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Home » Non-fiction, People

PEOPLE – THE DIARIES OF SOFIA TOLSTOY

Submitted by admin on October 5, 2009 – 12:10 pmNo Comment

tolstoyaby Cathy Porter

“I must marry now or never! A wife at any price!” Count Tolstoy wrote in l862 in his diary shortly before he proposed to eighteen-year-old Sofia Behrs. Fifteen years older than she was, he was already a famous writer and master of the family’s 4,000-acre estate at Yasnaya Polyana near Moscow, and the three thousand peasants living on it.  He had sown his wild oats in the brothels and gypsy cabarets in the capital, fought as a cavalry-officer in the Crimean War and survived the siege of Sevastopol, and when he returned it was the simple peasant life he wanted, donning a peasant shirt, growing a long beard and abandoning writing for the plough. He had also fallen deeply in love with a peasant woman on the estate named Axinya, and fathered her son.

Although loose living was the norm for the Russian nobility, his family had a reputation for wild liaisons. His elder brother had bought a prostitute from a brothel and died in her arms at the age of twenty-nine. His sister Maria left her husband to live in sin with a Swedish count and bore him a daughter before becoming a nun, and his brother Sergei lived on a nearby estate with a gypsy woman who was the mother of his eleven children. Tolstoy longed now for a respectable young aristocratic wife to save him from sin, but so that Sofia would have no illusions before marrying him he made her read his batchelor diaries. She had led a very sheltered life and her family weren’t like the Tolstoys, and she never forgave him for shattering her innocence with his lurid confessions of drunken orgies, loveless copulations with peasant girls and homosexual flirtations. It was then that she started writing her own diaries, republished in my translation to mark next year’s centenary of his death, a candid compelling account of their forty-eight-year marriage, the births of  their thirteen children (nine survived), the state of his health and the progress of his work, their friendships with some of Russia’s best-known writers, artists and musicians, and the fierce arguments that eventually divided them forever.

Arriving at Yasnaya Polyana the young countess would see Axinya living there with her son, and her early diaries describe her murderous feelings for her and her terror of her husband’s rough embraces, followed by coldness and withdrawal. Since he believed all sex should be for procreation, they used no birth-control and she became pregnant immediately, and this established the regular cycle of pregnancies that filled her life. He regarded sex at such times as “swinish and unnatural” and shunned her, and she grew increasingly desperate. “I don’t interest him. He sees me as a doll, merely his wife, not a human being,” she writes. “I am to gratify his pleasure and bear his children. I am a piece of furniture, I am a woman!”

The 1860’s were a time of huge changes for women in Russia. Tsar Alexander’s emancipation of the serfs had spelt the end of the old feudal family and the “woman question” was the burning issue of the day, with thousands leaving home to find work and education in the cities, many of them rejecting marriage altogether. Sofia too felt the stirrings of change in her and Tolstoy was horrified, accusing women of existing to arouse the beast in men and frustrate it.  Yet in his novels we see someone who understood women and was deeply sensitive to their feelings, and in writing of Natasha in War and Peace he was writing of her. During the six years he worked on it she bore him four children, three boys and a girl, and his shy bride had become his secretary and confidante, and a strong assertive woman of almost superhuman energy. Her diaries contain magical descriptions of the forests and rivers around Yasnaya Polyana, swiming and skating and entertaining crowds of visitors for concerts and picnics, playing with the children and teaching them the piano. And every night when they were asleep she would sit at her desk until the small hours copying out his day’s writing, and she was happy. Each morning she would put the fair copy on his desk, and he would return it to her that night to be recopied, black with corrections. He always asked her advice and respected her judgment, and everyone who met them commented on the love and understanding between them.

By l872 she had two more children, a girl and a boy, and assumed responsibility for their education, the household accounts and her husband’s everyday life, ensuring he wasn’t disturbed while he sat hour after hour in his study writing. She was always busy, gardening, bottling fruit, upholstering, making clothes, and to escape from the demands on her she would escape into the private world of her diaries. Then between l873 and l876 she gave birth to three babies who died, and when he began work on Anna Karenina she buried her grief by copying for him again. But as he completed it he became haunted by guilt for their privileged life, and announced he was giving it up to work in the fields with the peasants. He drew his own water from the well, made his own boots, and abandoned the writing she loved for moral tracts attacking the Church and preaching marital chastity and vegetarianism. And when he renounced his property and his copyright money, making her solely responsible for the children, his publishers and the running of the estate, she was outraged by the hypocrisy of his “conversion” and the impossible burdens it put on her. Meanwhile Russia’s bohemians, visionaries and revolutionaries claimed him as their spokesman and visited in their hundreds to meet the great prophet, filling the house with an unpleasant worshipful atmosphere, and he would complain to them of his nagging tyrannical wife who had come to represent the life he hated.

She was exhausted by her labours for him, managing the family’s complicated finances, copying his work, tending to his every illness, entertaining his disciples and preparing their elaborate vegetarian menus. Yet despite his ill-treatment of her, periods of estrangement alternated bewilderingly with passion. She was shocked by the desire he aroused in her in her forties, and when she became pregnant for the twelfth time at the age of forty-six, despite his public vows of abstinence, she felt nothing but shame. She tried unsuccessfully to abort the baby, and as she went into labour he packed his bag and announced he was off to make a new life in America, reteurning to finish the quarrel shortly before the unfortunate Alexandra was born.

She refers increasingly to headaches and “evil spirits”, and just as the conflict between them is at its most intense, the sinister Vladimir Chertkov enters their lives to set the children against her, gain the old man’s confidence and persuade him to alter his will in his favour.  It is to her diaries that she confides her tormented desires for revenge, and her entries for l9l0 are obsessed with Chertkov’s malignant presence  and her fears of a homosexual relationship between them. Finally in October that year, at the age of eighty-two, Tolstoy leaves her and boards a train heading south with Alexandra, and when she learns he is dying at the nearby station-master’s hut it is too late; besieged by the world’s media, she tries to see him but is allowed in only for a few minutes, and there is no time for them to be reconciled.

Battered but indomitable, she fights Chertkov through the courts and lives another nine years, through the upheavals of the First World War and the Bolshevik Revolution, and her diaries lose their wild mad energy but she regains her sanity, working to mend the rift with her children and making little of her discomforts, going off to the fields to pick potatoes when the shops empty.

Countess Tolstaya was a complex woman, a human dynamo with an iron constitution and a poetic soul, and translating her diaries has given me a painful understanding of her courage and intelligence and her despair. Without her there would have been none of Tolstoy’s great novels, yet his words carried so much more weight than hers, and after he died she devoted herself to honouring his memory and republishing his works, asking only that people “be indulgent to the woman whose strength was insufficient to bear on her weak shoulders the burden of high destiny, namely to be the wife of a genius.”

The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, Translated by Cathy Porter. Foreword by Doris Lessing are available now from all good bookshops, published by Alma Books. (www.almabooks.co.uk)

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