Musings on Tolstoy’s Women

War and Peace, first edition

First edition, 1869

Now that I’ve finished my mammoth Tolstoy reading challenge, I’ve been trying to come up with an angle for a blog post on War and Peace without plot spoiling for any new readers. I was fortunate enough to begin Tolstoy’s opus with only a hazy idea of the plot and the knowledge that the background was Napoleon’s 1812 campaign. I studiously avoided discovering a synopsis of the novel, wishing to discover the intricacies for myself.

My search for a blog theme proved tricky, as I am sure you can imagine, working with such a long novel full of plot twists and turns. In the end, I have come down to the idea of looking at Tolstoy’s female characters, if I can do so without giving too much vital information away. The novel has a long cast list that includes several important female characters who are involved in the main threads of the drama. The women are members of the small group of families that the story follows during the years leading up to 1812 and the fall of Moscow. Here is a snap shot of some of Tolstoy’s women, as we meet them in Part I:

I think I will have to begin with Natasha (Natalie) Rostov as her part in the story is so crucial. The members of the Rostov family as a whole are very likeable but Natasha seems to be the bright, vivacious heart of the household. At the beginning of the novel, she is still a young girl who is not yet ‘out’ whose close companion is her cousin Sonja who lives as a sister with the family. The two girls are very close friends despite (or perhaps because of) their differing personalities. We first meet Natasha on her and her mother’s fête day, which was celebrated with a huge party attended by anyone and everyone. You get a glimpse of the daughter’s possible future in Tolstoy’s description of the elder Natasha as ‘evidently worn out with child-bearing – she was the mother of a dozen children. Her languid movements and slow speech due to her frail health gave her an air of dignity which inspired respect’.

All this is still a long way off for young Natasha who at this stage is still a child who ‘with her black eyes and wide mouth was not pretty but she was full of life’ and still enjoying childish games. Still apparently not much more than a child (and yet already with child) was Lisa Meinen, married to Prince Bolkonsky. Her first appearance is at a small party given by Anna Pavlovna who is one of the Empress Marie’s maids of honour. Lisa hardly seems to be a woman at all, but a child in grown-up costume. Everyone refers to her as the ‘little princess’ and ‘enjoyed seeing this lovely young creature so full of life and gaiety, soon to become a mother and bearing her burden so lightly’. The only person who seems not to be enamoured of the little princess is her husband, ‘the face of his pretty little wife was apparently the one that bored him most. With a grimace that distorted his handsome countenance he turned away from her’. I won’t say any more about their relationship in case I give too much away.

Prince Bolkonsky’s sister Marie is mentioned early on in the novel, during Anna Pavlovna’s reception as a possible bride for Prince Vasili’s son Anatole. He’s costing his father a fortune so a suitable heiress is required to plug the hole in the family finances. Princess Marie is devoted to her eccentric, tyrannical father and to her religious duties. Tolstoy mentions Marie’s ‘beautiful eyes’ several times but she is not beautiful or lively in the mould of Natasha or Lisa. She has a ‘heavy tread’ and a ‘thin, sickly face’ which appeared beautiful when her eyes shone with tears or emotion.

In complete contrast is Prince Vasili’s daughter Hélène who is very beautiful and fully aware of her charms, ‘she even appeared a little apologetic for her unquestionable, all too conquering beauty. She seemed to wish but to be able to tone down its effect’. Hélène is described by Tolstoy as being ‘statuesque’ which is a clear contrast to the delicate girl/woman figures of Natasha and Lisa. At this early stage of the story all we can glean about Prince Vasili’s daughter is that she has great beauty and a wonderful figure which she is not shy about displaying. She is a blank canvas compared to the other women, whose personalities we can glimpse soon after meeting them.  

I’ll leave my introductions to some of Tolstoy’s women at that, in the hope that if you have never tackled War and Peace, you do decide to at some point in the future.  As I mentioned before, I am continuing a Russian theme with Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago which I will post about soon.   

How is your New Year reading going?



Tolstoy: The Next Landing TBR Pile Challenge

War and Peace

Cover shows detail from ‘The 1812 Retreat – The Battle of Borodino’ by Vereschagin

I promised you an announcement on the next stage of the Landing Book Shelves Reading Challenge and here it is at long last. As you will no doubt guess from the illustration, the challenge is the reading of War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy, 1828 -1910) a big hurdle if ever there was one. This worthy challenge has been put on the Landing Book Shelves agenda because it also happens to be my book group’s project at the moment, this killing the proverbial two birds. I’m not sure how long it will take me to read War and Peace (or how long it will take my fellow book clubbers for that matter) but I undertake to offer my blog readers reasonably regular progress updates. Weighing in at 1444 pages, this lengthy tome will be read in stages in between various other books.

It is just as well that the idea of reading War and Peace for book group came up as it is likely that it would have sat on the Landing Book Shelves almost indefinitely. I say ‘almost’ because I really and truly meant to get around to reading it sometime. I bought my copy in May 1992 with the intention of reading Tolstoy’s epic during my summer holidays. After all this time I can’t recall what I did read that summer, but it certainly wasn’t Tolstoy. So, it’s better late than never on the Russian classics front I suppose.

War and Peace was first published in 1869 (I’ll fill in the publication history in a future post) and the paperback edition that I have on The Landing was first published by Penguin Classics as a two-volume edition in 1957. The one volume edition came out in 1982; the translation is by Rosemary Edmonds from 1957 with revisions in 1973. I’m by no means an expert on the virtues of one translation over another so I will have to trust to the reliability of Penguin Classics in this instance. There are more recent translations available (for example from Penguin Classics and Vintage), but as this is the copy I have on The Landing, I’ll go with this one unless any reader out there tells me that I would be better served with a different translation.

I will be embarking for nineteenth century Russia just as soon as I’ve finished my library book and a couple of review books….I promise…