Feminism sprang up as a social movement a few decades after Leo Tolstoy published his two great novels. Predating feminism, both War and Peace and Anna Karenina feature female characters whose lifelike portrayal equals and often exceeds that of the male protagonists.
In War and Peace, Natasha Rostov provides the developing character around whom the male figures come and go. In addition we meet Anna Pavlovna Scherer, who commands the true center of Petersburg society, orphan Sonya, the Rostovs’ niece, whose fate past childhood hangs in the balance, and Maria Bolkonsky, whose moral elevation redeems those around her. Anna Karenina has 4 major characters paired as Anna and Vronsky, Kitty and Levin, as well as a touching portrait of Varenka, a common girl raised and educated by an heiress.
Tolstoy leads his female and male readers alike not only to appreciate the women in his novels, but to identify with them, to feel their pain and their victories. It’s an extraordinary accomplishment, and one wonders how these fictional women became so true to life.
We can trace it back, first, to Leo Tolstoy’s mother, Princess Maria Volkonsky, the only child of a wealthy former general and courtier of Catherine the Great. Losing her own mother when she was 2, Maria was doted on and personally educated by her father. She married late at age 31, rescuing Count Nikolai Tolstoy from debt-ridden poverty. The couple settled at the Volkonsky estate, Yasnaya Polyana (“Clear Glade”).
After bearing 5 children, Maria died when Leo Tolstoy was a toddler. He was raised by a succession of female relatives. From childhood to old age, he idealized his mother, although he had no personal memory of her. He wrote
In my conception of her there is only her spiritual figure, and all that I know is beautiful.
And near the end of his life, he entered in his diary,
I walk in the garden and I think of my mother, of maman; I do not remember her, but she has always been an ideal of saintliness to me.
Tolstoy also dearly loved his sister Maria, who shared his passion for religion in later life. He was charmed by his wife’s younger sister Tanya, who visited Yasnaya Polyana many summers and became a model for the young Natasha Rostov.
Yet it was Tolstoy’s wife Sonya more than anyone else who facilitated depiction of women in his great novels. The educated daughter of a physician at the Imperial Court, Sofya Andreyevna Behrs (Sonya) at age 18 married the 34-year-old Count Leo Tolstoy.
The arduous task of writing the great novels – 6 years for War and Peace, 4 years for Anna Karenina, both published serially – would never have been accomplished without Sonya. Leo Tolstoy had already published some shorter works, but his writing habits entailed constant revisions with incomplete notes. After managing the household and often the affairs of the estate through the day, Sonya worked late into the night copying numerous drafts and revisions. By her son Ilya’s later calculation she rewrote War and Peace in her careful script 7 times. It was joy to her. She noted in a diary –
As I transcribe the work, a swarm of impressions pass through my mind. Nothing affects me as strongly as his ideas and his talent. This has only been true for a short time. Have I changed, or is the book really very good? I don’t know which. I write quickly enough to keep pace with the action and not lose interest, and slowly enough to think over, feel, weigh and judge every one of Lyovochka’s ideas.
And the following, in a letter as she mailed her latest transcription to him, once while he was visiting her parents in Moscow –
Now I feel that it is your child and consequently my child and, as I send off this package of paper to Moscow, I feel I am abandoning a baby to the elements; I’m afraid something may happen to it. I like what you are writing very much. I do not think I shall care as much for any other book of yours as this one.
Babies she knew well. Throughout this period Sonya was pregnant or nursing almost constantly. They had 13 children, 8 of whom survived to adulthood.
The first 15 years of married life during which the great novels took shape were very happy years for Sonya and her Lyovochka (Leo). This is well attested in Troyat’s biography.
Other biographers sometimes have denied that they were happy even early in their marriage. Both headstrong, they would quarrel and then make up with renewed expressions of love. He continued to keep a diary filled with sins and self-recriminations from young adult years to old age, and he insisted that she read it. She became a diarist also, recording thoughts for herself and for him, and she grew to match his intensity. It seems to me that biographers and their readers, you and me, might get a biased view of their married life. Diaries are written sitting alone at a desk, apart from the other. Drawing back into oneself can magnify resentment, and feelings can be embellished for writer’s effect. Yet both of them averred that they were happy during those years.
I believe that their marriage was the truest model for the fictional couples who find happiness in the great novels. In a successful marriage, extended familiar association can produce a mutual will, recognized as more than a negotiation between two independent wills. For Sonya and Leo, writing the novels and raising a large family were efforts of mutual will.
There is a godlike aspect to the reader’s viewpoint on entering a novel, which arises in the following manner: In the real world, each person (or more strictly, you or I) has privileged access to the thoughts in his or her own brain, but not in the brains of others. In a novel the reader gains access to the thoughts of multiple characters. Usually one character’s point of view alone prevails for a given scene, although the author may shift to another several pages later. To do otherwise would be disorienting, since you and I each live in one mind only, unless in true partnership. A novel can deliver startling conversations in which the author reveals the thoughts of two speakers at once to show no match with spoken words on either side. On occasion, emotional accent and mutual will are evoked by describing the thoughts of two characters, as in this passage from Anna Karenina, in which the couple meet just prior to receiving her parents’ blessing for their union:
She too had not slept all night, and had been expecting him all the morning.
Her mother and father had consented without demur, and were happy in her happiness. She had been waiting for him. She wanted to be the first to tell him her happiness and his. She had got ready to see him alone, and had been delighted at the idea, and had been shy and ashamed, and did not know herself what she was doing. She had heard his steps and voice, and had waited at the door…. Without thinking, without asking herself how and what, she had gone up to him, and did as she was doing.
“Let us go to mamma!” She said, taking him by the hand. For a long while he could say nothing, not so much because he was afraid of desecrating the loftiness of his emotion by a word, as that every time he tried to say something, instead of words he felt that tears of happiness were welling up.
As War and Peace nears its conclusion, two successful matches receive Tolstoy’s attention. In the passages to be quoted, I leave out the names, substituting the pronouns she and he, since part of the fun of reading a novel is not to know who ends up with whom. If you have read it, you know who they are; if not, then read it.
She was so neglectful of herself that her dresses, the way she did her hair, her untimely remarks, her jealousy – she was jealous of an unmarried relative, of the governess, of every woman, pretty or plain – were stock jests among her friends. The general opinion was that he was tied to his wife’s apron strings, which really was the case. From the very earliest days of their married life she had intimated her claims. He had been greatly surprised by his wife’s view, to him a totally novel idea, that every moment of his life belonged to her and the home. His wife’s demands astonished him but they also flattered and he submitted.
His subjection entailed not daring not only to flirt but even to speak smilingly to another woman…or to absent himself for any length of time, except on business – in which category his wife included his scientific pursuits, to which she attributed great importance. To make up for this, he had full license to regulate life at home as he chose, for himself and his family… He had only to express a wish and she would jump up and perform it….
Their manner of life…followed not only his expressed wishes but what she supposed to his wishes to be from the ideas that he gave voice to in conversation…. When he himself showed signs of wanting to change his mind she would meet him with his own arguments.
Thus in the anxious time, which he would never forget, after the birth of their first child, when they tried three different wet-nurses for the delicate baby and she fell ill with worry, he one day told her of Rousseau’s views (with which he was in complete agreement) of how unnatural and deleterious it was to have wet-nurses at all. When the next baby was born, in spite of vigorous opposition from her mother, the doctors and even from her husband himself – who were all against her nursing the baby…she insisted on having her own way, and after that nursed all her children herself….
After seven years of married life he was able to feel a comforting and assured conviction that he was not a bad fellow after all. This he could do because he saw himself in his wife. In himself he felt the good and bad inextricably mixed and overlapping. But in his wife he saw reflected only what was really good in him, since everything else she rejected. And this reflection was not the result of a logical process of thought but came from some other mysterious, direct source.
Now the other young married couple:
She listened to her husband and took in all that he said. She knew that when he was thinking aloud he would sometimes ask her what he had been saying, and be vexed if he noticed that she had been thinking of something else. But she had to force herself to attend, for what he was saying in no way interested her. She looked at him and though she was not exactly thinking about other things her feelings were elsewhere. She felt a submissive, tender love for this man who would never understand all that she understood – and this seemed to make her love him the more, and added a touch of passionate tenderness. Besides this feeling which absorbed her entirely and prevented her from following the details of her husband’s plans, thoughts that had no connection with what he was saying kept flitting through her brain. She thought of her nephew [an orphan whom they adopted]…and various traits of his gentle, sensitive nature recurred to her. Thinking of her nephew led her to her own children. She did not compare him with them, but compared her feelings for him with her feeling for them, and was sadly conscious of something lacking in her feeling for the boy.
Sometimes the idea had occurred to her that this difference arose from the difference in their ages, but she felt guilty towards him and vowed deep down in her heart to do better and to accomplish the impossible – in this life to love her husband, and her children, and her nephew, and all her fellow-creatures, as Christ loved mankind. Her spirit was always striving toward the infinite, the eternal in the absolute, and could therefore never be at peace. An austere expression born of hidden, lofty suffering of spirit burdened by the flesh appeared on her face. Her husband gazed at her. “My God, what would become of us if she were to die, which is what I dread when she looks like that!” he thought, and placing himself before the icon he began to say his evening prayers.
In marriage, Tolstoy tells us, two people retain their own thoughts and wills, but a new, mutual will also emerges from their closeness, their conversation, and their partnership. This is shown in the former couple by the recursive cycle of decision-making in daily life. It is shown in the latter by the husband’s response of turning to pray after observing an expression of his deeply religious wife.
It would have been impossible for Leo Tolstoy to write about such a merging of will, save for his fortunate marriage to Sofya Adreyevna Behrs.
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Tolstoy family circle, 1905, Sonya at far right, Leo next next to her, published by Cassell and Co, NY, 1911. – The Life of Tolstoy by Paul Biriukov, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons. Sonya Behrs, unknown photographer – AA.VV., Lev Tolstòj, I giganti, Verona, Arnoldo Mondadori Editore, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons.
 Both quotes from Chute, P. Tolstoy at Yasnaya Polyana. HarperCollins, New York, 1991, p. 7.
 Troyat, Henri. Tolstoy. Transl. from the French by Amphoux, N. Doubleday, Garden City, New York, 1963, transl. 1967, p. 288.
 Ibid., p. 307.
 Tolstoy, Ilya. Tolstoy, My Father, Reminiscences. Transl. from the Russian by Dunnagin, A. Cowles, Chicago, 1971, pp. 267-268.
 Tolstoy, L.N. Anna Karenina, 1877. Transl. unnamed, Literary Guild of America, 1936, Part iv, chap. 15, p. 545.
 Tolstoy, L.N. War and Peace, Book 4, Section 10, 1869, transl. by Edmonds, R. Penguin, Baltimore, 1957, Vol. 2, pp. 1372-4.
 Tolstoy, L.N. War and Peace, Book 4, Section 15, 1869, transl. by Edmonds, R. Penguin, Baltimore, 1957, Vol. 2, pp. 1393-1394.