Anna Bunina (1774-1829) and the Origins of Women's Poetry in Russia
Aston, Michael, Canadian Slavonic Papers
Wendy Rosslyn. Anna Bunina (1774-1829) and the Origins of Women's Poetry in Russia. Studies in Slavic Language and Literature. Vol. 10. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 1997. xviii, 360 pp. Bibliography. Index. Cloth.
Although Wendy Rosslyn considers Anna Bunina "an accomplished poet" (p. xii), she is not a great poet. A conservative in literary matters, Bunina associated closely with the nationalistic, archaistic circle of Admiral A. S. Shishkov. In so doing, she allied herself with what was to be the losing side in Russia's literary development in the opening decades of the nineteenth century. Within this coterie, she was overshadowed by Derzhavin, Dmitriev, M. N. Murav'ev and others. Outside it, Bunina competed with literary giants such as Karamzin, Zhukhovsky and then Pushkin. Whatever reputation she had as a poet flourished briefly; on her death, it almost vanished.
Why write a book about a minor author? Rosslyn indicates that "[Bunina] is dead, she wrote books, and nobody has yet written a book about her" (p. xi). However, this is far from Rosslyn's own view and she has no intention of producing "an exercise in literary archaeology" (p. xi). Rather, she finds in Bunina a talented woman who struggled to be a poet within a male-dominated society in which women were discouraged from literary pursuits by education, their perceived roles, and social pressures. Rosslyn's overall purpose is "to advance [Bunina's] restoration to the history of Russian literature and to locate her in the culture of her time" (p. xi). The study, then, has three well-developed threads-Anna Bunina's biography, her literary career, and her life as a female poet in Russian society at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Rosslyn's monograph contains an Introduction and ten chapters, the last of which is an Epilogue. The first half of the study (Chapters 1-5) follows Bunina's life and literary career to 1811, including her early years, the death of her father in 1802, and her move to St. Petersburg, to obtain an education. There she met Admiral A. S. Shishkov, a figure who was to influence much of her life as a writer. Chapters 3-5 cover the most productive and important part of Bunina's career. Central to the theme is her first published collection of poems, titled with "a ritual expression of modesty" (p. 101) The Inexperienced Muse (1809). This collection marks in many respects the high point of her work. To paraphrase Rosslyn (p. 127), who presents a detailed analysis of selected poems (including "To the Youthful Pollux" and "Cyclops"), The Inexperienced More shows the range of Bunina's style, from rhetorical pieces to poems in informal, conversational modes. Detailed analysis of "The Fall of Phaethon" (1811), a translation of a well-known mythological piece from Ovid (Metamorphoses 1.750-778, 2.1-400), forms the focus of Chapter 5. Bunina composed the poem for her inaugural reading at Shishkov's Society of the Lovers of the Russian Word. Rosslyn considers the poem a pivotal work which showed that Bunina had "arrived at artistic maturity" (p. 197).
The second part of Rosslyn's study (Chapters fr-10) traces the long decline of Bunina's literary talents and health, a decline that began to manifest itself in or around 1811. Chapter 6 is titled "Racing with Bound Feet (1811-15)," but Rosslyn makes no comment on the oriental associations of the title. It is clear that from this point onwards she views Bunina as someone who must struggle under the handicaps of being a woman writer who is also poor and in worsening health. Bunina wrote about the war with France and about death. She tried her hand at prose. She wrote little. A second volume of The Inexperienced Muse appeared in 1812, but its tone, which "combined the romanticism of the first [volume] with rationalism" (p. 209) is distinctly didactic. Concerned about her health, Bunina undertook a yearlong trip to health spas in England. On her return to Russia, the Arzamas society subjected her to ridicule and vicious personal attacks. …