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Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography

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She was always on call for her family and always taking up or developing one personal hobby or another. She wrote, she painted, she documented her and her family’s life with beautiful and idiosyncratic photographs. She outlived her husband by nine years: “And what good was my life with this celebrity? Work, work, and work.”

It’s possible to know more about the Tolstoy marriage than most of us know about our own. Do you and your spouse keep diaries? Does your spouse happen to be the world’s greatest novelist who converts the daily occurrences of your life into unforgettable literary scenes? Do you have hordes of visitors who write down or recollect what you and your spouse say and do? Are future biographers analyzing your domestic dramas? Are several of your children going to write books about you?

Well, me neither. But here we are, unable to avert our eyes from anything connected to Tolstoy, drawn in to act as literary game-show Marriage Refs. (Leo’s regret, after a honeymoon fight: “I was sad that we behave just the same as other people.”)

Sophia Tolstoy, a new biography of the Countess Tolstoy by Alexandra Popoff, a native Russian living in Canada and writing in a clunky, uncomfortable English, often mistakes advocacy for understanding: Sophia’s “selflessness was the bane of her life.” Sophia’s “selflessness” was her lifelong purpose, which she never tired of reminding her family. Sophia was a remarkable person – especially when she wasn’t complaining about not being appreciated or worrying about how she would look in history: “I feel I am a total zero, everyone is against me, and everything I used to believe good, fair, and useful is now being destroyed.”

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