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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, now living in "Portlandia"!

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Tolstoy’s War and Peace lovers get a cleansing “moral Russian bath”, courtesy of Austen’s Persuasion

 Several days ago, I scribbled the following quick comment in Austen L and Janeites, as a followup to my post not long before that about the remarkable veiled allusion to the Crawford siblings in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park in the Kuragin siblings in Tolstoy’s War and Peace, an allusion I also argued was flagged by Nabokov in one of his novels:

“And now that I'm watching Episode 5 of War and Peace, it is equally clear that the Bolkonsky family is based on the Elliots of Austen’s final novel, Persuasion, with Marya as Anne Elliot and father Bolkonsky as Sir Walter, and the French companion to Marya, Mlle. Bourienne, as Mrs. Clay. Again, it's so obvious, and it makes me think Davies sees this as a warmup to adapting Persuasion, too, as well as Mansfield Park, the only two Austen novels which he has not yet adapted for the screen.”

I was challenged yesterday in another online venue as to my claim about the allusion to Persuasion in War and Peace, and being the retired lawyer that I am, I can never resist a good debate on an interesting issue, so that prompted me to take a closer look at the connection. I am so glad I was challenged, because  now, as I will show you, below, I see that it’s an even more elaborate and beautiful allusion than I at first realized.  So, without further ado, here are all of the parallels I now see between Austen’s Elliots and Tolstoy’s Bolkonskys:

First, if you want to see the best textual evidence of (a) Prince Bolkonsky as Tolstoy’s version of Sir Walter Elliot, (b) his daughter Marya as Tolstoy’s combination of Sir Walter’s two unmarried daughters, Elizabeth and Anne, rolled up into one, and (c) Mlle. Bourienne as Mrs. Clay, just read the following short passage in War and Peace. As you do, take particular note of the wonderfully sly reference to “giant mirrors”, which is Tolstoy’s tip of the figurative hat to JA’s brilliant symbol for Sir Walter’s monstrous vanity. The presence of so many mirrors at Kellynch so amuses yet disconcerts the tenant, Admiral Croft,  after he moves in, that he turns all the mirrors backwards so he doesn’t have to see himself all the time! So we know even before we hear Prince Bolkonsky speak that narcissism is at the heart of his character as well!

While you’re reading this excerpt, just keep in the back of your mind, as I believe Tolstoy did in writing it, the Elliots relocating from their ancient country family estate, Kellynch, and moving to a smaller rental space in Moscow. In the capital, the Prince receives adulation that Sir Walter Elliot only fantasizes he is getting in Bath; and Marya, like Anne, is treated like a second class citizen in her own family. It’s clear to me that Tolstoy must’ve immensely enjoyed paying this covert homage to Persuasion:

“At the beginning of winter Prince Nicholas Bolkonski and his daughter moved to Moscow. At that time enthusiasm for the Emperor Alexander's regime had weakened and a patriotic and anti-French tendency prevailed there, and this, together with his past and his intellect and his originality, at once made Prince Nicholas Bolkonski AN OBJECT OF PARTICULAR RESPECT to the Moscovites and the center of the Moscow opposition to the government.
The prince had aged very much that year. He showed marked SIGNS OF SENILITY by a tendency to fall asleep, forgetfulness of quite recent events, remembrance of remote ones, and the CHILDISH VANITY with which he accepted the role of head of the Moscow opposition. In spite of this the old man inspired in all his visitors alike a feeling of respectful veneration—especially of an evening when he came in to tea in his old-fashioned coat and powdered wig and, aroused by anyone, told his abrupt stories of the past, or UTTERED yet more abrupt and SCATHING CRITICISMS OF THE PRESENT. For them all, THAT OLD-FASHIONED HOUSE WITH ITS GIGANTIC MIRRORS, pre-Revolution furniture, powdered footmen, and the stern shrewd old man (himself a relic of the past century) with his gentle daughter and the pretty Frenchwoman who were reverently devoted to him presented a majestic and agreeable spectacle. But the visitors did not reflect that besides the couple of hours during which they saw their host, there were also twenty-two hours in the day during which the private and intimate life of the house continued.
Latterly that private life had become very trying for Princess Mary. There IN MOSCOW SHE WAS DEPRIVED OF HER GREATEST PLEASURES—talks with the pilgrims and the solitude which refreshed her at Bald Hills—and she had none of the advantages and pleasures of city life. She did not go out into society; everyone knew that her father would not let her go anywhere without him, and his failing health prevented his going out himself, so that she was not invited to dinners and evening parties. She had QUITE ABANDONED THE HOPE OF GETTING MARRIED. She saw the coldness and malevolence with which the old prince received and dismissed the young men, possible suitors, who sometimes appeared at their house. She had no friends: during this visit to Moscow she had been disappointed in the two who had been nearest to her. Mademoiselle Bourienne, with whom she had never been able to be quite frank, had now become unpleasant to her, and for various reasons Princess Mary avoided her. Julie, with whom she had corresponded for the last five years, was in Moscow, but proved to be quite alien to her when they met. …In Moscow Princess Mary had no one to talk to, no one to whom to confide her sorrow, and much sorrow fell to her lot just then….But what distressed the princess most of all was HER FATHER’S IRRITABILITY, which was ALWAYS DIRECTED AGAINST HER and had of late amounted to cruelty. Had he forced her to prostrate herself to the ground all night, had he beaten her or made her fetch wood or water, it would never have entered her mind to think her position hard; but this loving despot—the more cruel because he loved her and for that reason tormented himself and her—knew how not merely to hurt and humiliate her deliberately, but to show her that SHE WAS ALWAYS TO BLAME FOR EVERYTHING. Of late he had exhibited a new trait that tormented Princess Mary more than anything else; this was his EVER-INCREASING INTIMACY WITH MADEMOISELLE BOURIENNE. The idea that at the first moment of receiving the news of his son's intentions had occurred to him in jest—that if Andrew got married he himself would marry Bourienne—had evidently pleased him, and latterly he had persistently, and as it seemed to Princess Mary merely to offend her, SHOWN SPECIAL ENDEARMENTS TO THE COMPANION and expressed his dissatisfaction with his daughter by demonstrations of love of Bourienne….”  END QUOTE FROM WAR AND PEACE

So, there you have the same extraordinary disrespect and emotional abuse a widower father rains down on his extremely loving and loyal daughter, which only accentuates the daughter’s pain and fear as she observes her father's grotesque lusting after the young, fawning, female retainer/companion. And, you also have the added parallel to Persuasion of the family leaving the ancestral home under exigent circumstances to spend time in the friendless (from the daughter’s point of view) city.

And, in both Tolstoy and Austen, that loving loyal daughter, who is no longer young, has nearly given up on love and marriage, but then in the end she is surprised to find love….with a dashing military man who performs acts of gallantry and kindness for her!

But first, with Marya Bolkonskaya as with Anne Elliot, there is a hard test of her moral taste in suitors. I had not realized before seeing Episode 5 that what is also recycled by Tolstoy from Persuasion is the smooth talking heartless money-grubbing suitor who pursues Marya’s hand in marriage, even as he sports offstage with the gold-digging young companion who, in parallel, is seeking to snare the narcissistic, very vulnerable father. It sounds VERY familiar to Janeites, because that's exactly like Anne Elliot choosing Wentworth instead of the smooth seducer her Cousin William Elliot.

And how marvelous that Tolstoy uses, to play the same role as Cousin Elliot, none other than Anatole Kuragin, who, as per my earlier post, is already playing, with his sister Helene, the same role as Henry and Mary Crawford play in Mansfield Park—so it is as if Tolstoy had a jolly good time exercising his literary ingenuity, and creating a kind of mashup of Persuasion and Mansfield Park, as if Mary and Henry Crawford had suddenly and incongruously found themselves turning the world of the Elliots upside down, instead of the Bertrams!

And, in that very regard, Tolstoy dips into the Austenian  Persuasion well (or, should I say, bath?) one last time, when he has Marya suddenly come upon Anatole and Mlle Bourienne engaged in an intimate clinch (sounds like Kellynch) -- which is precisely what happens when, just before the romantic climax of Persuasion, Anne Elliot’s sister Mary, from the window of the White Horse Inn, just happens to catch sight of Cousin Elliot in a furtive street tete a tete with Mrs. Clay, which eventually leads to the following narrative condemnation of Austen’s two schemers:

“The news of his cousin Anne's engagement burst on Mr Elliot most unexpectedly. It deranged his best plan of domestic happiness, his best hope of keeping Sir Walter single by the watchfulness which a son-in-law's rights would have given. But, though discomfited and disappointed, he could still do something for his own interest and his own enjoyment. He soon quitted Bath; and on Mrs Clay's quitting it soon afterwards, and being next heard of as established under his protection in London, it was evident how double a game he had been playing, and how determined he was to save himself from being cut out by one artful woman, at least.
Mrs Clay's affections had overpowered her interest, and she had sacrificed, for the young man's sake, the possibility of scheming longer for Sir Walter. She has abilities, however, as well as affections; and it is now a doubtful point whether his cunning, or hers, may finally carry the day; whether, after preventing her from being the wife of Sir Walter, he may not be wheedled and caressed at last into making her the wife of Sir William.”

So, there you have the principal models, I think it is clear, for Anatole Kuragin and Mlle. Bourienne ---- except that Tolstoy tweaks the ending, and adds this twist—he gives the impossibly selfless martyr Marya the extraordinary resolution to try to help bring the two schemers who deceived her get together in marriage! Even Anne Elliot was not capable of that sort of moral elevation!

And speaking of moral elevation, and apropos the romantic climax of Persuasion which occurs in Bath, I am now convinced that Tolstoy was having a final witty mischievous joke, when he wrote this dialog between the soon to be sisters in law Natasha and Marya:

"Do you know, Mary..." Natasha suddenly said with a mischievous smile such as Princess Mary had not seen on her face for a long time, "he has somehow grown so clean, smooth, and fresh—as if he had just come out of A RUSSIAN BATH; do you understand? Out of A MORAL BATH. Isn't it true?"
"Yes," replied Princess Mary. "He has greatly improved."
"With a short coat and his hair cropped; just as if, well, just as if he had come STRAIGHT FROM THE BATH... Papa used to..."
"I understand why he" (Prince Andrew) "liked no one so much as him," said Princess Mary.

So, when Natasha suddenly says, with a mischievous smile, “do you understand?”, that is also Leo Tolstoy himself, temporarily turning his happy young heroine into a ventriloquist’s dummy, and asking us, his readers, whether WE understand how much his grand epic, War and Peace, owes not only to Mansfield Park, but also to Persuasion, where Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth take their “moral bath”  together and emerge the happiest of married couples. And, I conclude by mentioning that in this clever metafictional device, I believe Tolstoy did his final borrowing from Jane Austen, who did exactly that sort of ventriloquism at strategic points in all her novels.

Cheers, ARNIE    @JaneAustenCode on Twitter

P.S.: It occurred to me only after writing the above post that Tolstoy also managed to knit together even more closely his Mansfield Park and Persuasion allusions, in Prince Andrei’s death scene. As you read the following, just think of him as a “Captain Wentworth” who actually married his “Louisa Musgrove” earlier (being Lesa—sounds just like Louisa!---the socialite wife whose (maiden)“head” he broke, eventually causing her death in childbirth). And also think of Princess Marya as “Anne Elliot” who has carried an unconscious unrequited incestuous torch for many years for her own brother, Andrei, all along, which is one good reason why she does not marry until after he is dead:

“When Natasha opened Prince Andrei's door with a familiar movement and let Princess Marya pass into the room before her, the princess felt the sobs in her throat. Hard as she had tried to prepare herself, and now tried to remain tranquil, she knew that she would be unable to look at him without tears. The princess understood what Natasha had meant by the words:‘two days ago this suddenly happened.’ She understood those words to mean that he had suddenly softened and that this softening and gentleness were signs of approaching death. As she stepped to the door she already saw in imagination Andrei's face as she remembered it in childhood, a gentle, mild, sympathetic face which he had rarely shown, and which therefore affected her very strongly. She was sure he would speak soft, tender words to her such as her father had uttered before his death, and that she would not be able to bear it and would burst into sobs in his presence. Yet sooner or later it had to be, and she went in. The sobs rose higher and higher in her throat as she more and more clearly distinguished his form and her shortsighted eyes tried to make out his features, and then she saw his face and met his gaze.
He was lying in a squirrel-fur dressing gown on a divan, surrounded by pillows. He was thin and pale. In one thin, translucently white hand he held a handkerchief, while with the other he stroked the delicate mustache he had grown, moving his fingers slowly. His eyes gazed at them as they entered. On seeing his face and meeting his eyes Princess Marya's pace suddenly slackened, she felt her tears dry up and her sobs ceased. She suddenly felt guilty and grew timid on catching the expression of his face and eyes. "But in what am I to blame?" she asked herself. And his cold, stern look replied: "Because you are alive and thinking of the living, while I..."  In the deep gaze that seemed to look not outwards but inwards there was an almost hostile expression as he slowly regarded his sister and Natasha. He kissed his sister, holding her hand in his as was their wont.
"How are you, Marya? How did you manage to get here?" said he in a voice as calm and aloof as his look.
Had he screamed in agony, that scream would not have struck such horror into Princess Mary's heart as the tone of his voice. "And have you brought little Nicholas?" he asked in the same slow, quiet manner and with an obvious effort to remember. "How are you now?" said Princess Mary, herself surprised at what she was saying. "That, my dear, you must ask the doctor," he replied, and again making an evident effort to be affectionate, he said with his lips only (his words clearly did not correspond to his thoughts):
"Merci, chere amie, d'etre venue."  ["Thank you for coming, my dear."]
Princess Marya pressed his hand. The pressure made him wince just perceptibly.He was silent and she did not know what to say. She now understood what had happened to him two days before. In his words, his tone, and especially in that calm, almost antagonistic look could be felt an estrangement from everything belonging to this world, terrible in one who is alive. Evidently only with an effort did he understand anything living; but it was obvious that he failed to understand, not because he lacked the power to do so but because he understood something else—something the living did not and could not understand—and which wholly occupied his mind.
"There, you see how strangely fate has brought us together," said he, breaking the silence and pointing to Natasha. "She looks after me all the time."


Princess Marya heard him and did not understand how he could say such a thing. He, the sensitive, tender Prince Andrei, how could he say that, BEFORE HER WHOM HE LOVED AND WHO LOVED HIM? Had he expected to live he could not have said those words in THAT OFFENSIVELY COLD TONE. If he had not known that he was dying, how could he have failed to pity her and HOW COULD HE SPEAK LIKE THAT IN HER PRESENCE? The only explanation was that he was indifferent, because something else, much more important, had been revealed to him….”

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