The figure of Tolstoy towers over Russian literature; as well as producing his massive tomes “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina”, his moral and spiritual influence on the country was huge. I read AK in 2013, and “War and Peace” is still on my radar. However, the size is a little intimidating and I most likely won’t get to it any time soon. So I was really pleased when OH came up with a collection of shorter works as a Christmas gift; he bought it mainly because of the title story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, which he’d heard of somewhere. However, I thought I would read through it one story at a time, and the first in the book is “Family Happiness”.
The story is narrated, perhaps unusually for Tolstoy, by a young girl of 17, Masha. As the book opens, she has been left an orphan by the death of her mother. She and her sister Sonya, plus their old nurse Katya, are living in the country and waiting for family friend Sergey to visit. Masha has know the latter all her life as her father’s best friend (although younger than him) and someone the family could rely on. And indeed Sergey comes to sort out the family’s affairs and keep an eye on them, whilst taking care of his own business at his nearby estate where he lives with his mother.
As Masha starts to mature, inevitably Sergey’s interest in her changes, and Masha herself begins to see the family friend in a new light. Inevitably she falls in love with him – or is it just a young girl’s infatuation? The courtship is a long and hesitant one, as Sergey expresses doubts as to Masha’s real love for him, thinking she will soon grow bored with him. However, the two marry and start their married life living in Sergey’s family home. Initially, things are all happy and lovely, but it isn’t long until, as Sergey predicted, Masha becomes restless, unsatisfied with country living. A trip to the society of St. Petersburg awakens her interest in the finer things in life, which inevitable has a detrimental effect on the marriage…
“Family Happiness” was published in 1859 and I was fascinated to see in it early hints of themes which would come to the fore in “Anna Karenina”. The age difference in the marriage of the two protagonists, the love of society and the flirting and shallowness developed by Masha, and the inevitable disintegration of the marriage, reminded me very much of the union of Anna and Karenin. However, by using the female perspective to narrate, the viewpoint is somewhat different as we follow Masha’s changing views and emotions during the changes in her life.
I did, however, at times feel that Masha was not there so much as a character in her own right; more that she was there to represent much that Tolstoy felt was wrong in womanhood and that there was a didactic purpose behind the writing. Interestingly, the age gap between Sergey and Masha is very similar to that between Tolstoy and his long-suffering wife Sonya, although the marriage between the two took place after FH was published – a case of life imitating art, perhaps!
I enjoyed reading the story very much, particularly for the quality of the writing/translation – a passage like this, for example:
We went up to him, and truly it was a night such as I have never seen since. The full moon stood over the house behind us so that it could not be seen; and half the shadow of the room of the columns and the verandah awning, lay slanting en raccourci on the sandy path and the circular lawn. All the rest was light, and bathed in silver dew and moonlight. The broad flowery path, all bright and cold, with shadows of the dahlias and their sticks lying slanting on one edge, and its rough gravel glistening, ran into the mist in the distance. Behind the trees there gleamed the roof of the conservatory, and below the ravine roses the gathering mist. The lilac bushes, already beginning to lose their leaves, were bright all over in every twig. The flowers, all drenched with dew, could be distinguished from one another. In the avenues the light and shade were so mingled that they seemed not trees and little paths between, but transparent, quivering, and trembling houses. To the right of the house all was black, indistinct, and weird. All the more brilliant rising up out of this darkness was the fantastically-shaped top of the poplar, which seemed as though, for some strange inexplicable cause, it had halted near the houses, in the dazzling brightness above it, instead of flying far, far away into the distant dark-blue sky.
Frustratingly enough, my very nice Wordsworth edition doesn’t state anywhere who the translation, which is very naughty as I always like to credit the person who’s done such wonderful work so I can read a book from another language. So thank you, unnamed translator!
However, it was hard not to view this story with the knowledge of Tolstoy’s life informing it. The book ends with passion of any kind having burnt out and the two partners in the marriage settling into a kind of companionship for the rest of their days. Was this Tolstoy’s view of marriage? If so, he should have been more honest with his own teenage bride, who we know was treated despicably from the very start of their union. And I felt much more strongly in this work the didactic tone of Tolstoy; the women in his books *do* seem to suffer and bearing in mind his sexual appetites and behaviour, I’m going to have to try to read more of his works by putting what I know of him to the back of my mind and reading them objectively. Nevertheless, it will be interesting to see where Tolstoy goes with the rest of the stories in this collection, particularly the title work which is very highly regarded.