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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Double Life

Karolina Pavlova

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To purchase A Double Life

Title: A Double Life
Author: Karolina Pavlova
Genre: Novel
Written: 1848 (Eng. 1978)
Length: 158 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: A Double Life - US
A Double Life - UK
A Double Life - Canada
La doppia vita - Italia
  • Russian title: Двойная жизнь
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Barbara Heldt
  • With an Afterword by Daniel Green

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Our Assessment:

B+ : frothy, but with a nice sharp edge

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 13/9/2019 Katharine Hodgson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Pavlova’s tightly constructed novel sheds light not only on Cecily’s double life, of which the heroine is unaware, but also on the double life of a society that conceals greed and ambition beneath a veneer of propriety. The verse section of the final chapter shows the doubtful yet defiant prose narrator reflecting on her own ability to put her innermost thoughts into words that have "crossed over to the outer world"." - Katharine Hodgson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Double Life is a novel of Russian high society in the mid-nineteenth century, centered on the marrying off of young Cecily von Lindenborn. Now eighteen, Cecily has led a protected life under the watchful eye of her mother, Vera Vladimirovna. She has been shaped to the requirements of (aristocratic) society of the time -- successfully, on the one hand ("she was so used to wearing her mind in a corset that she felt it no more than she did the silk undergarment that she took off only at night"), but catastrophically in other real-life respects:

Her mother's lessons and moral teachings were about as useful to her in relation to life as are the endless commentaries of zealous scholars to Shakespeare and Dante. Once you have read them, you can no longer grasp even the clearest and simplest meaning in what the poets have written. Her morals and intellect had been improved as arbitrarily and thoroughly as the pitiful trees in the gardens of Versailles, shamelessly pruned into columns, vases, spheres, and pyramids so that they looked like anything but trees.
       Cecily's best friend is Olga, daughter of Madame Valitskaia, "a very rich woman, extremely stern in all her opinions and judgments". Madame Valitskaia has something of a past, but that is decorously overlooked in the present; she and Vera Vladimirovna are on good terms, too.
       Arranging good marriages for the girls is one of the great concerns of the mothers -- though it surely says something that husbands are not much of a presence throughout the novel, barely managing a passing mention or appearance: "he himself doesn't enter into things" we learn right at the outset about Vera Vladimirovna's husband, which turns out to be a very accurate assessment; it takes something as significant as Cecily getting engaged so that: "Even Vera Vladimirovna's husband came home".
       The considerations that matter in marrying are, of course, wealth and standing; as Vera Vladimirovna's relationship with her husband suggests, personal feelings and engagement barely even rate as incidental. The novel opens with a back and forth of dialogue assessing suitability -- "But are they rich ?" is, in fact, the book's opening question. Cecily is a reasonably good prospect -- with the potential to be an excellent one (for now there's a younger brother who stands to inherit, but he may be promisingly sickly; there's a well-off childless aunt whose heir she looks to be). Soon enough, two men appear to be in the picture: the quite appealing Dmitry Andreevich -- though he is, alas, not of the uppermost crust, with a "fine fortune" of his own, but certainly fishing for a grander one through marriage -- and the promising Prince Victor.
       Pavlova presents the movements of and in this social circle: there are soirées and visits, Cecily's birthday is celebrated, there is some riding and much dancing. It's all very decorous, of course -- the greatest physical intimacy Cecily experiences even when she is engaged is when her future husband: "clasped his lovely fiancée and pressed his lips boldly to her pale cheek ...". Pavlova's touch is light and delicate, but her portrait of this class is searing, acknowledging the emptiness and boredom so much of it involves, as well as the constant positioning the actors engage in in playing their roles.
       With Madame Valitskaia and Olga eager to see that Prince Victor remains for the taking they nudge, in their different ways, Cecily and Dmitry together. A comedy of errors follows when Madame Valitskaia enlists grande dame Princess Anna Sergeevna to settle Cecily's engagement with Vera Vladimirovna -- an exchange that briefly finds Vera Vladimirovna in the dark about who exactly she had just promised her daughter to. Naïve Cecily hardly knows what she wants, while the adults, with their best laid plans -- her mother, and Olga's -- wind up not getting what they want.
       Pavlova's picture of this society is nicely drawn -- quite simply, even obviously, but with a cutting sharpness that is softened by her humor. Straight-jacketed Cecily is sympathetically drawn, a girl who has an inkling of a greater world out there, but is hemmed in by the strictures of this (high) society drilled into her by her overbearing, domineering mother.
       Pavlova is better-known as a poet -- A Double Life is her only novel -- and even here verse figures prominently: the chapters are largely straightforward narrative prose, but conclude with sections in verse -- much freer thought and feeling --, an effective technique. Here also Cecily's long forcibly muted inner feelings are given some space to expand -- though tellingly it's been drilled into her that such expression is inappropriate for a proper woman:
She knew that there were even women poets, but this was always presented to her as the most pitiable, abnormal condition, as a disastrous and dangerous illness.
       A Double Life is an appealing novel, offering a colorful, penetrating portrait of Moscow's high society in those times, especially the lives of the wives and women in it. The story that goes with it -- Cecily being married off -- is amusing and poignant, a so significant turn in the young woman's life, but one she has in no way been prepared for, and a union which all the parties (many with specific personal agendas), peripherally and directly affected, essentially stumble their way through and into.
       It's an enjoyable novel, and for all the light, quick presentation has a layered depth to it, making for a work that's fascinating in quite a variety of ways.

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 July 2019

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A Double Life: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Karolina Pavlova (Каролина Карловна Павлова) lived 1807 to 1893.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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