Turgenev was in love with the same woman his whole adult life: Pauline Viardot. He saw her for the first time in 1843 in the opera of Saint Petersburg. An extremely gifted and celebrated mezzo-soprano. And the wife of his friend Louis Viardot.
Hopelessly in love
He falls hopelessly and irrevocably for her. The next day he goes to visit her. Pauline is lying on the divan in her salon and points Turgenev towards a polar bear skin on the floor. Three out of four paws are already occupied by admirers, he gets the fourth. And that’s where he’ll stay until he’s an old polar bear himself: at her feet!
Turgenev becomes a faithful friend of the family. He accompanies them through Europe wherever Pauline performs. He stays at their house for such long periods at a time that it becomes embarrassing. He buys a house next to the Viardots’ in Baden Baden. Eventually he even moves in with them, occupying the third floor of their house in the Rue de Douai in Paris. By then Turgenev is like an uncle to the children.
Turgenev in Paris
The three of them form an intellectual household. They have friends like Flaubert, George Sand, Zola, Saint-Saëns and Tchaikovsky. Pauline gives singing lessons when her voice becomes too aged to perform. Louis Viardot has an extensive art collection that includes a Rembrandt, while Turgenev forms the centre of the Russian community in Paris.
But he will never fall in love with another woman and start a family of his own. There are some small romances, including one with Tolstoy’s younger sister. One of those even results in the birth of daughter Paulette, named after Pauline of course. Even so he will never let it come to a marriage.
Did Turgenev have an affair with Pauline or not?
For Turgenev the ideal woman is a woman he can never get. In a letter to the poet Fet he writes “I only know true happiness when a woman presses her boot into my neck and pushes my face into the mud!”. The sad result of an evil mother. We are not certain if Turgenev ever really had an affair with Pauline, but it is assumed that her fourth child, a boy named Paul, is Turgenev’s.
In 1883 he dies in France in the vicinity of Pauline and her children.
*Photos by me, the second shows the house on the Rue de Douai.
For this piece I read ‘Toergenjev’s Liefde’ by Daphne Schmelzer