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Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Excellent Wife: Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy

NB: I haven't been giving this blog much attention recently and must apologise. My mother's ill so it's difficult at the moment.

SONYA: THE LIFE OF COUNTESS TOLSTOY BY ANNE EDWARDS

This is a warm and sympathetic biography of Tolstoy's wife and it is also wonderfully interesting. Those who love Russian history will especially enjoy it.
It is certainly an indictment of Tolstoy himself, however. I doubt that I would have read the great classics: War and Peace and Anna Karenina if I'd read this first!
He was an extremely unlikeable character, according to this book.

When the book begins Tolstoy is reasonably charming and Sonya falls in love with him when she is only 12. He courts her sister, Lisa, at first, but finds her cold and stiff, whereas the much younger Sonya is warm, emotional and passionate. Impressed by this beautiful young woman, Tolstoy changes his mind and proposes to Sonya. Needless to say, Lisa is pretty upset!

The marriage doesn't start off well because Tolstoy writes a confessional letter to Sonya detailing his visits to brothels and his affair with a gypsy servant on his estate with whom he has an illegitimate child. Sonya is very sheltered and becomes quite horrified by this letter, but she marries him anyway.

Sonya comes from a reasonably wealthy, cultured family and she is used to the best of everything. She is also used to a large and happy family with lots of visitors and living in the middle of the city (Moscow). When she marries Tolstoy she has to go to a sparsely furnished villa in the middle of the countryside, which is quite lonely. She copes very well, and works very hard at managing the finances and transcribing Tolstoy's great novels late at night. She helps him very much in his work. She also has to endure having lots of children with very little help from him.

Tolstoy has an underlying hatred of women, in fact. Sonya tries to breastfeed her babies because he doesn't believe in wet-nurses, and suffers terrible pain. He is quite unsympathetic.

The main trouble occurs, however, when Tolstoy develops his weird philosophy which is like a cult, and he attracts lots of followers. He doesn't believe in sex even within marriage, becomes a vegetarian, and is generally quite crazy. Poor Sonya understandably starts to suffer from depression herself.

This is a harrowing book to read but it is well-written and captures the atmosphere of Russia in the nineteenth century with its wonderful descriptions. It is written like a novel which I found difficult to get used to, at first, but I grew to like it.
I bought it second-hand so it may be hard to find now, but it is worth buying!

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