Madame Novikoff

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Madame Novikoff

Rev. W. Tcikwell
Excerpted from Rev. W. Tcikwell, A. W. Kinglake: A Biographical and Literary Study (1902)

The Cabinet Edition of “The Invasion of the Crimea” appeared in 1877, shortly after the Servian struggle for independence, which aroused in England universal interest and sympathy. Kinglake had heard from the lips of a valued lady friend the tragic death-tale of her brother Nicholas Kireeff, who fell fighting as a volunteer on the side of the gallant Servian against the Turk: and, much moved by the recital, offered to honour the memory of the dead hero in the Preface to his forthcoming edition. He kept his word; made sympathetic reference to M. Kireeff in the opening of his Preface; but passed in pursuance of his original design to a hostile impeachment of Russia, its people, its church, its ruler.

This was an error of judgment and of feeling; and the lady, reading the manuscript, indignantly desired him to burn the whole rather than commit the outrage of associating her brother’s name with an attack on causes and personages dear to him as to herself. Kinglake listened in silence, then tendered to her a crayon rouge, begging her to efface all that pained her. She did so; and, diminished by three-fourths of its matter, the Preface appears in Vol. I. of the Cabinet Edition. The erasure was no slight sacrifice to an author of Kinglake’s literary sensitiveness, mutilating as it did the integrity of a carefully schemed composition, and leaving visible the scar. He sets forth the strongly sentimental and romantic side of Russian temperament. Love of the Holy Shrines begat the war of 1853, racial ardour the war of 1876. The first was directed by a single will, the second by national enthusiasm; yet the mind of Nicholas was no less tossed by a breathless strife of opposing desires and moods than was Russia at large by the struggle between Panslavism and statesmanship. Kinglake paints vividly the imposing figure of the young Kireeff, his stature, beauty, bravery, the white robe he wore incarnadined by death-wounds, his body captured by the hateful foes. He goes on to tell how myth rose like an exhalation round his memory: how legends of “a giant piling up hecatombs by a mighty slaughter” reverberated through mansion and cottage, town and village, cathedral and church; until thousands of volunteers rushed to arms that they might go where young Kireeff had gone. Alexander’s hand was forced, and the war began, which but for England’s intervention would have cleared Europe of the Turk. We have the text, but not the sermon; the Preface ends abruptly with an almost clumsy peroration.

The lady who inspired both the eulogy and the curtailment was Madame Novikoff, more widely known perhaps as O. K., with whom Kinglake maintained during the last twenty years of life an intimate and mutual friendship. Madame Olga Novikoff, nee Kireeff, is a Russian lady of aristocratic rank both by parentage and marriage. In a lengthened sojourn at Vienna with her brother-in- law, the Russian ambassador, she learned the current business of diplomacy. An eager religious propagandist, she formed alliance with the “Old Catholics” on the Continent, and with many among the High Church English clergy; becoming, together with her brother Alexander, a member of the Reunion Nationale, a society for the union of Christendom. Her interest in education has led her to devote extensive help to school and church building and endowment on her son’s estate. God-daughter to the Czar Nicholas, she is a devoted Imperialist, nor less in sympathy, as were all her family, with Russian patriotism: after the death of her brother in Servia on July 6/18, 1876, she became a still more ardent Slavophile. The three articles of her creed are, she says, those of her country, Orthodoxy, Autocracy, Nationalism. Her political aspirations have been guided, and guided right, by her tact and goodness of heart. Her life’s aim has been to bring about a cordial understanding between England and her native land; there is little doubt that her influence with leading Liberal politicians, and her vigorous allocutions in the Press, had much to do with the enthusiasm manifested by England for the liberation of the Danubian States. Readers of the Princess Lieven’s letters to Earl Grey will recall the part played by that able ambassadress in keeping this country neutral through the crisis of 1828-9; to her Madame Novikoff has been likened, and probably with truth, by the Turkish Press both English and Continental. She was accused in 1876 of playing on the religious side of Mr. Gladstone’s character to secure his interest in the Danubians as members of the Greek Church, while with unecclesiastical people she was said to be equally skilful on the political side, converting at the same time Anglophobe Russia by her letters in the “Moscow Gazette.” Mr. Gladstone’s leanings to Montenegro were attributed angrily in the English “Standard” to Madame Novikoff: “A serious statesman should know better than to catch contagion from the petulant enthusiasm of a Russian Apostle.” The contagion was in any case caught, and to some purpose; letter after letter had been sent by the lady to the great statesman, then in temporary retirement, without reply, until the last of these, “a bitter cry of a sister for a sacrificed brother,” brought a feeling answer from Mrs. Gladstone, saying that her husband was deeply moved by the appeal, and was writing on the subject. In a few days appeared his famous pamphlet, “Bulgarian Horrors and the Question of the East.”

Carlyle advised that Madame Novikoff’s scattered papers should be worked into a volume; they appeared under the title “Is Russia Wrong?” with a preface by Froude, the moderate and ultra-prudent tone of which infuriated Hayward and Kinglake, as not being sufficiently appreciative. Hayward declared some woman had biassed him; Kinglake was of opinion that by studying the Etat of Queen Elizabeth Froude had “gone and turned himself into an old maid.”

Froude’s Preface to her next work, “Russia and England, a Protest and an Appeal,” by O. K., 1880, was worded in a very different tone and satisfied all her friends. The book was also reviewed with highest praise by Gladstone in “The Nineteenth Century.” Learning that an assault upon it was contemplated in “The Quarterly,” Kinglake offered to supply the editor, Dr. Smith, with materials which might be so used as to neutralize a personal attack upon O. K. Smith entreated him to compose the whole article himself. “I could promise you,” he writes, “that the authorship should be kept a profound secret;” but this Kinglake seems to have thought undesirable. The article appeared in April, 1880, under the title of “The Slavonic Menace to Europe.” It opens with a panegyric on the authoress: “She has mastered our language with conspicuous success; she expostulates as easily as she reproaches, and she exhibits as much facility in barbing shafts of satire as in framing specious excuses for daring acts of diplomacy.” It insists on the high esteem felt for her by both the Russian and Austrian governments, telling with much humour an anecdote of Count Beust, the Prime Minister of Austria during her residence in Vienna. The Count, after meeting her at a dinner party at the Turkish Embassy, composed a set of verses in her honour, and gave them to her, but she forgot to mention them to her brother-in-law. The Prime Minister, encountering the latter, asked his opinion of the verses; and the ambassador was greatly amazed at knowing nothing of the matter. (23) From amenities towards the authoress, the article passes abruptly to hostile criticism of the book; declares it to be proscribed in Russia as mischievous, and to have precipitated a general war by keeping up English interest in Servian rebellion. It sneers in doubtful taste at the lady’s learning:

Sit non doctissima conjux,
sit nox cum somno, sit sine lite dies;"

denounces the Slavs as incapable of being welded into a nation, urging that their independence must destroy Austria-Hungary, a consummation desired by Madame Novikoff, with her feline contempt for “poor dear Austria,” but which all must unite to prevent if they would avert a European war.

How could one clear harp, men asked themselves as they read, have produced so diverse tones? The riddle is solved when we learn that the first part only was from Kinglake’s pen: having vindicated his friend’s ability and good faith, her right to speak and to be heard attentively, he left the survey of her views, with which he probably disagreed, to the originally assigned reviewer. The article, Madame Novikoff tells us in the “Nouvelle Revue,” was received avec une stupefaction unanime. It formed the general talk for many days, was attributed to Lord Salisbury, was supposed to have been inspired by Prince Gortschakoff. The name standing against it in Messrs. Murray’s books, as they kindly inform me, is that of a writer still alive, and better known now than then, but they never heard that Kinglake had a hand in it; the editor would seem to have kept his secret even from the publishers. Kinglake sent the article in proof to the lady; hoped that the facts he had imparted and the interpolations he had inserted would please her; he could have made the attack on Russia more pointed had he written it; she would think the leniency shows a fault on the right side; he did not know the writer of this latter part. He begged her to acquaint her friends in Moscow what an important and majestic organ is “The Quarterly,” how weighty therefore its laudation of herself. She recalls his bringing her soon afterwards an article on her, written, he said, in an adoring tone by Laveleye in the “Revue des Deux Mondes,” and directing her to a paper in “Fraser,” by Miss Pauline Irby, a passionate lover of the “Slav ragamuffins,” and a worshipper of Madame Novikoff. He quotes with delight Chenery’s approbation of her “Life of Skobeleff”; he spoke of you “with a gleam of kindliness in his eyes which really and truly I had never observed before.” “The Times” quotes her as the “eloquent authoress of ‘Russia and England'”; “fancy that from your enemy! you are getting even ‘The Times’ into your net.” A later article on O. K. contains some praise, but more abuse. Hayward is angry with it; Kinglake thinks it more friendly than could have been expected “to you, a friend of ME, their old open enemy: the sugar- plums were meant for you, the sprinklings of soot for me.”

Besides “Russia and England” Madame Novikoff is the author of “Friends or Foes? – is Russia wrong?” and of a “Life of Skobeleff,” the hero of Plevna and of Geok Tepe. From her natural endowments and her long familiarity with Courts, she has acquired a capacity for combining, controlling, entertaining social “circles” which recalls les salons d’autrefois, the drawing-rooms of an Ancelot, a Le Brun, a Recamier. Residing in several European capitals, she surrounds herself in each with persons intellectually eminent; in England, where she has long spent her winters, Gladstone, Carlyle and Froude, Charles Villiers, Bernal Osborne, Sir Robert Morier, Lord Houghton, and many more of the same high type, formed her court and owned her influence.

Kinglake first met her at Lady Holland’s in 1870, and mutual liking ripened rapidly into close friendship. During her residences in England few days passed in which he did not present himself at her drawing-room in Claridge’s Hotel: when absent in Russia or on the Continent, she received from him weekly letters, though he used to complain that writing to a lady through the poste restante was like trying to kiss a nun through a double grating. These letters, all faithfully preserved, I have been privileged to see; they remind me, in their mixture of personal with narrative charm, of Swift’s “Letters to Stella”; except that Swift’s are often coarse and sometimes prurient, while Kinglake’s chivalrous admiration for his friend, though veiled occasionally by graceful banter, is always respectful and refined. They even imitate occasionally the “little language” of the great satirist; if Swift was Presto, Kinglake is “Poor dear me”; if Stella was M. D., Madame Novikoff is “My dear Miss.” This last endearment was due to an incident at a London dinner table. A story told by Hayward, seasoned as usual with gros sel, amused the more sophisticated English ladies present, but covered her with blushes. Kinglake perceived it, and said to her afterwards, “I thought you were a hardened married woman; I am glad that you are not; I shall henceforth call you Miss.” Sometimes he rushes into verse. In answer to some pretended rebuff received from her at Ryde he writes

“There was a young lady of Ryde, so awfully puffed up by pride, She felt grander by far than the Son of the Czar, And when he said, ‘Dear, come and walk on the pier, Oh please come and walk by my side;’ The answer he got, was ‘Much better not,’ from that awful young lady of Ryde.”

Oftenest, the letters are serious in their admiring compliments; they speak of her superb organization of health and life and strength and joyousness, the delightful sunshine of her presence, her decision and strength of will, her great qualities and great opportunities: “away from you the world seems a blank.” He is glad that his Great Eltchi has been made known to her; the old statesman will be impressed, he feels sure, by her “intense life, graciousness and grace, intellect carefully masked, musical faculty in talk, with that heavenly power of coming to an end.” He sends playfully affectionate messages from other members of the Gerontaion, as he calls it, the group of aged admirers who formed her inner court; echoing their laments over the universality of her patronage. “Hayward can pardon your having an ambassador or two at your feet, but to find the way to your heart obstructed by a crowd of astronomers, Russ-expansionists, metaphysicians, theologians, translators, historians, poets; – this is more than he can endure. The crowd reduces him, as Ampere said to Mme. Recamier, to the qualified blessing of being only chez vous, from the delight of being avec vous. He hails and notifies additions to the list of her admirers; quotes enthusiastic praise of her from Stansfeld and Charles Villiers, warm appreciation from Morier, Sir Robert Peel, Violet Fane. He rallies her on her victims, jests at Froude’s lover-like galanterie – “Poor St. Anthony! how he hovered round the flame”; – at the devotion of that gay Lothario, Tyndall, whose approaching marriage will, he thinks, clip his wings for flirtation. “It seems that at the Royal Institution, or whatever the place is called, young women look up to the Lecturers as priests of Science, and go to them after the lecture in what churchmen would call the vestry, and express charming little doubts about electricity, and pretty gentle disquietudes about the solar system: and then the Professors have to give explanations; – and then, somehow, at the end of a few weeks, they find they have provided themselves with chaperons for life.” So he pursues the list of devotees; her son will tell her that Caesar summarized his conquests in this country by saying veni, vidi, vici; but to her it is given to say, veni, videbar, vici

On two subjects, theology and politics, Madame Novikoff was, as we have seen, passionately in earnest. Himself at once an amateur casuist and a consistent Nothingarian, whose dictum was that “Important if true” should be written over the doors of churches, he followed her religious arguments much as Lord Steyne listened to the contests between Father Mole and the Reverend Mr. Trail. He expresses his surprise in all seriousness that the Pharisees, a thoughtful and cultured set of men, who alone among the Jews believed in a future state, should have been the very men to whom our Saviour was habitually antagonistic. He refers more lightly and frequently to “those charming talks of ours about our Churches”; he thinks they both know how to effleurer the surface of theology without getting drowned in it. Of existing Churches he preferred the English, as “the most harmless going”; disliked the Latin Church, especially when intriguing in the East, as persecuting and as schismatic, and therefore as no Church at all. Roman Catholics, he said, have a special horror of being called “schismatic,” and that is, of course, a good reason for so calling them. He would not permit the use of the word “orthodox,” because, like a parson in the pulpit, it is always begging the question. He refused historical reverence to the Athanasian Creed, and was delighted when Stanley’s review in “The Times” of Mr. Ffoulkes’ learned book showed it to have been written by order of Charles the Great in 800 A.D. as what Thorold Rogers used to call “an election squib.” In the “Filioque” controversy, once dear to Liddon and to Gladstone, now, I suppose, obsolete for the English mind, but which relates to the chief dividing tenet of East from West, he showed an interest humorous rather than reverent; took pains to acquaint himself with the views held on it by Dollinger and the old Catholics; noted with amusement the perplexity of London ladies as to the meaning of the word when quoted in the much-read “Quarterly” article, declaring their belief to be that it was a clergyman’s baby born out of wedlock.

Madame Novikoff’s political influence, which he recognized to the full, he treated in the same mocking spirit. She is at Berlin, received by Bismarck; he hopes that though the great man may not eradicate her Slavophile heresies, he may manifest the weakness of embroiling nations on mere ethnological grounds. “Are even nearer relationships so delightful? would you walk across the street for a third or fourth cousin? then why for a millionth cousin?” Madame Novikoff kindly sends to me an “imaginary conversation” between herself and Gortschakoff, constructed by Kinglake during her stay in St. Petersburg in 1879.

“G. Well – you really have done good service to your country and your Czar by dividing and confusing these absurd English, and getting us out of the scrape we were in in that – Balkan Peninsula.

“Miss O. Well, certainly I did my best; but I fear I have ruined the political reputation of my English partizans, for in order to make them ‘beloved of the Slave,’ I of course had to make them, poor souls! go against their own country; and their country, stupid as it is, has now I fear found them out.

“G. Tant Pis pour eux! Entre nous, if I had been Gladstone, I should have preferred the love of my own country to the love of these – Slaves of yours. But, tell me, how did you get hold of Gladstone?

“Miss O. Rien de plus simple! Four or five years ago I asked what was his weak point, and was told that he had two, ‘Effervescence,’ and ‘Theology.’ With that knowledge I found it all child’s play to manage him. I just sent him to Munich, and there boiled him up in a weak decoction of ‘Filioque,’ then kept him ready for use, and impatiently awaited the moment when our plans for getting up the ‘Bulgarian atrocities’ should be mature. I say ‘impatiently,’ for, Heavens, how slow you all were! at least so it strikes a woman. The arrangement of the ‘atrocities’ was begun by our people in 1871, and yet till 1876, though I had Gladstone ready in 1875, nothing really was done! I assure you, Prince, it is a trying thing to a woman to be kept waiting for promised atrocities such an unconscionable time.

“G. That brother-in-law of yours was partly the cause of our slowness. He was always wanting to have the orders for fire and blood in neat formal despatches, signed by me, and copied by clerks. However, I hope you are satisfied now, with the butcheries and the flames, and the – ?

“Miss O. Pour le moment!

She is absent during the sudden dissolution of Parliament in 1874. “London woke yesterday morning and found that your friend Gladstone had made a coup-d’etat. He has dissolved Parliament at a moment when no human being expected it, and my impression is that he has made a good hit, and that the renovated Parliament will give him a great majority.” The impression was wildly wrong; and he found a cause for the Conservative majority in Gladstone’s tame foreign policy, and especially in the pusillanimity his government showed when insulted by Gortschakoff. He always does justice to her influence with Gladstone; his great majority at the polls in 1880 is her victory and her triumph; but his Turkophobia is no less her creation: “England is stricken with incapacity because you have stirred up the seething caldron that boils under Gladstone’s skull, putting in diabolical charms and poisons of theology to overturn the structure of English polity:” she will be able, he thinks, to tell her government that Gladstone is doing his best to break up the British Empire.

He quotes with approbation the newspaper comparison of her to the Princess Lieven. She disparages the famous ambassadress; he sets her right. Let her read the “Correspondence,” by his friend Mr. Guy Le Strange, and she will see how large a part the Princess played in keeping England quiet during the war of 1828-29. She did not convert her austere admirer, Lord Grey, to approval of the Russian designs, nor overcome the uneasiness with which the Duke of Wellington regarded her intrigues; but the Foreign Minister, Lord Aberdeen, was apparently a fool in her hands; and, whoever had the merit, the neutrality of England continued. That was, he repeats more than once, a most critical time for Russia; it was an object almost of life and death to the Czar to keep England dawdling in a state of actual though not avowed neutrality. It is, he argued, a matter of fact, that precisely this result was attained, and “I shall be slow to believe that Madame de Lieven did not deserve a great share of the glory (as you would think it) of making England act weakly under such circumstances; more especially since we know that the Duke did not like the great lady, and may be supposed to have distinctly traced his painful embarrassment to her power.” So the letters go, interspersed with news, with criticisms of notable persons, with comments enlightening or cynical on passing political events: with personal matters only now and then; as when he notes the loss of his two sisters; dwells with unwonted feeling on the death of his eldest nephew by consumption; condoles with her on her husband’s illness; gives council, wise or playful, as to the education of her son. “I am glad to hear that he is good at Greek, Latin, and Mathematics, for that shows his cleverness; glad also to hear that he is occasionally naughty, for that shows his force. I advise you to claim and exercise as much control as possible, because I am certain that a woman – especially so gifted a one as you – knows more, or rather feels more, about the right way of bringing up a boy than any mere man.”

Unbrokenly the correspondence continues: the intimacy added charm, interest, fragrance to his life, brought out in him all that was genial, playful, humorous. He fights the admonitions of coming weakness; goes to Sidmouth with a sore throat, but takes his papers and his books. It is, he says, a deserted little sea-coast place. “Mrs. Grundy has a small house there, but she does not know me by sight. If Madame Novikoff were to come, the astonished little town, dazzled first by her, would find itself invaded by theologians, bishops, ambassadors of deceased emperors, and an ex- Prime-Minister.” But as time goes on he speaks more often of his suffering throat; of gout, increasing deafness, only half a voice: his last letter is written in July, 1890, to condole with his friend upon her husband’s death. In October his nurse takes the pen; Madame Novikoff comes back hurriedly from Scotland to find him in his last illness. “It is very nice,” he told his nurse, “to see dear Madame Novikoff again, but I am going down hill fast, and cannot hope to be well enough to see much of her.” This is in November, 1890; on New Year’s Eve came the inexorable, “Terminator of delights and Separator of friends.”