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Justice to Mrs. Tolstoy

Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy

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

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 picks her way through the conflicting and emotionally charged evidence with discrimination and sensitivity. Avoiding the trap of compensating for the bias of earlier accounts by an idealization of her subject, she nevertheless establishes Sonya Tolstoy as a woman of subtle perception and considerable spiritual resources; in the process she reveals that the image which Tolstoy created of his wife was a device whereby he avoided confronting the nature of his own sensuality. For many readers, the most interesting revelation in this account of the Tolstoys’ extraordinary marriage is likely to be the fact that the man who believed and made the world believe that he loved the truth above all else could not tolerate the whole truth about himself.

When Sonya Behrs, the daughter of a physician at the imperial court, married Lev Tolstoy in 1862, she was eighteen; he was thirty-four. The sudden ardor of his courtship of her, his demand that they be married within a week of his proposal, astonished her family, with whom he had been friendly for seven years. Neither they nor Sonya knew that he had fixed on her as the instrument of his salvation. His early diaries show that he was obsessed with the conflict within him between “the cravings of the spirit and the cravings of the flesh.” Lust was the most ungovernable of his drives, and his frequent sexual encounters were followed by acute shame and self-loathing. He became convinced that the solution to his conflicts lay in marriage, where his sexual drive would be devoted to procreation with a partner who shared his thirst for a life of work in the service of good.

As the only path to inner harmony, marriage became for him, as it would be for his alter ego Levin in Anna Karenina, “the central thing of life, from which all its happiness depended.” He had frightened off one prospective bride with his vision of the married state as “toil, self-denial, and love” (in that order), when he perceived the innocence and unworldliness he sought in the pretty, high-spirited, and intelligent Sonya Behrs. She was already in love with the brilliant and distinguished count, and a week after his proposal they began their married life on Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana.

Tolstoy devoted himself to writing, work on his estate, and teaching at the peasant school he had established there. Sonya, despite an occasional longing for what she called the “toys” of life—the pleasures of Moscow society—cheerfully accepted the life of hard, monotonous work ordained for her by her husband. Her days were devoted to the running of a rambling, primitively furnished house, the management of a farm, and the rearing of children (six of the thirteen Tolstoy children were born in the first decade of their marriage); while a considerable portion of her nights were taken up with her most absorbing task—the copying of her husband’s manuscripts. She proudly records that they frequently discussed the novels on which he was laboring, many of whose scenes were based on her own childhood and adolescent experiences, and that he paid attention to her comments. But it was her intense love for Tolstoy rather than her admiration for his genius that made Sonya so willing to be molded into his ideal. Tragically, as Ms. Edwards shows, it was her expression of that love that led to the collapse of the ideal and the ensuing disasters.

In the first decade of his married life, Tolstoy believed that he had found the path to the reconciliation of the warring sides of man. He gave literary expression to his convictions in Levin’s glorification of the instincts enshrined in family life as infallible guides to truth. Through Levin’s defense of his “selfish” concern with the welfare of his family and of his desire to preserve the life of his ancestors, Tolstoy expressed his own belief that the way to a moral life was not through the denial of one’s nature in a conscious effort to do good, but through the instinct of self-fulfillment that linked mankind with all other living things.

But this belief was gradually eroded by the guilt aroused in him by his response to Sonya’s uninhibited passion. It began again to seem to him, as in the years of debauchery before his marriage, that man had “two natures, two wills.” He began to suspect that, far from harmonizing man’s sensual and spiritual impulses, marriage was merely “domesticated prostitution.” He tried to appease his conscience by abstention from sexual relations when they could not lead to procreation. Intercourse with a pregnant or nursing wife was, he declared, a “crime.” At these periods he could conquer his impulses only by cultivating an emotional and physical coldness toward Sonya that drove her to despair in the belief that she had lost his love. In reality, the alternations of lust and hostility in Tolstoy’s attitude signified something equally disastrous for her: her gradual transformation in his eyes from savior to demon.

In his life, if not always in his literary work, Tolstoy was inclined to see the significance of women in their function in the spiritual development of men. His belief that society trained most women for the role of temptress had allowed him before his marriage to shift a considerable portion of the guilt and disgust aroused by his sexual encounters onto the women who, as he put it on more than one occasion in his diaries, “led me astray.” The return of guilt after his marriage was accompanied by the beginnings of grotesque suspicions about the character of Sonya. On their infrequent visits to Moscow, he would watch intently for signs of flirtatiousness in her attitude to other men. He viewed her interest in clothes with grave suspicion; the purchase of a hat with ostrich feathers was a sign of spiritual corruption in his eyes, as was her inability to breast-feed her first child: he angrily accused the doctor who ordered the engagement of a wet-nurse of conniving at Sonya’s corruption by depriving her of “the only means which might have kept her from coquetry.”

No wonder that, as pregnancy followed pregnancy, Sonya often felt that she was reduced to nothing but “a useless creature with morning sickness, and a big belly,…a bad temper, a battered sense of dignity, and a love which nobody wants.” But there was much to compensate for Tolstoy’s censoriousness—his high spirits and creative excitement, and the frequent occasions when, conscious of the absurdity of his suspicions, he treated her with remorseful tenderness. These compensations ceased after Tolstoy’s spiritual crisis of the late 1870s, when he finally renounced his dream of reconciling his warring drives in favor of a rigidly dualistic ethic that declared eternal war between spirit and matter. Chastity, poverty, and simplicity were now his ideals: together with the state, government, and property, the sexual drive was condemned as a manifestation of the vilest aspects of man’s nature.

Tolstoy had taught his wife and children to idealize family life and the traditions of their caste, and to accept its privileges as their right; he now denounced the family and social privilege and demanded that his wife and children conceive an empathy with and a humble admiration for the Russian peasant as the embodiment of Christian virtue. His children were bewildered, but for Sonya the way was clear. She was not prepared to “turn like a weathercock in every direction.” She had no reason to believe that her husband’s new outlook was superior to the values that he had cultivated in her for nearly twenty years, and she remained convinced that his literary work (which he now renounced on the grounds that it had no meaning for the people) was his true vocation.

Despite the assertions of some of Tolstoy’s disciples, she was not indifferent to the plight of the masses (although her efforts to raise money for the victims of the famine of 1891 were condemned by Tolstoy on the grounds that wealth acquired by sinful means could not lead to good); but her determination to prevent her husband from surrendering his property and the rights to his works and thereby depriving their children of the education and the way of life for which he had prepared them turned the Tolstoy household into two warring camps whose divisions were illustrated by the spectacle of the “dark people”—peasants, tramps, and beggars, who slunk through the fashionable drawing room where Sonya entertained her Moscow family and friends, to the study where they were received by the unwashed sage in his peasant tunic and homemade boots.

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