“A Daughter of Albion,” or “Nothing Makes Me Perspire”

A Daughter of Albion is a short story by Anton Chekhov. It was first published in 1883 in Nikolai Leykin’s magazine, Fragments (or Shards, perhaps more precisely). Up until 1888 Chekhov was known to the Russian public primarily as the author of funny short stories. He wrote about 400 pieces in his first five years of literary work, 1881-86; A Daughter of Albion was one of them.

In the eyes of most readers, it was a comic sketch, a caricature, a charge, an exaggeration (“impossible,” “salacious,” and “vulgar”, as some critics wrote), all of which it probably was to some degree. But that’s not all – until the latest rereading, I didn’t really appreciate the story’s oddness. Chekhov’s little piece is a joke on the one hand and a puzzling, unnerving, and absurd tale on the other.

The reason for the rereading was the story discussed in this post, Mary Postgate by Rudyard Kipling. Chekhov’s cartoonish English governess is not the first character that comes to mind on meeting Mary Postgate, but once invoked she won’t go away. An older relative of Miss Postgate’s, perhaps an aunt: Mary was born around 1870, so her aunt could have been in her 30s in 1883.

Both the “maiden ladies” are large-nosed and thin. (Kipling writes of Mary’s “lean self”; she has “narrow shoulders” and a “long back.”) Neither is healthily red-cheeked: one has yellow skin and the other is colorless all over. Their core commonality is a remarkable outward reserve. Unsurprisingly, Chekhov’s governess is perceived by her Russian observers as haughty and Übermensch-like:

The Englishwoman… deliberately turned her nose in Gryabov’s direction and scanned him with a disdainful glance; she raised her eyes from Gryabov to Otsov and steeped him in disdain. And all this in silence, with dignity and deliberation…

Later, at seeing her employer undressing and buck naked:

The Englishwoman twitched her brows and blinked . . . . A haughty, disdainful smile passed over her yellow face.

Kipling’s Mary was generally meek but likewise impervious to indecent imagery:

Some of Miss Fowler’s tales… were not always for the young. Mary was not young, and though her speech was as colourless as her eyes or her hair, she was never shocked. She listened unflinchingly to every one; said at the end, “How interesting!” or “How shocking!” as the case might be, and never again referred to it, for she prided herself on a trained mind, which “did not dwell on these things.”

As Mary says of herself, “Nothing makes me perspire.”

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