BOOK REVIEW / War and peace at home: 'Love and Hatred: The Stormy Marriage of Leo and Sonya Tolstoy' - William L Shirer: Aurum Press, 16.95 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LEO TOLSTOY was 34 when he married the 16-year-old Sofia Behrs in 1862. Her hopes for happiness were shattered shortly before the wedding, when, with her parents' permission, he showed her the steamy catalogue of whoring and gambling contained in his bachelor diaries, and insisted that she keep a diary too.

Diaries, written for the other to see, were to be the currency of their relationship. The many happy moments are rarely recalled. From the start of their 48-year marriage they recorded there the doubts and fears they could not express openly to each other, as both desperately asserted their self-esteem for the benefit of posterity. For Tolstoy, Sofia represented his shadow, the moral purity he had lost. When his angel of modesty and obedience asserted in her diary her own needs - for privacy, music, her own friends - he withdrew from her, devoting himself more and more to the stream of disciples who visited him.

The Tolstoys lived through three major international wars, three revolutions and a bloody civil war. As the social order supporting them collapsed, debates raged about women and the future of marriage and the family. Stirred by an unexpected dissatisfaction with her existence, Sofia writes: 'I am to gratify his pleasure and nurse his child, I am a piece of household furniture, a woman]' Terrified by the consequences of this new sexual emancipation, Tolstoy was forced to confront the double standard on which his relationship with his wife was based.

These were some of the contradictions that charged the marriage with its phenomenal passion and energy, but William Shirer hardly touches on them. He writes sympathetically of Tolstoy's quick temper and deviousness, while Sofia's aspirations and the details of her life, filled with the regular cycles of pregnancy and childbirth, are treated with distant benevolence: 'She was, for all her faults, extremely intelligent, well read and full of not only admiration but understanding of what her husband wrote.'

Sofia Tolstoy was, of course, a person of subtlety, intelligence, dignity and iron strength. She bore Tolstoy 13 children, eight of whom lived. She read, painted, played the piano, educated her children and attended to the peasants' medical needs. Supported by a large staff of servants, she washed, boiled, gardened, cooked, sewed everything including her husband's trousers, supervised his diet and nursed him through innumerable illnesses. She organised the publication of his works, and she sat into the small hours straining her eyes almost to the point of blindness to copy out his day's scribble in her fine hand.

As communication between them became more fraught, they confided to their diaries their wretchedness and their tormented desires for revenge. Tolstoy writes of his loneliness and of the domineering wife who is hostile to his ideas. Pregnant again, suffocated by domestic drudgery and the dismal apathy of country life, Sofia too writes of loneliness and jealousy, of her fears of illness and insanity. As he soars above the world, abandoning creative writing for religious tracts, renouncing property, sex, the Church, his children and the estate, she remains chained to earth by all the problems he leaves there for her, and despairs. 'I have been discarded like a useless object, impossible, undefined sacrifices are expected of me, in my life and in my family, and I am expected to renounce everything.'

At this book's heart is Tolstoy's final crisis, his search for heavenly bliss on earth, and his Confession, in which he denounces his marriage as a diversion from this quest. Blazed as a 'compelling illumination of the universal problems of love, sex and marriage', this last work by the late author of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich focuses increasingly on Tolstoy's confusion and despair. The diaries Sofia kept for nine years after his death are covered in a three-page epilogue, and many earlier passages which connect their shared drama to his fictional women - for example the aching sexuality of Anna Karenina or a comedy, written when Sofia developed mastitis, about a woman unable to breastfeed because she was an 'unnatural, emancipated woman' - are omitted.

Sofia herself makes these connections, and she is often merciless: 'He would like the world to see him on the pedestal he took such pains to erect for himself. But his diaries cast him into the filth in which he once lived, and that infuriates him.'

Long periods of estrangement alternate bewilderingly with episodes of sexual passion. The book is unsympathetic to Sofia's later life, when, finally freed from the fear of pregnancy, she writes: 'His passion dominates me . . . All my life I have dreamed spiritual dreams of the perfect union, not that]' When Tolstoy's disciple Chertkov arrives to wrest his master's soul and his diaries from his wife, the couple's struggle becomes a fight to the death. 'The shadow of this crazy woman, mad with greed and wrath, hovers over our friendship,' Tolstoy writes to Chertkov. As Sofia falls into depression, madness and opium, her obsessive prying and spying drive Tolstoy yet further from her, and at the age of 80 he finally leaves home to die.

Three years later, in 1913, her sanity restored, Countess Tolstoy writes: 'Let people be indulgent to the woman whose strength was perhaps insufficient to bear on her weak shoulders from youth onwards the burden of a high destiny, namely to be the wife of a great man.' To read the Tolstoys' marriage fairly is to read something of our own psychology, our sexuality and our past. Unfortunately, this account of their much- publicised differences merely rehearses the time- worn arguments in favour of Tolstoy.

(Photograph omitted)