Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 28, 2011

War and Peace and Sonya (2011), by Judith Armstrong

I’ve never seen a biography of Tolstoy in the bookshops, but now that I’ve read Judith Armstrong’s War and Peace and Sonya, I think I’d probably leave it on the shelf – I feel that I know quite enough about the great Russian writer now!

Judith Armstrong is a former Melbourne academic who used to teach Russian literature and culture, so it is safe to say that this novel is impeccably researched.  Based on the diaries of Tolstoy and his wife Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, known as Sonya, it tells the other side of the story that formed the basis of The Last Station, the film that showed the sorry state of the Tolstoy marriage and depicted Sonya as a nagging wife harassing the genius about the contents of his Will,  so much so that he felt he had no option but to get away from her.

The question that arose for me, time and again as I read this engaging novel was: whose voice is this?  Ostensibly, Sonya is the narrator, looking back over her life after Tolstoy’s death, and using her diaries to substantiate what she says.  She tells us about what she reads in Tolstoy’s diaries too: sometimes they left these diaries about to be read, in lieu of direct communication about their feelings.  Sometimes Sonya consulted his diaries on the sly…

But how much can we trust Sonya’s diaries?  Was she as she tries to present herself: reasonable, loyal, forgiving and loving, but cruelly neglected, and unappreciated by her husband?  She says she was the unacknowledged editor – not just a copyist – of Tolstoy’s great works.   Was she yet another woman whose contribution to the arts has been subsumed by a dominant male, or was she self-aggrandizing her role?    And, are the interpretations of Tolstoy’s behaviour and attitudes as presented in the novel Sonya’s view of things (from her diaries) or Armstrong’s?  For there are two writers behind this novel: Judith Armstrong the author fictionalising Tolstoy’s wife; and the original diarist, Sonya.   Whose voice is this narrator?

There are all sorts of interesting little snippets that made my view of Tolstoy and Sonya vacillate: was she paranoid when she interpreted Anna Karenina the character as an idealised rival for Tolstoy’s love?  Was she loving and caring when she wished for Tolstoy to become ill so love could be rekindled as she nursed him back to health? Was he a spiteful brute when he dissected their marriage for all to see in The Kreutzer Sonata? Was he barmy when he planned to give away all his worldly goods for the dream of a simple life, or was he an idealistic seer who saw a revolution coming and tried to redress the inequity of peasant life in the only way he could? Was she loyal when she went to the Tsar to plead for censorship restrictions to be lifted, or was she interfering?

Often Sonya the character tells us more than she means to, and comes across as untruthful, histrionic, bad-tempered, and irrational.  She picks fights with Tolstoy, and the timing of her ‘guiltless’ friendship with Taneev is bad.  When thwarted, she flings herself out into the snow or a handy lake, shrieking that she would rather die than be treated as she is.   She tells us this because she wants us to empathise, but I was taken aback by this sort of hysterical behaviour from a woman of mature years.  Sonya is also much too conscious of how she will be viewed when her writing is made public, which provoked my suspicion.  She wants to have the last word, and despite her protestations, she sometimes sanitizes her own behaviour.  But if what she says about Tolstoy’s autocratic ways is true, as a 19th century woman in male-dominated Russia, she had few options.  She did have a lot to put up with, as those living with idealistic genius often do.

One of my favourite memories of an elderly friend who was very wealthy, took place one day in her mansion in Balwyn.  Talking politics, she told me that she always voted Labor because she was all in favour of redistributing wealth.  Unless, she said, with a twinkle in her eye, if it meant redistributing hers.  Idealism is a fine thing, she seemed to be saying, but sometimes its practical application can be a bit tiresome.  Sonya, having made an impetuous marriage at seventeen without really considering what it would be like to be marooned in the countryside with nothing much to do except make babies and live vicariously through her husband, eventually found herself in conflict with Tolstoy’s idealism…

As he aged, Tolstoy’s idealization of peasant life became increasingly radical.  Although it well suited him to offload all his  responsibilities to others, he wanted his family to live a ‘simple’ life, and he didn’t just mean becoming vegetarian.  Sonya, already responsible for copying successive versions of his work and managing the Yasnaya estate,  was aghast to read his plans in his diaries:

I also learned that he intended as soon as possible to distribute income from his Samara estates amongst the poor, give the Nikolskoe land to the peasants, and drastically reduce the amount of money available for his own family to live on.  He was going to train us to live without servants, and persuade us all to radical new domestic arrangements – the males living in one room and the women and girls in another.
‘Sell or give away everything superfluous’, he had added. ‘The piano, the furniture, the carriages.’
The piano was, oddly, the worst shock of all.  Playing or listening to music had always been one of the few pleasures
 we loved to share.  Even the children enjoyed music, especially Seryozha and Tanya, whose squabbles ceased the minute they sat down to play duets.  Had my husband no heart? No concern for his own family’s innocent enjoyment? (p180)

The irony was that as Tolstoy was preaching celibacy in his religious tracts and pamphlets, he was well able to set aside their marital disharmony to father 13 children, (eight of whom survived early childhood).

Sonya wasn’t as well-educated as The Great Man, and she knew her intellectual deficiencies, but in Armstrong’s story she was not only smart enough to teach herself to analyse a literary text, she also knew enough about Mr Freud in Vienna to interpret some of her husband’s apparently subconscious ideas and psychoanalyse both the man and his literary output.  She recognises that he is always conflicted by his sensual proclivities and his notions of purity, but she also had the children to worry about and she was determined not to see their inheritance vanish in support of her husband’s somewhat unusual philosophical notions.  (This made me think about Bill Gates giving away his millions to vaccination programs in Africa.  What if his wife had tried to sabotage that?)

Tolstoy’s conflicted ideas about the ideal woman caused Sonya intense hurt.  Apparently he’d read the feminist novels of George Sand but despised them, and he used his fictional creations, notably Natasha in War and Peace, to slyly let Sonya know what sort of wife he’d like her to be.  Any 21st century woman reading War and Peace today is likely to have to breathe a deep patience-gathering breath at Natasha’s transformation from lively young woman to placid matron absorbed only in children and family, but it was more than insulting to Sonya, who spent hours of her time as his amanuensis, transcribing his untidy writing to make it fit for submission to publishers, and archiving the countless drafts that are so valuable for scholars today.

I enjoyed this book, but I’d be interested to hear from readers who haven’t first read Anna Karenina or War and Peace.  I think it would be quite a different experience, though not necessarily a limitation.  Certainly, when I got to the chapter where Sonya reads with dismay The Kreutzer Sonata I couldn’t resist picking up Tolstoy’s story to read first.  In the light of what had gone before in Armstrong’s book, I read it with a kind of appalled fascination: it’s based so closely on the Tolstoy marriage that Sonya could not have failed to recognise it.  It’s a diatribe about 19th century Russian marriage as a sham that enslaves women as a mere instrument of pleasure and compromises men so that they have no escape but violence.  Sonya was devastated by the personal hurt and the embarrassment of being identified in it.

War and Peace and Sonya is a must-read for anyone interested in Tolstoy and his books – and those narrative voice issues raise all sorts of interesting questions for discussion.   A splendid choice for well-read book groups.

© Lisa Hill

Michael McGirr reviewed it at SMH.

Author: Judith Armstrong
Title: War and Peace and Sonya, a Novel
Publisher: Pier 9 (Murdoch), 2011
ISBN: 9781742665405
Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

Fishpond: War and Peace and Sonya


  1. My most popular post is the review I did of The Last Station back in April 2010. Since then it’s had about five and a half thousand page views and the average time spent was a massive four minute and forty-nine seconds so clearly a lot of people are still very interested in Tolstoy. I’ve never read War and Peace, not the whole way through in any case. I got it out of the library when I was about ten and it was too much for me and I’ve never been inclined to pick it up again.


    • Hello, Jim – it’s a good thing I check my spambox for this blog because for some reason this comment from you was hiding in there!
      I had a similar experience with my first attempts at War and Peace and I put its unreadability then to poor translations. Perhaps you might enjoy it if you tried the Vintage one by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky? It flows much better, and it includes helpful notes, and brief chapter summaries which I used a lot


  2. I’m not a big fan of picking writers’ lives to pieces (although I know a lot of people are); if we only read books by nice people, our shelves would be very bare indeed…


    • True, Tony, but I think of this one as Sonya’s ‘right-of-reply- after The Last Station!


  3. I delighted in Lisa’s review of my new NOVEL, War & Peace and Sonya. My only gripe is her calling me ‘retired’. Yes, I did choose to leave the university, and since then I’ve had 5 books published. Does that sound like ‘retirement’? But having escaped the need for footnotes and a bibliography and dealing only with proven facts, while remaining mindful of historical situations, existing texts and truth to character, I write in a hybrid genre with its own rules and imperatives.
    I can see that this aroused all kinds of questions for Lisa, but to me that seems a plus. Unlike Murukami (whose audience is somewhat larger than mine!) I don’t resort to sc-fi to rattle the chains and make the reader engage – just old-fashioned close reading, and an empathetic interest in human nature. The imagination also gets a look-in.
    So thank you, Lisa – and anyone else interested enough to comment.


    • HI Judith, and thanks for writing such an interesting book!
      You know, I’m starting to think we need a new word to describe ‘retirement’ that’s not. I know so many people no longer engaged in full-time work for an employer – but doing all kinds of other things instead… anyway, I’ve changed ‘retired’ to ‘former’ – I hope that’s better!
      BTW two of my readers have told me that they’ve put this book straight onto their TBR list already, and that’s just the ones I know of:)


  4. Most great men know what they are preaching will be heard far. Tolstoy’s message was heard as far as in India and MK Gandhi the father of the nation, was an avid disciple who corresponded with him. Some of his moral dilemma was to some extent was re-presented to him and helped him to spearhead the non-violent non-cooperation movement in India. Just like Tolstoy Gandhi also did not often practice what he preached, especially at home. He made his wife carry the night soil of all in the camp where all were socially equal. He wanted woman uppercaste( his wife) to be equal as any other ‘Harijan’ (low caste)in the commune. Cleaning the latrines was his idea of showing fellowship. He could force his own conviction on one who didn’t have it, as a conventional Indian woman who was sensitive about custom and traditions.
    Tolstoy was obtuse and blind about Sonya’s feelings. She wrote 10 times in longhand War and Peace, from Tolstoy’s almost illegible corrections without a murmur. Henri Troyat’s Tolstoy is illuminating. The master’s life was almost like reliving Dosteovsky’s novel in terms of his psychological contradictions and complexity. By the way Tolstoy despised Dosteovsky for his characters and grammatical errors. He was too full of conviction about his own worth to accommodate an equally great writer with different literary approach.
    Here is all the best for the coming year. I appreciate your help in tidying up the tag cloud. Once again thank you.


    • Indeed yes, I think you are right about some great men imposing their lifestyles on others, and not always living up to their own ideals. At least in Tolstoy’s case we can read Sonya’s diaries, – or – more truthfully, I should say this most interesting fictionalisation of them because only scholars are likely to read the real diaries – but I wonder if the voices of other stoic wives get heard?
      Happy New Year to you, too:)


  5. Hi Lisa – a great review. I read ‘W&P and Sonya’ recently and found it difficult to sum up my feelings because I felt I was judging the marriage rather than the novel. I followed up by watching ‘The Last Station’ and now intend to read a biography on Tolstoy. I ended up considering this one of my memorable reads of the year as I became so intrigued on so many levels by Sonya, the diaries, and that marriage.
    Any chance of posting the review (or linking to it) on Librarything?


    • Hello Kerry – and welcome!
      I suspect that this book is going to be a ‘sleeper’ – it’s unlikely to hurtle up the best-seller lists but the word will spread and it will become one of the books that anyone interested in Tolstoy will eventually turn to. As you say, there is so much to think about: fascinating about the Tolstoy marriage but also about the role of women in a marriage like that, I’m still pondering it, days later…
      Yes, I will add it to Library Thing, thanks for reminding me!
      BTW I had a look at your blog and would like to gently suggest that you revive it…there is a real need for an ANZ blog reviewing YA books. I’ve commented here before that YA is not my area of interest or expertise but that young people need some guidance to evaluate what’s good and what’s not in YA, and they need it altogether in one place. I’m also often asked to recommend children’s books for one reason and another, and it would be really nice to be able to refer these queires to a blog that could help them make wise choices.
      Let me know if you do decide to do this:)


      • Thanks for the encouragement to restart the blog. I have been giving it serious thought this past year. I got a bit bogged down with all the LT challenges, they’re really fun and I do read great books but it leaves less time for blogs and I have to be realistic. That said I’m very tempted and I’ll contact you on goodreads or here if and when I do fire it up or start a new one.
        I’ve chosen Rosamund Bartlett’s biography on Tolstoy to read later this year as a follow up to W&P&S and I have gotten my own copy of The French Tutor which I’m looking forward to reading.


        • That’s terrific, Kerry – and I hope you enjoy The French Tutor too…


  6. […] the countess had such trouble with him. Would I have known what this meant if I hadn’t read War and Peace and Sonya by Judith Armstrong, a reimagining of Countess Sonya Tolstoy’s relationship with her […]


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