Bad Feeling

Gabriele Annan

  • Sonya: The Life of Countess Tolstoy by Anne Edwards
    Hodder, 512 pp, £8.50, July 1981, ISBN 0 340 25002 X

Death at Astopovo, like death at Mayerling, has become part of Western mythology. People like to imagine the scene and to hear the story that led up to it over and over again. Kenneth MacMillan began his ballet Mayerling with a prologue tableau of the end: black figures with umbrellas stand and watch the snow falling into Maria Vetsera’s open grave. The snow falls at Astopovo too, where Anne Edwards sets her prologue and shows us Countess Tolstoy outside the stationmaster’s hut, trying to catch a glimpse of her dying husband through the curtained windows.

Astopovo is probably better documented than Mayerling, a secret trysting-place where afterwards everyone strove to hush up what had happened. Tolstoy was a world celebrity. The year before his death the crowds had pressed so close around him when he was trying to catch a train at Moscow station that he fainted. At the God-forsaken little junction of Astopovo, the world press was assembled with its cameras clicking, even (the year was 1910) with its newsreel cameras whirring. When his wife arrived, ‘reporters tugged at her arms, and to the family’s horror, the distraught and confused Sonya talked to them. As she became more agitated, she broke away from her “keepers” and marched to the stationmaster’s hut, only to be denied entrance by Sasha [her daughter Alexandra]. Finding her position unbearably humiliating, she begged Sasha to allow her to go into the small entryway of the hut, thus making it appear to the cameramen who were filming her that she was visiting her husband.’ He was unconscious now, but had not wanted to see her. Astopovo is an early example of the press at its most repulsive.

Another reason the events there are so well documented is that ‘everyone close to Tolstoy ... kept a diary.’ His 18-year-old bride was already keeping one when he married her. By the time he was famous, the disciples who surrounded him all took down everything he did and said. Dr Makovitsky, a particularly assiduous member of the circle, even taught himself to write blind with a tiny pencil on a tiny pad inside his pocket: it enabled him to take notes during meals without anyone (except the watchful Sasha) observing him. After Tolstoy was dead they all published their diaries and his letters to them, they wrote their reminiscences and some wrote biographies of Tolstoy as well. And many biographies have been written since. Anne Edwards has read a great deal of all this, but her bibliography omits books which would have seemed obvious choices: it does not include Isaiah Berlin’s The Hedgehog and the Fox, for instance, nor John Bayley’s Tolstoy and the Novel. Though not biographical, they might have been useful: after all, everyone already knows that Sonya and her sister Tanya were the joint models for Natasha in War and Peace. On the other hand, Ms Edwards has read In the Russian Style by Jacqueline Onassis, and a life of Nijinsky.

She reminds me of the kind of clockwork mouse that rushes about on a table and turns automatically when it gets to the edge: it covers every millimetre of its ground, but knows perfectly well that it could not cope with what lies beyond. When she is forced to bring in historical events, such as the Russo-Japanese War or Bloody Sunday, she makes a gingerly stab at recounting a few basic facts in a manner suitable to a children’s encyclopedia: ‘With the famine ended, Russia was enjoying an industrial boom.’

Tolstoy enters her story as a fully-fledged celebrity of 34 – with a past, it is true, but only an amorous past. Exactly like Kitty with Levin’s diary in Anna Karenina, Sonya was deeply distressed when Tolstoy gave her his own diary to read just before their wedding and she discovered that he had had countless affairs. Swapping diaries was one of the ways in which they continued to torture one another for the rest of their lives. What shocked Sonya most was the discovery that a peasant girl with whom her husband had had an affair was still living on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana with their child when he brought his bride to live there. But Tolstoy’s intellectual past was relevant to the marriage too, and we hear next to nothing about that, nor about Sonya’s views on social, political and religious matters: they seem to have been liberal – but how did she acquire them?

Still, within the limits she has set herself, Ms Edwards tells her story well, manfully – or womanfully – hanging onto the thread (only just, sometimes) of all the intrigues over Tolstoy’s copyrights and literary estate, and distinguishing between the various Tanyas, Sashas and Seryoshas. She keeps up a brisk pace for all of her 454 pages, though one sometimes longs for the irony and humour that make Troyat’s 968 on Tolstoy seem a shorter read. Ms Edwards is chary of Troyat: ‘though a thoroughly readable and credible account of Tolstoy’s literary and religious life, [it] must be regarded with some suspicion, especially in the area of Tolstoy’s family and marital relations. When Mr Troyat’s book appeared, Alexandra Tolstoy published a lengthy pamphlet (The Real Tolstoy) repudiating many of Troyat’s statements and correcting numerous others. [Ernest) Simmons’s book seems to be the English biography most highly regarded by the surviving members of the Tolstoy family.’

Considering the bitter divisions in the family over Tolstoy’s material and spiritual legacy at the time of his death, it comes as a surprise to learn that the survivors share any opinion at all. One would certainly not trust it, though: all the Tolstoys had axes to grind, and the heaviest axe was wielded by Alexandra herself, Tolstoy’s youngest child, his executrix, and the only member of the family who retained his confidence to the end.

She was 26 when her father died in 1910. She herself died in 1979 in the USA, where she had set up and run the Tolstoy Foundation. Shortly before her death, she gave a television interview: it included a few unforgettable feet of film showing the aged Tolstoy mounting his horse and cantering off. Alexandra herself was unforgettable too: large, ungainly and magnificent, with Tolstoy’s broad face and thick nose and a deep, growly voice in which she told how her father used to say to her: ‘Okh, Sasha, why orrh you so khomely?’

Ms Edwards focuses on Sasha from the moment of her birth and makes her a protagonist in her parents’ tragedy as well as giving her a tragedy of her own. ‘Sasha’s implacable hostility towards her mother and the intensity with which she later besmirched Sonya’s character speak a kind of Elektra madness.’ Tolstoy was 82 and had had several strokes when he died of pneumonia, nevertheless it is possible to see how his daughter could regard her mother as another Clytemnestra who had killed her husband: it was during one of his periodic escapes from the rows at Yasnaya Polyana that he fell ill.

Sasha was Sonya’s 12th child, an unwanted pregnancy as many of the others had been. Tolstoy refused to use birth control or to let Sonya use it when she discovered its existence rather late in life (like Dolly when she goes to stay with Anna and Volkonsky towards the end of Anna Karenina). Abortion, of course, was quite out of the question. But at the time she was expecting Sasha, Sonya was desperate and she went to Tula to see the midwife and try to persuade her to get rid of the child. The midwife refused. Soon after Sasha’s birth her five-year-old brother Alyosha died. Sonya was convinced that his death was her punishment for having tried to abort Sasha. Two years later, she gave birth to her last child, Ivan (Vanichka). Sonya regarded Vanichka as a replacement for Alyosha and a consolation for his loss. He seems to have been an exceptionally endearing and gifted little boy, one of those Victorian children marked for death by extraordinary sweetness and maturity. Even Tolstoy, by this time somewhat detached from his children, doted on Vanichka. Sonya worshipped him and treated him as a comforter and almost as a confidant at a particularly miserable time in her life. He died of a throat infection when he was seven. He was the fourth child Sonya had lost, and her favourite. Sasha overheard her saying: ‘Oh God, why couldn’t it have been Sasha instead?’

Ms Edwards traces Sasha’s development from this appalling revelation of how little she meant to her mother. She grew into a sulky, mannish girl who clung to her father, took over his secretarial work from her mother, adopted his beliefs and causes, and defended him and them against her mother and whichever of her brothers and sisters did not share them. Ms Edwards considers Sasha’s a blighted life because she was plain and was never encouraged to make use of those physical and mental assets she possessed in order to find a husband. But she blames the father as much as the mother. Tolstoy, she thinks, took advantage of Sasha’s feelings of rejection by Sonya to build up and then exploit her loyalty. By the time he died she was unable to form an attachment to any other man.

Ms Edwards has been called a feminist, but her attitude to Sasha’s celibacy seems old-fashioned – even Mrs Bennett-like. You do not need to be more of a feminist than, say, Euripides to regard Tolstoy as a chauvinist pig for his inconsiderate sexuality and benighted views (even by 19th-century standards) on the role of women. Sonya had great difficulties with breast-feeding: Tolstoy thought wet-nursing disgusting and humiliating, and he either bullied her into carrying on feeding in spite of the agonies she suffered from fissures, or sulked if she gave up. Even his father-in-law thought he was eccentrically wrong: ‘Let him write a story about a husband who tortures his sick wife by forcing her to nurse her baby. He will be stoned by every woman alive.’ Ms Edwards’s standpoint seems feminine rather than feminist: she is simply trying to feel what it was like to be Sonya, to get under her skin. At times, though, it sounds more as if Sonya were being accommodated inside Ms Edwards’s skin – for instance, when she is said to be ‘fighting for her own identity’. One doubts whether Sonya saw it like that. She was no West Coast lady, and though she had problems, they were quite different from the problems of Judy Garland and Vivien Leigh, whose lives Ms Edwards has also written.

What was she like? The new portrait does not differ from the older ones: she was a lively, pretty, highly intelligent girl who remained attractive into late middle age. She came from a cultivated family. She preferred town life to country life. She liked having nice things (clothes, especially) and having things nice (which maddened Tolstoy). She was an haute bourgeoise who liked being married to a famous writer. She was very musical and well-read. She wrote stories and would have written more if Tolstoy had let her. She was a superwoman beyond the imagination of Shirley Conran: almost always pregnant or suckling, she ran the enormous household at Yasnaya Polyana with elegance (the butler wore white gloves); she was a devoted mother, reading to her huge brood of children, playing with them, nursing them when they were ill, and – unlike her husband – worrying about their education. She entertained innumerable guests for weeks on end, and on the family’s many moves to Moscow – for the season, or to enable the children to go to school – she found, arranged and often decorated rented quarters for the whole household. That was by day: by night she copied Tolstoy’s manuscripts over and over again as he amended them. They were indescribably difficult to decipher and full of grammatical errors which she corrected. She never seems to have got to bed before 4 a.m. As Tolstoy grew more Tolstoyan and more averse to making or keeping money, she took over the running of Yasnaya Polyana and the business correspondence of the other family estates. She had already taken over the publishing of his work: she sent it to the printer, read the proofs, did the accounts, dealt with magazine and foreign rights and with translations. Somehow she still had time (and energy) to go to concerts, arrange parties and picnics, play the piano and read. She was affectionate, volatile, jealous and inclined to hysteria. Her diaries show her full of insights into her motives and faults, and full of good resolutions.

As she grew older, her tendency to hysteria increased, and she became almost paranoid about Tolstoy’s followers. She had something to be paranoid about: they were crowding her out of his life; and her and the children out of his will. Tolstoy believed that everything he had should go to the poor. Sonya believed it was her duty to preserve it for the children. Two rights made two wrongs. She was unable to see how Christ-like, from his angle, his position was: if she would not join the disciples, then he was forced to leave her, as Christ left his mother. He knew he tortured her, and the knowledge tortured him: but he was able – up to a point – to enjoy their mutual torment, and she was not. On the other hand, she could see an element of masochism and self-dramatisation in him, and he was blind to that.

The torture had been going on ever since the birth of their first child – perhaps ever since Tolstoy forced his diary on his bride. His sexual appetite was insatiable and lasted his entire life: he was still trying to suppress what he called ‘bad feeling’ at the age of 80. But he considered sex, even with his wife, ‘nasty and criminal lust’. Sonya was very highly sexed herself. She could not bear his abstinences and felt rebuffed when – during her pregnancies, for instance – he slept in another room. He hated her for leading him on – not necessarily by making advances, but simply by her presence. At times, she hated him for treating her as a mere sexual object while despising her for being one. Maxim Gorky was probably right when he said: ‘woman, in my opinion, [Tolstoy] regards with implacable hostility and loves to punish.’ His attitude was that of a medieval ascetic to whom woman is the devil, there to tempt him.

At the age of 52, just after Vanichka’s death, Sonya developed a menopausal obsession with a plump, homosexual pianist. She began to dress girlishly and put ribbons in her hair. Her children were embarrassed – Sasha never recovered her respect for her mother. Tolstoy was disgusted by this ‘senile flirtation’. Sonya countered by accusing him of homosexuality (he had had affairs with men when young) and of ‘a repulsive, senile love for Chertkov’, his favourite disciple, of whom she was insanely jealous. It is true that Chertkov succeeded in persuading Tolstoy to deprive Sonya of her rights to his work in his own favour.

By now Tolstoy was falling apart physically and on the edge of senile dementia. Sonya raved and collapsed, made several suicide attempts, and fired at Chertkov’s photograph with a toy pistol. The children were divided as to whether she was mentally ill or just intolerable. The doctors said she was not actually mad, but going through a severe emotional crisis. From the practical point of view there was no difference.

Sonya lived for another ten years after Tolstoy’s death, physically and emotionally battered, but enough of her incredible vitality was left for her to enjoy her grandchildren. Sasha – now the commissar in charge of Yasnaya Polyana – was at her side when she died. The serial hasn’t ended yet: someone should finish her biography.