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Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography

Sophia Tolstoy spent a lifetime striving to be her husband’s keeper.

By Bob Blaisdell / May 4, 2010

Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography Alexandra Popoff Free Press 352 pp., $27

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Sophia Tolstoy, the daughter of a Moscow doctor, was 18 when she married the 35-year-old Leo Tolstoy, already a famous author. Sophia worshiped her husband, devoted herself to him, mothered him and their many children, became the publisher of his work, squabbled with his disciples, nursed him through illnesses and depressions, occasionally drove him up the wall, and, spurned by him in his last week of life in 1910, survived him and continued preserving his works and ancestral estate for the world.

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The marvelous Helen Mirren played Sophia in the movie of Jay Parini’s novel about Tolstoy’s last year, “The Last Station,” and I believe the real Sophia would’ve liked the portrayal of herself: bold, high-strung, efficiently busy, and attractive. Amid her duties and joys (she exulted in her importance as Tolstoy’s sounding board and copier of his drafts of “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”), she seemed never to tire, but often felt unappreciated for her constant service and domestic management.

“In our family, Lev Nikolaevich lived by personal choice; as for me,” Sophia complained in her memoirs, “I only lived by necessity, while yearning for a spiritual and serene life.” She became pregnant 16 times, with eight of them surviving to adulthood.

She was always on call for her family and always taking up or developing one personal hobby or another. She wrote, she painted, she documented her and her family’s life with beautiful and idiosyncratic photographs. She outlived her husband by nine years: “And what good was my life with this celebrity? Work, work, and work.”

It’s possible to know more about the Tolstoy marriage than most of us know about our own. Do you and your spouse keep diaries? Does your spouse happen to be the world’s greatest novelist who converts the daily occurrences of your life into unforgettable literary scenes? Do you have hordes of visitors who write down or recollect what you and your spouse say and do? Are future biographers analyzing your domestic dramas? Are several of your children going to write books about you?

Well, me neither. But here we are, unable to avert our eyes from anything connected to Tolstoy, drawn in to act as literary game-show Marriage Refs. (Leo’s regret, after a honeymoon fight: “I was sad that we behave just the same as other people.”)

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