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?



Doctor Zhivago: More Russian Literature

Doctor Zhivago

My Christmas Present…

This reading year is beginning briskly with Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago (Vintage Books) which is a new resident on the Landing Book Shelves. Pasternak’s epic novel was a Christmas present from He Who Put The Shelves Up to enable me to continue my Russian reading period after finishing War and Peace. I just managed to finish the latter on the cusp of the New Year and I can still feel a modest glow of success at that achievement. Now that I’ve finally read War and Peace I would like to go on to read more of Tolstoy’s work, so perhaps that might be a possibility for later this year.

I haven’t yet set any aims for this reading year but my broad plan will be to continue to tackle long neglected novels (and perhaps auto/biographies too). I was interested to come across a similar challenge on Twitter where writer Lynn Shepherd is inviting people to join her in reading Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa beginning tomorrow. A mammoth literary task if ever there was one (see @Lynn_Shepherd for more information and to join in).

I hope to tie up War and Peace with one more blog post (if I can manage to write something without plot spoiling) and I will give an update on the Doctor Zhivago progress as soon as possible. I’m toying with a couple more ideas for future reads as well, so watch this space!

Meanwhile why not drop me a line below to let everyone know about your 2014 reading challenges. Happy New Reading Year to one and all!

More on the War and Peace Challenge

This short War and Peace post is a diversion from the actual text of the novel, being a clip from the 1956 film version of Tolstoy’s novel. I’ve never seen a screen version of War and Peace so recently I trawled  YouTube to investigate what adaptations had been made. Imagine the delight of a Audrey Hepburn fan on finding that the future the star of My Fair Lady (1964) once played the part of Natasha Rostov. I’m not sure that she was right for the role (possibly an unfair observation given that I’ve neither finished the book nor yet seen the film) but in the snatches that I’ve looked at she’s never less than as delightful as usual.

The clip below is taken from the scene depicting her first ball and her first dance with Prince Andrei Bolkonsky, which is the part I had got up to reading last night:

Having read that scene last night, I’d say that the filmed version doesn’t really capture Natasha’s experience of the ball or her emotions on dancing with Andrei; very Hollywood-ish. Neither am I convinced by Mel Ferrer as Andrei, though perhaps he was cast in the part as he was Hepburn’s husband at the time.

Meanwhile I am loving the novel, though I have broken it up with another couple of library reads. I’ll do a more detailed post next time.

Now all I want for Christmas is….

YouTube credits: uploaded on 17/5/12 (Movieclips)

War and Peace was directed by King Vidor and produced by Carlo Ponti

The First Bulletin on War and Peace

As I’m sure my readers will be pleased to know, my War and Peace challenge is making relatively good progress. Note that I’m hedging a bit here by using the word ‘relatively’ to describe my rate of reading. I have actually reached page eighty-five and I’m at the point where Count Bezuhov has suffered his sixth stroke and is not expected to live. Naturally enough the heirs presumptive are getting anxious as they can see a fortune slipping from their hands into those of Bezuhov’s illegitimate son Pierre.  I wonder what skullduggery may be afoot in the aftermath of the count’s death.

First Edition of War and Peace

First Edition, 1869

Already many aspects of human nature have popped up during the drama; I’ve met a diverse cast of characters in the action occurring between Moscow and St Petersburg. Not surprisingly I was rather taken with the younger players in the story, who were enjoying (and suffering) their first pangs of love. Natasha Rostov is delightful and I am almost apprehensive about what vicissitudes her life will throw at her, but I’m trying not to leap ahead and plot spoil for myself. I’ve never seen a film version of War and Peace and I’m studiously avoiding plot summaries that I’ve come across.

The thing that I find particularly fascinating is the sheer number of princes and princesses in the novel, to the extent that I’m tempted to try to find out just how many there were in Imperial Russia at that time. It also seems that having the title of prince or princess didn’t necessarily mean that you were wealthy. Having consulted Wikipedia, I’ve discovered that the titles of prince and princess belong to the titled nobility (which could be acquired) as opposed to the ancient hereditary nobility. Wikipedia goes on to point out that,

By 1805, the various ranks of the nobility had become confused, as is apparent in War and Peace. Here, we see counts who are wealthier and more important than princes. We see many noble families whose wealth has been dissipated, partly through lack of primogeniture and partly through extravagance and poor estate management. We see young noblemen serving in the Army, but we see none who acquire new landed estates that way’.  

A Noble Assembly

Nobles in the time of Catherine the Great

So presumably that accounts for poor old Princess Anna Drubetskoy desperately trying to obtain a placement and funding for her son Boris. This little bit is quite telling, ‘The mother smoothed her dyed silk gown, glanced at herself in the massive Venetian mirror on the wall and briskly mounted the carpeted staircase in her down-at-heel shoes’. A few lines above, her cloak is described as ‘threadbare’ which is noticed by a sharp-eyed servant.

I’m going to dive back into Imperial Russia now, having had a short break to finish a couple of library books, so I’ll hope to post up again soon with a further update.

Back soon….and if anyone else is tackling a hefty tome at the moment please let us know about it!

Picture Credits: Thanks to Wikipedia for the illustrations.

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…