Friendships: Marie Bashkirtseff

Brian’s UK publishers The Friday Project is curating a series of short anecdotes that Brian has written about some of the many literary greats that he has been fortunate enough to know and meet over his illustrious career, and others that he has simply admired.

In a short series here on Brian’s blog we publish some appetisers ahead of their collated publication. We’ll be featuring the following friendships. For a list of all current friendship stories in the pipeline scroll down:

Aldous Huxley Bob Shaw
Marie Bashkirtseff Leo Tolstoy (Resurrection)
Mary Shelley Shakespeare
Henry Marsh Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Anna Kavan


Before we launch into our praises for the startling Marie, her readers wall surely accept a word – if not more than a word – for the translator of the Bashkirtseff journal.s She is a lady called Matilda Blind, a curious penname for a lady christened Mathilde Cohen.

She was born in the March of 1841, at Mannheim in Germany. Later, she came to London to live, and was well- known as a Victorian poet. She was evidently a hard-working lady; Bashkirtseff’s original journal was published unabridged in France in sixteen volumes. The grand copious but abridged version in English was published in 1891, the work of this industrious lady, Mathilde Blind – a high-water mark of transference from one language to another. Blind died in 1898.

Marie Bashkirtseff still lives, at least on paper – that is to say, a miniature mountain of paper. In her early teens, she began to write thousands of pages of diary, sumptuous with longing, regret, ill-temper and delight in the intensity of life : mainly of her life.

Some of her surviving artwork – for she intended to become known as an artist – can still be seen, although canvases were destroyed during World War II, but what actually survives is Marie’s Journal.

The Journal contains an absolute whirl of speculation, rapture with her own personality and beauty and much else besides.

These Bashkirtseffs lived in exile. Her mother’s marriage had broken up; as a result of which the lady left Russia with her little daughter under her arm, and went to live in exile in Nice, on the French coast. Marie describes her father as ‘the son of General Paul Gregorievitch Bashkirtseff, who belonged to the gentry, and was a brave, obstinate, hard, even cruel man.’

Mother and daughter travelled somewhat. Marie reports that it was at ’Baden-Baden I began to get an insight into the fashionable world, and was tortured by vanity.’ [No one could imagine how such phrases would torment a lad justifiably lacking in necessary vanity while condemned to life in Devonshire…

And when her governess flits away on a romantic quest without saying a word, why then the whole family expectS Marie to become ill. She does her best, the satirical young lady, declaring, ‘I felt myself growing quite pale before such a show of sympathy.’

She is destined to become pale quite frequently throughout the pages of this bustling book.

Such robust pallors, matched by many other enticements, drove me in Nice, when as adult as could be, to look for where mother and daughter Bashkirtseff had lived. At least I found the church where she had worshipped – tiny, wizenned, dark, cluttered with old-fashioned objects of piety.

Mother and daughter occasionally toured. Naples seemed a much more enticing place that the village outside Barnstaple. Devon, to which my parents had upped stumps just before World War2 broke out.

Here Marie provides a taste of Naples, when she and her mother were travelling. They had left Rome behind and were now staying in a Neapolitan hotel.

“When you get to the square at the end of Chiaja, you feel much better. Further on, you get to the quay; on the left hand are the houses, on the right the sea, but the sea is stopped by a wall with balustrades, and lined by sellers of oysters and shells; then come the railings of the harbour, the various erections belonging to the service of boats, the harbour itself; but that is no longer the sea; it is a dirty place encumbered by a mass of hideousness…… This deathly silence in our hotel, the worrying noise of cabs and carts with bells outside, this grey sky, this wind shaking the curtains! Ah! I am very wretched; and it is not the fault of the sky or the sea but of the earth! “

The provoking thing about Marie is that she is wretched and deliriously happy in turns.

Let us suppose I was ten years old when I came across Marie’s Journal. Our family were strangers in a strange county; I could find no friends. I read a great deal, for instance the novels of Mr H.G. Wells, which everyone seemed to be reading at the time, together with novels such as Alun Llewellyn’s ‘The Strange Invaders’, and ‘Land Under England’, by Joseph O’Neill, which were published in 1934 and 1935 respectively. (The term science fiction was not in use at that period.) How the manna of the Bashkirtseff Journal came into my hands, I know not. I found it inexhaustibly interesting. Perhaps because it was written by a young woman who felt herself in exile, as I felt myself. Moreover she was much more adroit in exploring the blessings and vicissitudes of her own personality.

Happening to come across this same journal recently I found it as emotional, as creepy, and as exciting and inspiring as I had done as an inexperienced ten year old lad.

By this time, I had learnt a few facts about the vivacious Marie. She died of consumption in 1884, aged only twenty-five. Some of her wishes to achieve fame were fulfilled, and some of her canvasses have been preserved, while others were unfortunately destroyed in World War II. Among these canvasses is a self portrait, but in fact the Journal is itself Marie’s self- portrait, brimming with life, love, dismay and many other emotions which touched this ten year old to the quick.

It is a delight that the Journal still survives. A two volume edition was published recently by Fonthill Press.

Here is a Marie remark made in the year when she was later to die. It shows her involvement not only with herself, but with others.

“Good heavens, what an interesting thing is the street! The physiognomies of people, the peculiarity of each, the plunges you take into unknown souls……..”

Her Journal is such a plunge, on a irreducible scale.

The bejewelled voice falls silent, then is gone.

Currently planned for publication:

Kingsley Amis Bruce Montgomery
Robert Conquest C.S. Lewis
J.R.R. Tolkien Hilary Rubenstein
Phillip Pullman ‘Bella’
‘Sheila North’ Tom Maschler
Anthony Storr T.S. Eliot
Felix Greene Iris Murdoch
William Boyd Harold Boyer
Anna Kavan Janet Gill
Doris Lessing Harry Harrison
Charles Monteith & Agatha Christie Philip K Dick
Anthony Burgess Karen Blixen
Frank Hatherley Wolfgang Jeschke
JG Ballard John Osborne & Colin Wilson
Desmond Morris Michael Moorcock
Humbert Oscar Mellor
Bob Shaw Philip Morsberger
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