From Russia with Lots of Love; A New Production of Anna Karenina Is Soon to Appear on Channel 4 - and as These Exclusive Pictures Show, It's Going to Be a Lavish Affair. Tolstoy Biographer AN Wilson Explains Why We're Still Obsessed with the Novel That Brought Us Adultery, Lust and Loathing

The Mail on Sunday (London, England), February 27, 2000 | Go to article overview

From Russia with Lots of Love; A New Production of Anna Karenina Is Soon to Appear on Channel 4 - and as These Exclusive Pictures Show, It's Going to Be a Lavish Affair. Tolstoy Biographer AN Wilson Explains Why We're Still Obsessed with the Novel That Brought Us Adultery, Lust and Loathing


Byline: A N WILSON

The earliest reference to birth control in fiction occurs in Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina, first published in parts between 1875 and 1877.

Anna, now openly living with her younger lover, Vronsky, confides in her sister-in-law Dolly that she does not intend to have any more children. 'How do you know you won't?' asks Dolly, herself over-burdened with offspring.

Anna reveals: 'After my illness, the doctor told me*' 'Impossible!' says Dolly with wide-open eyes. To her, this is one of those discoveries which leads to consequences and deductions so enormous that, at the first moment, one cannot take it all in.

Dolly's incredulity would have been shared by many women of the period - and, even, by some in parts of the world today._It was the very thing she had dreamt of, but now on learning that it was possible, she was horrified* "N'est-ce pas immoral?" was all she said after a pause.'

Tolstoy was no feminist - the reverse. His own view, enunciated with tedious frequency as he evolved from being a successful novelist into the self-appointed Conscience of Russia, was that women who try to limit the numbers of their children are in danger of becoming prostitutes.

But this essentially tender scene in his great novel - which is also played out in a major new four-part dramatisation to be shown on Channel 4 in the spring - is one of many examples of the dichotomy between Tolstoy the artist (essentially sympathetic intelligence) and Tolstoy the man, who basically hated the side of his nature that was capable of writing fiction. 'What's so difficult about writing a story of how an army officer gets entangled with a married woman?' he asked after Anna Karenina had taken the world by storm.

And again - with a self-contempt which was the reverse of humility - 'So, okay, I've written the greatest novel in the history of the world. But who's interested in novels?'

One of the reasons that novels were so important to men and women in the 19th century (particularly French and Russian novels, which were more candid about sex than their British equivalents) is that fiction enabled them to deal with intimate questions otherwise not discussed. The imagined emotional and inner lives of characters in fiction could be exposed and openly considered. There weren't, for the women of the period, the outlets of Woman's Hour or Cosmopolitan, in which you could decide what you thought about matters such as whether or not you needed to keep your figure to keep your man.

But this very matter is of crucial importance to Tolstoy's novel, which begins with the positions of our two friends, Dolly and Anna, very different from that in which they had their murmured discussion of birth control.

At the beginning of the book, Dolly is in despair because her husband Stiva (Oblonsky) had had an affair with the French governess. Her terrible suffering seems as if it will never heal. But they are persuaded to patch things up by his sister, Anna Karenina, who makes the journey from fashionable St Petersburg to the slightly more provincial Moscow, to comfort Dolly and to bring peace to the miserable household. And, by a supreme irony, it is while she is on this journey of reconciliation and marriage guidance, that she herself encounters the handsome young army officer, Vronsky, with whom she is doomed to fall in love: the man for whom she breaks her marriage to the stiff, cold government official, Karenin, by whom she has an adored son, Sergey.

In the upper-class circles in which Tolstoy moved, adultery was commonplace.

For example, in 1833, the mother of the novelist Turgenev gave birth to a daughter who was not the child of Turgenev's father. Almost certainly, the baby girl's father was the court physician Dr Andrey Bers, one of whose legitimate daughters, Sonya, was destined to become Tolstoy's wife.

Tolstoy's marriage to the hot-tempered and intelligent Sonya has been the subject of endless analysis by the biographers. …

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From Russia with Lots of Love; A New Production of Anna Karenina Is Soon to Appear on Channel 4 - and as These Exclusive Pictures Show, It's Going to Be a Lavish Affair. Tolstoy Biographer AN Wilson Explains Why We're Still Obsessed with the Novel That Brought Us Adultery, Lust and Loathing
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