[In which Madam Mariana travels back to Moscow, 1543, to help the lovely Russian noblewoman, Darya Petrovna, avoid her cousin Igor’s grasping ways: He got her daddy’s estate, and now he wants her!]
Moscow, September 7051 
Deeply respected Madam Mariana!
I am at my wit’s end. At twenty-five years old, beyond marriageable age, I was reunited with the love of my childhood,Nikita, but on the very afternoon when he declared his desire to wed me—as my father intended!—the government called him back into service.
I don’t know when I will see him again, but it hardly matters. The next day, I learned from my neighbor that he has been promised to another for years. My heart is broken. How can he dishonor me so?
My wicked cousin, who controls our ancestral estate, insists on finding me another spouse. But I know that no crony of my cousin’s will do for me. I tried to take monastic vows, but the abbess turned down my request and advised me to practice obedience by submitting my will to my cousin’s. When he seeks only a powerful patron at court? What kind of spiritual exercise is that?
Now I am stuck dodging potential husbands, each less suitable than the one before. My cousin swears he will force me to become his bride if one more candidate withdraws his offer. Other than throwing myself in the Moscow River, which would be a terrible sin, what can you recommend?
Yours in humility and hope,
Darya Petrovna Sheremeteva
P.S. I have already deployed several of the more effective methods of discouraging unwanted suitors—or at least their mothers.
Esteemed and honorable Darya Petrovna,
Well, that’s a mouthful!
What a quandary! Not the part about whether you should throw yourself in the Moscow river, presumably not for a refreshing summer dip, but rather to drown—no, that’s the easy part of the question. DON’T DO IT!
Ok, now that we got that out of the way, let’s let Madam Mariana, who sees all and knows a thing or two about love, turn her laser-like brilliance on the problem. What’s a “laser”? It’s a really, really bright lantern they’ll have in about four centuries, with light that is so strong it can cut through metal.
While you’re wrapping your beautiful head around that idea, Madam Mariana will ponder the issue. To entertain our readers while she does this, why don’t you tell us a bit about yourself.
“Darya Sheremeteva knows her duty. Everywhere the young Russian noblewoman turns, someone in her circle of family and friends reminds her that she exists to serve a single purpose: to marry a powerful man selected by her male relatives and bear children, preferably sons, to continue his line.
But after years in isolation nursing her elderly father, Darya isn’t sure she wants to marry. Maybe she can become a nun?
When a cousin lays claim to her father’s estate, Darya’s decision acquires a new urgency. Because her cousin will stop at nothing to advance his career, and his most valuable asset is Darya herself.”
Darya Petrovna, my sweet,
The tension between duty and desire is eternal. Remember Eve? Duty: do whatever God says. Desire: eat that apple! The lesson men take from that story is always the same: Ladies, do your duty! And what’s left unsaid, “And leave the apples to us!”
Throughout time, women have struggled to do something more than marry and bear children.
In today’s world, something your offspring’s offspring’s offspring (and a few more to get through 450 years) will know, that struggle remains, covered by a different veil. Now we’re all about “self-care” and “fulfillment.” While that looks like “desire”, it has become “duty.” Crazy, huh?
While you are being forced to marry and procreate, whether you want to or not, nowadays our fictional heroines must absolutely NOT give in to that duty. Even if they want to. They must climb the mountain, invent the cure, slay the dragon, and bring back the McGuffin, while being beautiful, sexy (that means alluring, Darya) smart, and have a heart of gold.
So you see, in one sense, your task is fairly simple. Say yes to your cousin, do what’s needed, and live your life in peace.
Before you start screaming in despair, that’s not my advice!
I will avoid being graphic, this being something of a family advice-column, but if only people would think about what’s involved in doing that “duty”, they would be less adamant about forcing it on women. It’s not a one-time thing. It’s a lifetime of living with and obeying someone who is intolerable, without recourse. One cannot “go home after work and complain about the boss.” It is every day, every night, forever. And at the end of the day, one must undress and submit physically to one’s oppressor.
Suddenly slaying that dragon seems a lot more appealing.
You are really in a tough sitch, as we say nowadays. There are, however, a few ways out of it. You mention that you’ve rid yourself of suitors before (or their mothers…I’m not gonna ask!) so you could try, for example, poisoning your cousin Igor. Or loosening the straps on his favorite saddle, so he falls off his horse to his bitter demise.
Or you can summon all of your friends, pick out the wealthiest, and put her in Igor’s way. Maybe, just maybe, he’ll fall for her, leave you alone, and she’ll have enough rubles on hand to make him mind.
Or you can announce that you’re with child by Nikita. That happens, you know. Whether he was promised to another or not, he’ll be honor-bound to wed you immediately. Your cousin Igor will not want anything to do with you regardless. And of course, since I trust that you aren’t actually in the family way, you’ll miraculously become un-pregnant if Nikita doesn’t do the manly-honor thing. But you sure won’t have to marry Igor—or maybe anyone else, after that.
But…but…your reputation! Your good name! If Nikita is worthy of you, it shall be preserved. If he isn’t, then you may be banished into exile but you won’t have to marry Igor, or be anyone else’s wife-slave.
Of course, you could actually find out where Nikita has been stationed, go to him, and, er, become pregnant. Because one of the better things about their “duty/desire” rule is that if you follow your desires by doing what would otherwise be your duty but before the wedding makes it a duty and not a desire (whew, that was fun to write!), you must be punished by having to marry the man!
Wishing you the best in a complicated world,
C.P. Lesley is the author of a well-loved series of historical novels set in Russia, Poland and Central Europe in the 1500s. Check out her latest, Song of the Sisters (Songs of Steppe & Forest 3), published by Five Directions Press, 2021. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter!