Life of Tolstoy/Chapter VII

Life of Tolstoy by Romain Rolland, translated by Bernard Miall
Chapter VII. “Family Happiness”



From this period of transition, during which the genius of the man was feeling its way blindly, doubtful of itself and apparently exhausted, "devoid of strong passion, without a directing will," like Nekhludov in the Diary of a Sportsman—from this period issued a work unique in its tenderness and charm: Family Happiness (1859). This was the miracle of love.

For many years Tolstoy had been on friendly terms with the Bers family. He had fallen in love with the mother and the three daughters in succession.[1] His final choice fell upon the second, but he dared not confess it. Sophie Andreyevna Bers was still a child; she was seventeen years old, while Tolstoy was over thirty; he regarded himself as an old man, who had not the right to associate his soiled and vitiated life with that of an innocent young girl. He held out for three years.[2] Afterwards, in Anna Karenin, he related how his declaration to Sophie Bers was effected, and how she replied to it: both of them tracing with one finger, under a table, the initials of words they dared not say.

Like Levine in Anna Karenin, he was so cruelly honest as to place his intimate journal in the hands of his betrothed, in order that she should be unaware of none of his past transgressions; and Sophie, like Kitty in Anna Karenin, was bitterly hurt by its perusal. They were married on the 23rd of September, 1862.

In the artist's imagination this marriage was consummated three years earlier, when Family Happiness was written.[3] For these years he had been living in the future; through the ineffable days of love that does not as yet know itself: through the delirious days of love that has attained self-knowledge, and the hour in which the divine, anticipated words are whispered; when the tears arise "of a happiness which departs for ever and will never return again"; and the triumphant reality of the early days of marriage; the egoism of lovers, "the incessant, causeless joy," then the approaching weariness, the vague discontent, the boredom of a monotonous life, the two souls which softly disengage themselves and grow further and further away from one another; the dangerous attraction of the world for the young wife—flirtations, jealousies, fatal misunderstandings;—love dissimulated, love lost; and at length the sad and tender autumn of the heart; the face of love which reappears, paler, older, but more touching by reason of tears and the marks of time; the memory of troubles, the regret for the ill things done and the years that are lost; the calm of the evening; the august passage from love to friendship, and the romance of the passion of maternity. . . . All that was to come, all this Tolstoy had dreamed of, tasted in advance; and in order to live through those days more vividly he lived in the well-beloved. For the first time—perhaps the only time in all his writings—the story passes in the heart of a woman, and is told by her; and with what exquisite delicacy, what spiritual beauty!—the beauty of a soul withdrawn behind a veil of the truest modesty. For once the analysis of the writer is deprived of its cruder lights; there is no feverish struggle to present the naked truth. The secrets of the inward life are divined rather than spoken. The art and the heart of the artist are both touched and softened; there is a harmonious balance of thought and form. Family Happiness has the perfection of a work of Racine.

Marriage, whose sweet and bitter Tolstoy sented with so limpid a profundity, was to be his salvation. He was tired, unwell, disgusted with himself and his efforts. The brilliant success which had crowned his earlier works had given way to the absolute silence of the critics and the indifference of the public.[4] He pretended, haughtily, to be not ill-pleased.

"My reputation has greatly diminished in popularity; a fact which was saddening me. Now I am content; I know that I have to say something, and that I have the power to speak it with no feeble voice. As for the public, let it think what it will!"[5]

But he was boasting: he himself was not sure of his art. Certainly he was the master of his literary instrument; but he did not know what to do with it, as he said in respect of Polikuskha: "it was a matter of chattering about the first subject that came to hand, by a man who knows how to hold his pen."[6] His social work was abortive. In 1862 he resigned his appointment as territorial arbitrator. The same year the police made a search at Yasnaya Polyana, turned everything topsy-turvy, and closed the school. Tolstoy was absent at the time, suffering from overwork; fearing that he was attacked by phthisis.

"The squabbles of arbitration had become so painful to me, the work of the school so vague, and the doubts which arose from the desire of teaching others while hiding my own ignorance of what had to be taught, were so disheartening that I fell ill. Perhaps I should then have fallen into the state of despair to which I was to succumb fifteen years later, had there not remained to me an unknown aspect of life which promised salvation—the life of the family."[7]

  1. When a child he had, in a fit of jealousy, pushed from a balcony the little girl—then aged nine—who afterwards became Madame Bers, with the result that she was lame for several years.
  2. See, in Family Happiness, the declaration of Sergius: "Suppose there were a Mr. A, an elderly man who had lived his life, and a lady B, young and happy, who as yet knew neither men nor life. As the result of various domestic happenings, he came to love her as a daughter, and was not aware that he could love her in another way . . ." &c.
  3. Perhaps this novel contained the memories also of a romantic love affair which commenced in 1856, in Moscow, the second party to which was a young girl very different to himself, very worldly and frivolous, from whom he finally parted, although they were sincerely attached to one another.
  4. From 1857 to 1861.
  5. Journal, October, 1857.
  6. Letter to Fet, 1863 (Vie et Œuvre).
  7. Confessions.