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
Lady Byron
Lady Byron; drawing by David Levine


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…

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