16/11/2012 by noonobservation
In the corner of a second-hand bookshop next to Sherborne Abbey, I recently met a handsome Russian cavalry officer by the name of Berend (Boris) Johann Friedrich von Uxkull (or Uexküll). I paid the required £6, and that night, in bed, began to investigate his manifold charms.
His outward attractions were obvious: what woman could resist this trippy 1960s cover art, or the stiff binding and snugly fitting dust jacket? But to my delight, underneath the hard, laminated exterior, lay a philosophical soul, a wealth of details about Napoleon’s Russian campaign and early 19th Century European society, and valuable insights into the pernicious influence of Rousseau and Goethe in making people into pretentious arse-holes, and how men have always been a bit crap.
Boris was the heir to Fickel Castle in Estonia, and this book is a translation of his daily journal for 1812-15 and 1818-19. Sadly the other 28 volumes were destroyed when Fickel Castle temperamentally decided to burn down in 1905.
When we first meet Boris, he is a nineteen-year-old cavalry ensign in the Imperial Russian army. Already suffering from the disadvantages of a classical education, he has to describe every peasant girl as an “amiable rustic nymph” and spies Diana and Endymion canoodling in practically every tranquil wood. Being a fan of Rousseau, Boris spends most of his time musing in enchanted forests and climbing “Mountains of Reflection” to gaze upon the “majesty of nature”. He alternates this with seducing naïve middle class girls and barmaids and being preyed upon in his turn by the occasional vulpine baroness. Occasionally, Boris’s romantic sensibilities lead him astray during his twilight meditations:
“Just then I saw a figure covered with a white veil coming out from behind a tree. The moon, hidden in a cloud, was still keeping me from the traits of its countenance; a little more exaltation and I would have thought myself living in the fabled times of mythology and seeing a hamadryad or an oread before me. But tempted by lust … I rushed at this object; I clutched it; I even dared squeeze it and grope after its charms – when the moon suddenly appeared and let me see a Shrew at least seventy years old. My amorous fury changed into rage… she emitted a shrill cry and fell over backwards.”
We can only imagine how the elderly cook Boris assaulted felt about this. Oh the follies of youth!
Boris has to get a bit more serious when Napoleon invades Russia and he is made aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Barclay de Tolly. He fights at Smolensk and Borodino, and retreats through Moscow (where all the churches are annoyingly shut, preventing any sightseeing).
Following the catastrophic French retreat, there are many horrors:
“Passing by a tavern, I saw inside a heap of dead bodies, all naked, piled up one on top of the other, and living people were sitting on their comrades, gnawing away at the flesh of their companions and roaring with pain like savage beasts. Oh humanity! Where hast thou hidden!”
Luckily for Boris, there is a pretty widow in Vilna willing to help him forget all about humanity’s whereabouts. Other casualties are harder to bear: “I’ve seen in the anteroom of a pillaged château the works of Linnaeus and of Buffon (the vellum edition, in large quarto) lying on the floor trampled by the feet of marauders. What a loss!”.
Boris campaigns with the army through 1813 as it fights its way towards Paris. It is during this period that he contracts a severe case of metaphysics after overhearing a conversation in a café in Darmstadt. He suffers from the condition for the rest of his life.
Only when the army reaches Paris in March 1814, does Boris really let his hair (and his breeches) down. He describes a typical day:
“On getting up I riffle through the various cards of invitation; then, after breakfast, I take a turn on horseback or in a cabriolet; I visit one of my lovelies, then I dine at five o’clock at the Palais-Royal. Then I meet the ladies at Fédeau’s or at the Variétés; then to a rendezvous at Tortoni’s, from where I go off to supper tête-à-tête with Marie or Lucile; I get home about two o’clock. Mme Lauris always receives me when her husband is not there; it’s very convenient. I vow my eternal love, then I go to her neighbour, La Duny, whom I find even more agreeable.”
Boris’s conscience is occasionally touched by letters from his mother, but he does not develop full-blown repentance until he catches Chancroid from a Leipzig laundress on his way back to Russia, an event which he describes as the “turning point of my moral consciousness.”
In the interval between 1815 and the second diary starting in 1818, Boris moves to Heidelberg and flirts with the sinister arts of philosophy under Hegel.
Having overcome his repentance, he takes up with a girl called Helene, who he describes as a “sweet, fiery, tender, sensitive, witty, beautiful and sweet-natured being”, and therefore not marriage material. Instead, Boris pretends they are married and they set off across Europe on a coach holiday.
The later parts of the book are really rather sad – Boris clearly loves Helene, but just can’t quite pin down what this feeling is that he’s experiencing, which is a shame given all that time he’s wasted cultivating his sensibilities.
Eventually, Boris abandon’s his beloved, and returns to his parents. Their meeting is indicative of his passionate soul and how very tiresome it could be:
“I had to go down to see Mother. My heart almost burst; tears welled up in my eyes… I sank speechless at her feet. Weeping for joy I embraced her knees…
It was not until later that I saw my stern father. When I was allowed in to see him, he ordered me to be silent, as I was overcome with emotion… how powerful his emotions were at the sight of his eldest son. It was natural for him to repress them, and he left the room.”
To get over Helene, Boris went travelling in Italy, where he abducted a nun, took her to Zurich and got her pregnant. After inheriting Fickel, he eventually married, at the age of fifty, a twenty-year-old minister’s daughter.
Boris is a wonderful example of the contradictions in early 19th Century manhood. On the one hand, he’s an emotionally-enlightened philosopher of the Age of Sensibility, prizing the ability to feel deeply, considering every moment a precious and mysterious sensual experience, and women (at least the pretty ones) to be ethereal, magical creatures. On the other hand he’s an old-school philandering cavalry officer who drinks hard, beats his servants and seduces ill-protected women. Boris himself sees no contradiction here.
The combination of military bearing (and uniform), artistic leanings and old money, understandably made 19th Century women go all giddy. They make me go all giddy.
Memorability spectrum analysis:
Hotness (red): 222. Given the woman-to-page ratio, he might have been considered a 19th Century Cassanova had all his journals survived. Described by contemporaries as a “handsome, elegant man, with great blue eyes.”
Eccentricity (green): 164. Actually his thinking was very much in step with the the whole Romantic era. Though naughty, sleeping with literally hundreds of women isn’t all that eccentric.
Violence (blue): 171. Though a soldier, and happy to fight duels and battles and beat up the occasional social inferior, violence wasn’t what interested Boris.