More Than Just a Wife and Diarist: Sophia Tolstoy and Her Fiction

November 4 marks the 102nd death anniversary of Sophia Tolstoy. 

In 1910, Russian writer Leo Tolstoy abandoned his family and walked out of his estate. He was convinced that the domestic existence hindered his desire to live without material possessions and worldly afflictions. Unfortunately, he left home on a night of heavy rainstorm and met his tragic end within a week after catching pneumonia. Following his death, Sophia Tolstoy came to be viewed as the reviled woman who had driven her husband to death. In the public imagination, she was a wife who bickered with Tolstoy over finances, mired him in family disputes and prevented his creative genius from flourishing.

In the 1990s, the recuperative endeavours of feminist scholars resuscitated her reputation. She was now seen as the suffering wife, who copiously copied the manuscript of War and Peace eight times. However, in all accounts, including the sympathetic ones, Sophia remains overshadowed by Tolstoy’s fame. Victim or villain, popular narratives have rendered her a mere wife.

Later biographies establish her merit as a prolific diarist and perceptive photographer. However, a diarist is inevitably tied to her gender, and diary writing becomes a private and “feminine” mode of expression, and not something meant for a wide readership. Thus, it is a constricting literary genre, often appreciated but seldom read.

I will consciously move away from Sophia’s diaries, for which she is most well-known, and turn attention to her two novellas, Who’s Fault and Song Without Words. Though scant, her oeuvre reveals a polemical feminist ethos. “Sofiya was imbued with many talents. She could draw exceedingly well; she was a fine musician; she left the world hundreds of unique and original photographs; she had a fine appreciation for words, and she herself was a writer,” writes Ekaterina Tolstoya.

Sophia’s foray into fiction has barely received any scholarly or popular attention for several reasons. Firstly, Tolstoy himself refused to read and acknowledge Sophia’s writings, and their son felt her novellas would damage her reputation as a mother and wife. She, too, chose to circulate them among only close family and friends. The Tolstoy family concealed the manuscripts from the public eye, and it was in 1994, nearly a century after she wrote them, that they reached readers. And it was not until 2014 that an English translation was first published. Written as counter-narratives to Tolstoy’s most provocative work, The Kreutzer Sonata (1889), the works reveal her literary imagination and the ability to challenge Tolstoy in the territory he had mastered.

The Kreutzer Sonata is a confessional tale of a man who freely commits adultery but grows jealous when his wife develops a meaningful friendship with a musician. The narrator murders the wife in a fit of rage but escapes imprisonment after successfully proving her infidelity. The novella was instantly successful but remained controversial due to its explicit discussions on sex, adultery, murder, and violence.

Also read: Misogyny, Entitlement and My Inability to Read V.S. Naipaul

Following its publication, speculations around Tolstoy’s tumultuous marriage intensified. The readers saw The Kreutzer Sonata as an autobiographical text wherein Tolstoy empathised with the narrator and urged the readers to forgive his transgressions because the wife is duplicitous and incapable of fulfilling his sexual needs. Indeed, Tolstoy’s extra-marital affairs throughout their married life were hardly a secret from Sophia. But she responded to public allegations around her role as a wife and countered Tolstoy’s views on women, sex and marriage through the counter novellas. It seems to be a battle between David and Goliath, but she engages with him fearlessly, and the novellas reflect her literary genius.

In Who’s Fault, Anna is a beautiful, carefree and lovestruck teenager when she instantly draws the attention of Prince Prozorsky, a flirtatious nobleman twice her age. The writer describes the prince’s attraction towards Anna as purely physical, and his sexual advances terrify and confuse her. When the two are eventually married, the prince does not attempt to develop emotional intimacy and sees her purely as a sexual commodity. When she resists his advances, he grows cold, indifferent and begins affairs with several women. Anna is left to fulfill her domestic duties as a wife and mother. She becomes pregnant over and over again until she finally resorts to contraception. In a passionate outburst, she exclaims,

‘“Does a woman’s calling really consist only in this,” Anna wondered, “to go from serving the physical needs of a nursing infant to meeting those of a husband? Taking turns— always! But where is my life? Where am I? That genuine self which at one time aspired to the sublime, to serve God and my ideals?…I’m tired and worn out, languishing. I have no life of my own— neither earthly, nor spiritual.”

In Song Without Words, the protagonist Sasha has lost all zest for life after marriage. Her husband loves her but refuses to see her as anything more than his wife. Eventually, a frustrated and insipid Sasha finds herself falling madly in love with her musician neighbour – a man who acknowledges her talents.

“Only in her (Sasha) imagination did she devise the most insane scenes of mutual love between herself and Ivan Ilych. She dreamt that she would inspire him and together with him would serve that art they both loved so much. Never once did the possibility enter her head that she would betray her husband— she did not consider this love a betrayal; her husband remained her husband and she remained his honest wife who loved him after a fashion— but her relationship to Ivan Ilych was something special, poetically artistic, a spiritual celebration, a gift from on high…”

Apart from her views on sexuality and adultery, Sophia primarily indicts the destruction of women’s literary and artistic abilities in the confines of matrimony. The protagonists in both counter-narratives are despondent women who pine for intellectual companionship in their respective marriages. While Anna is lured into marrying an abusive and philandering nobleman, Sasha experiences mental fragility and alienation after marrying a man who takes no interest in her musical talent.

Sophia constructs her protagonists as artists and exonerates their adultery by establishing women’s intellectual deprivation in marriage as opposed to men who cheat to satisfy carnal desires. She reveals the complexity of the two women’s emotions as they are torn between staying faithful in their loveless marriages or committing adultery to find spiritual, intellectual and psychosexual fulfilment. Moreover, a sustained reading of Sophia’s fiction has the potential to rescue her from the binaries of passive victimhood and villainy.

Aditi Upmanyu is pursuing her M.Phil. in English literature at the University of Delhi. You can find her on Facebook here

Featured image credit: Flickr/Pixabay; Editing: LiveWire