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Last week, you were introduced to one of the most fascinating and fruitful romances of literary history. Feodor and Anna Dostoyevsky’s sometimes difficult marriage was also the source of inspiration for the great author’s most famous novels. This week, we go deeper into the first heady days of that romance and the inevitable early difficulties of married life.
IT’S GOOD THAT YOU ARE NOT A MAN
What was happening at that time in Dostoyevsky’s life? By that time, he was already quite famous. The Snitkin family had read all of his works. His first short novel, Poor People, which had been written in 1845, inspired enthusiastic praise from contemporary critics.
But the flattery was quickly succeeded by an avalanche of criticism. His subsequent works met with virulent reviews.
One after another, Dostoyevsky was dealt a series of severe blows. First was his exile and penal servitude, then the death of his first wife from tuberculosis. Finally came the sudden death of his beloved brother, an entrepreneur whose many debts Feodor Mikhailovich took upon himself to repay.
By the time Dostoyevsky met Anna, he was financially supporting his 21-year-old stepson (his first wife’s son). He was also the financially provider for his deceased brother Mikhail’s family. As if that weren’t enough, he constantly provided his younger brother, Nikolai, with material help… Later, Dostoyevsky confessed that he “lived all his life in the grip of debt.”
By the end of the summer of 1866, Dostoyevsky’s circumstances were so desperate that the literary genius was forced to sign an unfavorable contract with his unscrupulous publisher, Stellovsky. Stellovsky, a cunning and enterprising man, promised to publish the complete collection of Fyodor Mikhailovich’s works for 3,000 rubles.
However, Stellovsky would only do this if Dostoyevsky completed a full-fledged novel by November 1, 1866. If Dostoyevsky was late even by one month, he would be obligated to pay an inordinate ‘penalty’. However, if Dostoyevsky failed to complete and hand over a polished novel before December 1, then all rights to his works would pass to Stellovsky for 9 years.
In other words, Dostoyevsky would have been doomed to debtors prison and poverty. As Anna wrote in her memoirs, Stellovsky was an expert at “lying in wait until people hit hard times and then trapping them in his net.”
The very thought of having to produce a brand new, full-fledged novel in such an impossible time constraint struck Fyodor Mikhailovich with dread and despair.
After all, he hadn’t even finished working on Crime and Punishment! The first parts of that novel were already in print, so he was obligated to complete it in the near future as well. At the same time, if he didn’t fulfill Stellovsky’s conditions, Dostoyevsky risked losing everything
And as time passed mercilessly, the prospect of complete failure and destruction became much more tangible and real to Dostoyevsky than the possibility of putting a ready novel down on the table of the exacting publisher.
As Dostoyevsky would later say, Anna became the first person to help him not only in word, but in deed. His friends and relatives sighed and sighed, lamented and sympathized, gave advice generously; however, not one of them actively entered into his practically hopeless situation.
Except, that is, a girl, a recent graduate of a stenography school with virtually no work experience, who one day appeared at the doorway of his apartment.
She, the best student of her graduating class, had been recommended to him by Olhin, the founder of the courses.
“It’s good that you are not a man,” Dostoyevsky told her after their first brief interaction and the first trial run.
“Because a man would probably start drinking. You won’t, will you?”
SO KIND AND SO UNHAPPY
In fact, Anna’s first impression of Dostoyevsky was not exactly pleasant.
At first, when the stenography professor Olkhin offered her a job with the famous Dostoyevsky, she couldn’t believe her luck. The same Dostoyevsky who was so admired at home! She didn’t sleep a wink the night before, repeating the names of the heroes of his works over and over again. She was so afraid to forget, for he would be sure to test her, she thought.She hurried over to Stolyarny Lane with a racing heart, afraid to be late even by a minute, but there…
There, she was met by a man who was tired of life, sickly in appearance, gloomy, absent-minded, and irritable. At times he couldn’t remember her name. Or he would dictate a few lines in a row so quickly that she couldn’t keep up. Then, he would grumble that nothing good would come of this venture.
At the same time, Dostoyevsky endeared himself to Anna Grigorievna, because underneath it all she could see his sincerity, openness, and trustworthiness. At that first meeting, he told her about what was perhaps the most incredible episode of his entire life, one that he later described in detail in The Idiot.
This was, of course, the moment when Dostoyevsky was brought to the place of sentencing for his interactions with a political society with revolutionary ideas. He had been sentenced to death and was already brought to the firing squad.
“I remember,” he said “standing on the Semenov square among the rest of my convicted friends. Seeing all the preparations, knowing that I had only 5 minutes to live. But those minutes seemed to me years, even decades…I had so much time left to live, it seemed! We were already dressed in death shirts and separated into groups of three. I was the eighth, standing in the third row. The first three people had already been tied to the posts. In two-three minutes, both those rows would be shot, and then it would be my turn.
How I longed to live, O Lord my God! How dear life seemed to me, how much good, how much kindness I could have still done! I recollected all of my past, how I had used far from all of it for good, and how I wished to try it all again and live for a long, long time… Suddenly, I heard that we were pardoned, and I cheered. My friends were untied, brought back, and the new verdict was read: I was sentenced to four years of hard labor. I do not remember a happier day! I walked around my prison cell in the Alekseevsky Ravelin and kept singing, singing loudly. I was so glad to have the life that had been granted to me again!”
Anna left the apartment of the famous writer with a heavy feeling. But it was the weight of compassion, not disappointment.
For the first time in my life,” she would write later, “I saw a person who was intelligent, kind, but unhappy and abandoned by all…”
And as sullen, antisocial, and dissatisfied as Dostoyevsky seemed on the surface, Anna’s sensitive heart penetrated through the exterior and saw the depth of his personality.
Later Dostoyevsky would write to his wife:
You usually see me, Anya, as morose, cloudy and capricious; it’s just outside; this is how I have always been, broken and ruined by fate; inside I am different, believe me, believe me!”
Anya not only believed but was surprised that anyone could see her husband as melancholy. How could they, when he was “kind, generous, unselfish, delicate, compassionate, like no one else!”
The future spouses were faced with twenty-six days of intense work on the novel The Gambler. It was in this particular novel that Dostoyevsky described his personal passion for roulette as well as his youthful, painful passion for a very real person: Apollinaria Suslova, an “infernal woman” as the writer himself described her.
Anna typed up the novel in shorthand. Later, at home, often during the nights, she rewrote it into longhand and brought it back to Fyodor Mikhailovich’s house. Slowly he himself began to regain hope that everything would work out.
By October 30, 1866, the manuscript was ready.
However, when the writer came to bring the ready-made novel to the publisher, he was told that the latter had left for country and that the time of his return was unknown! Meanwhile, the secretary refused to accept the manuscript in his absence. The head of the publishing office also refused to receive the manuscript.
It was a dirty trick, but one that could have been expected. With her characteristic energy, Anna Grigoryevna entered the scene. She asked her mother to consult a lawyer, who suggested that Dostoyevsky take his work to the notary to document its timely completion. But when Fyodor Mikhailovich arrived at the notary… it was too late! Nevertheless, someone still notarized his manuscript and it was signed by the department of the section. Dostoyevsky was saved from ruin.
(It should be mentioned that Stellovsky, whose name was associated with scandals and underhanded maneuvers in the fates of many writers and musicians, met a sad end. He died in a psychiatric ward before the age of 50.)
And so, The Gambler was done. A stone had rolled off Dostoyevsky’s shoulders, but he realized that he couldn’t part with his young helper. After a short interval, he offered her to continue working with him to finish Crime and Punishment.
Meanwhile, Anya noticed a change within herself as well. All her thoughts were about Dostoyevsky and her previous interests, friends and entertainments, suddenly lost their charm. All she wanted was to be near him. Their mutual understanding and proposal took place in an unusual way. Fyodor Mikhailovich started telling her the story of a hypothetical novel. In it, an elderly, visionary artist falls in love with a young girl …
Imagine, just for a moment, that you are in her place,” he said in a trembling voice. “Imagine that the artist is me, that I have confessed my love to you and asked you to be my wife. Tell me, what would you have answered?”
“I would tell you that I love you and will love you for as long as I live!”
On February 15, 1867, Anna Grigorevna Snitkina and Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky were married. She was 20, he was 45.
“God gave her to me” – the writer would say about his second wife, again and again.
But for her, this first year of marriage was a year both of happiness and painful disillusionment. She entered the house of the famous writer, the masterful “reader of hearts”. She was in awe of him, sometimes excessively, even referring to him as her idol. But the reality of life unceremoniously pulled her down from her elated expectations to hard reality …
THE FIRST DIFFICULTIES
“She loved me immeasurably, I too loved her without measure, but we did not live happily with her…” Dostoyevsky said of his first marriage with Maria Isaeva.
Indeed, the writer’s first marriage, which lasted 7 years, was unhappy practically from the start. He and his wife, who had a very strange character, did not even really live together. So how did Anna manage to make Dostoyevsky happy? After the death of her husband, in a conversation with Leo Tolstoy, she said (though she was speaking of her husband, not herself): “The character of a person is expressed nowhere as it is in everyday life, in one’s family.”
It was here, in the family, in the mundane life at home that her kind, wise heart was truly felt. From a carefree and peaceful home environment, Anna Snitkina, now Dostoyevskaya, entered a household where she was forced to live under the same roof with the erratic, dishonest, and pampered stepchild of Fyodor Mikhailovich.
The 21-year-old Paul constantly complained to his stepfather about her. When he was alone with her, he did his best to offend her as painfully as possible. He reproached her, for example, with her supposed inability to conduct business and told her that she was causing unnecessary stress for his father, who was already ill. Of course, this was also supplemented by his constant demands for money.
“This stepson of mine,” confessed Fyodor Mikhailovich, “is a kind, honest boy; but, unhappily, has a surprising character. He seems to have given himself an oath from childhood, that he would do nothing, have no fortune, and yet retain at the same time the most ridiculous notions about life.”
The rest of Dostoyevsky’s relatives were also dismissive of Anna. It wasn’t long before she noticed that as soon as Fyodor Mikhailovich received a monetary advance for a new book, the widow of his brother Michael, Emilia, or his younger, unemployed brother Nicholas, would appear out of nowhere. Or Paul would suddenly have an “urgent” need. For example, the need to buy a new coat instead of the old one, which had gone out of fashion.
Once during the winter, Dostoyevsky came home without his fur coat. He pawned it to give Emilia 50 rubles, which she urgently needed… The relatives manipulated Dostoyevsky, taking advantage of his kindness and inability to turn someone down. Things vanished from the house. A Chinese vase gifted to them by friends, then a fur coat, then silver appliances…everything had to be pawned.
And so, Anna Grigorevna was forced to live a life of constant debt. But she accepted this calmly and courageously. Another difficult trial was the writer’s epilepsy. Dostoyevskaya knew about it from the first day of their acquaintance, but she had hoped that Feodor Mikhailovich’s health would improve after the joyful change that took place in his life.
The first attack happened when the young couple were visiting friends.
Feodor Mikhailovich was extremely lively and telling my sister about something interesting. Suddenly he cut off his speech in mid-sentence, turned pale, rose from the sofa and began to bend over towards me. I looked with amazement at his altered face. But suddenly there came a terrible, inhuman scream, or rather a cry, and Feodor Mikhailovich began to fall forward.
After that, I heard this “inhuman” cry, common to epileptics at the beginning of an attack, dozens of times. And this scream always shook me and frightened me.
It was only then that I realized for the first time what a terrible illness Feodor Mikhailovich suffered from. Hearing him scream and groan nonstop for hours, seeing his face distorted by suffering, a face completely unlike his face, his insane immobile eyes, realizing that I completely didn’t understand his incoherent speech, I was almost sure that my dear, beloved husband was going crazy, and what horror that thought struck in me!”
She had hoped that after the marriage his attacks would become less frequent. But they continued. She had hoped that at least during the honeymoon there would be time to be alone, to talk and to enjoy each other’s company, but all her free time was occupied by guests and Dostoyevsky’s relatives, whom she had to entertain endlessly. The writer himself was constantly busy.
The young wife longed for her former quiet life, where there was no room for problems, melancholy, and constant clashes. She missed the short interval between the engagement and the wedding, when she and Dostoyevsky spent the evenings together, waiting for the fulfillment of their happiness … But that turned out to be so long in coming.
“Why does he, the ‘reader of hearts’ not see how hard this life is for me?” She asked herself. Her thoughts tormented her. Perhaps he had stopped loving her, finally seeing how spiritually and intellectually inferior she was to him (this, of course, was far from the truth). Anna even considered divorce, thinking that if she had ceased to interest her beloved husband, then she could not stay with him—she didn’t have enough humility for it. She would have to leave.
Too many hopes for happiness had been given to me in this alliance with Feodor Mikhailovich, and it would be too bitter if this golden dream did not come true! “
One day, after yet another quarrel with Paul, Anna was unable to remain composed. She collapsed, sobbing, unable to calm down, and Fyodor Mikhailovich found her in this state. Finally, all her secret doubts were let out to the surface, and the couple decided to leave. First to Moscow, then abroad. This happened in the spring of 1867.
The Dostoyevskys would return to their homeland only four years later.
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Source: NICHOLAS KOTAR