Celebration Edition #388:
"The Englishwoman in Russia: Impressions of the Society and Manners of the Russians at Home." By a Lady, Ten Years Resident in that Country.
[Variously attributed to Mrs. Andrew Neilson and to Sophia Lane Poole.]
London: John Murray, Albemarle Street, 1855.
The identity of the "Englishwoman in Russia" is not definitely known. She says in her 1854 introduction that "circumstances induced me to reside for more than ten years in Russia, which I have only recently quitted", and explains that she left as a result of the Crimean war (1853-1856):
"As soon as the Declaration of War was known, there was a marked and very disagreeable change in the manners of even my oldest and most attached friends: it seemed that those few words were sufficient to sever the bonds of amity… This intolerant feeling… reached so great a height, that it became almost impossible for any one to remain in the country who was obliged to come into daily contact with them."
"The absurd falsehoods daily published for the amusement of the Russians, and the abuse of our nation, we can well afford to laugh at in England; but it is widely different to one standing alone in a foreign land, and among the enemies of one's country. None but those who have been placed in such a position can have any idea of the grief and heartburning it causes, nor how very difficult it is to remain silent…"
Similarity in titles seems to have been the main reason for attributing authorship of "The Englishwoman in Russia" to Sophia Lane Poole (1804–1891). Poole was the author of "The Englishwoman in Egypt" (1845). She and her sons joined her brother, orientalist Edward William Lane, in Egypt in 1842 and lived there until 1949. Poole's known residence in Egypt therefore overlaps with the Englishwoman's stay in Russia.
Mrs. Andrew Neilson seems a more likely candidate as author of "The Englishwoman in Russia". Her husband Andrew Neilson of Edinburgh (1811-1885) was a son of James Neilson, Esq., of Millbank (1753-1821) and his wife Anne Stuart (1777-1856), and a brother of Anne Neilson (1801-1855). Anne Neilson married Alexander Ivanovitch, Sultan Katte Ghery Krim Ghery on 26 April 1820 at the St. Cuthbert Church in Edinburgh and went with him to the Crimea, residing in Akmescit and on various estates. Kattı Geray died in 1847, but the Sultana lived at Akmescit until the Crimean War, dying at Simpheropol in 1855. Mrs. Andrew Neilson was known to have written "The Crimea: its towns, inhabitants, and social customs / By a lady, resident near the Alma" (1855). The preface of "The Crimea" was written in London in February 1855. It states "during a period of nine years the author resided in different parts of the Crimea, and travelled repeatedly over almost the whole of the Peninsula".
Mrs. Andrew Neilson therefore lived in the right area, at the right time, to have written "The Englishwoman in Russia" as well as "The Crimea". The justification for publishing is similar in both books but not unusual: she writes at "the earnest request of a large circle of friends" (Crimea) who have "recommended her to present these written observations to the public" (Russia). It is suggestive that both books display knowledge of local antiquities and of local plant life. Her authorship is plausible but not definitively proven.
The "Englishwoman in Russia" travelled widely both in rural areas and in cities like St. Petersburg and Moscow. She has an eye for color and detail, whether she is describing a river bank or a cathedral.
"I looked around on the banks of the broad but shallow river; they were flat and marshy, abounding in brushwood and stunted firs, small birch-trees, with here and there an ash, the coral berries of which served to enliven the mass of green foliage."
Describing winter travel by sledge, pulled by reindeer, she notes: "the clicking of the reindeer's hoofs formed a kind of castanet accompaniment. Nature has provided them with widely-spreading feet, which prevent them from sinking in the snow, and which open and shut with a smart snapping noise at every step they take." On one memorable occasion, "our yemstchick drove us so near to the edge of the road that he turned us both out into the midst of an enormous snow-drift. I really thought we should be smothered, for the kabitka rolled right over upon us; being half-buried in the snow was disagreeable enough, but to have pillows, mattress, portmanteaux, and a whole shower of small etcetera with which our sledge was filled, upon our backs, rendering it impossible for us to move, was even worse."
Lodgings were difficult to find, and frequently unappealing: "Even on the great chaussées it is better to travel day and night and remain in the carriage, for he must be a bold man who would be willing to face the vermin of all kinds, even for a single night, in a way-side hotel. The better class of Russian travellers know well how they are peopled, and avoid them accordingly. As for the lower class, they are too much accustomed to such company to care in the least."
Our Englishwoman is aware of inequalities of class and gender, and very aware of the differences between the public and private faces of those around her. "The lady who would be shocked to say a petulant word to an acquaintance, would not hesitate to strike her maid; and though she would be overwhelmed with grief at the distress she could see, she would, by her reckless extravagance, cause the severest sufferings to her serfs, and reduce them to the extremity of want, without feeling remorse." "The vice of the lower classes can only be equalled by that of the upper: in the former it proceeds from their unhappy position and ignorance; in the latter from idleness and corruption."
Looking forward, she predicted the difficult days of the Russian revolution of 1917: "Could we but see the oppression of the land-stewards and the ill-treatment they meet with, we should soon discover how many clouds cast a shadow on their daily course. Men and women in name, and children in their thoughts and ideas, they are now governed like so many infants; but when the day comes on which they will awaken to their true condition, how fearful will be the retribution on the heads of those who have thus oppressed them. 'We all look forward to a revolution,' said a gentleman of great talent one day; 'we all look forward to a revolution; and when it does break out, the French tragedy will be but a game of play in comparison to it.' I often thought of his words when I saw the peasantry with their axes stuck into their girdle."
You can identify the locations she visited on a google map which I've created. It's worth zooming in on St. Petersburg and Moscow, where she describes various sites within the cities. I hope you will read and enjoy!