Hand in Glove
After wringing out my sodden handkerchief and shocking my face back to its usual size and colour with a good splash of icy water, I vowed to buy a copy of Turgenev’s ‘On The Eve’ for every teenager I ever happen to meet. This is the perfect novel of doomed first love. It has all the right ingredients – passion, elopement, brooding Bulgarians – well, one – and death.
On meeting, the young lovers recognise in each other a shared desire for action. Insarov (our brooding Bulgarian) is an impoverished, serious revolutionary, while Elena (our heroine), was born into a wealthy Russian family, but is no less passionate for a cause.
From her childhood she had longed for action, for active goodness; the poor, the hungry and the sick concerned her, worried her, tortured her… She gave alms with careful thought, with an instinctive gravity, almost with emotion.
Despite her serious disposition, Elena is not without suitors. There is the wonderful clown Shubin. He is a sculptor, a womaniser and a joker, but one whose apparent superficiality distracts attention away from his keen observation of the behaviour and character of those around him. He loves Elena, yet she sees him as nothing more than a fool – and he is one – but in the tradition of one who speaks truth even in jest, and his lightness masks a deep melancholia. Then there is the stiff, bookish, Bersyenev, a student of philosophy, and a man more comfortable focused on his studies than communicating emotionally. In fact, whilst desiring Elena, he cannot help but deliver such a compelling description of his friend Insarov, that she transfers her attentions from him onto this intriguing stranger.
To liberate his native land … merely to say the words fills one with a feeling of awe.”
I wonder if there is something of Turgenev in Bersyenev. After all, the love of his life, Pauline Viardot, a Spanish opera singer, was happily married to another, yet Turgenev’s passion for her was lifelong, if, sadly for him, only platonic. He ended up living with her and her family – she had a very understanding husband, is all I can say! But, for Turgenev to remain dedicated to her rather than seek requited love, tells us a lot about him, and I see echoes of this resignation in Bersyenev’s silent sorrow.
Who could resist Insarov though, with his brooding intensity and revolutionary passion? Unfortunately, on reading his description, his image became firmly fixed as that of quidditch-playing admirer of Hermione Granger, Viktor Krum – a side-effect of the many years of repeated readings of Harry Potter to my children. Thankfully, my mental evocation of Insarov was without wizarding robes and broom.
One of the most satisfying aspects of this romance, as with many of its time, is the way in which courtship is conducted. Now, I’m no prude, but there’s something so suggestive about the quivering lip, the daring removal of a glove so that the delicate hand beneath can be kissed. Contemporary relationships in fiction seem to prefer to exchange names after bodily fluids, reducing the possibility of sharing in a character’s heartache for a love, as yet, unrequited. Call me old fashioned, but I’m a sucker for some quality yearning. Also, if there’s truth to the suggestion that a veiled body part carrying the suggestion of unveiling is far more provocative than plain nudity, then surely the covering of the hands, the ankles, the collarbones had pulses racing far more than today’s Western preoccupation for being scantily clad, not to mention being more effective in the prevention of chilblains and, dare I say it, piles.
That said, the tide could turn in the not too distant future. With the threat of super-viruses on the rise, and people’s paranoia with them, we might see a strange dystopian return to being covered. The removal of a white lace or cotton glove will be replaced with the smacking ping of a blue surgical latex glove peeled off, signalling the promise of uncovered flesh, with the added frisson of mortal peril.