Archive for September, 2014

Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov: A Hero of Our Time – with a Note on his Scottish and Tatar Ancestry

September 13th, 2014

Mikhail Yur'evich Lermontov (1814 - 1841)

The bicentenary next month of Mikhail Yur’evich Lermontov, the great Russian poet, should be marked by a reading or re-reading of his only novel, A Hero of Our Time.

The eponymous hero is the Byronic Pechorin. Cynical, world-weary, bitter and bored, Pechorin represents a literary type known as the ‘superfluous man’, a man, that is, of superior talents, who is yet condemned by the constraints of society and his own lack of purpose to lead a wasted life. The ‘superfluous man’ is a recurrent figure in contemporary Russia literature, the supreme example being Pushkin’s Evgeny Onegin.

Lermontov’s Pechorin is not merely bored but destructive. The novel is as gripping for its romantic locations and dramatic pace as for the psychological unravelling of the hero, whom, in the end, it is impossible to like. Pechorin repeatedly turns away those who would willingly love him: ‘I’m incapable of friendship,’ he says. ‘Of two friends one is always the slave of the other, though often neither will admit it. I can never be a slave, and to command in these circumstances is too exacting, for you have to pretend at the same time. Besides, I have money and servants enough’ (trans. Paul Foote, Penguin edition, 1966, p.100).

Lermontov aged about 7

While recognising his hero’s ‘malady’, Lermontov is sympathetic to a character who is so clearly modelled on himself. Like Byron, he had been deeply affected by the circumstances of his childhood. His father, Yury Petrovich Lermontov, the head of a minor gentry family, had served in an unfashionable regiment and had retired as a captain. He is said to have been a violent drunk and a womaniser. Lermontov’s mother, Maria, died when he was three and he was brought up by his adoring maternal grandmother, an aristocratic Stolypina. Her late husband, Mikhail Vasil’evich Arseniev, had also served as a captain, but in the Preobrazhensky, the foremost Guards Regiment. Madame Arsenieva considered her son-in-law to be far beneath them and he was kept at a distance.

The Arsenievs were, indeed, a distinguished military family. A distant cousin, Nikolay Dmitrievich Arseniev (1754 – 96), had commanded a column under Suvorov in the assault of Izmail in 1790, for which he is commemorated by Byron in Don Juan (Canto the Eighth, Verse IX) – ‘The columns … though led by Arseniev, that great son of slaughter/As brave as ever faced both bomb and ball’ – lines which young Lermontov was proud to be able to quote in the original. Grandfather Arseniev had, however, bequeathed him his melancholy streak – he had died in 1810 by his own hand, having poisoned himself. The atmosphere was hardly happy, and Lermontov had grown up to be isolated, indulged and introspective.

Commissioned in 1834 into the Guards Hussars Regiment, he had been thrust into St Petersburg society, of which he was sincerely disdainful, as is evident from poems like ‘The First of January’:

‘When the hands of town beauties

Which have long ceased to tremble,

Touch my cold hands with loveless audacity …’

The Siege of Izmail in 1790: Arseniev commanded a column

His failures with women, in contrast to his heroes, Pushkin and Byron, fuelled his pessimism whilst spurring his creativity. Personally somewhat unprepossessing, he was described as bow-legged, with a scowling face and droopy moustache. The conquests of both Pushkin and Byron were legion – Pushkin could even boast that he had slept with a woman, Calypso Polichroni, who had been a mistress of Byron – but Lermontov had only one great love affair, with Varya Lopukhina, the model for Vera in Hero of Our Time. Like Vera, she had ended the relationship in order to marry an older man. Lermontov ‘nursed a bitter grievance and frustration forever thereafter. As a result, it could be argued that his feelings and perceptions about love became more intense than those Byron experienced’ (Laurence Kelly, Lermontov, p.192).

Lermontov clearly felt more at home in the Caucasus, the Russian Empire’s ‘Wild West’, to which, in 1837, he was effectively exiled, having denounced the death of Pushkin as a conspiracy. The impression in Hero of Our Time is of bored officers manning remote outposts, drinking and gambling late into the night, hunting furiously during the day and hoping that they will not be picked off by savage Circassians. Lermontov, however, was enchanted by the mountain scenery and relished the solitude. Perhaps, like Pechorin, he enjoyed dressing up in the splendid local costume and going out for long, lonely rides:

‘I fancy the Cossacks gazing idly from their watch-towers must have puzzled long over the sight of me galloping without cause or purpose, for from my clothes they must have taken me for a Circassian. Actually, I’ve been told that on horseback and in Circassian dress I look more like a Kabardian than many Kabardians themselves. Indeed, when it comes to this noble warrior’s dress, I’m quite a dandy: just the right amount of braid, expensive weapons with a plain finish, the fur on my cap neither too long note too short, close-fitting leggings and boots, a white beshmet and a dark maroon top-coat. I’ve made a long study of how the hillmen sit a horse, and nothing flatters my vanity more than to be admired for my mastery of the Caucasian riding style’ (trans. Foote, p.113).

Much has been made of Lermontov’s distant Scottish ancestry, his descent from a certain George Learmont, a mercenary who had been captured at Mozhaisk in 1618, subsequently transferring his allegiance from the Polish to the Muscovite service. Less has been said of his exotic Asiatic ancestry on his mother’s side. The Arseniev ancestor, Aslan-murza Chelebi, was a Tatar prince of the Golden Horde, an undoubted descendant of Chingis Khan, who had in 1389 also transferred to the Russian service and had accepted baptism, the Grand Prince Dmitry Donskoy himself standing as godfather. The family surname derives from Aslan’s son, Arseny Issup Prokof’evich. It is perhaps no wonder that Lermontov felt at home in the wilds! (Nicolas Ikonnikov, La Noblesse de Russie, Tome A.1 (Paris, 1957) and I.1 (Paris, 1959), Arseniev and Lermontov pedigrees.)

Skirmish in Dagestan, by Lermontov

A Notable Beneficiary of the Norman Conquest: Hugh de Port, Ancestor of the St John Family

September 3rd, 2014

The St John arms in a window of Stanton St John church, Oxfordshire

Alone among noble families, the St Johns (Lords St John of Bletso and Viscounts Bolingbroke) descend from a Domesday tenant-in-chief – a landowner who, in 1086, held his estates directly from the King.

Their male-line ancestor, Hugh de Port, was an obscure Norman knight in the service of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux, the younger half-brother of William the Conqueror, from whom he held a modest three ‘knight’s fees’ – just enough land to support three knights. Hugh was a retainer of sufficient prominence to witness a pre-Conquest charter of Duke William, but it was as a participant in the Conquest of England that his fortunes were transformed.

A club-wielding Bishop Odo (second from left) 'cheers on the boys'

Hugh is likely to have held a command under Odo, who assisted at the invasion of England with his own squadron of knights. Not notably pious, Odo was conspicuous on the field of Hastings, ostensibly ‘preparing for the combat with prayers’, but quite probably berating the English with his club and, at a key moment in the battle, re-animating a demoralised contingent of Bretons, an incident that is depicted on the Bayeux Tapestry (‘Here Bishop Odo, holding his club, cheers on the boys’).

Described as ‘a man of eloquence and statesmanship, bountiful and most active in worldly business’, Odo was the outstanding beneficiary of the Norman Conquest, receiving by 1067 the earldom of Kent (comprised of about 200 manors in that county and a further 300 elsewhere, as well as the wardenship of Dover Castle), and sharing with William fitz Osbern the vice-regency of the kingdom during William’s periodic absences abroad.

It is thought that, while in Kent, Odo commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry (decidedly a work of English craftsmanship) as an adornment to his cathedral. There are three depictions of him on the Tapestry, and illustrations also of the knights Wadard and Vital, who appear to have been his retainers. Hugh, their companion-in-arms at Hastings, does not appear, but his accumulation of spoils, hardly less spectacular than that of Odo himself, is a measure of the considerable favour in which he was held.

Sherborne St John, Hants.

In the immediate aftermath of the Conquest, Hugh received from Odo the under-tenancy of thirteen manors in Kent and of a further thirteen in Hampshire, as well as one of the wards of Dover Castle. By the time of the ‘Domesday’ survey (1086), he had acquired an additional fifty-five manors in Hampshire, including Basing, Sherborne and Portsea, as tenant-in-chief – holding them directly of the King – and indeed was the most important lay tenant-in-chief in the county. A scattering of manors in four other counties spread his influence as far as Herefordshire.

In many of these manors Hugh installed his own retainers as sub-tenants, men like Roger of Escures, who has given his name to the village of Nately Scures, near Basing. Escures is three kilometres south of Port-en-Bassin in the Calvados, which was obviously Hugh’s native town.

Hugh had proved himself indispensable to William as much as to Odo. Conspicuously favouring ‘new men’ to give effect to his will, the King made him Sheriff of Hampshire; and in 1085, by which time Odo was in disgrace and languishing in prison, had Hugh beside him when holding court in Normandy.

Hugh was married to a lady called Orence but had become a monk by the time of his death in 1096 – a wise precaution in view of the orgy of killing and expropriation in which he was implicated. His former patron, Odo, also died in that year, having reinvented himself as one of the spiritual leaders of the First Crusade. Hugh’s son Henry and grandson, another Hugh, were the founders of Sherborne Priory on their Hampshire estate and still clung in 1133 to the three knight’s fees in Normandy – Fontenelles, Commes and Létanville, all close to Port-en-Bassin – which they continued to hold of the Bishop of Bayeux.

The younger Hugh’s son, Adam de Port, married Mabel, heiress of Orval and through her mother of the St Johns, another Norman line, originating at Saint-Jean-le-Thomas in the Manche. The family of Port was known thenceforth as ‘St John’. The name still attaching to some of their former holdings, such as Sherborne St John in Hampshire and Stanton St John in Oxfordshire, their memory is indelibly etched on the English landscape.

[Complete Peerage, article ‘St John of Basing’; Lewis C. Loyd, The Origins of Some Anglo-Norman Families (Leeds, 1951), pp.79, 97; David R. Bates, ‘The Character and Career of Odo, Bishop of Bayeux’, Speculum, L (1975), pp.1-20; David C. Douglas, William the Conqueror (London, 1964), p.297; The Gesta Guillelmi of William of Poitiers, ed. R.H.C. Davis and Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1998), pp.124, 164; The Ecclesiastical History of Orderic Vitalis, IV, ed. Marjorie Chibnall (Oxford, 1973), pp.114-18.]

Stanton St John Church, Oxfordshire