- Out of the Past by Alexandra Tolstoy
Columbia, December 1981, ISBN 0 231 05100 X
Alexandra Tolstoy died in 1979. Except for Vanechka, who died in 1895 when he was seven, she was Tolstoy’s youngest child. She was also his close companion and secretary in the last years of his life. ‘The first and best period of my life was with my father. It lasted 26 years – perhaps only six or eight conscious years, and perhaps then not fully conscious, for it was not an easy period.’ So she wrote in 1977, in her foreword to these memoirs. But the memoirs themselves, written mainly between 1929 and 1939, open on a grimmer note: ‘Only now as I near the end do I remember my childhood without any bitterness.’ The shadow over her childhood was the knowledge that her mother did not love her. ‘She had given all her affection to my little brother Vanechka, beautiful as an angel.’
So the early years are swept, not quite under the carpet, but into a small corner: just one chapter in which she sums up the atmosphere in the Tolstoy household. ‘Life was never easy in our family, for we had to choose between two styles: either the life of an aristocrat, or the life of a peasant, a toiler on the land, as my father advocated. How, amid 12 servants ... could we follow my father’s precepts?’ ‘Never easy’ is a euphemism. Troyat’s biography of Tolstoy and Anne Edwards’s recent one of Countess Tolstoy show life at Yasnaya Polyana to have been hellish: perpetual rows between the two factions – the husband’s and the wife’s – tantrums, periods of non-speak, hysteria, walk-outs, suicidal gestures.
As a child, Alexandra herself was out on a limb: seven years younger than the next surviving child, a boy, and 13 years younger than her youngest sister, she was left to a swiftly changing succession of governesses. She was ungainly, tomboyish, ‘rather wild’, and had acquired a dire reputation with the Moscow placement bureaux: ‘O, la petite Sasha Tolstoy – non, merci.’ Next to her father she loved animals, especially horses: her greatest joy was to accompany him on horseback.
A young man asked Tolstoy for her hand in marriage:
‘You want me to trade you for that worthless thing?’ I cried angrily. At this response father embraced me tenderly. I vowed that I would never put anyone in his place, would never marry. He kissed me, assuring me how happy he was that I did not want to part from him.
Mrs Edwards thought this very selfish of Tolstoy and bad for Alexandra’s development. True, she never married; she seems usually to have lived with some female friend or other. But no one could sound less like an emotional cripple than this tough, resourceful, resilient, responsible, dashing, candid and very funny lady; or look less like one. The portrait photograph on the jacket was taken when she was 92: she looks a spry 60, with a squashy Russian nose in a broad Russian face, untidy hair, and a most appealing expression in which serenity and benevolent curiosity mingle.
Alexandra taught herself to type in order to help her father; in 1910, when she was sent to the Crimea for her health, she learnt shorthand in a very grande dame manner – by taking a stenographer with her. When she returned, she and Tolstoy ‘both wept for joy. From that day on I never left him until the end of his life. I myself closed his eyes.’ That was only a short while later, and we hear no more about her life with Tolstoy: but she keeps invoking his memory and teachings.