been well recommended to the princess in Paris by a Russian Jesuit, the most kindly Prince Gagarin— an old man with whom I had enjoyed many conversations and who had not formed the worst opinion of me.
This last was especially important, because the princess was concerned with my way of thinking and state of mind; she needed, or at least fancied she might need, some small services from me. Strange though it was for a man of such modest significance as myself, it was so. This need was created for the princess by maternal solicitude for her daughter, who knew almost no Russian… Bringing the lovely girl to her native land, the mother wanted to find a man who could acquaint the young princess at least somewhat with Russian literature— good literature exclusively, to be sure, that is, real literature, not infected by the “evil of the day.”
About the latter the princess had very vague notions, and extremely exaggerated ones besides. It was rather difficult to understand precisely what she feared on the part of the contemporary titans of Russian— thought their strength and courage, or their weakness and pathetic self-importance; but having somehow grasped, with the help of suggestions and surmises, the “heads and tails” of the princess’s thoughts, I arrived at the conviction, unmistaken in my view, that she most definitely feared the “unchaste allusions” by which, to her mind, all our immodest literature had been utterly corrupted.
To try to dissuade the princess of that was useless, because she had reached the age when one’s opinions are already firmly formed, and it is a very rare person who is capable of subjecting them to a new review and testing. She was undoubtedly not one of those, and to make her change her mind about something she believed in, the words of an ordinary man were insufficient, though it might perhaps have been done through the power of a spirit, who deemed it necessary to come from hell or paradise with that aim. But could such petty concerns interest the bodiless spirits of the unknown world? Were not all arguments and concerns about literature too petty for them, like our contemporary ones, which even the vast majority of living people consider the empty occupation of empty heads?
Circumstances soon showed, however, that I was greatly mistaken in reasoning this way. The habit of literary peccadilloes, as we shall soon see, does not abandon literary spirits even beyond the grave, and the reader will be faced with the task of deciding to what extent these spirits act successfully and remain faithful to their literary past.
Owing to the fact that the princess had strictly formed views about everything, my task in helping her to choose literary works for the young princess was very well defined. It was required that the young princess be able to learn about Russian life from this reading, while not coming upon anything that might trouble her maidenly ear. The princess’s maternal censorship did not allow the whole of any author, not even Derzhavin or Zhukovsky. None of them seemed fully safe to her. There was, naturally, no speaking of Gogol— he was banished entirely. Of Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter and Evgeny Onegin were allowed, the latter with considerable cuts, which were marked by the princess’s own hand. Lermontov, like Gogol, was not allowed. Of new authors, Turgenev alone was approved without question, but minus the passages “where they talk of love,” while Goncharov was banished, and though I interceded for him quite boldly, it did not help. The princess replied:
“I know he’s a great artist, but so much the worse— you must admit there are arousing subjects in him.”
I wished at all costs to know what precisely the princess meant by the arousing subjects she found in the works of Goncharov. How could he, with the mildness of his attitude towards people and the passions that possess them, offend anyone’s feelings?
This was intriguing to such a degree that I plucked up my courage and asked outright what the arousing subjects in Goncharov were.
To this frank question I received a frank, terse reply, uttered in a sharp whisper: “Elbows.”
I thought I had not heard right or had not understood.
“Elbows, elbows,” the princess repeated and, seeing my perplexity, seemed to grow angry. “Don’t you remember… how that one… the hero at some point… admires the bare elbows of his… of some very simple lady?”
Now, of course, I recalled the well-known episode from Oblomov and could not find a word of reply. As a matter of fact, it was more convenient for me to say nothing, since I neither needed nor wished to argue with the princess, who was beyond the reach of persuasion, and whom, to tell the truth, I had long been observing much more zealously than I tried to serve her with my recommendations and advice. And what recommendations could I make to her, since she considered “elbows” an outrageous indecency, and all the latest literature had stepped so far beyond such revelations?
What boldness one had to have, knowing all that, to name even one recent work, in which the coverings of beauty are raised far more resolutely! I felt that, circumstances being revealed in this way, my role as an adviser should be over— and I resolved not to advise, but to contradict.
“Princess,” I said, “it seems to me that you are being unfair: there is something exaggerated in your demands on artistic literature.”
I laid out everything that, in my opinion, had to do with the matter.
Carried away, I not only delivered a whole critique of false purism, but also quoted a well-known anecdote about a French lady who could neither write nor speak the word culotte,2 and when she once could not avoid saying this word in front of the queen, faltered and made everyone burst out laughing. But I simply could not remember in which French writer I had read about this terrible court scandal, which would not have taken place at all if the lady had spoken the word culotte as simply as the queen herself did with her august little lips.
My goal was to show that too much delicacy could be detrimental to modesty, and therefore an overly strict selection of reading was hardly necessary.
The princess, to my no little amazement, heard me out without showing the least displeasure, and, not leaving her seat, raised her hand over her head and took one of the pale blue volumes.
“You,” she said, “have arguments, but I have an oracle.”
“I would be interested to hear it,” I said.
“Without delay: I invoke the spirit of Genlis, and it will answer you. Open the book and read.”
“Be so kind as to point out where I should read,” I asked, accepting the little volume.
“Point out? That’s not my business: the spirit itself will do the pointing out. Open it at random.”
This was becoming slightly ridiculous for me, and I even felt ashamed, as it were, for my interlocutrice; however, I did as she wanted, and as soon as I glanced at the first sentence of the open page, I felt a vexing surprise.
“You’re puzzled?” asked the princess.
“Yes, it’s happened to many. I ask you to read it.”
“Reading is an occupation far too serious and far too important in its consequences for young people’s tastes not to be guided in its selection. There is reading which young people like, but which makes them careless and predisposes them to flightiness, after which it is difficult to correct the character. All this I know from experience.” I read that and stopped.
The princess, with a quiet smile, spread her arms and, tactfully triumphant in her victory over me, said:
“In Latin I believe it’s known as dixi.”3
After that we did not argue, but the princess could not deny herself the pleasure of sometimes speaking in my presence about the ill breeding of Russian writers who, in her opinion, “could not possibly be read aloud without preliminary revision.”
To the “spirit” of Genlis, naturally, I gave no serious thought. People say all kinds of things.
But the “spirit” indeed lived and was active, and, in addition, seemed to be on our side, that is, on the side of literature. Literary nature took the upper hand in it over dry philosophizing, and, unassailable on the score of decency, the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis, having spoken du fond du coeur,4 pulled off (yes, precisely pulled off) such a schoolboy stunt in that strict salon that the consequences of it were filled with deep tragicomedy.
Once a week “three friends” used to gather at the princess’s in the evening for tea. These were distinguished people, excellently placed. Two were senators, and the third was a diplomat. Naturally, we did not play cards, but conversed.
Usually the older ones, that is, the princess and the “three friends,” did the talking, while the young prince, the young princess, and I very rarely put in a word of our own. We were learning, and it must be said to the credit of our elders that we did have something to learn from them— especially from the diplomat, who amazed us with his subtle observations. I enjoyed his favor, though I do not know why. In fact, I am obliged to think he considered me no better than the others, and in his eyes “littérateurs” all shared “the same root.” He said jokingly, “The best of serpents is still a serpent.”
This same opinion gave rise to the terrible incident that follows.
Being stoically faithful to her friends, the princess did not want such a general definition to extend to Mme de Genlis and the “women’s pleiade” that the writer kept under her protection. And so, when we gathered in this esteemed person’s home to quietly see in the New Year, shortly before midnight the usual conversation started among us, in which the name of Mme de Genlis was mentioned, and the diplomat recalled his observation that “the best of serpents is still a serpent.”
“There is no rule without its exception,” said the princess.
The diplomat understood who the exception must be, and said nothing.
The princess could not contain herself and, glancing in the direction of Genlis’s portrait, said:
“What kind of serpent is she!”
But the worldly-wise diplomat stood his ground: he gently shook his finger and gently smiled— he believed neither flesh nor spirit.
To resolve the disagreement, proofs were obviously needed, and here the method of addressing the spirit came in pat.
The small company was in an excellent mood for such experiments, and the hostess, first reminding us of what we knew concerning her beliefs, then suggested an
“I claim,” she said, “that the most faultfinding person will not find anything in Genlis that could not be read aloud by the most innocent young girl, and we are going to test it right now.”
Again, as the first time, she reached her hand to the bookshelf that was still situated over her établissement, took a volume at random— and turned to her daughter.
“My child! Open it and read us a page.”
The young princess obeyed.
We all became pictures of earnest expectation.
The writer who begins to describe the appearance of his characters at the end of his story is blameworthy; but I have written this little trifle in such a way that no one in it should be recognized. Therefore I have not set down any names or given any portraits. The portrait of the young princess would in any case have exceeded my powers, because she was fully what is known as “an angel in the flesh.” As far as her all-perfect purity and innocence were concerned— they were so great that she could even have been entrusted with resolving the insuperably difficult theological problem posed in Heine’s “Bernardiner und Rabiner.” Of course, something standing higher than the world and its passions had to speak for this soul not privy to any sin. And the young princess, with that very innocence, charmingly rolling her r‘s, read Genlis’s interesting memoirs about the old age of
Mme du Deffand, when she became “weak in the eyes.” The text spoke of the fat Gibbon, who had been recommended to the French writer as a famous author. Genlis, as we know, quickly sized him up and sharply derided the French who were made enthusiastic by the inflated reputation of this foreigner.
Here I will quote from the well-known translation of the French original read by the young princess who was capable of resolving the argument between “Bernardiner und Rabiner”:
“Gibbon was of small stature, extremely fat, and had a most remarkable face. It was impossible to make out any features on this face. Neither the nose, nor the eyes, nor the mouth could be seen at all; two huge, fat cheeks, resembling the devil knows what, engulfed everything… They were so puffed up that they quite departed from all proportion ever so slightly proper even for the biggest cheeks; anyone seeing them must have wondered: why has that place not been put in the right place? I would characterize Gibbon’s face with one word, if it were only possible to speak such a word. Lauzun, who was on close terms with Gibbon, once brought him to du Deffand. Mme du Deffand was already blind then and had the habit of feeling with her hands the faces of distinguished people newly introduced to her. In this way she would acquire a rather accurate notion of the features of her new acquaintance. She applied this tactile method to Gibbon, and the result was terrible. The Englishman approached her chair and with especial good-naturedness offered her his astonishing face. Mme du Deffand brought her hands to it and passed her fingers over this ball-shaped face. She tried to find something to stop at, but it was impossible. All at once the blind lady’s face expressed first astonishment, then wrath, and at last, quickly pulling her hands away in disgust, she cried: ‘What a vile joke!'”
That was the end of the reading, and of the friends’ conversation, and of the anticipated celebration of the New Year, because, when the young princess closed the book and asked, “What was it that Mme du Deffand imagined?” the mother’s look was so terrible that the girl cried out, covered her face with her hands, and rushed headlong to another room, from where her weeping was heard at once, verging on hysterics.
The brother rushed to his sister, and at the same moment the princess hastened there on long strides.
The presence of outsiders was now inappropriate, and therefore the “three friends” and I all quietly cleared off that minute, and the bottle of Veuve Clicquot prepared for seeing in the New Year remained wrapped in a napkin, as yet uncorked.
The feelings with which we left were painful, but did no credit to our hearts, for, while keeping our faces strenuously serious, we could barely refrain from bursting into laughter, and bent down with exaggerated care to look for our galoshes, which was necessary because the servants had also scattered on occasion of the alarm caused by the young lady’s sudden illness.
The senators got into their carriages, but the diplomat accompanied me on foot. He wished to take some fresh air and, it seems, was interested in knowing my insignificant opinion about what might have presented itself to the young princess’s mental eyes after reading the above passage from the writings of Mme de Genlis.
But I decidedly did not dare to make any suggestions about it.
From the unfortunate day when this incident took place, I saw no more of the princess or her daughter. I could not resolve to go and wish her a Happy New
Year, and only sent to inquire after the young princess’s health, but even that with great hesitation, lest it be taken in some other sense. Visits of condoléance seemed totally out of place to me. The situation was a most stupid one: to suddenly stop visiting acquaintances would be rude, but to appear there also seemed inappropriate.
Perhaps I was wrong in my conclusions, but they seemed right to me; and I was not mistaken: the blow that the princess suffered on New Year’s Eve from the “spirit” of Mme de Genlis was very heavy and had serious consequences.
About a month later I met the diplomat on N evsky Prospect: he was very affable, and we fell to talking.
“I haven’t seen you for a long time,” he said.
“We have nowhere to meet,” I replied.
“Yes, we’ve lost the dear house of the esteemed princess: the poor woman had to leave.”
“Leave?” I said. “For where?”
“As if you don’t know.”
“I know nothing.”
“They all left for abroad, and I’m very happy that I was able to find a post there for her son. It was impossible not to do so after what happened then… So terrible! You know, the unfortunate woman burned all her volumes that same night and smashed the little terracotta hand to smithereens, though one finger, or better say a fig, seems to have survived as a souvenir.
Generally, it was a most unpleasant incident, but then it serves as an excellent proof of one great truth.”
“Even two or three, in my opinion.” The diplomat smiled and, looking fixedly at me, asked:
“First, it proves that the books we decide to talk about, we should read beforehand.”
“And second— that it’s not reasonable to keep a young girl in such childish ignorance as the young princess was in before that occurrence; otherwise she would certainly have stopped reading about Gibbon much sooner.”
“Third, that spirits are just as unreliable as living people.”
“And that’s not all: the spirit confirms one of my opinions, that ‘the best of serpents is still a serpent,’ and what’s more, the better the serpent, the more dangerous it is, because it holds its venom in its tail.”
If we had satire in our country, this would be an excellent subject for it.
Unfortunately, having no satirical ability, I can recount it only in the simple form of a story.
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*Image: Anita Arbidane