Justice to Mrs. Tolstoy

Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy

by Anne Edwards
Simon and Schuster, 512 pp., $15.95

Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy; drawing by David Levine

In the fall of 1895, after reading the most recent entries in Tolstoy’s diary, his wife wrote to him:

Why do you always, when you mention my name in your diaries, speak so ill of me? Why do you want all future generations and our descendants to hold my name in contempt, as that of a frivolous, ill-tempered wife, who caused you unhappiness?…[Are you] afraid that your glory after death will be diminished unless you show me to have been your torment and yourself as a martyr, bearing a cross in the form of your wife?

Sonya Tolstoy had good cause for apprehension about how history would see her part in that “struggle to the death” (as Tolstoy called it) in which husband and wife were locked after Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis. Tolstoy’s biographers have seen her with his eyes—a devoted wife in the “heathen” sense, as he once put it, dedicated to the material welfare of her family, but devoid of the qualities which could have made her an adequate companion to one of the great visionaries of history, and fiercely resentful of the spiritual concerns which threatened to deprive her and her children of the wealth and status attendant on the family of a great writer. It is not denied that the unyielding dogmatism with which Tolstoy attempted to impose his religious views on his family caused much of the hysteria, verging on madness, with which Sonya finally drove him away; but that flight, which brought the Tolstoys’ domestic tragedy to the attention of the world, invested it with a symbolic significance which seemed to justify Tolstoy’s harshness to his wife. His death at the little station of Astapovo, surrounded by disciples whose duty it was to keep Sonya and her entreaties away from him, seemed to represent the triumphant liberation of the spirit from the stifling embraces of the flesh.

It is not surprising that Sonya’s version of the battle between the Tolstoys aroused little sympathy. When her diaries, with accounts of the ugly scenes of their later life, were published in English in 1928, the translator’s preface expressed the opinion that the reader’s sympathies would be entirely with her husband: her claim that his account of their relations was colored by vanity and hypocrisy was dismissed as evidence of the mental deterioration of her later years. Those who have read Tolstoy’s diaries over the same period would, I think, take issue with this view; but no English translation of them exists. The appearance of a biography of Sonya Tolstoy that challenges the legend that was born at Astapovo is therefore a significant event.

Anne Edwards’s study relies mainly on the extensive materials relating to the Tolstoy family—reminiscences, biographies, letters, diaries—that are available in English translations. She appears to draw on no new sources but she has produced the first balanced treatment of the Tolstoys’ relationship. She…

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