Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Account by a Lady of a Visit to Princess Dashkaw

Editor's introduction
The Princess was the third daughter of Count Woronzow, and was married at sixteen under characteristic circumstances. The Prince Dashkaw having made a compromising proposal to her, not pour le bon motif, she affected to treat it as a proposal of marriage, and communicated it as such to her family.

The prince married her, as the only or best way of getting out of the scrape. He owned her first child, but demurred to the second. She played a leading part in the intrigues and conspiracies which made Catherine the Second Autocrat of all the Russias; but the gratitude of her imperial friend and mistress did not keep pace with her expectations, and a coolness grew up between them which estranged her from the court,

The first reward she claimed was the colonelcy of a crack regiment. This Catherine refused, but made her Director of the Academy, and she is said to have proved fully equal to the post. She was popularly supposed to have been entrusted with the momentous duty of subjecting the empress’s male favourites to a kind of competitive examination or qualifying test; whence her name of l’eprouveuse, which was also given to another lady who succeeded her.

These particulars are principally based on French authorities. But the memoirs of the Princess, written by herself, were edited in English ' from the originals' by Mrs. W, Bradford in 1840; forming, with the correspondence, two volumes octavo. This lady, whose maiden name was Wilmot, was the younger sister of the writer of the following account, parts of which are comprised in Mrs. W. Bradford's work. I need hardly add that the Princess might say of her autobiography what a lively Frenchwoman said of her own: ' Je ne me suis peinte qv’en buste.'

In her ' letter dedicatory ' to her editor and friend, she complains that 'a life strictly moral and passed for the most part in privacy should be blackened by way of confirmatory supplement to' the falsehoods and vile imputations which some French writers had been pleased to fabricate and propagate against the great Catherine.

The sisters were of a good Irish family, who had made the acquaintance of the Princess during her residence in Ireland. They knew nothing personally of her before 1803, when she was near sixty.

Since cold is the order of the day, you may make this passing remark, that habit has no power of reconciling one to the inclemency of the climate: at least my sister says that she felt the second winter like the evaporation of saltpetre on the skin compared to the first which she scarcely minded, and now she is covered with wadded cloaks, when I need no additional clothing and the Princess is utterly unconscious it is not a summer's day. . . .

Russia is yet barbarous enough to be distinguished by her hospitality. She has many other nationalities, no doubt, but my experience has not been able to distinguish any except among the lower orders of the people: for, with respect to the higher, I am sorry to say they imitate the French in everything: and though the manners of the French are appropriate to themselves, I cannot endure the singerie of Bruin when he frolics like the monkey on his back. Instead, therefore, of the dignified salutation of former days (namely, of bowing seriously to one another till their crowns met together), you are kissed on both the cheeks with an appearance of transport, and are told mechanically how enchanted they are to make your acquaintance, &c.

The dress, too, is an imitation of the French, and they have universally adopted their language. ... In the midst of all this adoption of manners, customs, and language there is something childishly silly in their reprobating Buonaparte, when they cannot eat their dinner without a French cook to dress it, when they cannot educate their children without an unprincipled adventuress from Paris to act as governess, when every house of consequence (that I have seen at least) has an outcast Frenchman to instruct the heir apparent; in one word, when every association of fashion, luxury, elegance, and fascination is drawn from France, and, in the midst of this obliteration of themselves, a dying squeak against Buonaparte redeems them in their own eyes from this social and political suicide …

How I abhor these general observations arising from such circumscribed experience as mine, and I don’t know what induces me to depart from the detail of gossip. Strange to say, this same gossip would lead me to talk of Princess Dashkaw’s character (as I know more of her than of anyone else’s), which is diametrically opposite to all singerie; for if ever there was an original upon the face of the earth, it is herself.

Though she uniformly behaves to us with the greatest kindness and attention, she exacts (from imperial habits I suppose) a sort of deference, that surprised one excessively at first sight, from her own country people. For example, no man, though covered with stars, attempts to sit down in her presence without being desired, and not always even when requested. I have seen a dozen Princes stand out a whole visit. Once I saw them bowed out of the room (when she got deadly tired of them); and after she had given them her hand to kiss, they departed.*

It never enters into her head or heart to disguise any sentiment, and therefore you may guess what a privileged sort of being she is: and lucky it is that she has sensibility, and gentleness of nature; otherwise she would be a pest or scourge. She is the first by right, rank, sense, and habit in every company, and prerogative becomes such a matter of course that nothing appears extraordinary that she does. . . .

I believe I never mentioned a fine place the Princess has made herself, situated in the midst of sixteen villages belonging to her. Three thousand peasants ('my subjects' as she calls them) live most happily under her absolute power; and of all the blessed-hearted beings that ever existed she is the most blessed, excepting Mrs. C. There are 200 servants (taking in all denominations, inside and outside) belonging to the establishment; more than 100 horses, 200 cows, and everything else in proportion.

The house is enormous, and has wings at either side which are only connected by balconies raised on iron railings to the second story. Twenty bearded men are now busily employed in making a temporary wooden passage, as in winter (strange to say) they had provided for no internal communication: so much was sacrificed to the beauty of the outside.

There are a hundred whimsical and most ridiculous peculiarities of custom such as, letting you provide your own bedclothes in a palace even. We have our own sheets, blankets, quilts; and they would think one as extraordinary expecting that the house was to provide for these things as you would if, in your house, I laid myself up, and sent for your gown to use as a matter of right.

In fact, system of each person having a separate little establishment, is observed in more ways than that; for saucepans, candles, candlesticks, tea and coffee equipage, a hundred etceteras, are regularly found in the care of the femmes de chamber. I might lock my castle door, or my sister's, or Anna's, and we have provisions to keep the citadel a week in flourishing health.

The system of hoards is therefore without bounds, and presents appropriate to this comical system are perfectly the fashion. The Princess sent us a pair of silver candlesticks and a store of wax candles on our arrival here. I expected a spit or a gridiron next; but though not exactly so, we got presents of iron pans the following day. . . .

In the midst of this immense establishment, and in the centre of riches and honour, I wish you could see the Princess go out to take a walk, or rather to look over her 'subjects.' An old worn-out great-coat, and a silk pocket-handkerchief worn to rags about her neck, form her dress; and well may it be in rags, for she has worn it eighteen years, and will continue to wear it as long as she lives, because it belonged to Mrs. Hamilton.

Her originality, her appearance, her manner of speaking, her doing every description of thing, altogether give me the idea of her being a fairy; for she helps the masons to build walls, she assists with her own hands in making the roads, she feeds the cows, she composes music, she sings and plays, she writes for the press, she shells the corn, she talks out loud in church and corrects the preacher if he is not devout, she talks out loud at her little theatre here and puts in the performers if they are out in their parts.

She is a doctor, an apothecary, a surgeon, a farrier, a carpenter, a magistrate, a lawyer; in short, she hourly practises every sort of incongruity, corresponds with her brother who holds the first place in the empire on his trade, with authors, with philosophers, with Jews, with poets, with her son, with all her relations, and yet appears as if she had her time a burden on her hands.

She is unconscious whether she speaks English, French, or Russ, and mingles them in every sentence. She speaks German and Italian equally well; but her pronunciation is not clear, which takes from the pleasure I should otherwise receive from her conversation. I have just finished reading Voltaire's, Diderot's, Garrick's, and the Abbe Raynal's letters to her.

She has promised me the Empress Catherine's: and it is highly necessary to qualify oneself with the knowledge of public affairs and characters in Russia since the time of Catherine, for she alludes to them perpetually; and her mind wanders back so naturally to the court, study, toilette, and boudoir of Catherine, that I am beginning to fancy I recollect her habits of life and conversation, and that I was a party concerned in the Revolution.

By-the-bye, the principal reception-room at Troitskoe is ornamented with an immense picture of Catherine on horseback in uniform, taken the very day of her husband’s destruction, and, (the Princess says) a perfect resemblance.

Besides this there are portraits of her in every room. . . . Don't irritate me by saying, you suppose I am beginning to speak the language. No, let that satisfy you for ever. I feel my powers of duncishness increase daily, my powers of idleness, and of helplessness in everything that is good.
So adieu, &c.
W. WllMOT.
Troitskoe, Sept. 1805.

* The late Sir Robert Adair used to relate that, during his mission to St Petersburgh, he and the French ambassador were sitting with Potemkin when an aide-de-camp, a young nobleman, brought him a disagreeable note or missive of some sort. Potemkin started up, and actually kicked the innocent messenger out of the room. The Princess Dashkaw was once equally high in the Empress's favour, and might have indulged her passions or caprices with equal impunity.


Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

I've collected what I could find on the web about the Princess, which is actually quite a lot - she's one of the best known women in Russian history, as Princess Ekaterina Dashkova

7:31 PM  

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