March 2020 Item of the Month
A Voyage to Russia: Describing The Laws, Manners, and Customs, of that Great Empire
This is an engaging and idiosyncratic account of early eighteenth-century life in Russia, written by a certain Elizabeth Justice, who travelled by sea to St Petersburg in 1734 and spent over three years there employed as a governess to the three daughters of Hill Evans, an English merchant in the British Factory of the Russia Company. The cost of publication, by Thomas Gent of York in 1739, was raised by subscription, and Justice’s account was sufficiently successful to have been republished in an expanded second edition of 1746. It was published again in 1992, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, and in 2010. Yet, with a few exceptions, such as Katrina O’Loughlin, in her recent Women, Writing, and Travel in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: CUP, 2018), it has received little attention from scholars.
This is surprising, because although Justice’s account is brief and she was one of many non-aristocratic Westerners – including merchants, gardeners, sailors, craftsmen, domestic servants – who went to the newly-constructed city of St Petersburg (founded in 1703), Justice herself, her account of Russia, and the circumstances behind her decision to publish are distinctive and pioneering. She was the first recorded female governess to work in Russia, and her Voyage is the first example of travel writing about Russia published by an English woman, as well as being the first purpose-published female travel account in English more generally.
Justice opens with a humble apology for ‘appearing in this publick manner’ and for her presumption in engaging in a work ‘which requires a more elegant and superior Hand […] than any Female Abilities can pretend to’. She outlines her reasons for taking up a position as governess in Russia and for publishing her impressions – both of these involve her husband, Henry Justice, and his failure over several years to pay her an annuity. Despite the fact that she took him to court and won (she plays on her married name self-consciously in her account), her husband’s threats of reciprocal legal action resulted in her covering the costs of the lawsuit, and taking up the position as governess in order to pay off her creditors. She explains that she would have stayed longer in Russia, but was forced to return to England to settle her financial affairs and to look after her own children. Her husband had still not paid his arrears, compelling her to publish her ‘Performance’ to avoid financial ruin. What Elizabeth Justice does not mention, but other records show, is that her husband had been put on trial for his life in 1736 for theft of books from Cambridge University. As a barrister, he managed to avoid the capital charge and instead was sentenced to deportation to a plantation in Virginia. Apparently, he either escaped, or never arrived at all. Around twenty years later, he resurfaced in Holland (but that is another story...).
A second important motivation for publishing was Justice’s desire to refute the ‘aspersions and misrepresentations’ of others, who, she writes, were claiming that she was a fantasist who was only pretending to have been in Russia. Consequently, her Voyage sets out to provide evidence of her first-hand knowledge of Petersburg. Several Anglophone scholars of the eighteenth century have reacted disparagingly to what they regard as the frustrating superficiality of Justice’s account and its focus on quotidian details of lives of domestic servants. One of them, Anthony Cross, also remarks that Justice displays naivety and prejudice in her assessments of Russia and Russians. However, the fact that these are the impressions of a modest, somewhat proper, middle-class female observer – rather than a travelling aristocrat – is precisely what gives her account intrinsic interest and value.
Justice touches upon a range of areas of Russian life: coins and their values, for instance, or the clothing of different social classes. She marvels at the abundance of fish and meat available, gives prices, and indicates cooking methods. She describes ordinary labour - how the stove is lit and managed, or ice breaking, for instance – and lists common punishments for disobedient servants (which include the cat o’ nine tails and burial up to the neck in the ground with food at a distance, Tantalus-style). She comments disapprovingly more than once on Russian drinking habits: ‘they love the strongest Liquor they can get; and if they cannot obtain it honestly, they will steal it’; ‘There is none of them that ever will refuse Liquor, that I ever saw’. She writes about the traditional maslenitsa celebrations at the start of Lent (‘to be sober at this time would be uncustomary’), and tells what she knows of christenings, weddings, and funerals (finding the rituals attached to the last of these especially ‘absurd’).
Owing to her social position, Justice is an outside observer of palace and court culture. Of the notoriously sadistic Empress Anna, she writes that she ‘has both Majesty and sweetness in her countenance’, and that ‘tho’ absolute, yet she is always merciful’. She touches upon the 1735 visit of the Persian Ambassador and his famous gift to the Empress of an elephant, which Justice was disappointed not to have seen for herself. This elephant was a participant in one of Anna’s most legendary acts of cruelty: she reputedly forced a member of the aristocracy to become court jester and then to marry her maid. For their wedding night, Anna ordered an ice palace -- complete with ice-sculpted beds, steps, chairs, windows, and even a fireplace with logs -- to be constructed. Prince Golitsyn and his ‘bride’ were paraded to the ice palace through the streets in a cage on top of the elephant. Justice mentions nothing of this, merely writing of the elephant, ‘His food was Rice, and his drink Brandy’.
Overall, Justice expresses more sympathetic engagement with, and admiration for, Russians and Russian life than some scholars suggest. She notes that ‘Russians are all born slaves, and are often bought, and sold’, and emphasizes their ‘very great Faith’. She comments upon ‘several Remarkables worthy of notice, That very few grow mad, or are guilty of self-murder: And I never saw either Man, Woman, or Child, that were crooked’. The language used here to describe mental illness, suicide, and disability – uncomfortable from a twenty-first century perspective – is perhaps what has prompted historians’ remarks about Justice’s naivety and prejudice. Her account is certainly highly subjective, but Justice’s personality emerges from it as a result. It gives a compelling sense of a middle-class Englishwoman’s attitudes and voice in this period, one of the historical peaks of Anglo-Russian relations. Britain was the ‘most favoured nation’, according to the first commercial treaty of 1734, and British and Russian merchants enjoyed equal rights in either country. At one point, Justice expresses her firm belief that ‘there is no part of the world where the English live better than they do at Petersburgh’.