Herzen, Aleksandr, 1812-1870: My Past and Thoughts: the Memoirs of Alexander Herzen [excerpts]: an electronic transcription
Chapter 2 [excerpts]next section
...Besides the servants' hall and the maids' room I had one other distraction, and in that I was not hindered in any way. I loved reading as much as I hated lessons. My passion for unsystematic reading was, indeed, one of the chief obstacles to serious study. I never could, for instance, then or later, endure the theoretical study of languages, but I very soon learnt to understand and chatter them incorrectly, and at that stage I remained, because it was sufficient for my reading.
My father and the Senator had between them a fairly large
, consisting of
of the eighteenth century. The books lay about in heaps in a damp, unused room in a lower storey of the Senator's house. Calot had the key. I was allowed to rummage in these literary granaries as I liked, and I read and
to my heart's content. My father saw two advantages in it, that I should learn French more quickly and that I should be occupied, that is, should sit quietly in my own room. Besides, I did not show him all the books I read, nor lay them on the table; some of them were hidden in the sideboard.
What did I read?
and plays, of course. I read fifty volumes of the French and Russian drama; in every volume there were three or four plays. Besides
novels my mother had the Tales of La Fontaine and the comedies of Kotzebue, and I read them two or three times. I cannot say that the novels had much influence on me; though like all boys I pounced on all equivocal or somewhat improper scenes, they did not interest me particularly. A play which I liked beyond all measure and read over twenty times in the
translation, the "Marriage of Figaro," had
a great influence on me. I was in love with Cherubino and the Countess, and what is more, I was myself Cherubino; my heart throbbed as I read it and without myself clearly recognising it I was conscious of a new sensation. How enchanting I thought the scene in which the page is dressed up as a girl, how intensely I longed to hide somebody's ribbon in my bosom and kiss it in secret. In reality I had in those years no feminine society.
I only remember that occasionally on Sundays Bahmetyev's two daughters used to come from their boarding school to visit us. The younger, a girl of sixteen, was strikingly beautiful. I was overwhelmed when she entered the room and never ventured to address a word to her, but kept stealing looks at her lovely dark eyes and dark curls. I never dropped a hint on the subject and the first breath of love passed unseen by any one, even by her.
Years afterwards when I met her, my heart throbbed violently and I remembered how at twelve years old I had worshipped her beauty.
I forgot to say that "Werther" interested me almost as much as the "Marriage of Figaro"; half the
was beyond me and I skipped it, and hurried on to the terrible denouement, over which I wept like a madman. In 1839 "Werther" happened to come into my hands again; this was when I was at Vladimir and I told my wife how as a boy I had cried over it and began reading her the last letters . . . and when I came to the same passage, my tears began flowing again and I had to stop.
Up to the age of fourteen I cannot say that my father greatly restricted my liberty, but the whole atmosphere of our house was oppressive for a lively boy. The
persistent and unnecessary fussiness concerning my physical health, together with complete indifference to my moral well-being, was horribly wearisome. There were everlasting precautions against my taking a chill, or eating anything indigestible, and anxious solicitude over the slightest cough or cold in my head. In the winter I was kept indoors for weeks at a time, and when I was allowed to go out, it was only wearing warm high boots, thick scarves and such things. At home it was always insufferably hot from the stoves. All this would inevitably have made me a frail and delicate child but for the iron health I inherited from my mother. She by no means shared my father's prejudices, and in her half of the house allowed me everything which was forbidden in his.
My education made slow progress without encouragement, or approval; I did my lessons lazily, without method or supervision, and thought to make a good memory and lively imagination take the place of hard work. I need hardly say that there was no supervision over my teachers either; once the terms upon which they were engaged were settled, they might, so long as they turned up at the proper time and sat through their hour, go on for years without rendering any account to any one.
One of the queerest episodes of my education at that time was the engagement of the French actor Dales to give me lessons in elocution.
"No attention is paid to it nowadays,"
my father said to me,
"but my brother Alexander was every evening for six months reciting "Le recit de Theramene" with this teacher without reaching the perfection that he insisted upon."
So I set to work at recitation.
"Well, Monsieur Dales, I expect you can give him dancing lessons as well?"
my father asked him on one occasion.
Dales, a fat old man over sixty, who was fully aware of his own qualities, but no less fully aware of the propriety of being modest about them, replied:
"that he could not judge of his own talents, but that he had often given advice in the ballet dances au grand Opera."
"So I supposed,"
my father observed, offering him his snuff-box, a civility he would never have shown to a Russian or a German teacher.
"I should be very glad if you could "le degourdir un peu"; after his recitation he might have a little dancing."
" Monsieur le comte peut disposer de moi."
And my father, who was excessively fond of Paris, began recalling the foyer of the opera in 1810, the youth of George, the declining years of Mars, and inquiring about cafes and theatres.
Now imagine my little room, a gloomy winter evening, the windows frozen over and water dripping down a string from them, two tallow
on the table and our tete-a-tete. On the stage, Dales still spoke fairly naturally, but at a lesson thought it his duty to depart further from nature in his delivery. He read
in a sort of chant and at the caesura made a parting such as an Englishman makes in his hair, so that each line seemed like a broken stick.
At the same time he waved his arm like a man who has fallen into the water and does not know how to swim. He made me repeat every line several times and always shook his head, saying,
"Not right, not right at all, attention, 'Je crains Dieu, cher Abner, '"
then the parting,
at which he would close his eyes and with a slight shake of his head, tenderly pushing away the waves with his hand, add:
"et n'ai point d'autre crainte."
Then the old gentleman who
"feared nothing but God"
looked at his watch, shut the book and pushed a chair towards me; this was my partner.
Under the circumstances it was not surprising that I never learned to dance.
The lessons did not last long; they were cut short very tragically a fortnight later.
I was at the French theatre with the Senator; the overture was played once, then a second time and still the curtain did not rise. The front rows, wishing to show they knew their Paris, began to be noisy in the way the back rows are there. The manager came before the curtain, bowed to the right, bowed to the left, bowed straight before him, and said:
"We ask the kind indulgence of the audience; a terrible calamity has befallen us, our comrade Dales"
-- and the man's voice was actually broken by tears --
"has been found in his room stifled by charcoal fumes."
It was in this violent way that the fumes of a Russian stove delivered me from recitations, monologues, and solo dances with my four-legged mahogany partner.