Reviewed by Irene Scobbie in SBR 2016:1
Review Section: Fiction - Adult
In 1994 Carola Hansson published Andrej, a life of Tolstoy’s wayward son, followed in 2009 by Med ett namn som mitt (With a Name like Mine) about Tolstoy’s grandson who emigrated to America. Now Masha, Tolstoy’s favourite child, comes into focus, completing the Russian triptych.
A Slavist who has researched the Tolstoy family fortunes for over two decades, Hansson has a comprehensive knowledge of the collected research material. As a gifted creative writer she combines this with a sensitive use of letters, diaries, photographs, etc. to produce a fictional but authoritative picture of a family drama.
Tolstoy’s remark in Anna Karenina that all happy families resemble each other but unhappy families are always unhappy in a particular way seems applicable here. Three of Tolstoy’s thirteen children lived only a few months, and the early deaths of the dearly loved Alyosha and Vanityka almost drove their mother Sonya insane. The atmosphere at Yasnaya Polyana was frequently disturbed by violent quarrels between Tolstoy and the strong-willed Sonya, which caused great distress to the children. And always the patriarchal Tolstoy towered over the family, castigating decadent living.
Masha’s birth in 1871 almost cost her mother’s life, for Sonya contracted puerperal fever. The new daughter had ‘large, strange, light blue eyes – strange because of their deep serious expression.’ There was a coolness between Sonya and Masha, but she was devoted to her father. Capable, conscientious, devoted, Masha willingly served as Tolstoy’s secretary, amanuensis and comforter. Under his influence she had a strong sense of service, educating the children of the poor, helping to set up soup kitchens in famine-stricken areas, risking her life nursing typhus cases, and nearing exhaustion, living as Tolstoy recommended, by the sweat of her brow.
Tolstoy selfishly kept Masha at home as long as he could, rejecting suitors until, at 26, Masha finally rebelled and accepted the proposal of her adoring but unexciting Kolya. For Tolstoy, Masha’s decision was ‘a betrayal of the higher aims she had always striven towards.’ An entry in his diary Tolstoy knew she would read stated that marrying Kolya was like watching a thoroughbred being ruined by being forced to carry water. He was also disappointed in her for reneging on her earlier principled decision not to accept her inheritance.
Masha’s attempt at independence from Tolstoy was only ever partially successful. Like her father she believed in God but not the Church, which caused further difficulty: she couldn’t marry in church without taking Communion, but that was against her principles. Kolya, a devout Christian, won that argument, but Masha never shook off Tolstoy’s disapproval. Condescendingly he said that ‘he was pleased to think that if she followed through her decision it would be easier for her to live without her high ideals – which she could now gradually try to combine with her lower aims (children). When she and Kolya were living comfortably in their new home it was, said Tolstoy mordantly, life in a dressing gown. The ‘lower aim’ of children was sadly never achieved, for despite eight pregnancies Masha remained childless. Tolstoy remarked that maternity was beautiful, of course, but hardly compatible with a spiritual life. Masha died at Yasnaya, only 35, still with an inner light and a belief in God.
Although dysfunctional, the Tolstoy family did enjoy happy times – outdoor pursuits, the family working in harmony to help with the harvest, conversing peacefully on the terrace at Yasnaya, listening to music, Tolstoy and Sonya even playing piano duets; and there are beautiful lyrical passages describing nature and the changing seasons.
Hansson, with her characteristic translucent language, gradually widens the setting for Masha’s conflict between domestic contentment and Tolstoy’s high principles into a rich tapestry of psychological portraits, nature descriptions, Russian social history, culture and revolution. It is an impressive work.