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Wives and Mistresses

Tolstoy Remembered

by Tatyana Tolstoy, translated by Derek Coltman
McGraw-Hill, 304 pp., $14.95

Ada, Countess of Lovelace: Byron’s Legitimate Daughter

by Doris Langley Moore
Harper & Row, 386 pp., $25.00

A Captive of Time: My Years with Pasternak

by Olga Ivinskaya, translated by Max Hayward
Doubleday, 462 pp., $12.50


For who are we, and where from,
If after all these years
Gossip alone still lives on
While we no longer live?
—Pasternak, Zhivago Poems

The famous carry about with them a great weight of patriarchal baggage—the footnotes of their lives. Footnotes worry a lot. They, loved or unloved, seem to feel the winds of the future always at their back. The graves of the greatly known ones are a challenge to private history; the silence is filled with riddles and arcane messages.

These “attendants” are real people: mistresses and wives, sometimes but not often husbands; friends and enemies, partners in sudden assignations. Some have been the inspiration for poems or have seen themselves expropriated for the transformations of fiction. They have written and received letters, been lied to, embezzled, abandoned, honored, or slandered. But there they are, entering history with them, with the celebrated artists, generals, prime ministers, presidents, tycoons.

The future may be an enemy. Time can turn happy days and nights into nothing. It can uncover secrets that impugn experience. Children in old age struggle to remember games on the lawn, agreeable picnics once shared with the infamous old tyrant whose photograph keeps appearing in the newspapers as yet another drudge of information and interpretation offers the assertive intimacy of long study in a tone that would surpass all life acquaintance.

The maligned see their quarrels with the famed one as a battle which can have no ending, see themselves squirming in an eternity of calumny which they would contest with document, affidavit, witness—right up to their own death. The determination of footnotes cries to Heaven. Lady Byron vindicated!

On his marriage-night, Byron suddenly started out of his sleep; a paper, which burned in the room, was casting a ruddy glare through the crimson curtains of the bed; and he could not help exclaiming, in a voice so loud it wakened Lady B., ‘Good God, I am surely in hell!”’

Where are all my years, my thirteen confinements, my seven copyings of War and Peace, Sonya Behrs Tolstoy asked again and again. His denouement was most unkind. Forty-eight years and, of course, one quarrel will be the last and all is too late. She is kept away from the bedside in the stationmaster’s house. Distraught, accused, excluded beyond endurance, the Countess wanders about begging for reassurance, repeating, explaining her devotion, her understanding, her care. The young Pasternak, rushing with his father to the amazing, outstanding death scene, wrote in I Remember: “Good Lord, I thought, to what state can a human being be reduced, and a wife of Tolstoy at that!”

The Tolstoys knew all there was to be known about marriage and therefore all to be known about each other. More indeed than one is put on earth to understand. More than could be endured but certainly not more than could be recorded by one or the other. “Immense happiness…. It is impossible that this should end except with life itself.”1 And soon, quarrels, and he will be found writing: “I arrive in the morning, full of joy and gladness, and I find the countess in a tantrum…. She will wake up absolutely convinced that I am wrong and she is the most unfortunate woman alive!” She writes: “How can one love a fly that will not stop tormenting one?”

How real the Countess and her inflamed nerves are. There is no question of authenticity and she cannot maneuver with any more design than a trapped bat. With her mangled intelligence, her operatic, intolerable frenzies of distress, she comes forth still with an almost menacing aliveness, saying it all like a bell always on the alert. Years and years, threats of suicide, collapse, hysterias, and the swiftest remorse as defeat hits her at the most passionate moment of declaration. Weeping reunions: “The bonds uniting me to him are so close!… He is a weak child, delicate, and so sweet-tempered.” Again jealousies and plots. He feels a horrible “disgust and outrage” as he finds her creeping into his room when she imagines him asleep. She is looking for the will, or for the diary; always looking for herself in history, the self the pious, pedantic Tolstoyans would disinherit and deny, looking, too, to find the way to remain the inspiration, the adviser, the considered one whom the hated disciple, Chertkov, would supplant.

Problems of life and often the distorting, defacing mirror of his work, which sent forth its scarred images of home into the public life. When The Kreutzer Sonata was published with its murderous rages against carnal passion and marriage—“two convicts serving a life sentence of hard labor welded to the same chain”—the Countess felt herself mocked all over Russia, pitied even by the emperor, gossiped about in the street.

She recorded her feelings: “I always felt the book was directed against me, mutilated and humiliated me in the eyes of the whole world, and was destroying everything we had preserved of love for one another. And yet never once in my marriage have I made a single gesture or given a single glance for which I need feel guilty toward my husband.”

Also after the publication of The Kreutzer Sonata there were comic consequences for him, who had after all “stigmatized all fornicators.” Suppose his wife were to become pregnant again? “How ashamed I would be…,” he wrote. “They will compare the date of conception with the date of publication.”

It was, of course, impossible for the Countess to bring her will, her great temperament, and her devotion to Tolstoy into a harmony that could survive more than a few sundowns. The overwhelming scene, the tremendous importance of the union and its dismaying, squalid complications of feeling, Yasnaya Polyana, the children, the novels, the opinions. The programs for transcendence and her thoughts: “This vegetarian diet means that two menus have to be prepared instead of one, which adds to the cost and makes twice as much work.”

It is not quite clear how they found the time for the record—the fascinating, violently expressive record, like some strange oral history which catches the rises and falls of the voice, the impatience, the motive, the love itself heard in a sigh as sleep comes down—when it mercifully sometimes does. Every quarrel, every remorse, moments of calm and hope and memory. Diaries, rightly called voluminous, letters, great in number, sent back and forth. Longing for peace and the provocation of discord. “Until five in the morning he sighed, wept, and inveighed against his wife, while she, exhausted, momentarily contemplated suicide.” Momentarily.

The cross the Countess hung upon was not inadequacy or even that crucifixion of mismating, common enough in all conditions of life. It may be said of her that one cannot imagine anyone else as the wife of Tolstoy. Their struggles always have about them the character of fate. He is as vehemently occupied with her as she is with him. The record alone, each in so great a hurry to say what the day had brought, indicates a peculiar obsession, one of those obsessions often punitive and yet inescapable. She had energy and mind of an extraordinary sort and so she moved back and forth one can only say naturally, calling upon the word so often used to describe the greatness of Tolstoy’s art. She lived out a penalizing contradiction, devoted one minute, embattled the next. An adjutant, wracked by drama, brilliant in her arias; and then awakening to uncertainty, shame.

The Countess Tolstoy herself is a character in a great Russian novel, perhaps one by Dostoevsky rather than Tolstoy. Tatyana Tolstoy in her recently translated memoir, Tolstoy Remembered, writes about the more or less “serene” survival of her mother for nine years after Tolstoy’s death. Serene, perhaps, “but she retained one weakness: she was still afraid of what people would say and write about her when she had gone, she feared for her reputation. As a result she never let slip the slightest opportunity for justifying her words and actions. There was no weapon she would not use in her campaign of self-defense….”

The Countess Tolstoy had no more need for self-defense than a barking dog. But the eminence of Tolstoy brought the very existence of her frazzled nerves into question. The dazzling scrutiny they directed upon their marriage, leaving behind a rich dustheap of experience, was not a court of judgment, as she imagined, but simply their life itself.

In his beautiful reminiscence of Tolstoy, Gorky tells of walking along the beach with the “old magician,” watching the tides roll over the stones. “He, too, seemed to me like an old stone come to life, who knows the beginnings and the ends of things…. I felt something fateful, magical, something that went down into the darkness beneath him…as though it were he, his concentrated will, which was drawing the waves and repelling them.” No doubt the Countess felt also that Tolstoy controlled the tides. What she often could not do was to flow and ebb in the certainty of nature, like a wave.

Lady Byron: from her short union with Byron she got her name and a life-time of poisonous preoccupation. In her bad faith, deceits, and, above all, in her veiled intentions, so veiled indeed that gazing about with her intrepid glance she could not find the purpose of her intense lookings, there is nothing of the tragic exhaustion of the Countess Tolstoy. Lady Byron is unaccountable. She is self-directed, dangerously serious, and became a sort of Tartuffe in petticoats. “Marry Tartuffe and mortify your flesh!”

Lady Byron’s industry produced only one genuine product: the hoard of dissension, the swollen archives, the blurred messages of the letters, the unbalancing record of meetings, the confidences, the statements drawn up, and always the hints with their cold and glassy fascination. The hinter, Lady Byron, was in a drama upon which the curtain never came down, and never will. An eternity of first acts. Her marriage lasted one year, ending in 1816; Byron, the perpetrator, as the police now refer to the accused, died in 1824, a century and a half ago. But the story of the marriage and the separation knows no diminishment. Instead it accelerates, develops, metamorphoses: all of it kept bright by its original opacity, all enduring forever out of the brevity.

No doubt, Byron, hard-up, capriciously married Annabella Milbanke for her money and for the weary interest aroused by her first rejection of him. (When she at last accepted his offer, he is supposed to have said: “It never rains but it pours.”) She married Byron for the fame of his notoriety and because of its engaging unsuitability to her own nature. But most of all they seemed to have married in order to create the Separation.

The story is well known, but the details, told and retold so many times, are unknowable. “So here we must beware of ignoring the sharp incompatibility of Lady Byron’s original attitude and that which so suddenly took its place.” Or “Compare that with Lady Byron’s statement in 1830: the discrepancy, already observed by Drinkwater (1,54) is highly significant.” (These tangles quoted in G. Wilson Knight’s Lord Byron’s Marriage are but a few among hundreds in his book, and cannot indicate the manifold puzzlements in the huge number of important Byron studies, each with its dazed laborings to cope with the hoard.)

  1. 1

    The quotations from the Tolstoys are from Henri Troyat’s biography, Tolstoy (Doubleday, 1967).

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