Monday, August 25, 2014

The Wife Talks Back

Sophia and Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy did not treat his wife well. A divorce may have been more merciful, but in his time, a divorce was not sought. The scandal would have ruined the author's reputation and career, and there was no positive side to divorce for the wife either. Indeed, living with misery was seen as a better choice when compared to the social fall-out of divorce.

Instead, he took out his frustrations in his prose, penning a particularly bitter piece about a marriage that the reading public thought was about his own marriage. Which it probably was, although it would have been the Tolstoy marriage as it existed in the opinion of Leo Tolstoy. And there it was left, with readers presuming and Mrs. Tolstoy fuming at the insult.

Sophia Tolstoy turned to the same platform to return fire, but she was not a famed novelist and who would want to publish her scribblings? Some nobody, married to an author who apparently wished the woman would pack her bags and go. The manuscripts sat, unread except by the infrequent scholar, in the Tolstoy Museum.

As the less influential half of a married couple, Mrs. Tolstoy suffered twice in that her husband's acolytes also painted her in a very unfavorable light. Over time, that view became accepted as fact, that the wife was embittered or jealous or too ignorant to recognize Leo's great wisdom and philosophy. She held him back when he might have been even greater.

The manuscripts that she left behind tell an entirely different story, but until recently her words were languishing in a vault in Russia. Tomorrow, a new translation of Sophia Tolstoy's two novellas, along with a fresh version of her husband's book, will be published. Her rebuttal to her husband's once banned book,  THE KREUTZER SONATA,  will make fans of Leo Tolstoy reconsider their beliefs in the veracity of the Tolstoy image.

With Leo Tolstoy thoroughly studied, his wife came to be an object of scholarly interest, and the scholars have discovered that they had a wrong image of her. Sophia Tolstoy was a woman of her times, to be sure, one whose training created a female with a deep interest in child-rearing and caring for those around her. She was not, unfortunately, the sort of sexual partner that Leo Tolstoy wanted, but then again, he was a man who created fiction and did not wish to face the fact that women don't have the same sex drive as men. Especially women who have been up for three days running, minding a sick child.

In THE KREUTZER SONATA VARIATIONS, Professor Michael R. Katz has compiled two novellas from Sophia Tolstoy along with family letters that present a more revealing portrait of Tolstoy private life. The other side of the story comes out here, in Sophia's work of fiction that was a direct rebuttal to Leo Tolstoy's well-known screed. The inclusion of a piece by Tolstoy's son Lev Lvovich adds to the picture, revealing more about Tolstoy the fallible human than an analysis of Tolstoy's prose would bring. We look different to ourselves as compared to the way others see us, and Sophia Tolstoy had a long time to study the subject in question.

No longer the shrew, the untalented or plodding dull housewife, the person who put up with Leo Tolstoy's libido is becoming a subject of interest for scholarly study. Her words provide insight that was previously ignored because her husband's powerful presence left no room for her. Mr. Katz's book will add to the increasing body of work that presents a more balanced view of Sophia Tolstoy, whose reputation suffered because she was the wife of a great author who sucked all the air out of every room they shared.

It should prove to be a very interesting treatise, and one that may inspire more than a few historical novelists to pen their own revised history of the Tolstoy family.

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