OF MARIE BASHKIRTSEFF Excerpts
I have not omitted one of my actions or one of my thoughts from this journal. I am real and natural, like souls before God.
I pay attention to everything because I’m like a chemist, patient and tireless, who passes his nights in front of his test tubes in order not to miss the moment when the expected effect will occur. Every day it seems to me that it is coming, so I think and I wait.
Youth is a beautiful thing! No matter what kind of life you have, youth finds an hour, here or there, of pleasure.
I’m beginning to be what I want to be, sure of myself and calm. I avoid bickering and gossip. In short, I perfect myself little by little.
With my family I feel like a reasonable person locked in an asylum. It’s as if my feet were caught in the sea by plants climbing and enlacing me; I can only shout, feeling that even that is useless.
Now that it’s 2:00 in the morning and I’m locked in my room, dressed in a long white peignoir, barefoot, my hair loose like a virgin martyr. I can devote myself to bitter thoughts.
I wonder whose hands my journal will fall into? Until now it’s of interest only to my family. I would like to become the kind of person whose journal will be interesting to everyone. Now it’s for me, and I love to read it!
At dinner under a tent at the Provençaux, we heard some voices: it was the notorious cocotte Saxe quarrelling with the restaurant owner, striking him with her fan. He shouted, “Don’t touch me or I’ll hit you!” He said such things to her as I don’t want to write, and ended bellowing, “I don’t want prostitutes in my cafe. Leave, you filthy tart, or I’ll pull off your skirt and spank your…” What a horror! We were acting as if we heard nothing, but I wanted to hear everything.
This woman pleases me very much. You can tell she’s amusing because it shows in her face. Such women of fourth quality, kept hidden like a great mystery, interest me. I would like to become a fly and follow them in their excursions, or even get inside their skins to know what they feel. Poor Saxe has trouble everywhere; she was thrown out of the casino at Monte Carlo. Here in Vienna, she wears beautiful dresses.
But let’s forget this. I lower myself by talking about these creatures, and I’m ashamed to have tarnished my journal with this stupid, improper story. However, I have to add that I am very sympathetic toward her, and I would very much like (incognito, of course) to become her friend. Oh, what horror! Horror!
The King (1) arrived yesterday, and this morning at 10:00 he called to see the Prince of Prussia. Informed by Doenhoff, I went up the stairway and when the King was in front of me I said:
“Two words, Sire, by your Grace.”
“What do you want?”
“Absolutely nothing, Sire, but to have the right to boast all my life that I have spoken to the kindest and best of kings...”
“You are very good. I thank you very much.”
“That is really all, Sire.”
“You are very good. I thank you very much.”
He pressed my hand in both of his, and I will wear gloves for a week! I’ll have superb nails.
I was listening and taking off my gloves, hardly understanding anything he was saying.
“That’s it,” he (2) said. “Give me your hand to kiss and a button to remember you by.”
“Oh, yes. Give it to me.” I was struggling to get closer to him and to touch his hands. He kissed one hand and then the other, and I closed my eyes both from joy and suffering. It was a kiss of consolation, and the second lasted for an epoch. I felt the approach of his lips. I felt them coming. I feared them, and I regretted their removal, as rapid as that was. Two reverential kisses—one on each
“Goodbye,” he said.
“Goodbye,” I said, half fainting and holding his hand.
“We’ll remain good friends, is that it—until we meet again?”
“No,” I said, with my eyes lowered.
“Until we meet again.”
And I went into my room completely numb.
“Rosalie, Rosalie (3)! Go and ask Monsieur the Count to come back for a moment. Quick!”
A tide of regrets overwhelmed me. And then—a crazy wish to see him again.
“You have something to tell me, Mademoiselle?” he asked, reappearing with the same polite coolness.
“Yes, Monsieur,” I said, outwardly calm. “What you told me has terrified me so much that I barely understand it. That is, I don’t understand. Tell me, did I really seem to want to marry you at all costs?”
“Oh, no. I swear it.”
I sat on the sofa. “Listen,” I said.
He sat beside me—or rather, in front of me. I had turned around. “I cannot get over my astonishment. Why have you said this to me?”
“I’m frank. I like to say everything this way. I’ve never paid court to a young girl without having the intention of marrying her—especially a person like you. And I cannot marry.”
“Monsieur. Monsieur. Who has begged you to court me? You absolutely astonish me.”
“Nobody. But I have been doing that.”
“You think so?”
“Both of us. We have gone far enough for us to decide—to finish it. We have arrived at a point...”
“At the end of 5 days? You are mistaken, Monsieur,” I said sweetly.
“Well, I like to go straight. For this reason I have talked to you about all this.”
“This way, it’s perfect?”
“In three days I’ll return; I hope I’ll find you still here.”
I gave him my hand, and he kissed it again, as before.
“Tell me, Monsieur, then we can talk like two good friends: tell me—have you ever been in love with me?”
“Me? Why do you wish that I had not been?”
“I wish nothing. I am asking you.”
“Why do you wish that I had not been?”
“That’s good. That is all.”
“Then it’s very good, Mademoiselle.”
“It is superb.”
And he left, leaving me stunned, bewildered, terribly calm.
I saw him leaving in a fiacre from the balcony where I stayed rooted for an hour and 20 minutes. All the carriages, the gentlemen of the court, bowed very low to me, I don’t know why.
(1) Vittorio Emanuele, King of Italy.
(2) Count Alexander de Larderel (1854-‐1885).
(3) Rosalie Grond: Marie’s maid servant; when she marries, her husband (Dominique Dame) joins the household.
If he were dying, he would become my great passion and an eternal, a delicious, a ravishing sorrow mixed with regrets and thanksgiving.
I couldn’t sleep… I turned down the lamp and started to write in pencil, in the greatest darkness: Why do we swear to—and often believe that we can—love forever? Because in love we are happy and hope we will always be happy, thinking that happiness comes from love. But once we don’t love any longer and consequently love doesn’t make us happy any more, why do we persist in loving? To fulfill our promise? Should that sort of misunderstood promise make us ashamed when we can’t keep it?
Those are dreadful paradoxes, but perhaps great truths. Who knows?
But dressing is an art, and even though I go nowhere, I dress for myself, for the love of art.
How short life is; how sad to live so little! How much women are to be pitied! At least men are free. They have absolute freedom in ordinary life—the liberty to go and come, to go out, to dine at a cabaret or at home, to walk to the park or to a café. Having liberty is half the battle in developing talent, and it’s three-quarters of ordinary happiness. But you will ask, “Superior woman that you are, why not take this
freedom for yourself?” It’s impossible, because a young pretty woman who emancipates herself this way blacklists herself; she becomes singular, talked-about, criticized, and censured. And as a consequence she is less free than when she observes those idiotic customs. So there’s nothing to do but regret my sex and come back to my dreams of Italy and Spain. Giant trees, pure sky, streams, oleanders, roses, sun, shade, peace, calm, harmony, poetry, inspiration....
Blessed be the day when I had the idea to write! In this way I can look in one hour of reading at all of a winter, all of an epoch, and it is a very important way to learn…
I am definitively dressed as a capuchin monk.
Oh! I’d like to die!
Instead of dying, I went to supper in the pavilion, crossing the garden with a candle in my monk’s frock at two in the morning. I read the memoirs of Garibaldi and still another book about him and I was electrified. And I—I am nobody. I am writing, but I write things nobody will pay attention to or worry about. When, then, shall I have something to say?
I’m frightened by the flight of time!
If we look closely, most things in this world are the results of imagination.
L’art! If I didn’t have these four magical letters in the distance, I would be dead. But for art I need no one else; I depend on myself. And if I fail, I am nothing and can’t live any more. Art! I see it as a great light very far away over there, and I forget everything else. I walk with my eyes fixed on this light. I’m a little old to be starting, especially for a woman. But I will try.
“Did you do that by yourself?” Julian (4) asked.
“Yes, Monsieur,” and I blushed, as if I were lying.
“Well, I am very pleased.”
I’m still struck by the superiority of the others, but I’m already less afraid. Some of the women have spent three or four years in the atelier, at the Louvre, in serious study.
All distinctions disappear in the studio; I have neither name nor family; I’m not my mother’s daughter; I am myself, an individual with art in front of me—art and nothing else. I feel so happy, so free, so proud! Finally, I am what I have wanted to be for so long… I will be what no woman artist has been before.
I would like horribly to pose in the gentlemen’s studio—nude. People are ashamed to be nude because they are afraid they aren’t perfect. Otherwise we would go out without clothes. The sense of “modesty” disappears before perfection, beauty being all-powerful, and it even prevents embarrassment and consequently suppresses any feeling of shame.
The street! On the way back from Tony’s (5) we passed through the avenues around the Arc de Triomphe at about 6:30. Summer—the concierges, children, messenger boys, women—all at their doors or sitting on the public benches or chatting in front of the wine shops. They would make such pictures! In this life, in this truth, there are wonderful things. The greatest masters are great only through their truth to
life. I came home marveling at the street.
(4) Rodolphe Julian (1839-‐1907), founder of Académie Julian, art school open to women.
(5) Tony Robert-‐Fleury (1828-‐1912), teacher at Académie Julian.
Upon leaving the studio, I took Mme de Daillens with me and we went to see Hubertine Auclert...We had rung 3 times with no response when the porter called us back. Mlle Auclert invited us to go up. On the door were written these words, “Rights of Women—head office.”
The office was very poor and simple. She lighted a fire and sat down in front of the fireplace, de Daillens on her right and I on her left. I said that I could not help feeling very emotional in the presence of the woman who has so daringly asserted our rights. My friend pretended to be the widow of an Englishman, M. Norscott, and I told her I was a foreigner brought up in France and that my name was Pauline Orell.
I want to do a portrait of Hubertine for the Salon...She will be good for the painting...dark, very nice appearance...she gave us a program and a little pamphlet and we shook hands. We joined the organization, promising to come again and pay our twenty-five-centimes per month. We will go to the meetings.
“Next Wednesday at 8:00.”
I told her that the main argument of the Reactionaries—that Women’s Rights members were ugly, old, and grotesque—certainly did not apply to her.
Old titles can be retained, but equality before the law is primary; all other equality is impossible. Dynasties, court favorites, ministers send down roots and rot on the spot, infesting the country: they’re the evil, the ruin. A constant change of head of state, frequent cleaning out of the ministers, officials exposed to the winds of public opinion—that’s what we need. These things make a country young and healthy.
Lola told me some fabulous things about Bedriaga. They say that she is a man—since she has fallen in love often and pays frantic court to the women. She dresses like a man except for the trousers, and serves the ladies like a cavalier.
Ah, gentlemen, you thought you’d find a rich, extravagant—let’s say the word—foreigner. But I’m no Russian and no foreigner, I am ME, I am what a woman should be with my ambitions...the moment to satisfy them is now. Well, let’s wait a little.
Borghese’s name is Giovanni, John… Borghese has some silk underwear embroidered with cut-work, and he pulls up his sleeve to show his arm to the chambermaid when he’s still in bed. He talks with his priest, putting on perfume, and the barber comes to embellish him twice a day. He’s lazy and refined, like a woman. Every morning, taking his bath, he leaves the door open and readily shows himself to the servants of both sexes. They say that he’s admirably well built. I would like to see him.
I have gone to confession; I have received absolution and yet I swear and rage.
Man needs a certain allowance of sin to live just as he needs a certain allowance of air.
He threw himself on his knees, his face hidden against me in a position so desperate that I put my left arm around his neck, even though I was holding myself stiffly. I wasn’t making fun of him. Only, I asked him: “Do you have an income of 300,000 francs? No? You can leave now.”
To die would be absurd. However, I feel that I’m going to die. I can’t live; I’m not born to the normal pattern. I have too much of some things, but other things are missing. My character’s not made to last. If I were a Goddess with the whole universe to serve me, I should find that I was ill served. It’s impossible to be more capricious, more exacting, more impatient than I am. Sometimes, or rather, always I have a certain undercurrent of reason and calm, but I can’t explain my meaning exactly. I tell you only that my life cannot last.
I have such pain between my neck and left ear, all inside, that it’s driving me crazy. I don’t mention it because my aunt would annoy me, and I can see that it comes from my sore throat. I’ve been suffering for more than 24 hours. It’s impossible to sleep or do anything else. Even my reading is constantly interrupted by it. This pain makes me see the dark side, I believe. Misery of miseries! When will I be finished with it forever?
I made a sketch for a subject that attracts me: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary at Christ’s sepulcher. I won’t use conventions or traditional effects, but show it as it’s supposed to have been, to let people feel it.
Excerpted from THE JOURNAL OF MARIE BASHKIRTSEFF, translated and edited by Katherine Kernberger. Copyright © 2012 by Katherine Kernberger. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from FONTHILL PRESS LLC
Legend and Marie Bashkirtseff
After Reading Marie Bashkirtseff at 21 by Gina Barreca
Marie généalogies par Mme Lucile LeRoy
Translator's Preface and Acknowledgements