January 01, 2022

The Gambler Wife

The Gambler Wife
Original illustration of Anna Snitkina. Haley Bader

In the fall of 1866, a twenty-year-old stenographer named Anna Snitkina applied for a position with a writer she idolized: Fyodor Dostoyevsky. A self-described emancipated “girl of the sixties,” Snitkina had come of age during Russia’s first feminist movement, and Dostoyevsky — a notorious radical turned acclaimed novelist — had impressed the young woman with his enlightened and visionary fiction. Yet in person, she found the writer “terribly unhappy, broken, tormented,” weakened by epilepsy, and yoked to a ruinous gambling addiction. Alarmed by his condition, Anna became his trusted first reader and confidante, then his wife, and finally his business manager — launching one of literature’s most turbulent and fascinating marriages. After reversing the novelist’s freefall and helping him conquer his gambling addiction, Anna went on to found her own publishing house, making her the first solo female publisher in Russian history. In this scene from Chapter 12, “The Publisher,” Anna saves the manuscript of Dostoyevsky’s unpublished novel, The Adolescent, and gives us a glimpse of the moxie that made her a successful entrepreneur.

The manuscript was far from perfect, but it would have to do, since Nekrasov was expecting it any day now. On September 15, the family of five left for Petersburg, where the author was to deliver the last installments of The Adolescent and collect the remainder of his advance, which had by now become necessary to them. The weather was warm and glorious on that late‑summer day, as the gentry‑style caravan escorted the Dostoyevskys to the steamboat dock on Lake Ilmen, amid the bright tinkle of carriage bells and children’s delighted screams. The lake itself was the color of turquoise and smooth as glass, reminding Anna of the Swiss lakes from her travels nearly a decade earlier. Arriving in Novgorod at three in the afternoon, they unloaded the luggage from the steamboat, and the family was then transported to the train station.

Later that evening, when it was time to depart, Anna went to fetch what she thought was her husband’s travel trunk from storage, but, on a second look, she noticed that it wasn’t his. She glanced around. There was no other black trunk in the vicinity. She grew concerned. Of all the trunks that might be lost, this one was the most unfortunate: inside it was not just her husband’s overcoat and underwear, but the manuscript for The Adolescent. Worse, the trunk contained the notebooks for the novel, without which Dostoyevsky would be helpless. Two months of intensive labor would be lost, and he would have to reconstruct his work from scratch.

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