The feminist princess who climbed Mont Blanc

For some time I have been puzzling over the identity of the writer of two undated letters to Thomas Atkinson in the Dahlquist Collection in Hawai’i.  Now I think I have found out the intriguing identity of the letter writer.

The two letters in the Dahlquist Collection

The letters, written in French, are brief, simply requesting to visit Atkinson’s home in St Petersburg. They are headed by an embossed gold and red crown and signed Princess Massalsky. This turns out to be a remarkable woman of Romanian (Wallachian) origin called Elena Ghika, niece of the reigning prince of Wallachia, Grigore IV Ghika. She was very well-educated and even knew the German geographer Alexander von Humboldt – as did Thomas Atkinson. She often wrote under the penname Dora D’Istria.

A portrait of Dora D’Istria by Peter Mateescu (1876)

In 1849 she married the Russian duke Alexander Koltsov-Massalski to become the duchess Helena Koltsova-Massalskaya. They lived for several years in Russia, mostly in Saint Petersburg and it must have been at this time, after the Atkinsons had returned to the city in December 1853, that they made her acquaintance.

But Dora disliked the Russian nationalist views of her husband and the Eastern Orthodox bigotry of the Russian Court under Emperor Nicholas I. When her health began to suffer, she took her husband’s advice and travelled to Switzerland for several years and then journeyed through Greece and Anatolia. Finally, she returned to Italy and lived in a villa in Florence, while occasionally traveling to France, Ireland and the United States and taking up the cause of Romanian and Albanian nationalism.

Today she is regarded as an early feminist, having made one of the earliest climbs by a woman of Mont Blanc and also of The Mönch (4107m). She is the subject of the first chapter of Celebrated Women Travellers of the Nineteenth Century  by W H Davenport Adams (1882) and was a friend of Garibaldi and other nineteenth century nationalists. She died in Florence in 1888.

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