- The British Reception of Russian Culture
IN A PASSAGE she eventually omitted from “Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown,” Virginia Woolf asks: “After reading Crime and Punishment and The Idiot, how could any young novelist believe in ‘characters’ as [End Page 270] the Victorians had painted them?” Dostoevsky presents “characters without any features at all,” Woolf continues, “we go down into them as we descend into some enormous cavern.” Interestingly, however, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy and H. G. Wells—the chief miscreants in her essay—had not only read Dostoevsky but also praised his work as among the most accomplished in the world.
Many other British writers likewise expressed a substantial interest in Russian art during the 1880s, apparently the first decade of sustained attention to Russian literature. The “big four,” it might be argued, included Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Chekhov. Of course there were others—many others, in fact, as Stuart Young discloses in his contribution to Russia in Britain, 1880–1940: From Melodrama to Modernism.
If the names of these other authors do not come quickly to mind, one reason might be that even at the turn of the nineteenth century Russian literary influence was typically appreciated in a broad, nonspecific way. Generalized awareness of Russian culture often served some useful purpose—as a celebrated social-realist alternative to French naturalism, for example. Noticeably absent was any attention to nuanced implications concerning just how Russian works or influences were actually functioning in Britain as the host culture.
In other words, Russian art was not necessarily perceived (understood, received) the same way abroad as it was in its homeland. It could be said, perhaps, that something got easily lost in translation. The aesthetic idea of Russia often became “a British intellectual commodity that bears little relation to its ostensible source,” Rebecca Beasley and Philip Ross Bullock observe in their introduction. Not only the idea of Russia as an imaginary (even timeless) space but various features found in Russian art (including books, music, dance, paintings) often became subordinated to British cultural paradigms or were deployed (intentionally or unwittingly) to represent British societal concerns.
In a reconsideration of the representation of Russian characters on the British stage, for instance, Laurence Senelick focuses on “the incendiary heroine, the love among the anarchists, the police as a constant threat” to reveal how entrenched theatrical stereotypes and melodramatic conventions triumphed over the best intentions of playwrights (including Oscar Wilde and Maurice Baring) to express Russian theatrical influences. In Wilde’s case, Michael Newton indicates, seemingly timeless Russian themes served less as faithful renditions of their [End Page 271] sources than as malleable properties deliberately aimed at confronting Britain’s oppressive culture.
A similar outcome resulted in the British Tolstoyan movement (1890–1910), according to Charlotte Alston. British efforts to apply the principles of nonresistance, brotherhood and fidelity to conscience (regardless of church and state) evidenced a distinctive character defined in part by pressures exerted by local conditions. Fear of dynamic societal changes likewise infiltrated negative reactions to modernist Russian ballet, where Ramsay Burt sees a connection between “lawless bodies” controversially performing on a stage and socially confrontational suffragettes embracing new freedoms in the streets.
In his assessment of H. G. Wells’s interview with Stalin in 1934, Matthew Taunton concludes that the reactions of British intellectuals were far more complex than generally appreciated. The result was hardly a matter of agree or disagree. Taunton also finds that the interactions between literary authors and the governing elite were also more substantial than previously assumed.
The fifteen well-researched and insightful essays in Russia in Britain offer highly accessible doorways to the latest findings about how the resources of one culture can be intentionally or unintentionally utilized by another. One chief paradox of such cultural exchanges is striking: that fascination with an exotic other culture can sometimes lead to change but can also sometimes reinforce the status quo disguised as change.