Saturday , February 24 2024
Ekaterina Dashkova was a pioneering science administrator and linguist. So she's best known as Catherine the Great's "tester" of men.

A Russian Princess, a Lot of Science, and a Bit of Sex

Miss Frances Williams Wynn was, in the terms of her times, a spinster. But that didn’t mean she had a boring life. She travelled, being in Naples for the disastrous earthquake of 1815, she progressed on social visits around the grand houses of England and Wales, and in London was at the centre of social and political life. And she’s now a “blogger”, since I’m publishing her diaries, last published in the mid-19th century, as a blog, Diaries of a Lady of Quality.

Today’s diary entry today is actually a copy of a letter from Ms Wilmot, written from the home of the Russian Princess Dashkow. (Who is, probably expressed in something closer to the original Russian, “Princess Ekaterina Dashkova”.)

The Princess had spent considerable time in Britain, arriving first in 1770:

“Her interest in the country was enhanced by the fact that two of her brothers, first Alexander and then Semion Vorontsov, were both Russian ambassadors in London. … Oxford … was described in her article The Travels of a Russian Noblewoman Around Some English Provinces. This was published in 1775. … Her Edinburgh salon and meetings with William Robertson, David Hume, Hugh Blair, Adam Ferguson and Adam Smith were described in her Memoirs.”

And it turns out she is one of the most prominent women in Russian history, (yes shame on me for not knowing) and there was recently an exhibition dedicated entirely to her.

Yekaterina Dashkova comes through as Russia’s first female manager of the first order. The documents speak of the appalling state the Academy of Sciences was in after Razumovsky – ramshackle buildings, destitute academicians who, not unlike their counterparts today, went unpaid for years. It turned out that the princess was capable not only of poring over the works by Montesquieu, Rousseau and Voltaire, but also had enough financial acumen to let all the empty basements as storerooms, solicit patrons’ help in instituting scholarships, and simply keep the books of so enormous an establishment as the Academy of Sciences. Among the items on display there is also Princess Dashkova’s chief producer oeuvre – the six-volume Explanatory Dictionary of the Russian Language.

As usual, however, it was her looks rather than her brains that some men were concerned about. Diderot wrote in his diary that she was “not beautiful at all; she is too short; her forehead is big and high, her cheeks are swollen, the eyes are neither large nor small, the nose is flat and lips are full; she has no waist; the princess has no grace and no nobility…”

And surprise, surprise, history, and the gossipy editor of Miss Frances Williams Wynn’s papers, were more interested in linking her to the sexual slurs around Catherine the Great. “She was popularly supposed to have been entrusted with the momentous duty of subjecting the empress’s male favourites to a kind of competitive examination or qualifying test; whence her name of l’eprouveuse, which was also given to another lady who succeeded her.”

The Princess’s translated memoirs were republished in 1995, reviewed here. Also on the web there’s a letter about one of her visits to Voltaire.

About Natalie Bennett

Natalie blogs at Philobiblon, on books, history and all things feminist. In her public life she's the leader of the Green Party of England and Wales.

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