Page 6, 5th February 1971

5th February 1971
Page 6
Page 6, 5th February 1971 — Fragrant evocation of an early Century atmosphere

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Locations: St. Petersburg


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Fragrant evocation of an early Century atmosphere

Keywords: Easter, Holy Week


A Girl Grew Up in Russia by Elizaveta Fen (A ndre Deutsch 55s.) I AM one of the many people R. ready to welcome a wellwritten "childhood,pro. duced by the now grown-up child. especially if it evokes the early century atmosphere So I approached this book with extra pleasurable antici• pation.

I knew that this author could write and here was zit] unusually powerful pull in time and place. We can lay hands on documents about the et coo& of Tsarist days. hut to lisse closely recorded by herself the life of a girl who left school lot University at St. Petersburg in 1917 — of all years -that is something rare. My reading are petite was ensured.

I was not disappointed. Through this book we can inhale the atmosphere of home. school, church and state. Both small and large "s" for the last. since the author's recalled, or, if you like. re-created, memories are very much concerned with her own reactions to every event and phase of her schooldays. One feels that she would have had a' stormy time, and provided it for those around her, whatever the setting. But this background is unfailingly interesting and so are many of the storms.

Elizaveta Fen was brought up in a well-to-do family, daughter of zl provincial governor, and so. as it were, on the wrong side of the coming Revolution.

The events which lay ahead for the author. her country and the world, add a keenness to the flavour of vividly described sadness and (more fleeting) joy throughout the book.

In her exclusive boardingschool this privileged, and according to herself, deeply deprived. girl, sutlers agonies of homesickness. As the pangs abate, ambitions develop. Among these are the yearning to become a widely acclaimed poet — and also to save her country from Tsarist thraldom.

Elizaveta tends to rebel against most of the people with whom she is closely concerned, and she has her reasons. A coldly detached father, a mother who ignored her pleas to be rescued from boarding-school, a brother whom she did not really like, as well as tiresome schoolfellows and unworthy young man followers. But a gentle always affectionate older sister does soften the picture. At school the build-up of feeling for and against a teacher and the "heroine's" final victory against what she would have telt to be a degrading apology do perhaps make heavy weather in the telling. But not to this writer: victory must be shown to have been won — by herself.

That determination is probably the key to all she achieved at school and obviously, :IS the jacket blurb of the book indicates, after 1917.

Happier events are described, There are vivid and fragrant memories of Easter and Christmas festivities which lit up the year. Festive services and festive foods arc beautifully described. However the poetry and triumph of Orthodox Easter liturgy is almost blotted out for this questioning young girl by the guilty knowledge that she wants to skip the indiee iminate embraces which are expected among the faithful afterwards — and especially her faithful would-be boy friend Shoora, with his plain face and pig-eyes. "I should not have such thoughts Ott Easter night. Christ was risen ..." Oh dear! One wants to urge that she keep her Easter joy for a spell and manage a quick friendly rush-round, just to show that everything was all right really, because of the Resurrection? But then of course it wasn't — for her.

It is no surprise to find that this growing girl has to rebel, solemnly and reluctantly, quite early on against her religion. One wonders how a child, in early teens, could be taken seriously as an atheist. and labelled so, specially by a school chaplain. Does one have all that much faith to lose in adolescence?

While accepting her idea of herself, it seems tair to assume that her kind of school was as tight-lipped and formal in its religious teaching and attitude as were some of ours — in those days and since. Perhaps they, as well as stark poverty and oppression provided seedgrounds for intellectual revolt against Faith?

The author's verses which occasionally decorate the memories can hardly have been written in English at the time. Presumably they were inserted with the full re-constructed dialogue which forms a large part of the book.

The material of these significant school-day memories is none the less valuable for having been, surely to a great extent, reshaped and interpreted in maturity?

If I want to pull out scraps which are most memorable to me I would choose the landscape descriptions, a visit to the Caucasus marked by a delightfully girlish worship of a concert conductor and a brief close-up of the young Duke Alexy, • invalid heir of the doomed Royal Family, as he watched and cheered other boys at play.

This is pre-eminently a "woman's book," but it is written by a woman who is also a psychologist.

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