No Company, No Carpets

Tim Parks

On 17 September 1862, Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, aged 34, gave his diaries of the last 15 years to Sophia Andreevna Behrs, who had just turned 18. She was the second of three daughters and her mother had been Lev’s childhood friend. Three days earlier, on 14 September, Lev had proposed to Sonya by hand-delivered letter, when her parents had been expecting him to propose to their eldest, Liza, who was twenty. Lev and Sonya had met only at family gatherings and had never been alone together for more than a few moments. On 16 September, Sonya accepted and Lev persuaded her parents to arrange the wedding as soon as possible, on the 23rd. This was extraordinary haste, as if the groom were afraid he might change his mind. Certainly, the gift of the diaries looked like an invitation to Sonya to change hers. The bride-to-be read the notebooks at once, and discovered that Lev had actually been more attracted to her younger sister, Tanya; that he had described her as ‘plain and vulgar’ but erotically exciting; that reflecting on a possible marriage with Liza he had written, ‘My God! How beautifully unhappy she would be if she were my wife.’

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in