Tongues Wagged

Donald Rayfield

  • Dear Writer, Dear Actress: The Love Letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper selected, translated and edited by Jean Benedetti
    Methuen, 202 pp, £16.99, November 1996, ISBN 0 413 70580 3

When The News seeped out that Anton Chekhov, the most sought after of Russia’s eligible bachelors, had, in Moscow on 25 May 1901, married a Lutheran actress, Olga Knipper, at least a dozen women exclaimed: ‘Why not me?’ There were the painters: Maria Drozdova dropped her brushes and her palette when she heard the news, exclaiming that she thought God had reserved Chekhov as a reward for her modesty and that she hated Knipper; Aleksandra Khotiaintseva, who had entertained him when they were staying in Nice in 1898 and whom Chekhov’s youngest brother wanted him to marry, kept her disappointment to herself. There were actresses – Lidia Iavorskaia, Vera Komissarzhevskaia, and the recently widowed Daria Musina-Pushkina – who had had their sights on him for years, even decades. There were writers: Elena Shavrova, who would have been prepared to divorce her civil servant husband; Tatiana Shchepkina-Kupernik, despite her lesbian preferences. There were women of no definite profession, above all Lika Mizinova – the original Seagull – to whom Chekhov had proposed at least twice, only to retract.

Anton Chekhov’s family and friends wondered why he had married at all. A careful observer of his parents’ marriage for nearly forty years and of his elder brother’s marriages for twenty, not to speak of the dramatic unhappiness of his married friends and acolytes – Bunin, Potapenko, Ezhov – or the tragedy of his closest friend, the press baron and publisher Aleksei Suvorin, whose first wife had died in a suicide pact with her lover and whose second was squandering his fortune, Chekhov had made the miseries of marriage one of the main subjects of his fiction and drama. For twenty years he had been notorious, as his women friends put it, for being ‘as elusive as a meteor’. Even when the grand old men whom he worshipped – Suvorin and the poet Aleksei Pleshcheev – had offered him their daughters, Chekhov had made a joke of it. He treated Suvorin’s daughter (who was II when Suvorin suggested the match) with the same risqué flirtatiousness as he did Suvorin’s wife, governess and, later, granddaughters, but firmly rejected the idea, despite the enormous dowry offered. Any congratulations Chekhov received from friends as he set out for his honeymoon and a diet of fermented mare’s milk at a sanatorium in the foot-hills of the Urals were lukewarm: Suvorin called it a ‘lottery’; other friends talked of Rubicons.

The family was appalled. The only potential bride that Chekhov’s mother, Evgenia, had found acceptable was Nadia Ternovskaia, the daughter of an archpriest in Yalta. Evgenia swooned and took to her bed when she had the telegram telling her that her son was to marry an actress and a heretic. Chekhov’s younger brothers, Vania and Misha, ostentatiously continued to treat Lika Mizinova as a de facto sister-in-law. In St Petersburg Chekhov’s surviving elder brother, the alcoholic journalist Aleksandr, made it his business never to meet Olga Knipper. He did once intervene in the marriage, pleading with his brother to stop Olga from dismissing the maid, Maria Shakina, at the Moscow flat Olga and their sister Masha shared – Maria Shakina had a baby every year, a weakness which Olga, unlike Masha and Chekhov, was not prepared to tolerate. (Aleksandr was married to the insortable Natalia Golden, Anton’s first serious mistress, who remained in love with him to her dying day.) More than anybody else, Masha suffered. She had fulfilled nearly all the duties of a wife to her brother, and she knew his most intimate secrets. Most of his mistresses were her friends, and it was widely known that any woman who wanted one of these roles had to accept the other.

Olga Knipper, like dozens of women before her, had been Masha’s friend and correspondent as much as Chekhov’s. Once news of the marriage was out, however, despite the rumours and hints that had been flying about for a year, Masha broke down. She expressed her distress to the writer Ivan Bunin, with whom she was romantically involved: ‘Dear Ivan, My mood is suicidal, I sense the pointlessness of my existence. The reason is my brother’s marriage ... why did Olga need all this disturbance for a sick man?’ She reserved her fury for her new sister-in-law, her erstwhile friend: ‘You managed to trap my brother! Suppose you’re like Natasha in Three Sisters! I’ll strangle you with my own hands. I shan’t bite your throat, just strangle you. You know I love you and must have got strongly attached to you in the last two years. How odd that you’re a Chekhov.’

Masha’s rage was understandable. On at least three occasions she had received a proposal of marriage that she was inclined to accept: first, a Lieutenant Egorov, then the painter Isaak Levitan (who made hundreds of successful propositions, but only one proposal), and in 1892 a landowner, Aleksandr Smagin (who pined for forty years). Each time Masha had referred the proposal to Chekhov, who either took the man aside and dissuaded him (with arguments that the intimidated victims never revealed), or, with a meaningful silence, told Masha to refuse. The tacit understanding was that Chekhov might have girlfriends to stay, but Masha was to remain the lady of the house. Those that accepted these rules could retain the friendship of both brother and sister: Olga Kundasova, the radical feminist ‘astronomer’, lasted, first as mistress, then as psychiatric patient, finally as friend, for twenty years. Even ex-fiancées, such as Dunia Efros, would be welcomed into the family circle.

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