In “City Folk and Country Folk,” not-particularly-rich minor gentry Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov has returned to his home village to take a rest cure and drink whey. His own estate is not inhabitable, so he ends up renting a bathhouse from his neighbor, Nastasya Ivanovna Chulkova. This draws the both of them into a summer of miscommunications and genteel misunderstandings.
“City Folk and Country Folk” has been compared to Jane Austen’s novels, and it has that element of a 19th-century comedy of manners, full of social commentary. However, while Khvoshchinskaya’s wit is not quite as elegantly cutting as Austen’s, and the only love plot is foiled pretty quickly, “City Folk and Country Folk” is more overtly socially oriented than Austen’s novels, more like something by Turgenev. It is a pointed portrait of the mid-19th-century minor Russian gentry, who are struggling to deal with the rapid social changes around them. The novel takes place in 1862, one year after the emancipation of the serfs, and both Nastasya Ivanovna and her former serfs, now peasants who still serve in her house or work her land, are trying to figure out how to negotiate the transition. Meanwhile, Erast Sergeyevich sits in his bathhouse and writes tracts about the bad behavior of modern women (the “woman question” was a major issue at the time, just as it continues to be to this day) and how women must be enlightened (by men) in order to gain a masculine way of thinking without becoming overly impertinent, forward, or independent. One of the more comic moments in the novel comes when he gives some of these tracts to Nastasya Ivanovna and her daughter Olenka, who are furiously offended by them, much to his surprise.
By Russian standards this is a very short novel, and it does not have the extensive philosophizing that readers might expect after reading the works of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy. What it does have is a keen insight into the everyday problems of the low-level gentry and simple country folk who made up the bulk of the “real Russia” of the provinces (and who continue, in changed form, to do so today). The humor is not malicious, but it is at times quite sharp, and the tone and message are sneakily feminist–not only are most of the main characters women, but Nastasya Ivanovna is shown to be the one who is capable of managing an estate more or less competently, while her daughter Olenka is a decisive young lady who repels unwanted physical advances with her superior strength. There are very few, one might even say no, female authors in the 19th-century Russian canon, so seeing someone like Khvoshchinskaya being revived and translated is very welcome. Certainly worth reading for those interested in Russian literature or women authors who are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
My thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for providing a review copy of this book. All opinions are my own.