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Tolstory and War and Peace

Non-Fiction > Ten Novels and Their Authors >


The last three chapters have dealt with novels which, in one way or another, stand apart. They are atypical. Now I come to one which, for all its complication, by its form and content takes its place in the main line of fiction, which, as I said on a previous page, began with the pastoral romance of Daphnis and Chloë. War and Peace is surely the greatest of all novels. It could only have been written by a man of high intelligence and of powerful imagination, a man with wide experience of the world and a penetrating insight into human nature. No novel with so grand a sweep, dealing with so momentous a period of history and with so vast an array of characters, was ever written before; nor, I surmise, will ever be written again. Novels as great will perhaps be written, but none quite like it. With the mechanisation of life, with the State assuming ever greater power over the lives of men, with the uniformity of education, the extinction of class distinctions and the diminution of individual wealth, with the equal opportunities which will be offered to all (if such is the world of the future), men will still be born unequal. Some will be born with the peculiar gift that makes them become novelists, but the world they will know, with men and manners so conditioned, is more likely to produce a Jane Austen to write Pride and Prejudice than a Tolstoy to write War and Peace. It has been justly called an epic. I can think of no other work of fiction in prose that can with truth be so described. Strakhov, a friend of Tolstoy’s and an able critic, put his opinion in a few energetic sentences: ‘A complete picture of human life. A complete picture of the Russia of that day. A complete picture of what may be called the history and struggle of people. A complete picture of everything in which people find their happiness and greatness, their grief and humiliation. That is War and Peace.’


Tolstoy was born in a class that has not often produced writers of eminence. He was the son of Count Nicholas Tolstoy and of Princess Marya Volkonska, an heiress; and he was born, the youngest but one of their five children, at his mother’s ancestral home, Yasnaya Polyana. His parents died when he was a child. He was educated first by private tutors, then at the University of Kazan, and later at that of Petersburg. He was a poor student, and took a degree at neither. His aristocratic connections enabled him to enter society, and first at Kazan, then at Petersburg and Moscow, he engaged in the fashionable diversions of his set. He was small and in appearance unprepossessing. ‘I knew very well that I was not good-looking,’ he wrote. ‘There were moments when I was overcome with despair: I imagined that there could be no happiness on earth for one with such a broad nose, such thick lips and such small grey eyes as mine; and I asked God to perform a miracle, and make me handsome, and all I then had and everything I might have in the future I would have given for a handsome face.’ He did not know that his homely face revealed a spiritual strength which was wonderfully attractive. He could not see the look of his eyes which gave charm to his expression. He dressed smartly (hoping like poor Stendhal that modish clothes would make up for his ugliness,) and he was unbecomingly conscious of his rank. A fellow-student at Kazan wrote of him as follows: ‘I kept clear of the Count, who from our first meeting repelled me by his assumption of coldness, his bristly hair, and the piercing expression of his half closed eyes. I had never met a young man with such a strange, and to me incomprehensible, air of importance and self-satisfaction … He hardly replied to my greetings, as if wishing to intimate that we were far from being equals …’

In 1851 Tolstoy was twenty-three. He had been spending some months in Moscow. His brother Nikolai, who was an artilleryman, arrived there on leave from the Caucasus, and when it was up and he had to return, Tolstoy decided to accompany him. After some months he was persuaded to enter the army and, as a cadet, engaged in the raids Russian troops made now and then on the rebellious mountain tribes. He seems to have judged his brother officers without indulgence. ‘At first,’ he wrote, ‘many things in this society shocked me, but I have accustomed myself to them without, however, attaching myself to these gentlemen. I have formed a happy mean in which there is neither pride nor familiarity,’ A supercilious young man! He was very sturdy, and could walk a whole day or spend twelve hours in the saddle without fatigue. A heavy drinker and a reckless, though unlucky, gambler, on one occasion, to pay a gambling debt, he had to sell the house on his estate at Yasnaya Polyana which was part of his inheritance. His sexual desires were violent, and he contracted syphilis. Except for this misadventure, his life in the army was very much like that of numberless young officers in all countries who are of good birth and have money. Dissipation is the natural outlet of their exuberant vitality, and they indulge in it the more readily since they think, perhaps rightly, that it adds to their prestige among their fellows. According to Tolstoy’s diaries, after a night of debauchery, a night with cards or women, or in a carousal with gipsies, which if we may judge from novels is, or was, the usual but somewhat naïve Russian way of having a good time, he suffered pangs of remorse; he did not, however, fail to repeat the performance when the opportunity offered.

In 1854 the Crimean War broke out, and at the siege of Sevastopol Tolstoy was in charge of a battery. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant for ‘distinguished bravery and courage’ at the battle at the Chernaya River. In 1856, when peace was signed, he resigned his commission. During his military service Tolstoy wrote a number of sketches and stories, and a romanticised account of his childhood and early youth; they were published in a magazine and aroused highly favourable notice, so that when he returned to Petersburg he was warmly welcomed. He did not like the people he met there. Nor did they like him. Though convinced of his own sincerity, he could never bring himself to believe in the sincerity of others, and had no hesitation in telling them so. He had no patience with received opinions. He was irritable, brutally contradictory, and arrogantly indifferent to other people’s feelings. Turgenev has said that he never met anything more disconcerting than Tolstoy’s inquisitorial look, which, accompanied by a few biting words, could goad a man to fury. He took criticism very badly, and when he accidentally read a letter in which there was a slighting reference to himself, he immediately sent a challenge to the writer, and his friends had difficulty in preventing him from fighting a ridiculous duel.

Just then there was a wave of liberalism in Russia. The emancipation of the serfs was the pressing question of the day, and Tolstoy, after spending some months in the capital, returned to Yasnaya Polyana to put before the peasants on his estates a plan to grant them their freedom; but they suspected there was a catch in it and refused. After a time he went abroad and, on his return, started a school for their children. His methods were revolutionary. The pupils had the right not to go to school and, even when in school, not to listen to their teacher. There was complete absence of discipline, and no one was ever punished. Tolstoy taught, spending the whole day with them, and in the evening joined in their games, told them stories and sang songs with them till late into the night.

About this time he had an affair with the wife of one of his serfs, and a son was born. It was something more than a passing fancy, and in his diary he wrote: ‘I’m in love as never before.’ In later years the bastard, Timothy by name, served as coachman to one of Tolstoy’s younger sons. The biographers have found it quaint that Tolstoy’s father also had an illegitimate son who also served as coachman to a member of the family. To me it points to a certain moral obtuseness. I should have thought that Tolstoy, with his troublesome conscience, with his earnest desire to raise the serfs from their degraded state, to educate them and teach them to be clean, decent and self-respecting, would have done at least something for the boy. Turgenev too had an illegitimate child, a daughter, but he took care of her, had governesses to teach her and was deeply concerned with her welfare. Did it cause Tolstoy no embarrassment when he saw the peasant who was his natural son on the box of his legitimate son’s carriage?

One of the peculiarities of Tolstoy’s temper was that he could embark on a new undertaking with all the enthusiasm in the world, but sooner or later grew bored with it. He somewhat lacked the solid virtue of perseverance. So, after conducting the school for two years, finding the results of his activity disappointing, he closed it. He was tired, dissatisfied with himself, and in poor health. He wrote later that he might have despaired had there not been one side of life which lay still unexplored and which promised happiness. This was marriage.

He decided to make the experiment. After considering a number of eligible young women and discarding them for one reason or another, he married Sonya, a girl of eighteen and the second daughter of a Dr. Bers, who was a fashionable physician in Moscow and an old friend of his family’s. Tolstoy was thirty-four. The couple settled down at Yasnaya Polyana. During the first eleven years of their marriage the Countess had eight children, and during the next fifteen five more. Tolstoy liked horses and rode well, and he was passionately fond of shooting. He improved his property and bought new estates east of the Volga, so that in the end he owned some sixteen thousand acres. His life followed a familiar pattern. There were in Russia scores of noblemen who gambled, got drunk and wenched in their youth, who married and had a flock of children, who settled down on their estates, looked after their property, rode and shot; and there were not a few who shared Tolstoy’s liberal principles and, distressed at the ignorance of the peasants, sought to ameliorate their lot. The only thing that distinguished him from all of them was that during this time he wrote two of the world’s greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina.


Sonya Tolstoy as a young woman seems to have been attractive. She had a graceful figure, fine eyes, a rather fleshy nose and dark lustrous hair. She had vitality, high spirits and a beautiful speaking voice. Tolstoy had long kept a diary in which he recorded not only his hopes and thoughts, his prayers and self-reproachings, but also the faults, sexual and otherwise, of which he was guilty. On their engagement, in his desire to conceal nothing from his future wife, he gave her his diary to read. She was deeply shocked, but after a sleepless night, passed in tears, returned it and forgave. She forgave; she did not forget. They were both violently emotional and had what is known as a lot of character. This generally means that the person thus endowed has some very unpleasant traits. The Countess was exacting, possessive and jealous; Tolstoy was harsh, dogmatic and intolerant. He insisted on her nursing her children, which she was glad to do; but when, on the birth of one of them, her breasts were so sore that she had to give the child to a wet nurse, he was unreasonably angry with her. They quarrelled now and then, but made it up. They were very much in love with one another and, on the whole, their marriage for many years was a happy one. Tolstoy worked hard, and wrote assiduously. His handwriting was often difficult to read, but the Countess, who copied his manuscripts as each portion was written, grew very skilful in deciphering it, and was even able to guess the meaning of his hasty jottings and incomplete sentences. She is said to have copied War and Peace seven times.

In writing this essay I have quoted largely from Aylmer Maude’s Life of Tolstoy, and I have used his translation of A Confession. Maude had the advantage of knowing Tolstoy and his family, and his narrative is very readable. It is unfortunate that he should have thought fit to tell more about himself and his opinions than most people can want to know. I am deeply indebted to Professor E. J. Simmons’s full, detailed and convincing biography. He gives many interesting facts which Aylmer Maude, presumably from discretion, omitted. It must long remain the standard biography in English.

Professor Simmons has thus described Tolstoy’s day: ‘All the family assembled at breakfast, and the master’s quips and jokes rendered the conversation gay and lively. Finally he would get up with the words, “It’s time to work now,” and he would disappear into his study, usually carrying a glass of strong tea with him. No one dared disturb him. When he emerged in the early afternoon it was to take his exercise, usually a walk or ride. At five he returned for dinner, ate voraciously, and when he had satisfied his hunger he would amuse all present by vivid accounts of any experience he had had on his walk. After dinner he retired to his study to read, and at eight would join the family and any visitors in the living-room for tea. Often there was music, reading aloud or games for the children.’

It was a busy, useful and contented life, and there seemed no reason why it should not run in the pleasant groove for many years to come, with Sonya bearing children, looking after them and the house, helping her husband in his work, and with Tolstoy riding and shooting, superintending his estates and writing books. He was approaching his fiftieth year. That is a dangerous period for men. Youth is past and, looking back, they are apt to ask themselves what their life amounts to; looking forward, with old age looming ahead, they are apt to find the prospect chilling. And there was one fear that had haunted Tolstoy all his life – the fear of death. Death comes to all men, and most are sensible enough, except in moments of peril or grave illness, not to think of it. This is how in A Confession he describes his state of mind at that time: ‘Five years ago something very strange began to happen to me. At first I experienced moments of perplexity and arrest of life, as though I did not know how to live or what to do; and I felt lost and became dejected. But this passed and I went on living as before. Then these moments of perplexity recurred oftener and oftener and always in the same form. They were always expressed by the questions: What is it for? What does it lead to? I felt that what I had been standing on had broken down and that I had nothing left under my feet. What I had lived on no longer existed, and I had nothing else to live on. My life came to a standstill. I could breathe, eat, drink and sleep, and I could not help doing these things, but there was no life, for there were no wishes the fulfilment of which I could consider reasonable.

‘And all this befell me at a time when all around me I had what is considered complete good fortune. I was not yet fifty; I had a good wife who loved me and whom I loved; good children, and a large estate which without much effort on my part improved and increased … I was praised by people, and without much self-deception could consider that my name was famous … I enjoyed a strength of mind and body such as I have seldom met among men of my kind: physically I could keep pace with the peasants at mowing, and mentally I could work for eight to ten hours at a stretch without experiencing any ill results from such exertion.

‘My mental condition presented itself to me in this way: My life is a stupid and spiteful joke that someone has played on me.’

The drunkenness of youth had left him with a bad hangover. When still a boy, he had ceased to believe in God, but his loss of faith left him unhappy and dissatisfied, for he had no theory that enabled him to solve the riddle of life. He asked himself: ‘Why do I live and how ought I to live?’ He found no answer. Now he came once more to believe in God, but, strangely enough for a man of so emotional a temper, by a process of reasoning. ‘If I exist,’ he wrote, ‘there must be some cause of it, and a cause of causes. And that first cause of all is what men call God.’ For a while Tolstoy clung to the Russian Orthodox Church, but he was repelled by the fact that the lives of its learned men did not tally with their principles, and he found it impossible to believe all they required him to believe. He was prepared to accept only what was true in a plain and literal sense. He began to draw near to the believers among the poor and simple and unlettered; and the more he looked into their lives, the more convinced he became that, notwithstanding the darkness of their superstition, they had a real faith which was necessary to them and, alone, by giving their life a meaning, made it possible for them to live.

It was years before he arrived at the final determination of his views, and they were years of anguish, meditation and study. It is difficult to summarise these views briefly, and I attempt to do so only with hesitation.

He came to believe that the truth was to be found only in the words of Jesus. He rejected as evident absurdities, and an insult to the human intelligence, the creeds in which the tenets of Christianity are set forth. He rejected the divinity of Christ, the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. He rejected the sacraments, since they were based on nothing in Christ’s teaching and served only to obscure the truth. For a time he did not believe in life after death, but later, when he came to think that the Self was part of the Infinite, it seemed inconceivable to him that it should cease with the death of the body. In the end, shortly before his death, he declared that he did not believe in a God who created the world, but in One who lived in the consciousness of men. Such a god, one would have thought, is no less a figment of the imagination than the centaur or the unicorn. Tolstoy believed that the essence of Christ’s teaching lay in the precept ‘Resist not evil’; the commandment ‘Swear not at all’, he decided, applied not only to common expletives, but to oaths of any kind, those taken in the witness box or by soldiers being sworn in; while the charge ‘Love your enemies, bless them that curse you’, forbade men to fight their country’s enemies or to defend themselves when attacked. But to adopt opinions with Tolstoy was to act: if he had come to the conclusion that the substance of Christianity was love, humility, self-denial and the returning of good for evil, it was incumbent upon him, he felt, to renounce the pleasures of life, to humble himself, to suffer and be merciful.

Sonya Tolstoy, a pious member of the Orthodox Church, insisted on her children having religious instruction, and in every way did her duty according to her lights. She was not a woman of great spirituality; indeed, what with having so many children, nursing them herself, seeing that they were properly educated and running a great household, she had little time for it. She neither understood nor sympathised with her husband’s altered outlook, but she accepted it tolerantly enough. When, however, this change of heart resulted in a change of behaviour, she was displeased, and did not hesitate to show it. Now that he thought it was his duty to consume as little as possible of the work of others, he heated his own stove, fetched water and attended to his clothes himself. With the idea of earning his bread with his own hands, he got a shoemaker to teach him to make boots. At Yasnaya Polyana he worked with the peasants, ploughing, carting hay and cutting wood; the Countess disapproved, for it seemed to her that from morning till evening he was doing unprofitable work which even among the peasants was done by young people.

‘Of course you will say,’ she wrote to him, ‘that to live so accords with your convictions and that you enjoy it. That is another matter and I can only say: enjoy yourself! But all the same I am annoyed that such mental strength should be lost at log-splitting, lighting samovars and making boots – which are all excellent as a rest or a change of occupation; but not as a special employment.’ Here she was talking good sense. It was a stupidity on Tolstoy’s part to suppose that manual labour is in any way nobler than mental labour. Nor is it more fatiguing. Every author knows that after writing for a few hours he is physically exhausted. There is nothing particularly commendable in work. One works in order to enjoy leisure. It is only stupid people who work because, when not working, they don’t know what to do with themselves. But even if Tolstoy thought that to write novels for idle people to read was wrong, one would have thought he could have found a more intelligent employment than to make boots, which he made badly and which the people to whom he gave them could not wear. He took to dressing like a peasant, and became dirty and untidy. There is a story of how he came into dinner one day after loading manure, and the stench he brought with him was such that the windows had to be opened. He gave up shooting, to which he had been passionately addicted and, so that animals should not be killed for the table, became a vegetarian. For many years he had been a very moderate drinker; but now he became a total abstainer, and in the end, at the cost of a bitter struggle, left off smoking.

By this time the children were growing up, and for the sake of their education, and because Tanya, the eldest daughter, would be coming out, the Countess insisted that the family should go to Moscow in the winter. Tolstoy disliked city life, but yielded to his wife’s determination. In Moscow he was appalled by the contrast he saw between the riches of the rich and the poverty of the poor. ‘I felt awful, and shall not cease to feel,’ he wrote, ‘that as long as I have superfluous food and some have none, and I have two coats and someone else has none, I share in a constantly repeated crime,’ It was in vain for people to tell him, as they continued to do, that there always had been rich and poor, and always would be; he felt it was not right; and after visiting a night lodging-house for the destitute, and seeing its horrors, he was ashamed to go home and sit down to a five-course dinner served by two men-servants in dress-clothes, white ties and white gloves. He tried giving money to the down-and-outs who appealed to him in their need, but came to the conclusion that the money they had wheedled out of him did more harm than good. ‘Money is an evil,’ he said. ‘And therefore he who gives money does evil.’ From this it was a short step to the conviction that property was immoral and to possess it sinful.

For such a man as Tolstoy the next step was obvious: he decided to rid himself of everything he owned; but here he came into violent conflict with his wife, who had no wish to beggar herself or to leave her children penniless. She threatened to appeal to the courts to have him declared incompetent to manage his affairs, and after heaven only knows how much acrimonious argument he offered to turn his property over to her. This she refused, and in the end he divided it among her and the children. On more than one occasion during the year this dispute lasted he left home to live among the peasants, but before he had gone far was drawn back by the pain he was causing his wife. He continued to live at Yasnaya Polyana and, though mortified by the luxury, luxury on a very modest scale, that surrounded him, none the less profited by it. The friction continued. He disapproved of the conventional education the Countess was giving their children, and he could not forgive her for having prevented him from disposing of his property as he wished.

In this brief sketch of Tolstoy’s life I have been constrained to omit much that is of interest, and I must deal even more summarily with the thirty years that followed his conversion. He became a public figure, recognised as the greatest writer in Russia, and with an immense reputation throughout the world as a novelist, a teacher and a moralist. Colonies were founded by people who wished to lead their lives according to his views. They came to grief when they tried to put his principles into practice, and the story of their misadventures is both instructive and comic. Owing to Tolstoy’s suspicious nature, his harsh argumentativeness, his intolerance and his unconcealed conviction that if others disagreed with him it was from unworthy motives, he retained few friends; but, with his increasing fame, a host of students, pilgrims visiting the holy places of Russia, journalists, sightseers, admirers and disciples, rich and poor, nobles and commoners, came to Yasnaya Polyana.

Sonya Tolstoy was, as I have said, jealous and possessive; she had always wanted to monopolise her husband, and she resented the invasion of her house by strangers. Her patience was sorely tried: ‘While describing and relating to people all his fine feelings, he has lived as always, loving sweet food, a bicycle, riding and lust.’ And on another occasion she wrote in her diary: ‘I cannot help complaining because all these things he practises for the happiness of people complicate life so much that it becomes more and more difficult for me to live … His sermons on love and the good have resulted in indifference to his family and the intrusion of all kinds of rabble into our circle.’

Among the first persons to share Tolstoy’s views was a young man called Chertkov. He was wealthy, and had been a captain in the Guards, but, when he came to entertain a belief in the principle of non-resistance, he resigned his commission. He was an honest man, an idealist and an enthusiast, but of a domineering temper, with a singular capacity for enforcing his will on others; and Aylmer Maude states that everybody connected with him became his instrument, quarrelled with him or had to escape. An attachment sprang up between him and Tolstoy which lasted till the latter’s death, and he acquired an influence over him which bitterly incensed the Countess.

While to most of Tolstoy’s few friends his views seemed extreme, Chertkov constantly urged him to go further and apply them more rigidly. Tolstoy had been so occupied with his spiritual development that he had neglected his estates, with the result that, though they were worth something like sixty thousand pounds, they brought in no more than five hundred a year. It was evidently not enough to keep the household going and educate a swarm of children. Sonya persuaded her husband to give her the publishing rights to everything he had written before 1881, and on borrowed money started a business of her own to publish books. It prospered so well that she was able to meet her commitments. But it was obviously incompatible with Tolstoy’s conviction that property was immoral to retain rights on his literary productions and, when Chertkov gained this ascendancy over him, he induced him to declare that everything he had written since 1881 was in the public domain and could be published by anyone. This was enough to enrage the Countess, but Tolstoy did more than that: he asked her to surrender her rights over the earlier books, including of course the very popular novels, and this she absolutely refused to do. Her livelihood, and that of her family, depended upon them. Disputes, acrimonious and protracted, ensued. Sonya and Chertkov gave him no peace. He was torn between conflicting claims, neither of which he felt it right to repudiate.


In 1896 Tolstoy was sixty-eight. He had been married for thirty-four years, most of his children were grown up, his second daughter was going to be married; and his wife, at the age of fifty-two, fell ignominiously in love with a man many years younger than herself, a composer called Tanayev. Tolstoy was shocked, ashamed and indignant. Here is a letter he wrote to her: ‘Your intimacy with Tanayev disgusts me and I cannot tolerate it calmly. If I go on living with you on these terms, I shall only be shortening and poisoning my life. For a year now I have not been living at all. You know this. I have told it you in exasperation and with prayers. Lately I have tried silence. I have tried everything and nothing is of use. The intimacy goes on and I can see that it may well go on like this to the end. I cannot stand it any longer. It is obvious that you cannot give it up, only one thing remains – to part. I have firmly made up my mind to do this. But I must consider the best way of doing it. I think the very best thing would be for me to go abroad. We shall think out what would be for the best. One thing is certain – we cannot go on like this.’

But they did not part; they continued to make life intolerable to one another. The Countess pursued the composer with the fury of an ageing woman in love, and though at first he may have been flattered, he soon grew tired of a passion which he could not reciprocate and which made him ridiculous. She realised at last that he was avoiding her, and finally he put a public affront on her. She was deeply mortified, and shortly afterwards came to the conclusion that Tanayev was ‘thick-skinned and gross both in body and spirit.’ The undignified affair came to an end.

The disagreement between husband and wife was by then common knowledge, and it was a source of bitterness to Sonya that his disciples, now his only friends, sided with him and, because she prevented him from acting as they thought he should, regarded her with hostility. His conversion had brought him little happiness; it had lost him friends, created discord in his family, and caused dissension between his wife and himself. His followers reproached him because he continued to lead a life of ease, and, indeed, he felt himself to blame. He wrote in his diary: ‘So I, who am now entering upon my seventieth year, long with all the strength of my spirit for tranquility and solitude, and though not perfect accord, still something better than this crying disharmony between my life and my beliefs and conscience.’

His health gave way. During the next ten years he had several illnesses, one so serious that he nearly died of it. Gorky, who knew him during this period, describes him as very lean, small and grey, but with eyes keener than ever and a glance more piercing. His face was deeply lined, and he had a long, unkempt white beard. He was an old man. He was eighty. A year passed, and another. He was eighty-two. He was failing rapidly, and it was evident that he had only a few more months to live. They were embittered by sordid quarrels. Chertkov, who apparently did not altogether share Tolstoy’s notion that property was immoral, had built himself at considerable cost a large house near Yasnaya Polyana, and though Tolstoy deplored the expenditure of money, the propinquity naturally facilitated intercourse between the two men. He now pressed Tolstoy to carry into effect his desire that on his death all his works should go into the public domain. The Countess was outraged that she should be deprived of control over the novels that Tolstoy had handed over to her twenty-five years before. The enmity that had long existed between Chertkov and herself burst into open warfare. The children, with the exception of Alexandra, Tolstoy’s youngest daughter, who was completely under Chertkov’s domination, sided with their mother; they had no wish to lead the sort of life their father wanted them to lead and, though he had divided his estates among them, saw no reason why they should be deprived of the large income his writings brought in. So far as I know, none of them had been brought up to earn his own living. But notwithstanding the pressure his family brought upon him, Tolstoy made a will in which he bequeathed all his works to the public and declared that the manuscripts extant at the time of his death should be handed to Chertkov, so that he might make them freely accessible to all who might want to publish them. But this apparently was not legal, and Chertkov urged Tolstoy to have another will drawn up. Witnesses were smuggled into the house so that the Countess should not know what was going on, and Tolstoy copied the document in his own handwriting behind the locked doors of his study. In this will the copyrights were given to his daughter Alexandra, whom Chertkov had suggested as a nominee, for, as he wrote with some understatement: ‘I feel certain that Tolstoy’s wife and children would not like to see someone not a member of the family made the official legatee.’ As the will deprived them of their chief means of subsistence that is credible. But this will again did not satisfy Chertkov, and he drew up another himself, which Tolstoy copied, sitting on the stump of a tree in the forest near Chertkov’s house. This left Chertkov in full control of the manuscripts.

The most important of these were Tolstoy’s later diaries. Both husband and wife had long been in the habit of keeping diaries, and it was an understood thing that each should have access to the other’s. It was an unfortunate arrangement, since the complaints each made of the other, when read over, gave rise to bitter recriminations. The earlier diaries were in Sonya’s hands, but those of the last ten years Tolstoy had delivered to Chertkov. She was determined to get them, partly because they could eventually be published at a profit, but especially because Tolstoy had been very frank in his account of their disagreements and she did not want these passages to be made public. She sent a message to Chertkov demanding their return. He refused. Upon this she threatened to poison or drown herself if they were not given back, and Tolstoy, shattered by the scene she made, took them away from Chertkov; but instead of letting Sonya have them, he put them in the bank. Chertkov wrote him a letter on which Tolstoy in his diary commented as follows: ‘I have received a letter from Chertkov full of reproaches and accusations. They tear me to pieces. Sometimes the idea occurs to me to go far away from them all.’

From an early age, Tolstoy from time to time had had the desire to leave the world, with its turmoil and trouble, and retire to some place where he could devote himself in solitude to self-perfection; and, like many another author, he lent his own longing to the two characters in his novels, Pierre in War and Peace and Levin in Anna Karenina, for whom he had a peculiar predilection. The circumstances of his life at this time combined to give this desire almost the force of an obsession. His wife, his children, tormented him. He was harassed by the disapproval of his friends, who felt that he should at last carry his principles into complete effect. Many of them were pained because he did not practise what he preached. Every day he received wounding letters, accusing him of hypocrisy. One eager disciple wrote to beg him to abandon his estate, give his property to his relations and the poor, leave himself without a kopek, and go as a mendicant from town to town. Tolstoy wrote in reply: ‘Your letter has profoundly moved me. What you advise has been my sacred dream, but up to this time I have been unable to do it. There are many reasons … but the chief reason is that my doing this must not affect others.’ As we know, people often thrust into the background of their unconscious the real reason for their conduct, and in this case I think the real reason why Tolstoy did not act as both his conscience and his followers urged him to do was simply that he didn’t quite enough want to do it. There is a point in the writer’s psychology that I have never seen mentioned, though it must be obvious to anyone who has studied the lives of authors. Every creative writer’s work is, to some extent at least, a sublimation of instincts, desires, day-dreams, call them what you like, which for one cause or another he had repressed, and by giving them literary expression he is freed of the compulsion to give them the further release of action. But it is not a complete satisfaction. He is left with a feeling of inadequacy. That is the source of the man of letters’ glorification of the man of action, and the unwilling, envious admiration with which he regards him. It is possible that Tolstoy would have found in himself the strength to do what he sincerely thought right, for of his sincerity there can be no doubt, if he had not by writing his books blunted the edge of his determination.

He was a born writer, and it was his instinct to put matters in the most effective and interesting way he could. I suggest that in his didactic works, to make his points more telling, he let his pen run away with him, and put his theories in a more uncompromising fashion than he would have done if he had stopped to think what consequences they entailed. On one occasion he did allow that compromise, inadmissible in theory, was inevitable in practice. But there, surely, he gave his whole position away; for if compromise is inevitable in practice, which means only that the practice is impracticable, then something must be wrong with the theory. But, unfortunately for Tolstoy, the friends, the disciples, who came to Yasnaya Polyana in adoring droves could not reconcile themselves to the notion that their idol should condescend to compromise. There is, indeed, something brutal in the persistence with which they pressed the old man to sacrifice himself to their sense of dramatic propriety. He was the prisoner of his message. His writings and the effect they had on so many, for not a few a disastrous effect, since some were exiled and others went to jail, the devotion, the love he inspired, the reverence in which he was held, had forced him into a position from which there was only one way out. He could not bring himself to take it.

For when, at length, he left home on the disastrous but celebrated journey which ended in his death, it was not because he had at last decided to take the step which his conscience and the representations of his followers urged him to take, but to get away from his wife. The immediate cause of his action was fortuitous. He had gone to bed and, after a while, heard Sonya rummaging among the papers in his study. The secrecy with which he had made his will preyed upon his mind, and it may be that he thought then that she had somehow learned of its existence and was looking for it. When she had gone, he got up, took some manuscripts, packed a few clothes and, having roused the doctor who had for some time been living in the house, told him that he was leaving home. Alexandra was awakened, the coachman hauled out of bed, the horses were harnessed, and he drove, accompanied by the doctor, to the station. It was five in the morning. The train was crowded, and he had to stand on the open platform at the end of the carriage in the cold and rain. He stopped first at Shamardin, where his sister was a nun at the convent, and there Alexandra joined him. She brought news that the Countess, on finding that Tolstoy was gone, had tried to commit suicide. She had done this more than once before, but as she took little pains to keep her intention to herself, the attempts resulted not in tragedy, but in fuss and bother. Alexandra pressed him to move on, in case her mother discovered where he was and followed him. They set out for Rostov-on-Don. He had caught cold, and was far from well; in the train he grew so ill that the doctor decided they must stop at the next station. This was at a place called Astapovo. The station-master, hearing who the sick man was, put his house at his disposal.

Next day Tolstoy telegraphed for Chertkov, and Alexandra sent for her eldest brother and asked him to bring a doctor from Moscow. But Tolstoy was too great a figure for his movements to remain unknown, and within twenty-four hours a newspaper-man told the Countess where he was. With those of her children who were at home, she hastened to Astapovo, but he was so ill by then that it was thought better not to tell him of her arrival, and she was not allowed to enter the house. The news of his illness created world-wide concern. During the week it lasted, the station at Astapovo was thronged by representatives of the Government, police officers, railway officials, pressmen, photographers and many others. They lived in railway carriages, side-tracked for their accommodation, and the local telegraph office could hardly cope with the work put on it. Tolstoy was dying in a blaze of publicity. More doctors arrived, till at last there were five to attend him. He was often delirious, but in his lucid moments worried about Sonya, whom he still believed to be at home and unaware of his whereabouts. He knew he was going to die. He had feared death; he feared it no longer. ‘This is the end,’ he said, ‘and it doesn’t matter.’ He grew worse. In his delirium he continued to cry out: ‘To escape! To escape!’ At last Sonya was admitted into the room. He was unconscious. She fell to her knees and kissed his hand; he sighed, but gave no sign that he knew she had come. A few minutes after six in the morning, on Sunday, November 7, 1910, he died.


Tolstoy began to write War and Peace when he was thirty-six. That is a very good age at which to set about writing a master-piece. By then an author has presumably acquired an adequate knowledge of the technique of his craft, he has gained a wide experience of life, he is still in full possession of his intellectual vigour and his creative power is at its height. The period Tolstoy chose to deal with was that of the Napoleonic wars, and the climax is Napoleon’s invasion of Russia, the burning of Moscow and the retreat and destruction of his armies. When he started upon his novel, it was with the notion of writing a tale of family life among the gentry, and the historical incidents were to serve merely as a background. The persons of the story were to undergo a number of experiences which would profoundly affect them spiritually, and in the end, after much suffering, they would enjoy a quiet and happy life. It was only in the course of writing that Tolstoy placed more and more emphasis on the titanic struggle between the opposing powers, and conceived what is somewhat grandly called a philosophy of history. Some time ago, Mr. Isaiah Berlin published a most interesting and instructive little book, called The Hedgehog and the Fox, in which he showed that Tolstoy’s ideas on the subject I must now briefly deal with were inspired by those of Joseph de Maistre, an eminent diplomatist, in a work entitled Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. That is not to discredit Tolstoy. It is no more than novelist’s business to originate ideas than it is to invent the persons who serve as his models. Ideas are there, just as are human beings, their environment of town and country, the incidents of their lives, and in fact everything that concerns them, for him to make use of for his private purpose, which is to create a work of art. Having read Mr. Berlin’s book, I felt constrained to read Les Soirées de Saint-Pétersbourg. The ideas which Tolstoy set forth with some elaboration in the second part of the epilogue to War and Peace, de Maistre expounded in three pages, and the gist of them is contained in a phrase: C’est l’opinion qui perd les batailles, et c’est l’opinion qui les gagne.’ Tolstoy had seen war in the Caucasus and at Sevastopol, and his own experience enabled him to give vivid descriptions of the various battles in which sundry characters in his novel were engaged. What he had observed concorded very well with the views of de Maistre. But the piece he wrote is long-winded and somewhat involved, and I think one gets a better notion of his opinions from scattered remarks in the course of the narrative and from Prince Andrew’s reflections. In passing, I may interject that this is the most suitable way in which a novelist can deliver his ideas.

Tolstoy’s idea was that owing to fortuitous circumstances, unknown forces, errors of judgment, unforeseen accidents, there could be no such thing as an exact science of war, and so there could be no such thing as military genius. It was not, as commonly supposed, great men who affected the course of history, but an obscure force that ran through the nations and drove them unconsciously to victory or defeat. The leader of an advance was in the position of a horse harnessed to a coach and started full-tilt downhill – at a certain point the horse ceases to know whether he is dragging the coach or the coach is forcing him on. It was not by his strategy or his big battalions that Napoleon won his battles, for his orders were not obeyed, since either the situation had changed or they were not delivered in time; but because the enemy was seized with a conviction that the battle was lost and so abandoned the field. The result depended on a thousand incalculable chances, any one of which might prove decisive in an instant. ‘So far as their own free will was concerned, Napoleon and Alexander contributed no more by their actions to the accomplishment of such and such an event than the private soldier who was compelled to fight for them as a recruit or a conscript.’ ‘Those who are known as great men are really labels in history, they give their name to events, often without having so much connection with the facts as a label has.’ For Tolstoy they were no more than figure-heads, who were carried on by a momentum they could neither resist nor control. There is surely some confusion here. I do not see how he reconciles his conviction of the ‘predestined and irresistible necessity’ of occurrences with the ‘caprices of chance’; for when fate comes in at the door, chance flies out of the window.

It is hard to resist the impression that Tolstoy’s philosophy of history was, in part at least, occasioned by his wish to depreciate Napoleon. He seldom appears in person in the course of War and Peace, but when he does, he is made to seem petty, gullible, silly and ridiculous. Tolstoy calls him ‘that infinitesimal tool in history, who at no time, not even in exile, showed any manly dignity’. Tolstoy is outraged that even the Russians should look upon him as a great man. He had not even a good seat on a horse. Here, I think, it is well to pause. The French Revolution gave rise to scores of young men who were as ambitious, as clever, as resolute and as unscrupulous as the son of the Corsican lawyer; and one cannot but ask oneself how it happened that this particular young man, of insignificant appearance, with a foreign accent, without money or influence, managed so to make his way in the world that after winning battle after battle he made himself dictator of France, and brought half Europe under his sway. If you see a bridge-player win an international tournament, you may ascribe it to luck or to the excellence of his partner; but if, no matter who his partner is, he goes on winning tournaments through a number of years, it is surely simpler to allow that he has a peculiar aptitude for the game, and outstanding gifts, than to claim that his triumphs are the result of the immense, irresistible pressure of antecedent and contingent events. I should have thought a great general needed that same combination of qualities, knowledge, flair, boldness, the intelligence to calculate chances and the intuition that enables him to judge his adversaries’ mentality, as are needed by the great bridge-player. Of course Napoleon was aided by the circumstances of his time, but it is only prejudice that can deny that he had the genius to take advantage of them.

All this, however, does not affect the power and interest of War and Peace. The narrative carries you along with the impetuous rush of the Rhône at Geneva as it hurries to meet the placid waters of Lake Leman. There are said to be something like five hundred characters. They stand firmly on their feet. This is a wonderful achievement. The interest is not concentrated, as in most novels, on two or three person, or even on a single group, but on the members of four families belonging to the aristocracy, the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Kuragins and the Bezukhovs. The novel, as the title indicates, deals with war and peace, and that is the sharply contrasted background against which their fates are presented. One of the difficulties a novelist has to cope with when his theme requires him to deal with events violently diverse, with more groups than one, is to make the transition from one set of events to another, from one group to another, so plausible that the reader accepts it with docility. If the author succeeds in doing this, the reader finds he has been told what he needs to be told about one set of circumstances, one set of persons, and is ready to be told about other circumstances, other persons, whereof for a time he had heard nothing. On the whole, Tolstoy has managed to perform this difficult feat so skilfully that you seem to be following a single thread of narration.

Like writers of fiction in general, he framed his characters on persons he knew, or knew of, but it appears that he did not merely use them as models for his imagination to work upon, but drew faithful portraits of them. The thriftless Count Rostov is a portrait of his grandfather, Nicholas Rostov of his father, and the pathetic, charming, ugly Princess Mary of his mother. It has sometimes been thought that in the two men, Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrew Bolkonski, Tolstoy had himself in mind; and if this is so, it is perhaps not fantastical to suggest that, conscious of the contradictions in himself, in thus creating two contrasted individuals on the one model of himself he sought to clarify and understand his own character.

Both these men, Pierre and Prince Andrew, are in love with Natasha, Count Rostov’s younger daughter, and in her Tolstoy has created the most delightful girl in fiction. Nothing is so difficult as to portray a young girl who is at once charming and interesting. Generally the young girls of fiction are colourless (Amelia in Vanity Fair), priggish (Fanny in Mansfield Park), too clever by half (Constantia Durham in The Egoist), or little geese (Dora in David Copperfield), silly flirts or innocent beyond belief. It is understandable that they should be an awkward subject for the novelist to deal with, for at that tender age the personality is undeveloped. Similarly, a painter can only make a face interesting when the vicissitudes of life, thought, love and suffering have given it character. In the portrait of a girl, the best he can do is to represent the charm and beauty of youth. But Natasha is entirely natural. She is sweet, sensitive and sympathetic, childish, womanly already, idealistic, quick-tempered, warmhearted, headstrong, capricious and in every way enchanting. Tolstoy created many women, and they are wonderfully real, but never another who wins the affection of the reader as does Natasha. She was drawn from Tanya Bers, the younger sister of his wife, and he was charmed by her as Charles Dickens was charmed by his wife’s younger sister, Mary Hogarth. An instructive parallel!

To both the men who loved her, to Prince Andrew and Pierre, Tolstoy attributed his own passionate search for the meaning and purpose of life. Prince Andrew is the more obvious. He is a product of the conditions prevalent then in Russia. A rich man, in possession of vast estates, he owns a great number of serfs, from whom he can exact forced labour and, if they displease him, have them stripped and flogged, or wrest them from wife and children and send them to serve as common soldiers in the army. And if a girl or married woman takes his fancy, he can send for her and use her for his pleasure. Prince Andrew is handsome, with marked features, weary eyes and an air of boredom. He is in fact the beau ténébreux of romantic fiction. A gallant figure, proud of his race and rank, high-minded, but haughty, dictatorial, intolerant and unreasonable. He is cold and arrogant with his equals, patronising but kind with his inferiors. He is intelligent, and ambitious to distinguish himself. With a nice touch, Tolstoy wrote of him: ‘Prince Andrew always became specially keen when he had to guide a young man and help him to wordly success. Under cover of obtaining help for another, which from pride he would never accept for himself, he kept in touch with the circle which confers success and which attracted him.’

Pierre is a more puzzling character. He is a huge, ugly man, so short-sighted that he has to wear spectacles, and very fat. He eats too much and drinks too much. He is a great womaniser. He is clumsy and tactless; but he is so good-natured, so manifestly sincere, so kindly, considerate and unselfish, that it is impossible to know him without loving him. He is wealthy. He allows a horde of hangers-on, however worthless, to dip freely into his purse. He is a gambler and is unmercifully cheated by the members of the aristocratic club in Moscow to which he belongs. He lets himself be jockeyed into an early marriage with a beautiful woman, who marries him for his money and is impudently unfaithful to him. After fighting a grotesque duel with her lover, he leaves her and goes to Petersburg. On the journey he meets by chance a mysterious old man, who turns out to be a Freemason. They converse and Pierre confesses that he does not believe in God. ‘If He did not exist we could not talk about Him,’ answers the Freemason, and on these lines goes on to give Pierre an elementary version of what is known at the ontological proof of God’s existence. This was devised by Anselm, Archbishop of Canterbury, and runs as follows; We define God as the greatest object of thought, but the greatest object of thought must exist, or else another, as great but having existence, would be greater. From this it follows that God exists. This proof was rejected by Thomas Aquinas and demolished by Kant, but it convinced Pierre, and very shortly after his arrival in Petersburg he was initiated into the Masonic Order. Of course, in a novel events, whether material or spiritual, have to be telescoped, otherwise it would never end: a long-fought battle must be described in a page or two, and everything but what the author thinks essential has to be omitted; it is the same with a change of heart. In this case, it seems to me that Tolstoy has gone too far; so sudden a conversion makes Pierre uncommonly superficial. As a result of it, however, desiring to abandon his dissipated ways, he decides to return to his estates, liberate his serfs and devote himself to their welfare. He is hoodwinked and cheated by his steward, just as he was by his gambling friends, and finds himself thwarted in all his good intentions. His philanthropic schemes for the most part come to nothing for lack of perseverance, and he returns to his old life of idleness. His enthusiasm for the Masonic Order dwindles as he discovers that most of the brethren see nothing in it beyond its forms and ceremonies, while many cling to it ‘simply for the sake of being intimate with rich people and getting some benefit out of the intimacy.’ Disgusted and weary, he takes once more to gambling, drink and promiscuous fornication.

Pierre knows his faults and hates them, but he lacks the tenacity of purpose to amend them. He is a modest, humane, good-natured creature, but strangely devoid of common sense. His behaviour at the Battle of Borodino is of a singular ineptitude. Though a civilian, he drives in his carriage to the field of battle, gets in everybody’s way, makes a thorough nuisance of himself and finally, to save his life, takes to his heels. When Moscow is evacuated, he stays on, is arrested as an incendiary and condemned to death. The sentence is remitted, and he is imprisoned. He is taken along with other prisoners when the French set out on their disastrous retreat, and is eventually rescued by a band of guerrillas.

It is difficult to know what to make of him. He is good and modest; he has a wonderful sweetness of disposition; he is terribly weak. I am sure he is true to life. I suppose he should be regarded as the hero of War and Peace, since in the end he marries the charming and desirable Natasha. I imagine that Tolstoy loved him: he writes of him with tenderness and sympathy; but I wonder if it was necessary to make him quite so silly.

In so long a book as War and Peace, and one that took so long to write, it is inevitable that the author’s verve should sometimes fail him. Tolstoy ends his novel with an account of the retreat from Moscow and the destruction of Napoleon’s army. But this long and, no doubt, necessary narrative has the disadvantage of telling the reader, unless he is abnormally ignorant of history, a great deal of what he knows already. The result is that the quality of surprise, which makes you turn the pages of a book eager to know what is to happen next, is lacking; and, notwithstanding the tragic, dramatic and pathetic incidents which Tolstoy relates, you read with a certain impatience. He used these chapters to tie up various loose ends, and to bring upon the scene again characters of whom we have long lost sight; but I think his main object in writing them was to introduce a fresh character who was to have an important effect on Pierre’s spiritual development.

This was one of his fellow-prisoners, Plato Karataev, a serf condemned to serve in the army for stealing wood. He was a type that at this time seems to have much occupied the Russian intelligentsia. Living, as they did, under a severe despotism and knowing the empty, frivolous lives of the aristocracy, the ignorance and narrowness of the merchant class, they had come to believe that the salvation of Russia lay in the down-trodden and ill-used peasantry. Tolstoy in A Confession tells us how, despairing of his own class, he turned to the Old Believers for the goodness and faith which gave meaning to life. But, of course, there were good landlords as well as bad ones, honest tradesmen as well as dishonest ones, and bad peasants as well as good ones. It was merely a literary illusion to suppose that in the peasants alone was virtue.

Tolstoy’s portrait of the simple soldier is one of the most winning of all the portraits in War and Peace. It was natural that Pierre should be drawn to him. Plato Karataev loves all men. He is perfectly unselfish. He endures hardship and danger with cheerfulness. He has a sweet and noble character, and Pierre, as susceptible as ever to every influence, seeing the goodness in him, comes himself to believe in goodness: ‘the world that had been shattered was once more stirring in his soul with a new beauty and on a new and unshakable foundation.’ From Plato Karataev, Pierre learns that ‘happiness for man is only to be found within, and from the satisfaction of simple human needs, that unhappiness arises not from privations but from superabundance, and that there is nothing in life too difficult to face.’ At last he finds himself possessed of that serenity and peace of mind that he had so long and so vainly sought.

If for some readers there is a certain diminution of interest in Tolstoy’s account of the retreat, it is richly made up for in the first part of the Epilogue. It is a brilliant invention.

The older novelists were in the habit of telling the reader what happened to their principal characters after the story they had to tell was finished. He was informed that the hero and heroine lived happily, in prosperous circumstances, and had so and so many children, while the villain, if he had not been polished off before the end, was reduced to poverty and married a nagging wife, and so got what he deserved. But it was done perfunctorily, in a page or two, and the reader was left with the impression that it was a sop the author had somewhat contemptuously thrown him. It remained for Tolstoy to make his epilogue a piece of real importance. Seven years have passed, and we are taken to the house of Nicholas Rostov, who has married a rich wife and has children. Prince Andrew was mortally wounded at the Battle of Borodino. It was his sister that Nicholas married. Pierre’s wife conveniently died during the invasion, and he was free to marry Natasha, whom he had long loved. They too have children. They love one another, but oh, how dull they have become, and how commonplace! After the hazards they have run, the pain and anguish they have suffered, they have settled down to a middle-aged complacency. Natasha, who was so sweet, so unpredictable, so delightful, is now a fussy, exacting, shrewish housewife. Nicholas Rostov, once so gallant and high-spirited, has become a self-opinionated country squire; and Pierre, fatter than ever, sweet and good-natured still, is no wiser than he was before. The happy ending is deeply tragic. Tolstoy did not write thus, I think, in bitterness, but because he knew that this is what it would all come to; and he had to tell the truth.

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