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The love affair at the centre of Europe's cultural explosion

The romantically entwined trio who helped spread cosmopolitan culture from Moscow to London. 

Orlando Figes’s fascinating book contains two stories. The first describes the development of a market for culture in the 19th century in music, literature and figurative art. The emphasis is unashamedly on high culture. There is little on folk music or the music-hall, and nothing on 19th-century “pop” songs such as the Neapolitan “Funiculì Funiculà” (1880), whose sheet music sold over a million copies within a year, and “O Sole Mio” (1898). The second story, intertwined somewhat loosely with the first, is of a trio, a French couple and a Russian: Pauline Viardot, one of the most celebrated mezzo-sopranos of her times; her husband Louis, a cultural entrepreneur, art dealer and critic, theatre manager, and now virtually forgotten; and Ivan Turgenev, renowned above all for his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album (1852) and for his masterpiece Fathers and Sons (1862).

Figes, a historian of Russia, dedicates many pages to Turgenev’s obsession with Pauline. When he heard her singing for the first time in St Petersburg in 1843, it was, he wrote, the classic “coup de foudre”. From that moment “he was hopelessly in love”, writes Figes. Turgenev followed the Viardots almost everywhere: Berlin, Paris, Weimar, Karlsruhe, London, Courtavenel – where the Viardots had a chateau and where Turgenev began Sketches – and Baden-Baden, which they made their summer home in 1863.

It seemed a typical ménage à trois, with an older and patient husband putting up with the inconvenience. The only doubt is a letter from Louis to Pauline in which he assures her that he never suspected her of being unfaithful. Why would a husband put this in writing to a wife he lives with? Perhaps, as Figes assumes, it was to tell Pauline to be careful and avoid gossip. Pauline, though admitting in a letter that she was unable to return her husband’s “deep and ardent love”, sticks with him until the very end. Figes wonders about Pauline and Turgenev’s relationship: did they ever have sex? They were both in their forties, Turgenev 45 and Pauline 42, when they settled in Baden, an age when they might expect an active sexual life. When they were both past 50, Turgenev told his friends he was impotent. Yet he was still trying, unsuccessfully, to seduce the young widow of a Russian general.

Pauline probably had flings with other men, including major composers such as Charles Gounod and Hector Berlioz, but her real passion, understandably enough, was her career. Regarded by some as mercenary, her principle was to demand the highest possible fees. “Never sing for nothing” was her motto. At the funeral of her close friend Chopin, her fee amounted to half the cost. Figes never loses sight of the fact that, in the 19th century, culture, even high culture, was a business. Turgenev, though, never made enough from his writings to fund his lifestyle and depended on the ever dwindling revenues from his Russian estates.

Figes offers no explanation as to why this particular trio is supposed to exemplify a cosmopolitan European culture (which has existed at least since the days of the Renaissance). The Viardots and Turgenev moved around, of course, especially Pauline. But why not choose Liszt (who toured everywhere) or the French writer George Sand, both mentioned by Figes. Why not Zola, widely imitated throughout Europe? Why not cosmopolitans like Alexandre Dumas, who had a mixed-race background? 

And why Louis Viardot? There are more important entrepreneurs of culture in the 19th century: publishers such as Louis Hachette or Pierre-Jules Hetzel (who published Balzac, Hugo, Zola and Verne).

Figes could have written a different book – but nevertheless, the one he has written is remarkable, encompassing copyright legislation, book piracy, the development of theatres, the serialised novel and the progress of the railways as a unifier of culture. He thinks that the cultural map of Europe was redrawn by the railways, although it might be more accurate to say that the construction of the railways followed the map of Europe’s cultural centres. Besides, as he admits, Haydn, Rossini and Mozart did not need the railways to spread their fame.

Technological innovations certainly enabled the development of a transnational culture, and they still do, but such innovations also facilitate the development of national cultural hegemons. There seems to be a kind of division of labour. In the 19th century the French dominated literature but also the grand opera, while the Germans dominated instrumental music – unlike the Italians, whose operas were universally revered. Russian music and novels were celebrated. The figurative arts were largely French. The Brits were great at novels and poetry but not music or the visual arts.

In other words, just as trade and domestic market size helps some countries more than others, greater ease of movement helps some cultures more than others (in the 20th century, cinema, which started in France, became dominated by Americans – as did popular music and television). Peripheral countries managed, occasionally, to enter the cultural market: for instance Norway with Ibsen (who wrote in Danish), Poland with Chopin (who lived in France), Moldavia/Bohemia with Smetana and Dvorák, and the Netherlands with Van Gogh (who moved to France).

In the 19th century the centre of European culture was Paris – not, as Figes suggests, Baden-Baden (10,000 inhabitants), which was a spa for aristocrats attracted more by the roulette than the intellectual life. Spa towns were “cosmopolitan” only in the sense that they were places for tourists.

As he navigates such complexities Figes returns regularly to his trio. Turgenev emerges as a real mensch. Politically, he was an enlightened paternalist, in favour of the emancipation of the serfs. When he discovered that his dalliance with a servant girl had produced a daughter, he cared sufficiently to protect her all his life. When she faced financial ruin, he sold his pictures to help. After Louis Viardot died, Turgenev tried to secure a legacy for Pauline and her children. He helped his friend Flaubert, championing his works abroad, even translating some of them. He also promoted Zola in Russia, though he eventually fell out of sympathy with Zola’s explicitness. Turgenev may have been important in the diffusion of the Russian novel in the rest of Europe but the key figure was Eugène-Melchior de Vogüé (mentioned once by Figes) whose bestselling Le Roman Russe (1886) told the French about Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Eventually the Viardots and Turgenev moved to London where there was a large community of French exiles (and not just French: Giuseppe Mazzini, Karl Marx, and various anarchists lived there, especially after the collapse of the Paris Commune in 1871). There were also plenty of economic migrants: French dressmakers, German bakers and Italian ice-cream makers helped 19th-century London become almost as cosmopolitan as Paris. Berlioz thought that, after Paris, London was the Mecca for musicians and singers from Italy, France, Belgium, Germany, Bohemia, Hungary and Sweden. If you are rich and do not produce much music, you import it.

Such transnational flows are, however, new only in terms of their sheer size, as this stylishly written book shows so well. You will also find out much about Pauline and Ivan – though not what happened behind closed doors. l

Donald Sassoon is emeritus professor of comparative European history at Queen Mary, University of London

The Europeans: Three Lives and the Making of a Cosmopolitan Culture 
Orlando Figes Allen 
Lane, 576pp, £30

This article appears in the 27 September 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great disgrace