“I Am My Own Heroine” How Marie Bashkirtseff Rewrote the Route to Fame
The diary of Marie Bashkirtseff, published after her death from tuberculosis aged just 25, won the aspiring painter the fame she so longed for but failed to achieve while alive. Sonia Wilson explores the importance of the journal — one of the earliest bids by a woman to secure celebrity through curation of “personal brand” — and the shape it gave to female ambition in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
September 2, 2020
In May 1884, long before the likes of Kim Kardashian achieved celebrity through the careful curation and promotion of self, a young unknown named Marie Bashkirtseff staked her desire for fame on the publication of her personal diary. She knew she was consumptive and that she had little time left. Her right lung was irrevocably damaged. The left had steadily deteriorated. Bones were now visible where they had not been before. Taking up her pen and a fresh notebook, she composed what would become the definitive version of the preface to her diary. Adopting the manner of one who is neither inclined toward, nor has the time to strike what Leo Braudy in his study of the history of fame calls “posture[s] of reticence”,1 she cut straight to the chase: she desired immortality, by any means possible. Should sufficient time remain before her death, she hoped to secure posthumous renown through her painting. In the event of an early death, her diary was to be published.
This was some wager. By May 1884, she had secured only one medal at the Salon and this — to her disappointment — for a pastel. Nor were the odds to improve. When she died five months later, she left behind a large number of paintings and a small sculpture (all of which had failed to garner any resounding interest), a handful of articles published anonymously in the feminist press, and her diary. Despite her best efforts, she was not part of the literary or artistic coteries of the day; nor did she issue from an illustrious line of poets or painters. Of minor Russian aristocracy, her maternal family had left what is now called Ukraine in 1858, trailing through Europe with the family doctor and a retinue of servants, and settling first in Nice. Here at the age of fourteen Bashkirtseff began her diary, filling early entries with details of the dresses she wore, the number of admiring glances she received on the Promenade, the ins and outs of family squabbles, the progress of her lessons, and the books she read.
She also strenuously and repeatedly articulated her desire for glory, elaborating at length on the means by which she intended to procure it. She first entertained hopes of achieving celebrity through her voice, consulting singing masters in Nice, Paris, and Rome and imagining herself fêted on the stages of Europe. Ever alert to what one might call the apparatus of fame, she had herself photographed often and in a number of guises, although she was later to repudiate these early images as pretentious and contrived. In her diary, she engaged in lengthy and glowing descriptions of her face and naked figure, passing off such undue attention to self as a magnanimous gesture in the direction of posterity, who would thus, she archly observed, be spared the trouble of speculating on her physical appearance. From October 1875 on, she placed every notebook of her diary under the sign of the motto that she had adopted as her own: Gloriae cupiditate.2
Her present was less glorious. Early undiagnosed symptoms of her illness reduced the range and power of her singing voice. Scandal dogged her family. Bashkirtseff’s mother and aunt had been implicated in a trial in Russia in which they stood accused of colluding in the death of a certain M. Romanoff who had been married to Marie’s aunt. Their names were cleared, but the process was prolonged and the damage was done: in Nice, the family was the subject of much conjecture. A scurrilous uncle with a penchant for drunken brawls had added further grist to the rumour mill; the fact that Madame Bashkirtseff was separated from her husband, who had remained in Russia, did not help matters. Excluded from the social arenas in which she had hoped to make her mark and aware that the stories in circulation about her family had compromised her chances of making a suitable match, Bashkirtseff vented her fury in her diary entries, chafing irritably at her mother’s and aunt’s conduct.
However this was not the only purpose to which she turned her diary. Professing a fondness for writing before the mirror, she would describe herself in the act of admiring her “incomparable arms”, the whiteness and fineness of her hand, or the form of her bosom, thereby effectively turning the diary’s pages into sites of display for those aspects of her physical self that propriety forbade her from exhibiting in public.3 Elsewhere, she drew upon it to project forward and outward, beyond the confines of its pages and the restrictions of her present, to imagine — and leave detailed instructions concerning — the arenas of display to be constructed in her posthumous future. On September 6, 1875, she entered into a good deal of detail concerning a marble statue of her person that, she stipulated, was to be sculpted at thirty times natural size and erected atop a six-metre elevation at the bottom of the family garden in Nice after her death. Throughout however, Bashkirtseff not only worked exceedingly hard at cultivating herself — her wit, her singing, her artistic skills, her knowledge of history and of literary and artistic debates — but also consistently positioned herself within her diary as her own playfully mocking second. Hardly unaware of gender protocols when it came to singing one’s own praises and her own most vigilant reader and surveyor of self, Bashkirtseff did not engage in such self-promotion without keeping up a running commentary on it, shifting from plaintive lamentation or enraptured enumeration of her multiple talents to self-ridicule in less than a line.
By the age of nineteen, her ambitions had become more focussed. In 1877, she entered the Académie Julian in Paris, the atelier of choice for young European women with serious artistic ambitions whose gender precluded them from entry into the École des beaux arts. She worked doggedly, spending long hours at the atelier by day, and by night calculating in her diary how many months it would take for her to reach and best the most accomplished students in the atelier. She discovered belatedly a passion for sculpture and briefly entertained the notion that this might be the medium of her success. She did her utmost to develop the artistic and literary relations that her family lacked: she ensured her art instructors, painters Rodolphe Julien and Tony Robert-Fleury, were invited for dinner; she developed a friendship with the painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and his architect brother Émile.
She wrote anonymously first to Dumas fils, and — in the year leading up to her death — to Zola, Goncourt, and Maupassant. Dumas fils responded to the rendezvous she gave him at the bal de l’opéra scathingly, prosaically advising early nights as a cure to what he clearly saw as overwrought and misplaced female enthusiasm. Bashkirtseff took a different tack with Goncourt in 1884. Chérie had just been published. This was the novel Goncourt had first announced in his preface to La Faustin in 1882. Describing it as “a psychological and physiological study” of a little girl’s first steps toward womanhood, he had requested what he termed “female collaboration”, directing his female readers to jot down their memories of their earliest adolescence and send them anonymously to his editor.4 With characteristic directness, Bashkirtseff informed him in the opening line of her letter that Chérie was riddled with inadequacies. She spoke, she continued, as one who knew; she herself had been writing her own impressions from an early age and now proposed to send them to him. Whether Goncourt ever received this letter is uncertain; if he did, he did not reply.
With Maupassant, Bashkirtseff fared slightly better. Clearly intrigued by her first letter, signed “Miss Hastings”, Maupassant bit. A short epistolary exchange ensued, in which Bashkirtseff responded to Maupassant’s desire to know if she was “a charming young woman”, “an old concierge with a predilection for Eugène Sue novels”, or a “mature and thin well-read lady’s companion” by floating the idea that she might be a man.5 Maupassant promptly declared her a crusty old Latin master and asked if she had a daughter. Now signing Joseph Savantin, Bashkirtseff imparted pithy advice in the tone of older man to younger: loftily quoting from Sallust in order to deflate Maupassant’s boast of superlative performance in sports. Faced with Maupassant’s clearly expressed irritation, Bashkirtseff revealed her gender but became vexed in turn when Maupassant persisted in his attempts to engineer a rendezvous.6 Both clearly managed to rub the other up the wrong way and the correspondence ended badly with the two never meeting.
Undeterred by her lack of success in writing herself into the lives of the literary greats, Bashkirtseff promptly wrote their names into her preface instead. The diary’s value as reading matter lay, she asserted, in its status as document humain: the public had only to consult Messieurs Zola, Goncourt, and Maupassant. It was a stretch, as she well knew. When she died on October 31, 1884, just a few weeks before her twenty-sixth birthday and three months after her last letter to Maupassant, she was under little illusion concerning the likelihood of publication. She had written in her diary almost every day from the age of fourteen until six days before her death. It numbered no less than 106 notebooks, many of which consisted of over two hundred pages. As she herself put it in 1882, wading through thousands of pages of an unknown was hardly an enticing prospect for any editor.
Three years after her death, a two-volume, highly truncated edition appeared. It became almost overnight one of the greatest publishing sensations of the day.
It was Madame Bashkirtseff who first took charge of the publication of the diary. Grief-stricken, intent on honouring her daughter’s wishes, she enlisted the services of André Theuriet, a popular poet and novelist. He deleted, condensed, and sequenced entries to produce an overarching narrative arc, in which a young and ambitious girl morphed into a serious artist only to die on the cusp of success and love. All references to the trial in Russia and Uncle George’s behaviour were removed, as were Bashkirtseff’s descriptions of her body; two years were shorn off her age, placing her on the “right” side of twenty-five.
The reaction was immediate. No one, it was generally agreed, had seen anything quite like it. In France, apart from the pious fragments of spiritual diaries cobbled together by curés, only one young woman’s diary had previously been published. The gentle modesty exuded by the well-written pages of Eugénie de Guérin’s diary had made it quasi-obligatory reading for young girls, promoted assiduously by mothers as a model of style and conduct. Moreover, it had come with bona fide literary connections. The older sister of the romantic poet Maurice de Guérin, Eugénie had addressed her entries to her beloved brother, only able to write on after his death when Barbey d’Aurevilly proposed that she write for him instead. When her journal was published in 1862, a respectable fourteen years after her own death, the terrain had already been prepared by the publication of fragments of her brother’s journal. In short, her journal did not simply enter neatly into the existing apparatus of authorship, but reinforced both the protocols of gender and the hierarchy of genres that underpinned it. Marie Bashkirtseff’s journal did not.
Ferdinand de Brunetière thundered: what right, he demanded to know, did this “petite peintresse de Marie Baskircheff” have to impose herself upon the public?7 Anatole France devoted a chapter to the Journal in La Vie littéraire, thereby acknowledging the extent to which the journal had already become a discussion piece in literary circles and further consecrating it as such, even as his measured tones gave his own readers the impression that he himself had emerged from the journal somewhat exhausted by what he termed the constant agitation of “a troubled soul”.8 Maurice Barrès immediately threw his not inconsiderable literary and critical weight behind it, sanctifying Bashkirtseff as Notre Dame du Sleeping Car, extolling the tirelessness with which she constantly pushed herself on to new challenges and urging France’s youth to rouse itself from its torpor and do the same.9 In England, W. E. Gladstone himself took up the journal’s cause in a six-page review in the Nineteenth Century (1889). Pronouncing the journal “a book without parallel” on the basis of the insights it provided into “human nature”, he located its value as reading matter in the sustained and in-depth nature of Bashkirtseff’s “self-record”.10
Within a year of Gladstone’s review, the first English translation had appeared in the US; the second, by Mathilde Blind, followed a year later. Blind had in fact been the first to introduce the English reading public to the journal in a two-part article in the Woman’s World (1888), then under Oscar Wilde’s editorship. In it, she recounted her visit to a sorrow-stricken Madame Bashkirtseff in the villa at Nice, who, with “furrowed face” and shabby gown, spoke gladly of her deceased daughter.11 Such visits rapidly became an integral part of what came to be known as “the Bashkirtseff cult”, as did pilgrimages to the imposing neo-Byzantine tomb sculpted by the architect Émile Bastien-Lepage in the Passy cemetery in Paris. Madame Bashkirtseff corresponded happily with readers of the diary and equally willingly conducted tours of Marie’s studio and rooms. Maurice Barrès was not a little irked to discover that the volumes of Fichte and Kant that he had boasted of having seen lying open on Marie’s desk, as if death had surprised her in the midst of deep philosophical speculation, owed more to the rather curious shape Madame Bashkirtseff’s grief was taking than it did to any activity of Marie’s in the days leading up to her death.
By 1890, Bashkirtseff’s name was, as one English reviewer put it, “a household word”.12 Public opinion was polarised from the start. Reviewers attempted to outdo themselves in superlatives: Bashkirtseff herself was deemed “overstrung and overbalanced”.13 Stereotypes of the Slav character were peddled furiously on both sides of the Channel, dosed liberally in England with references to Parisian coquetries and refinement.14 Others seized on Bashkirtseff’s “absence of reserve” as “an abdication of womanhood”.15 The already controversial William T. Stead weighed in, allowing Bashkirtseff genius, but not womanliness.16 In turn, George Bernard Shaw took Stead roundly to task in 1913, ridiculing the persistence with which he clung to his ideal of womanhood even when faced with firm evidence to the contrary in the shape of Bashkirtseff’s diary.17
But what saved the journal from becoming just another passing literary sensation and ensured instead that it morphed into a full-blown cultural phenomenon was the very particular way in which young women — and some young men — took it up. They saw it not as a document humain to be analysed, but as an example of a writing practice in which they were either already engaged, or into which they immediately plunged. Anaïs Nin and Katherine Mansfield wrote, entranced, in their own diaries of their reading of Bashkirtseff’s; Nin was eighteen years old; Mansfield had just turned nineteen.18 The young German artist Paula Modersohn-Becker, who studied briefly at the Académie Julian herself, sighed in her entries at the tenacity with which Bashkirtseff stuck to her own work schedule.19 In 1887, sixteen-year-old Pierre Louÿs conceded in his own fledgling diary that the idea of writing it had come to him upon reading Bashkirtseff’s.20 In 1895, on English stages, Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolyn assured Cecily with Bashkirtseff-like aplomb that she never travelled without her diary given that “one should always have something sensational to read in the train.”21 Not to be outdone, Cecily copies Algernon’s remarks into her own diary in front of him and when he begs to see, refuses, covering the entry and archly asserting that her diary is merely “a very young girl’s record of her own thoughts and impressions, and consequently meant for publication”.22
Outside fiction too, a detailed and daily record of self began to be perceived as an accomplishment in its own right, one that — if written with even a modicum of flair — was as sure a route to fame as any other. Imitating Bashkirtseff but going one better, diarists bundled up their notebooks and sent them off to publishers. Two were particularly successful. Bruce Frederick Cummings, a naturalist employed by the British museum, was already a practised diary keeper when he stumbled across Bashkirtseff’s journal in 1914; astounded, he declared Bashkirtseff “the very spit of [him]” and within months began considering the publication of his own journal.23 Diagnosed with multiple sclerosis at the age of twenty-six, he, like Bashkirtseff, knew he had not long to live. Unlike Bashkirtseff, he revised his journal for publication himself and lived for a further two years after it appeared in 1919. Entitled The Journal of a Disappointed Man, it too was read as an exercise in candid and precise self-observation and as a narrative of foiled ambition.
On the other side of the Atlantic, a certain Marie MacLane had already taken matters one step further. Aged nineteen, she embarked in 1901 on three months’ worth of dated writing with the specific intention of having it published. Naming Lord Byron and Marie Bashkirtseff as the two minds in the world of letters most resembling her own, she opened her first entry with a point-by-point comparison of her own qualities and those of Bashkirtseff, in which predictably she emerged the superior, thus soundly substantiating her claim that in conceit too she bettered Bashkirtseff. Conceived from the outset less as diary and more as “portrayal”, largely unleavened by the kind of mundane detail which is part and parcel of diarising and of which Bashkirtseff at times despaired, MacLane focussed predominantly on her loneliness, the cultural and intellectual barrenness of the mining town in which she lived, her personal philosophies, and her genius.24 The book was a huge commercial success, launching Mary MacLane as “the American Bashkirtseff” and enabling her to embark upon a somewhat sensational, if short-lived, career as writer and autobiographical filmmaker.
Clearly, Bashkirtseff’s diary did not only change the ways in which young women and men perceived their own diaries — and indeed themselves — but also shifted something in the mechanics of literary celebrity itself. Her keen awareness of what Leo Braudy calls styles of self-serving25 and how these had shifted between the previous century and her own, her deftness at manipulating the conventions of the diary to produce herself as “[her] own heroine”,26 her astuteness in capitalising on the burgeoning interest in “human documents” — all successfully ensured that posterity did indeed sit up and take notice. Blind’s English translation of the journal was carried forward into the twentieth century by a Virago reprint in 1985. The early decades of the twenty-first have seen Bashkirtseff’s journal finally emerging in full from the archives both in the original French and in English translation: Le Cercle des amis de Marie Bashkirtseff published the last of its sixteen-volume transcription of the manuscripts in 2005. The second and final volume of the first complete English edition of the manuscripts, translated by Katherine Kernberger, was published in 2013. Its title propels Bashkirtseff into the twenty-first century as an icon of female ambition: Lust for Glory: The Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff Volume II.
As for the would-be Bashkirtseffs that sprang up in the wake of the diary’s publication, Bashkirtseff had not lacked foresight. In her entry for July 22, 1883, in which she outlined yet another painting project and dreams of “un succès brutal”, she noted the following:
Sonia Wilson is Senior Lecturer in the Department of French and Francophone Studies at the University of Sydney. Her publications include Personal Effects: Reading the Journal of Marie Bashkirtseff (Legenda MHA/Maney, 2010; Routledge, 2017), from parts of which this essay is loosely adapted.