A Month in the Country is a play about feelings. Feelings that no-one wants to talk or be honest about, feelings that you can get tangled up in and feelings that become real once they have been spoken out loud.
Turgenev wrote A Month in the Country between 1848 and 1850 in the Viardots’ country house Courtavenel. Courtavenel, some 50 kilometres from Paris, was one of his favourite places. Turgenev lived in Paris because the love of his life, the famous singer Pauline Viardot, lived there. Interestingly he was also close friends with her husband Louis.
Towards the end of the 1840’s the relationship between Turgenev and Pauline was rather strained. Pauline was touring a lot, she was having an affair with another man, the composer Charles Gounod, and she rarely replied to the daily letters that Turgenev sent her. Although the Viardots themselves were mostly gone, Turgenev liked being at Courtavenel anyway, and he wrote some of his best works there.
Turgenev has often used his complicated relationship with Pauline as a source of inspiration for his work. The relations in A Month in the Country between Natalya, her husband Islayev, her admirer Rakitin and the innocent student Belyayev were no doubt inspired by the relations between Pauline, Louis, Gounod and himself.
Natalya is a typical Turgenev woman: smart, attractive, capricious and passionate. The relationship with her husband, who really adores her, does not make her happy. To alleviate the boredom she flirts with Rakitin, a friend of the family. Rakitin is Turgenev himself, as he describes it in one of his letters: the unsuccessful lover. This situation changes with the arrival of a young student, hired as a tutor, to the family’s country estate; Natalya really falls in love with this fresh and pure young man.
The first one to notice this is Rakitin. Natalya only realises how serious her feelings are when she detects feelings of jealousy towards her 17 year-old ward Vera. Belyayev appears to be a bit scared of Natalya, but he seems entirely comfortable with Vera. A little too comfortable for Natalya’s liking. In an attempt to discourage Vera from befriending Belyayev any further, she confronts her. She manages to get Vera to confess that she is in love with Belyayev, and precisely by doing so, Vera’s feelings become real and grown up: what would most likely have blown over as soon as the summer was over and Belyayev was gone again, had now been turned into an entirely inappropriate relationship between a poor ward and student. Natalya even stoops so low as to try to marry her ‘rival’ off to an older bachelor neighbour.
In a further attempt to manipulate the situation she confronts Belyayev. Belyayev is dumbfounded. He had no idea about Vera’s feelings and he does not feel the same way about her. Vera, in turn, has understood after her conversation with Natalya that Natalya is in love with Belyayev herself, and she tells Belyayev so. He can’t believe it, until he hears it from Natalya herself. Completely confused about what he has apparently caused, he thinks that he has feelings for Natalya too. He wants to leave as soon as possible before things really get out of control. Rakitin has just enough pride left to leave as well and Vera marries the neighbour so that she doesn’t have to live with Natalya anymore.
Natalya’s feelings scare her when she realises what they make her do. Rakitin’s feelings are bitter. Love of every kind, he sighs, happy as much as unhappy, is a real calamity if you give yourself up to it completely. The innocent Belyayev feels as if he has brought some contagious disease to the house and Vera feels no longer welcome. Of course, by marrying the neighbour, she will end up being unhappy just like Natalya.
And Turgenev himself? His feelings were so strong that never left his beloved, except for a few times when he had to go back to Russia. He swallowed his pride and contented himself with being a friend of the family.
Photos from Wikipedia, collage and text © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019
- A Month in the Country, Turgenev
- Toergenjev’s Liefde, Daphne Schmelzer