The civilized Western world in the civilized 19th century may be regarded as one of the low points in the history of women's rights. In addition to the time-honored techniques of social, sexual, political and economic harassment, women were victimized by a brilliantly bizarre assumption: that their pure and noble natures rendered them unfit for any intellectual pursuit.
Sonya, Countess Tolstoy, may legitimately be regarded as one such victim. Anne Edwards' approach to her life story is pro-Sonya and pro-feminist. She portrays a marriage doomed almost from the start by irreconcilable differences, and a woman driven to the brink of madness by the frustration of her legitimate needs.
Sonya was 18 when she married the brilliant aristocrat Leo Tolstoy, who was already known for his writing and for his unorthodox opinions. It was a love match, on both sides. Socially the marriage represented a step up for Sonya, whose father was a well-to-do but untitled court physician; but her removal from the cheerful social life of Moscow to the dreary, isolated old house at Yasnaya Polyana was a retreat from the standards to which she had been accustomed. Sonya's fondness for parties, pretty clothes and cultural activities, and Tolstoy's demands for a life of pastoral simplicity were a source of unending disharmony between between the two.
Far more catastrophic in its effect was the sexual conflict. Even before her marriage Sonya had been appalled to learn, from Tolstoy himself, of his peasant mistress and the son she had borne him. Nineteenth-century mores condoned such behavior -- for men -- but the same mores demanded a mindboggling form of Doublethink on the part of "pure" women. They had to acknowledge profligacy and yet deny it, deny their own sensuality but submit to their husbands' demands, praise chastity but bend all their efforts toward marriage and loss of virginity. No wonder many women, faced with such irresolvable conflicts, succumbed to "neuropsychic hysteria" and ended up in the offices of practitioners like Charcot and Freud. But it would be erroneous to assume that men were unaffected by the internal double standard that adored chastity and purity, but regarded male promiscuity as "rather a fine, spirited thing to do." This conflict, eloquently described by Tolstoy in "The Kreutzer Sonata," was to become an agonizing torment for him. He came to the conclusion that sex was vile, even with one's legal spouse. Unable to live up to the impossible and unreasonable standards he set for himself (he and Sonya had 12 children), he hated himself for failing, and hated his wife for helping him fail.
Equally aggravating, on another level, were Tolstoy's social theories. When he began filling the house with "dark people," peasants who came to worship at the shrine of the man who supported their cause, Sonya's digust knew no bounds. "Miserable abortions of human society," she called them. Edwards seems inclined to agree with this assessment; they were "the cross Sonya bore."
For 48 years the Tolstoys fought and made up, argued and loved and tormented one another. A biographer has no paucity of material; perhaps there never was a more verbally prolific family. Husband and wife, neighbors, kin and children, poured out their feelings in an unending stream of words -- letters, diaries, works of fiction and biography. They described not only events and conversations, but emotions, without reticence and with considerable literary skill; Sonya herself had some talent as a writer. The record of this half-century-long domestic war is both fascinating and pitiful. Sometimes it reads like a novel, capturing with merciless clarity the varied societal and psychological stresses that ended in a railway station at Astopovo, where the dying man and the deserted wife met for the last time. He did not speak, or even know she had finally fought her way to his side. She whispered, "I have never loved anyone but you."
Sonya was certainly vilified by Tolstoy's supporters and by some -- though not all -- of his biographers. Edwards has every right to tell the story from Sonya's point of view; yet, one wonders, in being fair to Sonya is it necessary to portray Tolstoy as a spolied child, always struggling to grasp some ideal he can never define, much less hope to reach? As a husband he must have been the most infuriating of men, with his constant and contradictory demands. Yet he himself saw the real cause of their long conflict -- "our absolutely contrary understanding of the meaning and purpose of life." His own understanding was perverse and tormented; no wonder Sonya never comprehended what the devil he wanted. He understood her needs, and despised them.
There are many different and equally valid methods of approaching a biography. This one does not pretend to be a significant addition to serious Tolstoy scholarship; it avoids pretentious psychological analyses and extensive social commentary. It tells a straightforward story of one woman's tribulations and triumphs, and does it with charm. It is good reading, and there is no reason why it should be anything else. And yet, and yet . . . From this reader's viewpoint, at least, it has the same effect on the mind that Chinese food is supposed to have on the stomach. It tasted good, but an hour later I was hungry again.