©1998, Joan Saberhagen
As regards myself, all my life I was not able to decide to which I was more attracted -- mathematics or literature. . . . Possibly, in each of these areas I might have accomplished more, if I would have given myself up to it exclusively, none the less I am not able to renounce one of them completely. ---- S. V. Kovalevskaia 1890
Kovalevskaia was undeniably a multi-talented person. And she knew it. And the world confirmed her.
Before the age of 40, she had won a historic place in mathematics. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in mathematics, the first woman to obtain a permanent position on a universtiy faculty in mathematics, the first woman with a place on the editorial staff of a mathematical journal, and the first woman to win the most prestigeous mathematical contest of her day, an honor equivalent to the winning of a Nobel Prize. If she had lived just a bit longer, she would have seen some of her work incorporated into a mathematical paper by Poincare dealing with what we now call chaos -- an idea that shook the mathematical world to its very foundations.
Her literary accomplishments also had not gone unnoticed. Her novel REMEMBRANCES OF CHILDHOOD won wide acclaim and was translated into many languages during her lifetime. She had other literary endeavors, but none as successful as REMEMBRANCES OF CHILDHOOD. She dabbled in playwriting. She produced a steady stream of both fiction and nonfiction publications for Russian journals.
Without a knowledge of her personality, of her deep insecurity, but only a knowledge of her accomplishments, the reader might easily suspect that Kovalevskaia is speaking less from the motives of true regret, than somewhat tongue in cheek.
From earliest childhood Kovalevskaia manifested a degree of insecurity surprising in one so talented and accomplished. She always wanted more from herself and for herself. Satisfaction was illusory.
Nor was she ever quite able to control the strong forces pulling her in opposing directions. Certainly, in addition to science and literature, she felt a great call to political activisim, starting with her defiance of the educational norms and marital strictures, through her experiences in the Paris uprising of 1871, and into her work to advance women's education. Some of her closest friends came from the ranks of political revolutionaries both Russian and Polish. She was pulled too by the great forces of industrialization adding her talents to the developing partnership between science and industry.
For Kovalevskaia the constant tug of opposing desires was painfully present in her emotional life as well. She spent many years in a most difficult and unusual marriage. After her husband's tragic suicide, she was left to raise a daughter while reclaiming a scientific career. And when she thought all chance of personal happiness had pasted her, she feel in love with a man as strong, talented, and demanding as she.
Kovalevskaia's letters give a glimpse into the character of this extraordinary woman and her time.