When Miss Emmie was in Russia

Harvey Pitcher


When Miss Emmie was in Russia

Harvey Pitcher


Miss Emmie is a curious, yet brilliantly achieved fusion of a book. At one level it is a social history chronicling the careers of five intrepid women who achieved an intellectual dignity, purpose and authority by working as governesses in Russia, achievements which would have been denied them in their homeland. On another it is an intimate portrait of pre-Revolutionary Russian society, which blows away the overblown stereotypes beloved by both Soviet and Tsarist apologists, to reveal a complex, liberal and humane society, full of enormous potential and past achievements. And as the revolution takes hold, so the book turns into a thriller and we follow, blow by blow, the extraordinary personal adventures of these women through revolution and civil war.

‘An enchanting book.’ - Paul Scott, Country Life
‘A vivid account of life in Old Russia’ - TLS
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When Miss Emmie was in Russia: English Governesses before, during and After the October Revolution
ISBN: 978-1906011-49-9
Format: 320pp demi pb
Place: Russia

 Author Biography

Harvey Pitcher, was born in London in 1936, and studied at St John's College, Oxford. During National Service he qualified as a Russian interpreter. In 1963 he was invited to start the Russian department at the University of St Andrews. He published his first book in 1964 and since 1971 has been a full-time writer and translator, with two main areas of interest: Chekhov and the British community in Russia before the Revolution. His Chekhov publications include a study of the plays, and a biography of Chekhov's wife. With Patrick Miles he translated Chekhov's early stories. When Miss Emmie was in Russia (1977) was followed by The Smiths of Moscow (1984) about a family of British boilermakers, and Muir & Mirrieless (1994) the story of two Scottish families who created Moscow's most famous department store. In Witnesses of the Russian Revolution (2001) the events of 1917 are presented through the eyes of British and American observers. Harvey Pitcher lives in Cromer on the North Norfolk coast. 


Extract from Chapter One

‘Of course, I never intended going to Russia! I was going to be a teacher!’

But Emma Dashwood did go to Russia, setting off from Tilbury Docks in the autumn of 1911 with another girl in her early twenties; and instead of the promised year, it was two and a half years before she returned to England in June 1914. Among her fellow passengers on the boat home was a Mr Stephens, who worked for a shipping company and lived with his family in Moscow.

‘Oh, you’ll be back all right,’ he said to her, when she explained that she was probably returning to England for good. ‘They all come back to Russia, They always do. You must give me a ring when you’re next in Moscow.’

A few months later she did so.

‘God bless my soul!’ was all the astonished Mr Stephens could manage to say on hearing her voice again. For in the meantime the First World War had broken out, and travel between England and Russia had become difficult and dangerous. On this occasion, instead of the promised year, it was four and a half years before she finally returned to England in May 1919, still cheerfully unperturbed in spite of having lived through two revolutions and their aftermath.

In the Russian families where she was employed, Emma Dashwood was known as ‘Miss Emmie’. But this book is not just the story of a single governess. The Miss Emmie of the title is also meant to be representative of the surprisingly large number of ‘Miss Emmies’ who went out as English governesses—and by English is meant English-speaking, for the Scots and Irish were always very prominent in the movement. Their total numbers must be reckoned in thousands rather than hundreds, for it was much less unusual to find a girl from Britain working as a governess in Russia before the Revolution than it might seem to us today. Their story lasts almost exactly a hundred years. It begins soon after the Napoleonic Wars and breaks off abruptly in 1920, and it tells how the English governess gradually became established as a familiar institution in upper-class Russian society. Its final chapter is dramatic: for in the period from 1917 to 1920, quite unexpectedly, our governesses found themselves unwilling but active participants in the turbulent life of Revolutionary Russia.

It is fortunate that governesses, like clergymen, always seem to live to a ripe old age, and that like elephants, they never forget. How surprising it was to meet Miss Dashwood for the first time and to find in her someone who had not only seen and lived in ‘Old Russia’, but could vividly recall so many of the interesting little domestic details of her life there; her memories were still in mint condition for the simple reason that no one had ever questioned her at length about Russia before, and she was not therefore recalling memories of memories.

But I feared that Miss Dashwood, born in 1889, might be a lone survivor of her generation, and was further surprised when enquiries soon brought me into contact with a number of other ladies who had been in Russia in the years from 1910 to 1920, and whose varied experiences provided an excellent foil for Miss Dashwood’s simple story. There was Mrs Bangham (Edith Kerby), the only one who had been born and brought up as a member of the resident British community in Russia; Mrs Thomson (Marguerite Bennet or Scottie, as she is referred to in the book), taking on jobs that ‘no Englishman in Russia then could have done at all’; the reluctant chaperone, Louisette Andrews; Mrs Dawe (Rosamond Dowse), only two weeks past her eighteenth birthday when she arrived in Russia as a governess in May 1914; and the loyal Mrs Whitley (Helen Clarke).

The English governesses in Russia were unassuming people. None of them would have seen anything admirable, let alone heroic, in the actions they performed on behalf of their Russian families during the years of Revolution. Nor would they have imagined that their stories might be fascinating in themselves, open our eyes in a new way to Russian society in those critical years, and often be more lively and amusing than the memoirs of the soldiers and diplomats. These first-hand accounts have been rescued just in time, for it goes without saying that former English governesses in Russia are no longer very numerous. At the time of writing all the ladies mentioned above are alive and well with the exception of Mrs Thomson, who died on July 24th, 1975, at the age of ninety-two. Since for all of them age has become a matter for self-congratulation rather than concealment, I can reveal that Miss Andrews and Mrs Whitley are both ninety-four, Miss Dashwood eighty-six, Mrs Bangham eighty-four, while Mrs Dawe, not yet quite eighty, is probably the youngest survivor of that generation of young girls who went out to Russia.

It has been a great pleasure in writing this book to meet and correspond with a very large number of helpful and friendly people. I shall postpone my acknowledgements of help received and of sources used until the end of the book, by which time they will be more meaningful to the reader, but I take the opportunity here of thanking Mrs Osyth Leeston for her very helpful advice on editorial matters.

Cromer, March 1976

H. J. P.