Our Notes & References
First Russian edition of an English ‘graveyard’ literary work: by a female translator, dedicated to a woman, and later confiscated by Catherine the Great.
Very rare: WorldCat locates two copies only in institutions outside Russia (Oxford and Harvard). We could not trace any copy on the market of the last decades.
James Hervey (1714-58) was an English clergyman and prolific writer of Calvinist creed. His works blended philosophy, theology and an aesthetic enjoyment of nature; among them was the extremely successful literary essay Meditations Among the Tombs (1746) which had at least 20 other editions by the time it was translated into French in 1770 and 35 editions when it appeared in this first Russian edition, in 1782.
These Meditations provided a prose counterpart to the melancholic sentimentalism of fashionable English ‘graveyard’ poets like Edward Young. Suggestions for reflections on life and death were elicited through a spiritual dialogue with tombs during the author’s fictional stroll in a Cornish cemetery. Hervey’s work was instrumental in the development of Gothic literature and ensuing Romanticism, inspiring even William Blake.
Based on the French translation, Nadgrobnyia razmyshlenia is Hervey’s first appearance in Russian. It is a collection of reworked excerpts from Meditations following themes evoked by specific tombs: e.g., of Adam, Christ, women who died in childbirth, the elderly, the greedy and the great. The book suited the contemporary Russian appetite for sentimentalist literature written in major European languages, and such works were often excised and adapted for a young or female readership. In particular, this 1782 Russian edition – the only one of the 18th century – doesn’t include a separate second volume which is often found in English editions as Contemplations on the Night.
This translation of the Meditations was prepared by Elizaveta Kornilevna Nilova and dedicated to her friend, the recently widowed aristocrat Natalia Fedorovna Dubianskaia: an unusual case of a Russian female translator, and of a female dedicatee who is not the Tsarina. Nilova started her literary work in the Tambov province under the guidance of Gavrila Derzhavin, one of the greatest poets before Pushkin. The dedication tells us how the translation was inspired by the friendship between both women, and Nilova expresses her hope that her friend, grieving over her husband’s death, could find some comfort in these Meditations – which seem to be her first translation work before she published a handful other ones. Dubianskaia (1740-1818) was the mother of Fedor Dubianskii, a noted composer, who would also die before her, aged only 36, and for whom Derzhavin wrote an ode.
In 1787, Catherine the Great forbade any publication of spiritual literature outside the State Church typographies, targeting especially freemasons – such as Novikov, a leading intellectual and the major publisher of the Russian enlightenment. As a result, 537 copies of the Russian Meditations were confiscated from Moscow bookshops. Although we could not find the original print run, it’s reasonable to assume that fewer than 1000 copies had already sold since the publication 5 years earlier.
Aleks. Makarov (contemporary ink inscription to upper fly-leaf and title; possibly Aleksei, or perhaps Aleksandr).
Sopikov 9514; SK XVIII 1385; O. Demidova, ‘Eighteenth-Century Russian Women Translators’, in Translation in Russian Contexts, ed. B.J. Baer et al., London, 2017.