Yelena Shavrova (1874-1937) sends Chekhov a story she has written in which a character contracts syphilis. She asks his advice, and he suggests she lock the story in a trunk for a year, and only then reread it. “By that time things will seem clearer to you,” he says, prudently. “I am afraid to decide for you for fear of making a mistake.” Then he proceeds to demolish what sounds like an awful story: “The story is a little wishy-washy, it exudes tendentiousness, the details all run together like spilled oil, and the characters are barely sketched out.”
Most damningly, Chekhov tells Shavrova she has “failed to cope with the formal aspects.” He means her science is weak. She doesn’t understand the disease, how it manifests itself and how it can be treated (with mercury compounds, unreliably, in the late nineteenth century). Recall that Chekhov was a working physician:
“Degeneracy, general nervousness and flabbiness are not due to S [Chekhov’s discrete abbreviation for syphilis] alone, but to a combination of many factors: vodka, tobacco, the gluttony of the intellectual class, its appalling upbringing, its lack of physical labor, the conditions of urban life and so on and so forth. What is more, there are other diseases no less serious than S. Tuberculosis, for example.”
Chekhov was coughing blood as early as 1884, and the disease killed him in 1904, but the mention of TB here is fleeting, a hypothetical example. There’s no evidence Shavrova knew Chekhov had the disease, nor even certainty that he accepted the diagnosis at the time he was writing the letter, in 1895. His next sentence is personally revealing and suggestive of Chekhov’s aesthetic sense: “I also feel that it’s not the duty of the artist to lash out at people for being ill. Am I to blame for having migraines?” To this day, a belief in disease as moral punishment is latent in many of us.
Chekhov condemns the doctors in Shavrova’s story. They “behave abominably” and violate the Hippocratic Oath. “S isn’t a vice,” he writes, “it isn’t the product of ill will, but a disease, and the people who have it need warm, human care.” He reminds Shavrova of the risks one runs just being alive, and then states a sort of artistic credo deeply informed by his medical training and experience, and by his native sense of tact:
“For myself, I stand by the following rule: I write about sickness only when it forms part of the characters or adds color to them. I am afraid of frightening people with diseases. I can’t accept the idea of `our nervous age,’ because people have been nervous in all ages. Anyone who is afraid of being nervous should turn himself into a sturgeon or a smelt. A sturgeon can make a fool or a blackguard of himself once and only once by getting caught on a hook. After that he goes into soups and pies.”
Chekhov’s letter is remarkably various. It zig zags from topic to topic, tone to tone, without seeming chaotic. He is able to criticize Shavrova without humiliating her or making ad hominem comments. One would love to know her reaction and what she eventually did with the story. Did she revise it? Was it ever published? Would Russian censorship have permitted a story about syphilis to appear without excisions? Chekhov writes:
“I’d like to see you write about something cheerful and bright green, a picnic, for example. Leave it to us medics to write about cripples and black monks. I’m soon going back to writing humorous stories, because my psychopathological repertory is exhausted.”
In the next year or so, Chekhov would write “Three Years,” “My Life” and "Peasants." He wrote his letter to Shavrova on this date, Feb. 28, in 1895.
[An online source of unknown reliability reports: “Elena Mikhaylovna Shavrova sent more than twenty of her stories to Chekhov who liked them, reviewed for her and edited. She failed to develop into a serious writer as he hoped she would, but their ten years’ correspondence (which started in 1889, when she was 15) resulted in more than 200 letters.”]