The Wives: The Women Behind Russia's Literary Giants is about the wives of Russia’s most celebrated authors –– from Anna Dostoevsky and Sophia Tolstoy to Véra Nabokov and Natalya Solzhenitsyn. Here, author Alexandra Popoff delves into the relationships they had with their husbands, and how they changed the landscape of literature forever.
The six women in the book were the writers’ muses, intellectual companions, and indispensable advisers. Above all, they were veritable "nursemaids of talent," as Sophia Tolstoy was described during War and Peace. To use Vladimir Nabokov’s words, these women formed a "single shadow" with the writers.
These marriages were marked by intense collaboration: the women contributed ideas and committed to paper great works as stenographers, typists, editors, researchers, translators, and publishers. Tolstoy’s and Dostoevsky’s wives were absorbed with their husbands’ art, which they also helped produce. Tolstoy’s novels are unthinkable without Sophia whose articulate letters and diaries gave him better insight into the female world and who was a model for his heroines. During the first two decades theirs was a highly functional marriage that gave the world War and Peace and Anna Karenina.
Unlike Tolstoy, whose novels draw from his family life, Dostoevsky kept his marriage out of his works. But Dostoevsky’s achievement was equally impossible without Anna, whom he called his guardian angel, collaborator, and a rock on which he could lean. Like Nora Joyce, who had saved James Joyce from alcoholism, Anna nursed Dostoevsky through his gambling addiction and epileptic attacks. Being a stenographer, she also helped Dostoevsky produce his novels, remarking that the hours he dictated to her were the happiest. Anna’s first stenographic assignment at twenty was with her favorite author: much like Sophia Tolstoy, she loved her husband’s literature while still in her girlhood. From the time Anna helped Dostoevsky meet an onerous deadline, dictating to her became his preferred way of composition. Dostoevsky never failed to acknowledge Anna’s contributions; he called her his idol and his only friend. In contrast, Tolstoy was reluctant to express gratitude to Sophia, who was his copyist and first editor, and who later became his translator, publisher, biographer, and photographer.
While the two rivals, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, never met, their wives recognized and supported each other. Both became publishers and Anna, who first produced her husband’s works, shared her business practices with Sophia. As publishers the two aspired for quality and handled proofreading and most stages of production themselves. This came on top of raising their families and managing all other practical affairs. Both were remarkably versatile, combining practicality with literary giftedness. After decades of publishing Dostoevsky and establishing his museums, Anna remarked, “I did it out of gratitude for…the hours of highly artistic enjoyment I experienced reading his works.”
But the two unions were also different in many respects. While Dostoevsky praised Anna’s business skills, Sophia lived in fear of Tolstoy’s criticism. After completing Anna Karenina Tolstoy experienced a spiritual crisis, which changed him profoundly as a man and writer. He emerged as a founder of his brand of religion, whose sweeping repudiations of money, property, and sex became confusing even to his disciples. For the family to comply with his moral absolutes was unfeasible, making Sophia’s role beside Tolstoy ever more complex.
Unlike the Tolstoys, who read each others’ diaries, Anna kept a stenographic diary, unreadable not only to Dostoevsky, but even to another stenographer. She did not want the public to know the complexities of her relationship with the genius. But a few decades ago, an expert stenographer cracked her code and her original diaries came to light. They revealed that Anna purged her entries of the episodes that negatively reflected on Dostoevsky or revealed her private experiences. In contrast, Sophia did not alter her diaries, realizing their historical value, and had the courage to voice her independent views.
The two prominent wives had a following in the twentieth century. Véra Nabokov was aware of the contributions her predecessors made to the writers whose lives and literature she intimately knew. Nabokov admired Tolstoy and despised Dostoevsky, to whom he gave a C minus for his novels. Early in their relationship Véra and Nabokov played a literary game, evoking the famous episode of betrothal in Anna Karenina where Levin gives Kitty his bachelor diary. This episode, of course, was drawn from the Tolstoys’ betrothal.
The Nabokovs’ union evokes the Tolstoys’ in many ways, minus the domestic drama of the final decades. Véra’s involvement in her husband’s career was vast, but not as unmatched as it is believed. Placing the Nabokovs’ marriage in its cultural context allows comparison. Véra, for example, was intensely private, but less secretive than Anna who guarded her marriage from outsiders and from Dostoevsky who could not read her private diary.
The six wives in the book made their own cultural contributions. Their collaboration with the writers was inspired. When eminent writers, such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, wanted their wives to partake in producing literature, their marriages suffered as a result. Russian literary unions were different: the women believed writing was worth a shared sacrifice and that being a writer’s wife was a vocation in itself.