Unhappy in Its Own Way

Tolstoy and Tolstaya: Literature’s most infamous marriage, through a lifetime of letters

My departure will upset you. I am sorry about that, but understand and believe that I could not act any other way. My situation at home is becoming, has become unbearable. Apart from everything else, [since] I can no longer live in these conditions of luxury in which I have been living, I am doing what elderly people of my age generally do: give up on the worldly life and go off to spend the final days of their lives in solitude and quietude.

Please understand this and don’t come after me…

—Lev Tolstoy to his wife, October 28, 1910

The marriage of Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy and Sofia Andreevna Tolstaya may be one of the most famous—or infamous—in history. Indeed, in 2009, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of Tolstoy’s death, a Hollywood movie, The Last Station (based on Jay Parini’s 1990 novel), brought the tragic conclusion of the 48-year marriage to the movie-going masses who might never have picked up such hefty tomes as War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Suddenly, those who had not spent their lives steeped in the 13 volumes of Tolstoy’s journals became familiar with his flight from home in the middle of the night at age 82 and his subsequent death at a train station. For a man seeking “solitude and quietude,” it was a grossly theatrical moment. Everyone in the world was watching; as the international news media crowded outside the door of the stationmaster’s home where Tolstoy lay dying, a desperate and adoring Sofia Andreevna—who had borne Tolstoy 13 children, copied all his manuscripts, transacted his business affairs, taken care of publishing his works, run his household and devoted her life to his care—was not allowed in to say goodbye to her beloved husband until he had already lost consciousness.

This story is well known. Tolstoy kept voluminous diaries. Sofia Andreevna (known as “Sonya” to intimates) kept diaries. All the frequent visitors to the Tolstoys’ estate were writing down every word that was spoken and all that they observed. In addition to these first-hand accounts and the requisite coverage of the events in all biographies of Tolstoy, several books have been devoted specifically to the topic of the Tolstoys’ marriage: Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, by William L. Shirer; Lev and Sonya: The Story of the Tolstoy Marriage, by Louise Smoluchowski; Tolstoy and His Wife, by Tikhon Polner.

Over the century since Tolstoy’s death, Tolstaya’s reputation has gone through various phases. For many years vilified as the crazed wife who was the cause of a martyred Tolstoy’s flight and death, then more recently rehabilitated—or even glorified—as Tolstoy’s underappreciated, suffering helpmate (see Alexandra Popoff’s 2010 book, Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography), Tolstaya will continue to be re-evaluated as new materials about her life are published for the first time. One such recent event was the publication in 2007 of an album of her photography with commentary, Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy. An even greater landmark was the first publication in English of her memoirs, My Life, a few years later. And, more recently still, an English translation of her novellas appeared: Whose Fault? and Song Without Words, written in response to Tolstoy’s highly controversial The Kreutzer Sonata. Tolstoy’s novella depicted a man who, driven by unbridled jealousy, murdered his wife, whom he suspected of adultery. Tolstaya had been deeply upset by the work (and the fact that people took it as a reflection of her own marriage  to Tolstoy), but still personally petitioned the czar to allow for its publication in Tolstoy’s complete works. Yet her fictionalized responses to this story were not seen, even in Russian, for a full century.

Given this wealth of material, one might think that little could be added, and yet Andrew Donskov and his team based at the University of Ottawa have just produced a new gem: a collection of the correspondence between the Tolstoys from their courtship in the early 1860s through to Tolstaya’s last unsent letter on the eve of her husband’s death. Although almost all the letters have been published before, never have they appeared in this form, as a true correspondence where you can trace the back and forth of these two souls, often daily, during their periods of separation. The volume includes 239 letters between the couple in English translation with detailed annotations, making it easy for a non-specialist to understand the references (is this “Masha” Tolstoy’s sister or his daughter? Who was the unfortunate prince, and what happened to him anyway?). In addition, there are eleven letters by Tolstaya that have never been published before in any language, and these appear at the end in parallel text with both the original Russian and English. The volume also includes a wealth of contextualizing information—from detailed family trees and a list of Russian geographical names to a lengthy introduction by the editor, photographs of the Tolstoy family, a chronology and detailed index. The editors have done everything they can to make the book both broadly accessible and also of interest to experts.

It succeeds in both of these tasks. As a Tolstoy scholar well versed in the vicissitudes of his life and thought, and as a human being who cares about questions of love and intimacy, I found it illuminating and at times heart-wrenching to immerse myself in this correspondence. It brings to life both the writers and their intense relationship. Even the many letters I had read before took on a new meaning when placed in the context of this greater dialogue. In the span of 300 pages, you go from the early blush of anxious love to the final rupture of a couple who are exceptional—Tolstoy is a genius and life with him could never be ordinary—yet also exemplify such universal human states of longing, neediness and vulnerability. Take, for example, the famous letter in which Tolstoy proposes to the 18-year-old Sofia Andreevna: “Tell me as an honest person, do you want to be my wife? Only if you can fearlessly, from the bottom of your heart, say yes. If there is even a shadow of a doubt in your mind, it would be better to say no. For God’s sake, ask yourself the question in all honesty.” The words palpitate with fear and insecurity (the same feelings Tolstoy would give his alter ego, Konstantin Levin, before his wedding in Anna Karenina).

Living in a culture that glorifies the Jane Austen–style marriage plot—one in which every romantic comedy ends with its heroes happily paired off—yet also has remarkably high divorce rates, I found it refreshing and perhaps even in a strange way comforting to trace the honest progression of life within a marriage that begins with all the romance of Austen, yet ends in complete rupture. And neither side is “wrong.” After many years of happy family life during which their letters brim with concerns for each other’s health, distress at being parted, updates on the children’s illnesses and accomplishments, and a tally of visitors, the couple began to grow apart spiritually. Or, rather, Tolstoy underwent a spiritual crisis that set him on a radical new path, while Tolstaya did not. She was happy with their family life, with serving a genius and supporting his writing career, which she revered. She did not wish to give up the cultured milieu to which she had been accustomed since childhood. Yet for Tolstoy, this lifestyle—modest as it was by many standards—had become a moral torment.

How could Tolstaya not be upset by such claims as this:

For the past seven or eight years all our mutual conversations have ended after many heart-wrenching torments in one thing, at least from my point of view. I said that harmony and a love life between us cannot be realised until—I said—you come to [the same conclusions] that I have come to … and will start walking together with me. I said “until you come to me” and not “until I come to you,” because that is impossible for me. Impossible because what you live by is the same that I have just been saved from—from a frightful horror which all but drove me to suicide.—I cannot return to what I used to live by, to what offered me only perdition and what I recognised as the greatest evil and misfortune. (Unsent letter by Tolstoy, December 1885)

In a note to their daughter two weeks later, and included in one of her letters to Tolstoy, Tolstaya explained:

Yes, I want him to come back to me, just as he wants me to follow him. Mine—this is the old, happy [life] undoubtedly well lived, bright and cheerful, and loving, and friendly. His—that is the new, everlasting torment, tugging at everyone’s heartstrings, perplexing and shocking, provoking despair not only among the family, but among his relatives, chums and friends.

Yet how could Tolstoy “come back” to her when, as he viewed it, “everything in our conceptions of life has been diametrically opposite: our ways of life, our attitudes to others, our means of life—property, which I have considered a sin and which you [treat] as a necessary condition of life.” How could he not be upset when he awoke in the middle of the night on October 27, 1910, to hear her, full of paranoid fears about his will, rummaging through his papers?

In the story of the Tolstoys’ marriage, it is easy to focus on the rupture. Yet the correspondence brings a more nuanced picture to light. Amid bouts of strife, there are also moments of the deepest tenderness, as these lines Tolstoy penned in 1883: “Read this letter alone to yourself.—Never have I thought about you so much, never have my thoughts about you been so good and absolutely pure as now.—You are precious to me in every respect.” Or the closing lines of a letter Tolstaya wrote in 1884: “I’ve just had a clear picture of you in my mind and suddenly I’m full of tenderness towards you. There’s something in you that is so intelligent, kind, naïve and persistent, and everything is illuminated by your unique tender compassion for everyone and your penetrating insight into people’s souls.” Tolstoy desperately wanted to keep Tolstaya with him on his spiritual journey. Reflecting on glory in 1896, he wrote to her: “I would give up not just a lot, but any glory if only you could agree with my heart during my lifetime the way you will agree with it after my death.” I truly believe that she would have done so—if she possibly could have.

But living with the burden of single-handedly caring for a large family (Tolstoy did little to help on that front), while also handling Tolstoy’s publishing affairs, Tolstaya felt keenly underappreciated and, perhaps as a result, keenly aware of the one-sidedness and hypocrisy of Tolstoy’s thinking. Faced with starvation and suffering all around him in the countryside, he reflected to her: “What can be done? How can one help? One can help by giving seeds and bread to those who ask for it, but that is not [real] help—it’s but a drop in the ocean … Obviously even if you give away everything you have, it’s still not enough. What to do? What to help with? With just one thing: a good and kind life.” Yet Tolstoy seemed remarkably blind to the fact that this “good and kind life” he was attempting to live was only made possible by all the work his wife did to keep their affairs in order. After reading one of Tolstaya’s letters to their daughter that brought him “despair and melancholy,” he wrote to her: “Again the same thing: ‘The burden is too heavy: he never helps, I am doing everything, life doesn’t wait.’ All these words are familiar to me, and most importantly, completely unrelated to what I am writing and saying. I was saying and am still saying the same thing, [namely,] that you need to take stock and decide what is good and what is bad … As to the necessity of doing something right now, there is nothing to say, since people with money and food need to do nothing but think things over and live as best they can.” Perhaps, but where did that money and food come from? In a late letter (1909), Tolstaya finally lashed out at Tolstoy for this kind of thinking: “Yesterday I received your letter with the instructions: give as little attention to household tasks as possible, as well as: good feelings towards others are incomparably more important than anything else.” She then went on to describe one such “household task” she had just completed—ensuring that land she had given to a group of peasant families was distributed equitably. She noted: “That’s one example. There are many others.” Arguably, she did much more practical good than her proselytizing husband, whom the public deified.

Two weeks before Tolstoy’s fateful departure, Tolstaya learned that he had signed a secret will giving his literary legacy to the public domain. She blamed this black deed on Tolstoy’s disciple—her archenemy—Chertkov. “The government, which you and he have excoriated and lambasted in every which way in all your leaflets—will now legally take away from your heirs their last piece of bread and hand it over to the Sytins and various rich printshop owners and swindlers, while at the same time Tolstoy’s grandchildren will die of hunger thanks to [Chertkov’s] evil and vainglorious volition,” she lamented. “Step by step, through its various actions, Christian love murders the person closest to one (in my sense, not yours)—one’s wife, on whose part there have never, ever, been any evil actions, and there are none now, apart from the most acute suffering.”

We know the ending. But this new volume provides an enriched—and more balanced—understanding of how we got there. The middle was always the part that interested Tolstoy as a writer: how do you make a novel out of the everyday and the ordinary? While Dostoevsky’s characters committed murders and succumbed to brain fevers, Tolstoy found the narrative potential in the quotidian tasks of making jam, going on visits, debating contemporary issues, raising children and facing the ethical challenges that arise in living a typical day. This is the stuff of the correspondence. Tolstoy and Tolstaya: A Portrait of a Life in Letters is the epistolary novel of one of the world’s greatest literary couples. And for the first time, both have an equal voice.