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The Femme Fatale
Mariya Vilinska, better known as Marko Vovchok, has earned a prominent place in the history of Ukrainian and Russian literatures, both by her creative writings and by translations. However, this essay focuses on her private life rather than her literary achievements.
Mariya Vilinska is much better known as Marko Vovchok. This penname in Ukrainian suggests a man who hides behind it, rather than a woman; George Eliot — Mary Ann Evans — in English literature, and George Sand — Amandine Aurore Lucie Dupin, Baroness Dudevant — in French literature, also chose pennames which suggested men rather than women writers.
Vovchok’s stories and novels were of a “critical realism” kind and mostly devoted to the life of the lower classes. Taras Shevchenko called her “my literary daughter” and “a humble prophetess.” Her contribution to literature also includes her many translations, Jules Verne’s novels, which were very popular then. Her own works were translated into several European languages, and thus she was responsible for making Ukrainian literature an international phenomenon.
She is known to have praised the writings of the N. Dobrolyubov, a radical Russian utilitarian critic whose main concern was the criticism of life rather than of literature, and of other radical literati, and it suggests that her own views were of a radical kind as well and that she stood for comprehensive social and political reforms.
Her social and political leanings aside, Marko Vovchok had a reputation of “a femme fatale” though she does not seem to have ever acted as “a seductress” on purpose or deliberately. There was something in her that made men lose their heads when they happened to come to know her better.
Early life and marriage
Mariya Vilinska does not seem to have had a happy childhood — her stepfather mistreated her and her mother took her to Kharkiv where she left the girl with some well-to-do relatives. After finishing a private school in Kharkiv, Mariya moved to Oryol to live with her aunt. Her aunt’s house was a sort of “a salon” for local intelligentsia to gather at once in a while. At one of such gatherings the impressionable girl Mariya met Opanas Markovych, a Ukrainian ethnographer who had been exiled for three years from Ukraine to Oryol in Russia for his “nationalistic ideas” and for having been a member of a secret organization. Markovych was tall, good-looking, gray-eyed, sporting embroidered shirts and dress in the Ukrainian traditional style. And he recited Ukrainian folk tales with great gusto. Mariya was impressed both with his looks and with his recitals and stories about Ukraine.
He was eleven years Mariya’s senior, very poor and not of a robust health. The young Mariya looked more like a well-built young woman rather than a teenager. Her conversation was lively and sparkling with wit. Markovych was swept off his feet by Mariya’s charms, she did not reject his advances and it did not take them long to progress from discourse about lofty subjects to “congress” of a less lofty kind but much more exciting. They failed to keep their relationship secret and it became the talk of the somewhat scandalized town. Markovych proposed marriage, Mariya accepted, they were married in a small church in Oryol in December 1850.
Mariya came from of a mixed ethnic background — Ukrainian, Polish and Russian, but as she was raised in Russia she began to learn Ukrainian only when she moved with her husband to Chernihiv in Ukraine, where Markovych landed a job at a local newspaper. Some time later, he found a job of a teacher in a school in Kyiv. It is in Kyiv that their son, who was given the name of Bohdan in honor of the seventeenth-century hetman of Ukraine Bohdan Khmelnytsky, was born.
Markovych, being an ethnographer by education and calling, regularly traveled to the Ukrainian countryside collecting folk songs and folk tales. His young wife accompanied him on his ethnographic trips. She made a point of learning and then mastering Ukrainian to perfection as fast as she could — and she did learn very well indeed. In fact, when several years later, Taras Shevchenko was asked by the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev whose writings he would advise to read to learn and enjoy the prefect Ukrainian, he said that it was “Marko Vovchok — the only one who writes perfect Ukrainian!”
Mariya did indeed begin to write short stories which were not only highly readable but also were couched in a refined language of idiomatic Ukrainian.
Her husband sent some of Mariya’s stories to a friend of his, Panteleymon Kulish (see an essay about Kulish in WU 1’ 2010) who lived at that time in St Petersburg and was planning to start publication of Ukrainian books there. Kulish found Mariya’s stories well written and surely worthy of being published.
Mariya and her husband went to St Petersburg. Markovych introduced his wife to Kulish who offered himself as an editor and did a lot to get her stories published. From Mariya’s editor and publisher, Kulish rather quickly moved on to become her lover. He admitted he “was enchanted,” he called Mariya “divine,” “a God’s created bee who lives off the nectar from the flowers of our tongue.”
Kulish did not make any effort to keep the relationship secret. He left his wife but Mariya felt crowded by his admiration. Her own husband chose to pretend he was unaware of being cuckolded. It was Kulish who suggested the penname — Marko Vovchok. Mariya appreciated the suggestion and adopted the penname.
Kulish introduced Mariya to the circle of Russian literati. Her readings of her own works were highly praised. One of the most ardent praisers was Ivan Turgenev, one of the luminaries of Russian literature. He was in raptures over Mariya’s writings and, evidently, infatuated with Mariya herself. He even offered to translate her stories into Russian, claiming she would immediately become “famous all over Russia.”
When the doctors advised Mariya, whose health showed signs of requiring an improvement, to go abroad for treatment, Turgenev offered to accompany her. Mariya accepted the offer. Kulish was devastated. “Her levity, fickleness, and faithlessness have ruined me! Life is no longer worth living!” he exclaimed in a moment of despair.” In a letter to Mariya, Kulish wrote, “You loved me but little. I should stop suffering from being in love with a woman who cannot love me in return.”
The literary society in St Petersburg, women in particular, wondered what was so special in “this Mariya whose appearance was plain and who was not a good conversationalist at all,” that made men fall for her.
Mariya, to use a modern phrase, was a great hit in Germany and France. Prosper Merimee (1803–1870, French writer of romantic stories and novels) undertook to make translations of her stories into French, and some of them were later published in periodicals.
Neither Kulish nor Mariya’s husband seemed to abandon hope of being reunited with Mariya, and sought to see her. Kulish met Mariya in Berlin but apparently Mariya refused to renew their relations, and Kulish, though heartbroken, returned to his wife and tried to mend his faltering marriage. The husband proved to be more lucky — the Markovych-Vovchok family was reunited in Dresden and for at least some time it seemed the breakup was mended.
Mariya learnt several languages well enough (French, English, German, Polish) to start translating from them. Her favorite author was Jules Verne (1828–1905; French writer who is considered the founder of modern science fiction), whose popularity in the 1860s and 1870s was at its peak, and Mariya’s translations were published in Russian very soon after each new novel was released in France.
The cracks in the mended marriage proved to only have been papered over, and when in 1860 Mariya fell in love with a young lawyer, Aleksandr Passek, the patience of her long-suffering husband was exhausted and they broke up. This time the split turned out to be permanent but officially they were not divorced, and they remained legally married until Markovych’s dying day.
Passek was younger than Mariya and probably it added fuel to this passionate love. Theirs seems to have been a truly happy, mutual love. But happy loves often have unhappy endings — Oleksandr suffered from TB and in 1866 the disease killed him. He was not yet thirty when he died. Mariya herself, only thirty three at the time of his death, was disconsolate. She did not see any point in staying abroad, all the more so that such friends as Turgenev or the Russian emigre Herzen had dropped out of her life.
Mariya and her son returned to St Petersburg in February 1867. At the railroad station she was met by her distant relative, Dmitry Pisarev. He proved to be a sort of a godsend — he helped her, still grieving for her Passek, her great love, live through the most difficult period of her life.
Pisarev, a nobleman by birth, belonged to the radical wing of Russian intelligentsia; for his much too radical views, he spent several years in prison (St Peter and St Paul Fortress in St Petersburg). He was twenty seven when he met Mariya, then thirty four years old. In one of his letters to Mariya, he wrote, “I’ve given myself to you completely... I can’t imagine life without you, and yet I feel there’s the sword of Damocles hanging over my head — the sword that may sever our relationship.”
In 1867 Mariya’s “nominal” husband died and as a widow she was free to marry but Pisarev’s mother was dead against her son marrying Vovchok. She wrote letters to Mariya begging her “to at least treat him well to make him happy if you can’t love him.”
In 1868, Mariya, her son and Pisarev went to a resort on the Baltic coast not far from Riga. On July 4, Pisarev drowned while taking a swim. His death came as a great shock to Mariya, all the more so that her previous lover had died while her love for him was at its highest.
Marko Vovchok survived the shock and immersed herself in translations. She even founded a magazine which was to publish translations only. In a feminist gesture (long before any feminist movement began in earnest), she insisted on having only women to work for the magazine. It was probably the reason why Mariya and her magazine came under attacks from various quarters. The magazine was accused of not paying royalties on time and even of plagiarism practiced by the authors it publsihed. The magazine had to be closed down. The reputation of “a femme fatale”, now firmly established in St Petersburg, did not make her life any easier, and Mariya left St Petersburg. In 1872 she went to visit a relative who lived in Tverska Hubernia (Province) in Russia.
While she was there her son Bohdan paid her a visit, accompanied by his friend Mykhaylo Lobach-Zhuchenko who hailed from Poltava.
Mykhaylo was Mariya’s seventeen years junior. It did not prevent him from falling in love with Mariya who, by the standards of the nineteenth century, was already “an aging woman.”
Mykhaylo’s love was overwhelming and Mariya not only reciprocated but went ahead and married Mykhailo. She asked one of her influential friends to find a job for her young husband and the family moved to Stavropol in Russia when such a job was found.
By that time, Mariya had become fed up with “all that filth and vanity and rat race of St Petersburg” — she was longing for “fresh air of the steppe where I would never see those hateful faces or hear their lies.”
The 1860s and 1870s saw a number of drastic government ukases and decrees directed against the Ukrainian language, and Mariya’s works in Ukrainian could be published only outside the borders of the Russian empire. Mariya found the general atmosphere in her country to be stifling and was only too happy to change her lifestyle and habits completely.
In 1885, she and her husband moved to the little town of Bohuslav in Kyivska Hubernia (Province) where she spent eight years. In 1893, her husband’s job required their moving to Saratov in Russia, and in 1899 they moved again, this time to the North Caucasus. When several years later her husband retired, he and Mariya settled down in the town of Nalchik in what is now Kabardino-Balkaria.
Mariya lived the last two years of her life quietly, spending much of her time sitting under a pear tree in their little garden, reminiscing. Shortly before her death, she told her husband, “Since it does not look I can be buried close to Shevchenko, have me buried under this pear tree.”
The article has been adapted from the screenplay written by Yuliya Shpachynska for the TV serial Hra doli (Games of Fate) produced by VIATEL Studio (www.viatel.kiev.ua).
Mariya Vilinska. Photo of the 1850s.
Mariya Vilinska married Opanas Markovych when she was 16.
Panteleymon Kulish: “Mariya’s levity, fickleness, and faithlessness have ruined me! Life is no longer worth living!”
Marko Vovchok maintained first romantic and then friendly relations with the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev for years.
A letter of Marko Vovchok to Taras Shevchenko. June 1859.
Marko Vovchok paid a visit to the Island of White in 1859 where she met the Russian “dissident” Alexander Herzen. He was enchanted by her, like so many other men were.
The young but sick Russian literary critic Nikolai Dobrolyubov fell in love with Mariya when they met in Naples, Italy.
Aleksandr Passek, a lawyer, Mariya’s great love, died in 1866 of TB, not yet thirty.
Dmitry Pisarev, a Russian literary critic and Mariya’s distant relative, drowned taking a swim with her son; her being “femme fatale” was once again confirmed.
Mykhaylo Lobach-Zhuchenko, Marko Vovchok’s last husband, hailed from Poltava; he was seventeen years her junior; she stayed with him for 30 years until her death.
The title page of Marko Vovchok’s book Narodni opovidannya (Short Stories of the People). Zagreb, Croatia. 1899.
The house in Neuilly-sur-Seine (suburb of Paris), where Marko Vovchok lived in 1860s. The man sitting at the table is P-J. Etzel, an author and the publisher of Jules Verne’s works;
largely thanks to Etzel who was romantically involved with Mariya for some time, she was given the exclusive right for translation of Verne’s works into Russian.
Marko Vovchok in the village of Aleksandrovskoye, Stavropol Province, Russia. Early 1900s.