Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Final Years

Academic journal article Transactions of the American Philosophical Society

The Final Years

Article excerpt

DURING THE LAST DECADE OF HER LIFE, which corresponded to the first decade of the new century, Dashkova lived on her estate in the spring and summer and in Moscow in the fall and winter. The visit of the sisters Martha and Catherine Wilmot for a time rejuvenated Dashkova, distracting her from her isolation and the sense of an impending end. They were the Anglo-Irish cousins of Catherine Hamilton and the eldest daughters of Edward Wilmot of Cork, Ireland, whom Dashkova had met in England in 1776 and again in 1780. When their brother died, Catherine Hamilton urged them to visit her dear old friend Dashkova in Russia. In June 1803, despite the war between France and England, Martha left England for Russia, where she stayed for five years. Once in St. Petersburg, she lived for a time in the house of Dashkova's niece Anna Polianskaia, and immediately began to hear rumors and disparaging comments about Dashkova. Anna assured her that Dashkova was a cruel, vindictive, unbridled individual, who had ruined many lives, and who lived in a pitiful wasteland far from the society of educated people.1 The ungrateful niece railed against her aunt, although not so long before Dashkova, ignoring family disputes, had established Anna at court, and eventually willed her three thousand rubles. Others told Martha about an eccentric old woman who led a reclusive existence and who was stingy and ill tempered. A relic of a past age, she only met with similar holdovers from Catherine's reign to play cards, even if she could not stand to lose. The stories she heard were not at all in keeping with those Catherine Hamilton had told her about a courageous young woman who had gallantly, with sword in hand, participated in the revolution of 1762. Wilmot was so frightened that she sought the help of the English envoy, G. Warren, who assured her of his protection.

At last, she arrived in Troitskoe, which to her relief was not at all a wasteland. The large brick house covered in white stucco stood prominently on the banks of the Protva River. The beautiful gardens led to a seven-mile stretch of dark forest extending as far as the eye could see. Driving up to the house, past the church with a tall, detached bell tower, she could see the outbuildings: the theater, riding school, infirmary, stables, steward's house, guesthouse, and other dependencies. A special enclosure housed an enormous English bull, and despite the harsh Russian weather, plants and tropical fruits-peaches, oranges, and pineapples - grew in the greenhouse. An energetic, older woman with an animated, intelligent face greeted Martha. Dashkova was dressed in her customary old dark brown man's greatcoat, decorated with a silver star for the occasion, a nightcap, and the silk handkerchief, worn about the neck, which Catherine Hamilton had given her. Martha felt more assured when Dashkova greeted her kindly and warmly, although communication was difficult. Martha did not know Russian and her French was almost nonexistent, while Dashkova spoke broken English with "unaccountable expressions" and when in a bind, she freely relied on words borrowed from French, German, Italian, and, as a last resort, even Russian.2 Martha was to become the love of Dashkova's final years and filled a void her children's absence had created. Herzen wrote, "After Catherine she [Dashkova] with all the ardor of a famished heart became attached to [Catherine] Hamilton. And in old age, a friendship, motherly, endlessly gentle, warmed her heart; I am speaking about Miss Wilmot, the editor of her memoirs."3

Dashkova surrounded herself with portraits of Martha, which were located on her snuffbox, in her bedchamber, and one as large as life in her drawing room in Moscow. The two women grew very close and their relationship was one of the only bright spots at the end of Dashkova's life. When she became concerned about her failing health, Dashkova wrote the empress Maria Fedorovna requesting that in the possible event of her death the empress take Martha Wilmot under her wing. …

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