The XX Factor

Book of the Week: “Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography”

Alexandra Popoff makes no secret of the mission of her new biography of Sophia Tolstoy . Given exclusive access to her subject’s unpublished memoir and previously unavailable letters, Popoff sets out to vindicate an intelligent, self-sacrificing woman whose reputation her husband’s biographers intentionally besmirched. Thus, as a catalog of all of the ways Countess Tolstoy was wronged, this biography succeeds beautifully. As a narrative, not so much.

In addition to bearing and raising Tolstoy’s 13 children (for most of their marriage, he refused to even consider contraception), Sophia Tolstoy’s endless responsibilities included maintaining Tolstoy’s two households, hand-copying his work, and eventually overseeing all of his finances, farming debacles, and the publication of his books. She also had to put up with her husband’s considerable ‘tude. After Tolstoy’s religious conversion and renouncement of all material concerns (the bear coat and stallions aside), he frequently berated her for earning money to support the family. And then there was his unapologetic sexism. In her diary, Sophia recalls him saying that, “No matter what work a woman did-teaching, medicine, art-she had only one real purpose in life … sexual love.” After Tolstoy’s death, things only got worse for his wife. In an effort to gain the rights to all of the novelist’s work, his young protegés accused her of publishing his writing against his will and making his home life a living hell.

Sadly, Popoff gets so wrapped up in her point-by-point defense of Sophia that the book starts to read more like a history and less like a story. Somehow the biographer manages to make this account of a life that involved marrying one of the world’s greatest novelists, starting a publishing house, quelling peasant revolts, losing several children to disease, surviving a major surgery, writing the only published letter a woman has ever authored challenging the authority of the Orthodox Church, and, oh, an audience with the tsar feel tedious. As Popoff makes clear, it was high time someone cleared Sophia Tolstoy’s name. But making that name elicit a yawn? That’s unfortunate.