Sunday, January 17, 2016

Barbara MacGahan, "Sons and Daughters of Feudal Sires" (1896)

Barbara MacGahan (1852-1904) was a Russo-American novelist. Born into a well-to-do Russian family (daughter of Nicolas Elagin) near Tula, she finished Tula Female Seminary in 1866 and, in the words of her 19th century biographer, "led a worldly and luxurious life." In 1871, while visiting the Crimea, she met Januarius MacGahan, an American reporter for the New York Herald. The two fell in love and married two years later. Barbara followed her husband on his numerous assignments, including during the Carlist Wars (1874-1876) in Spain and Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878 where she helped her husband in writing, translating and telegraphing dispatches. Eventually Barbara began publishing her own work as well and her articles appeared in Russia and American press throughout the last two decades of the 19th century. In 1880, the Russian liberal newspaper "Golos" sent her as a special correspondent to the Unites States. After "Golos" was suppressed by the conservative government of Emperor Alexander III, Barbara continued her journalistic career and contributed articles to numerous Western periodicals, including the New York Times and the New York Tribune, and wrote fiction under the pseudonym “Pavel Kashirin."  She eventually settled in the United States where she died in 1904. 

In 1896, MacGahan published a lengthy essay on Georgia in The American Magazine, one of the most popular American periodicals. Part III of the essay was devoted to a Georgian feast.

I had been told that old Princess M. adheres very strictly to the old-time ways of the Georgian nobility, and that all her women guests are expected to appear at her parties in the national Georgian costume, with the regulation head gear studded with pearls and precious stones, a white vail pinned to it and floating behind. Still my old-time school friend, a woman physician, who had offered to introduce me, without any previous presentation, into the house of Prince M. on a certain festive occasion, when the lezginka was sure to be danced in their spacious hall, did not approve of my suggestion to assume the national dress of the Georgian women, so as to be more in keeping with the surroundings.

“No matter how you adorn yourself,” was the edict of that honest friend of mine, “you will never look like a Georgian ; you have not got the Georgian eyes”—as, alas! I had not—“and your western manners will proclaim you a fraud in any native costume. Go simply as you are, in your traveling garb, and you will be made welcome at the princess's house. They are not very ceremonious there, and are used to defer to my judgment in a good many ways; this is one of the perquisites of my trade, you know. The power of my drugs is sufficiently well known to insure deference to me in such as have to trust their lives into my hands on occasions,” concluded the cynic with a hearty laugh.

And thus it was that I appeared in the spacious hall of the summer residence occupied by Prince M at the watering place where his mother was undergoing a cure; the prince, like most of his countrymen, being extremely deferential toward his parents. It was a lofty room, at least fifty feet square, with an upper gallery stretching along one of the walls some fifteen feet above the floor and not much below the ceiling, that was inlaid with pearl and studded with small bits of mirror and gilded stars. 

The feast was at its height, and no one was apt to pay any attention to my travel-beaten outfit that had served me in good stead on many a rough horseback excursion in the precipitous mountains, and had quite recently been through a typhoon, followed up by a rainstorm. My companion had declared that assist at the entire dinner she would not: “Life is too short to throw away three or four hours, sitting at a table piled up with plain food, devoid of any of the refinements of gastronomy,” as she remarked to me. Thus, pleading a previous engagement, we reached the festive board toward evening, not more than half an hour before the final toast, “To the Holy Virgin,” was proclaimed and drunk. 

The occasion of the gathering being some family celebration, the entire clan of the Princes M. seemed to be in attendance, although I was assured that were the tomasha [feast] held on the country estate of Prince M., the assemblage of relatives would have proved much more numerous. As it was, over forty guests appeared here, seated at the long main table, and as many more at the supplementary tables; while at each wine was flowing freely, empty bottles being now and then tossed by the feasters backward, over their shoulders, toward the servants, who caught the bottles on the fly, refilled them forthwith with wine and brought them back to the table. 

People of all ages and conditions were seated side by side at the festive board. The family of the Princes M. being a very numerous one, there were soldiers, landed proprietors, priests, and professional men among the number—of course, the military element predominating, while most all of the men present wore the long national coat, called tcherkesska [chokha], adorned with rows of powder and cartridge cases across the chest, and a formidable array of pistols and daggers stuck behind the belt. 

Quietly as we came in, we did not escape the watchful eye of the master of ceremonies—a distant cousin of the host-seats were squeezed in for us at the main table, even at this last stage of the dinner, and I found myself side by side with an elderly Prince M., who, as luck would have it, turned out to be an intimate friend of a former teacher of mine. In those parts, acquaintances are quickly formed among people who know something of the outside world; my table neighbor turned out to be partially of Mingrelian stock – naturally quick-witted and ready at repartee— and speaking good Russian and better French, he forth with constituted himself my chaperon and expounder of the ways and customs of his countrymen, as exemplified now before our eyes. It turned out that he had just returned from an important family council held in a settlement about a hundred vers t s to the north, containing several hundred inhabitants, all of which, with the exception of bodyservants, were Princes M., related to each other in some degree. The narrator did not claim, to be sure, that peace and contentment reigned uninterruptedly in the extensive “Noblemen's Nest”; still, on public occasions, such as the election of local marshals of nobility, all the male members of the big family gather in great conclave, mostly in the open air, and hold a long pow-wow, trying to reach some agreement. It is not rare that a decision is reached only at the cost of a good deal of dagger play among hot-headed cousins; still, when an understanding has been arrived at in the conclave, it is most faithfully carried out by all as a unit. Again, whenever any one member of the M. gets into trouble involving the good name of the family at large, all ally themselves together in order to extricate him; likewise a feud of a Prince M. against some other family of Caucasian noblemen is instantly espoused by all, just as would be the case among the mountaineers of the Southern States; feuds are apt to descend by inheritance from generation to generation, the slightest offense or even a fancied slight being avenged at the point of the dagger. 

Now, though regular wars are at an end in the Caucasus, these feuds are flourishing still, conducing to constant blood-letting—so necessary, it seems, to the constitution of those fiery mountaineers. My chance table companion was not the first, though, to enlighten me concerning the Georgian nobility customs and pastimes. I was warned yet by my Russian friend in Tiflis that with Georgians every pretext is seized to have a tomasha, whether taking the form of a family festival or a downright spree for men alone. When a Georgian nobleman goes to visit among other landed proprietors, he sets out au grand complet. All the members of the family, maids, jesters and favorite attendants, migrate for several days or even a whole week to the estate of the hospitable nobleman that is holding the festival.

When assembled, entire days and part of each night are passed in eating, drinking, dancing and making merry in every way. Tired of eating, they tell stories and sing songs in monotonous cadences that have little to recommend them to unaccustomed ears. Again, they watch the pranks and practical jokes played on each other by dwarfs and jesters, that are still kept by every family of local eminence, just as are kept attendants from entirely impoverished nobles, who are still “too proud” to work for a living. 

The fare, as we found it at Prince M ’s festive board, was of the simplest; this being, as I was assured, the rule among the Georgian landed proprietors not affected yet by the requirements of fashionable life prevalent in large cities. The table before us was loaded with great dishes heaped high with boiled, pickled and roasted meats. Ordinary plates were set before us, as in front of the majority of the guests.

Still even at this feast, at a rich nobleman's house, I had the good luck to observe a curious way of eating that I had never seen before, although I have many times heard it described. Even as we were strolling about the bazaars of Kutais and Tiflis, we had noticed what seemed to us large pancakes hanging in rows on strings at the bakeries. On one or two occasions, in making a purchase at the bakery, we received it wrapped up in one of such pancakes, called “lovashee” [lavash] which are baked in different sizes, mostly larger than a dinner plate, quite round, very thin and flexible. It seems that Georgians use the lovashee very much as we do wrapping paper or napkins; but they finish them up by eating them in the guise of bread to go with their salty cheese, “kvele,” or their wine. Here, at the princely table, a few of the guests had lovashee spread out before them and doing service for dinner plates; and I saw that it was with them that those guests wiped their mouths and fingers. However, on this occasion I did not see anyone eat the lovashee after using them. Here the guests used as bread a kind of thick-boiled millet gruel called “gomee.” Tasting of this gruel I found it pretty good, though wholly unsalted; but the rest of the company ate of it with every morsel of other food, just as bread is taken elsewhere. Of ordinary bread we found none in use on the tables of the Georgians; but of special preparations of flour, water and cheese there was quite a variety called “hodja-puri,” [khachapuri] “chadee,” [mchadi?] and others. 

The next staple articles of the Georgian menu, after meats, are cheese and the wine. I am really inclined to think that there exist no other social gatherings the world over at which quite as much wine would be drunk as at a Georgian tomasha. The wine—all of local vintage—is kept in the hugest clay pitchers that could be found anywhere. When laid on their side—as they remain in the ground in which they are sometimes buried—the opposite side of such a pitcher, that they call “kvevre,” is apt to reach to the shoulders of a grown man. Any one of those pitchers would easily answer for a big barrel—such in which wine is kept in wholesale wine cellars. Strange to say, with all this great display of food and the enormous amount of wine drunk at them, such Georgian feasts do not lead to gluttony, neither to drunkenness; they are really producing good cheer and harmless enjoyment— unless, indeed, a quarrel arise at table, on which occasion the fiery Georgian is quick to have recourse to his dagger, nothwithstanding the presence of ladies. In fact, the dagger in Georgia is as often as not used in place of the hot, wordy rejoinder that might have escaped a guest at some social gathering in another part of the world. 

And yet how strict the ceremonial adhered to at a festive gathering of a Georgian clan. There is always some pompous person to be found there—invariably selected from among the impecunious relatives of the family—to serve in the capacity of butler and master of ceremonies. That personage has at his fingers' end the pedigree and every grade of inter-relationship—if such a word may be coined for the occasion—of all the guests present. It is his business to find seats for all, taking good care that each one be in the very place where he belongs, according to the laws of precedence—i.e., according to rank, to age, or to the closeness of the person's relationship with the master of the house, the greatest honors being paid to the elder members of the family. As to the host—it is he who is toastmaker on such a gala occasion as I describe. And what a task this is may be imagined, when, on occasions, there happen to be thirty or forty persons seated at the table, and not only every man, woman and child present has to have his or her health drunk by the company (likewise according to the individual’s rank), but when politeness requires that the health of all the important absent members of the host's and the guests’ families should be proclaimed and drunk. It goes without the saying, that, having such a heavy responsibility on his shoulders, the master of the house is obliged to keep his own head entirely clear, for fear of giving offense to somebody, the least slight on the pride of a guest being speedily taken up by all the relatives of the offended party, and frequently leading to year-long feuds. 

Ever mindful as are the Georgians of the great historical mission carried on by their ancestors in their quality of defenders of the Christian faith, the very last of the toasts at a feast is invariably proclaimed “For the Holy Virgin.” And, what is still more, after hours of feasting—be it noted in honor of the Georgians—it is extremely rare that anyone should prove so feeble as not to be able to drain his cup, even at this last toast, with the greatest gusto.

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