Review: The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

I find the Alma Books catalogue always worth following, and it was a particular pleasure to discover in it the recently published Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy, with the informative and insightful introduction by Doris Lessing.

Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries provide a dramatically different picture of Leo Tolstoy to that presented by his followers who seemed lost in adulation of the great man.  To them he was the inspiring writer, the saintly prophet and pacifist who renounced his worldly ambitions to follow what they saw as a simple lifestyle as a celibate and vegetarian.  Sofia’s diaries reveal a rather different character – a pronounced anti-feminist whose views of women was little less than contemptuous and whose later other-worldliness came at great cost to his family.

To a family like the Tolstoy’s, diaries were of crucial importance.  As Doris Lessing points out in her introduction, they were written so that others might see them.  Sofia’s diaries were, “her life’s work, and the counterpart to her life and marriage”.  As their marriage deteriorated, “it was to her diary that she confided her worst fears and deepest anxieties . . . in the hope that he might see them”.

The diaries of Tolstoy and his wife had to be protected and fought for.  As Tolstoy became increasingly surrounded by acolytes, Sofia had to hide her husband’s diaries away, even to the extent of depositing them in the State Bank, while her own became of immense interest, and soon, as she reports in 1910, “Now they have discovered that I am keeping a diary, they have all started scribbling their diaries”.  Clearly everyone wanted a part in the great man’s literary legacy.

Diaries were also dangerous.  When Tolstoy married Sofia he insisted that he read his diaries, as a sort of confession.  Poor Sofia was in for a terrible shock as she read of the gambling, the sexual excess (with peasant women and prostitutes) and the drunkenness.  Sofia was an upright and moral woman who never quite got over the shock of learning of her husband’s past, and often refers in her diaries to her jealousy,

When he kisses me, I am always thinking, ‘I am not the first woman he has loved’.  It hurts me so much that my love for him – the dearest thing in the world to me . . . should not be enough for him.  He has loved and admired so many women, all so pretty and lively, all with different faces, characters and souls, just as he now admires me. . . it is his past which is to blame.  I can’t forgive God for making men sow their wild oats before they can become decent people.

I did not realise the depths of Tolstoy’s disdain for women until reading this book.  Sofia was always deeply devoted to her husband and his work.  She did everything to advance his writings and every evening copied out his untidy drafts with her neat handwriting, giving them to Tolstoy the next morning to revise – leading to more copyings on her part.  There are also references to long mornings with accountants, meetings with bank managers and battles over copyright.  Clearly Tolstoy depended on his industrious wife for much of the administrative burden arising from his work.  And yet, when she was pregnant he seemed to abandon her for long walks around his estate, causing her to write,

My pregnancy is to blame for everything – I’m in an unbearable state, physically and mentally.  I’m always ill, mentally there is this awful emptiness and boredom.  As far as Lyova is concerned I don’t exist.  I feel I am hateful to him, and want only to leave him in peace and cut myself out of his life as far as possible.  I can do nothing to make him happy, because I’m pregnant.  He has gone to his beehives.

As years went on, Sofia became aware of the sacrifice she was making and in 1902 we find her writing,

For a genius one has to create a peaceful, cheerful, comfortable home.  A genius must be fed, washed and dressed, must have his works copied out innumerable times, must be loved and spared all cause for jealousy so he can be calm.  Then one must feed and educate the innumerable children fathered by this genius, whom he cannot be bothered to care for himself, as he has to commune with all the Epictetuses, Socrateses and Buddhas, and aspire to be like them himself.  I have served a genius for almost forty years.  Hundreds of times I have felt my intellectual energy stir within me, and all sorts of desires – for edcuation, a love of music and the arts . . . and time and time again I have crushed and smothered these longings, and not and to the end of my life I shall somehow continue to serve my genius.

And indeed, Sofia was a highly cultured person in her own right.  Her love of music was quite remarkable even for a gifted amateur and we read of lengthy periods of piano practice:  “I played the piano for two and a half hours, and still didn’t master that 8th Invention by Bach”, and, “After dinner I sight-read a Schubert symphony and played a Beethoven Sonata”.  Two days later she writes,  “I had another music lesson with Miss Welsh, and afterwards I couldn’t tear myself from the piano and played another four hours.

Her skills were not merely musical, for in the photographic section of the book there is a fascinating photograph of Sofia Tolstoy copying a portrait in oils of her husband – and making a remarkably good job of it.

In later years Tolstoy became increasingly radical and a very mixed bunch of admirers gathered around her including the hated Vladimir Chertkov who acted as Tolstoy’s secretary.  By that time Sofia was made frequently distraught by the threats to her family and personal life by Tolstoy’s new ideas.  She was taking increasing amounts of opium and also making regular suicide attempts.  Chertkov saw Sofia’s demands as a threat to Tolstoy’s spiritual and intellectual life and the diaries show her great hatred of this man who took up more and more of her husband’s time and plotted against her.  When Chertkov gained permission to stay in the region in which the Tolstoy’s lived, Sofia writes,

I am aching with unbearable anguish, my heartbeat is 140 a minute, and my head and chest are aching.  This cross I have to bear is God’s will, it was sent to me by His hand and he has chosen Chertkov and Leve Nikolaevich (Tolstoy) to be the instruments of my death.  Maybe the sight of me lying dead with open L.N.’s eyes to my enemy and murderer, and he will grow to hate him and repent of his sinful infatuation with the man.

Poor Sofia, anyone who reads this book will feel as I did that such devotion to and sacrifice for her husband’s art could have been rewarded by more affection and loyalty on his part, but it is so often the case that visionaries and innovators such as Leo Tolstoy cause chaos and despair to their family.  My wife recently read and shared with me key points of Matisse’s biography by Hilary Spurling, and it is clear that his greatness as an artist was also built on the suffering of his wife and family.  As I read Sofia Tolstoy’s diaries, I found myself also thinking of Helen Rappaport’s book, Lenin in Exile, for Lenin was equally adulated by his following while his wife Nadya and his close friend Inessa Armand had to sacrifice themselves to the all-consuming vision of the renowned revolutionary.

As always with Alma publication, the book is a pleasure to handle, being beautifully designed and typeset and printed on better quality paper than is usual for a paperback.  It is illustrated with fourteen pages of photographs, some of which would be of interest to photographers as examples of how effective early photograpy was without the elaborate equipment so freely available today!  This book would be a welcome addition to any library and is essential reading for lovers of Tolstoy’s novels.

2 thoughts on “Review: The Diaries of Sofia Tolstoy

  1. I am always surprised when men read how “bad” other men act as the first inkling. You need only read Anna Karenina once to get that message loud and clear.


    • Elizabeth. Good point! But perhaps there are a few “bad” female literary characters too – Virginia Woolf’s treatment of her servants for example


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