Days of a Russian Noblewoman: The Memories of Anna Labzina, 1758-1821

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Anna Labzina. Days of a Russian Noblewoman: The Memories of Anna Labzina, 1758-1821. Translated and edited by Gary Marker and Rachel May. DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2001. Appendices. Notes. Index. $40.00, cloth. $18.00, paper.

Days of a Russian Noblewoman results from a harmonious pairing of editorial talent and specialization: the translators are historian Gary Marker and literature scholar Rachel May. Their introduction to Anna Labzina's memoirs is rich and thoughtful, with a smooth style and elegant flow of insights. Besides outlining her biography, the introduction places Labzina among a few Russian and other female memoirists from her own time-though the former include only those currently available in English translation. Presumably that reflects the book's intended audience, as anyone likely to want a comparison of Labzina to Natalia Dolgorukaia could probably read both in the original. The editors touch lightly on recent scholarship on women's autobiography, again placing Labzina in a context that is useful though not exhaustive. In places the introduction seeks to interpret or explain Labzina as a woman and personality, perhaps intending to forestall students who might judge or dismiss her according to modem criteria. That interest in who the author really was also reflects the presence of her personality in her writing and the reader's wish for greater contact across boundaries of time, space, culture, and literary convention. Comments on Labzina's use of language and religious experience, and the role of Masonry in her life and in Russian history, are particularly helpful in understanding the author's background.

Marker and May's choice of the word "Memories" as a subtitle rather than the usual "Memoirs" reflects this text's difference from comparable works that have survived from the time. Labzina is roughly contemporary with Catherine II and Ekaterina Dashkova, but she is much more private, having spent only a brief period in the public sphere of Catherine's court. As the editors point out, Labzina's life story also resembles the earlier autobiography of Avvakum, not least because of her constant concern with the state of her own soul: no matter why she started writing, she used the process of writing to track her own sanctity, past and present. Her narrative often mingles with prayer, especially in the surviving fragment of her diary from 1818, or else erupts into sermonizing by one character or another. The realia include life in noble households of varying degrees of prosperity in the late eighteenth century, a glimpse of life at Court, Russian Masonic politics, relations between nobles and their servants, the conditions in prisons, cultural distinctions between the urban centre and the provincial periphery, as well, of course, as one literate noblewoman's construction of self. …