Soloviev, Leskov, de Genlis and Gibbon

From Erik McDonald’s translation of It Didn’t Come Off (1867) by Ol’ga N. (Sophie Engelhardt, 1828-1894):

Once I started a sentence this way:

“I think…”

Madame Petitpierre, my governess, interrupted me: “You think? In that case you will have dinner in your room tonight. Children do not think.”

This made me appreciate the passage in Sergei M. Soloviev‘s private memoir where he speaks of his liberal upbringing:

A pure Slav brought up in a free, Russian way, without a foreign tutor, I could give free reign to the inclinations of my Slavic nature…

The flip side of this was having difficulty speaking foreign languages, as opposed to understanding, reading and writing them:

I am a poor speaker of the languages I know – the four of them being French, German, English and Italian, in addition to Polish and Latin… by “knowledge” I understand the ability to read authors easily… I am not quite fluent in written Czech…

That was probably more than enough for his work as a historian of 17-19th century Russia and its European relations. Undoubtedly he understood old Russian as well: his early work focused on the transition to the more or less absolute monarchy of Ivan III and his successors.

Back to Mme de Genlis now. Her spirit made a major appearance in Russian literature in 1881 with a memoir by Leskov. As Erik McDonald explains:

Leskov’s story “The Spirit of Mme de Genlis” (Дух госпожи Жанлис, 1881) is built around an anecdote found in the works of the actual Madame de Genlis (1746-1830): a blind French woman is used to feeling the faces of famous people she meets in society, but when she feels the fat face of Edward Gibbon, author of The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, she thinks she has been tricked into feeling someone’s buttocks instead of a face and exclaims, “what a vile joke!”…

Erik also provides a link to the original joke. An English version of Leskov’s story can be found here. Alexander Zholkovsky called it a “little metatextual masterpiece.” See Erik’s blog entry for more details.


  1. I only know of Madame de Genlis from that Leskov tale. The British equivalent of “Les Annales de la vertu” was probably Thomas Day’s “The History of Sandford and Merton”, an improving novel for children which tormented the young Charles Dickens. He particularly hated the character Mr Barlow, who later became a model for Mr Gradgrind in “Hard Times”:

    “The instructive monomaniac, Mr. Barlow, will be remembered as the tutor of Master Harry Sandford and Master Tommy Merton. He knew everything, and didactically improved all sorts of occasions, from the consumption of a plate of cherries to the contemplation of a starlight night. What youth came to without Mr. Barlow was displayed in the history of Sandford and Merton, by the example of a certain awful Master Mash. This young wretch wore buckles and powder, conducted himself with insupportable levity at the theatre, had no idea of facing a mad bull single-handed (in which I think him less reprehensible, as remotely reflecting my own character), and was a frightful instance of the enervating effects of luxury upon the human race.”

    Thomas Day was a fervent Rousseauist.who tried to train an orphan girl to be his wife using the master’s methods. Unsurprisingly, the experiment didn’t work out too well.

    • See LanguageHat’s comment on Erik McDonald’s blog: “Mme de Genlis seems to have been quite the fixture in 19th-century Russia.”

      “Thomas Day was a fervent Rousseauist.who tried to train an orphan girl to be his wife using the master’s methods.” Wikipedia calls it a “wife training project.” Genlis couldn’t have been that bad, considering her charm and sense of humor. Take a look at the tale of her first encounter with Rousseau, as told by herself.

      • Confirms my long-standing opinion that Jean-Jacques was a paranoid nutjob. Thanks.

        • People who knew him should have realized he was suffering from a mental disorder. Hume called him a madman but did not really mean it, for it was ridiculous for a philosopher of Hume’s caliber to put so much effort into arguing with a madman. (The paranoid mindset and outlook are contagious.) On the other hand, inanity is an occupational hazard in philosophy and mathematics.

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