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The Journal of English Language and Literature , Vol.66, No.1, 23 ~ 43, 2020
Maugham and Woolf in Russia: Ashenden & Orlando
Ira Nadel
Mixed with a general British fascination with Russia was the actual presence of Somerset Maugham in Moscow in 1917 acting as a foreign agent, later fictionalized in his popular novel of 1928, Ashenden. Virginia Woolf never went to Russia but she studied Russian, co-translated several Russian volumes and wrote about its literature in various essays and Orlando, also appearing in 1928, a banner year for English fiction devoted to Russia. Parallel approaches by these two early twentieth century novelists to the country is the subject of this essay which highlights satire as their common aesthetic practice. Each began with distant admiration but also skepticism, overstating Russia’s characteristics and importance for comic purposes. Love, itself, became a satirical focus in both novels which also contain international intrigue if not danger. Biography is also a point of contact. Maugham was in Russia in 1917 and had to escape when his role as a British agent was discovered. He had also had an affair with a Russian princess before he arrived, so was familiar with the elements of Russian love. Woolf never went to Russia but had studied its history as a young woman and she admired its literature. She then learned the rudiments of its language, co-translated several Russian works and incorporated elements of Russian life in her writing, most dramatically in Orlando. The coincidental publication of both Ashenden and Orlando in 1928, and their co-reliance on satire as the means to address the internal repression and outward instability of Russia, marks a parallel and critical response to the Russian experiment.
Key Words
Somerset Maugham, Virginia Woolf, Russia, satire, narrative
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