Book Review: War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

By Holly Marsden

Queenship and Francophilia in Tolstoy’s War and Peace

Tolstoy’s War and Peace was first published as a selection of short stories before its novel format in 1869. Beginning in July 1805 and ending in 1820, the epic story depicts the Napoleonic invasion of Russia and its effects on five aristocratic families. Although queenship is not a main focus of the novel, Tolstoy provides an interesting insight into the power of Russian queens and their cultural ties. It should be noted that this review references the Wordsworth Classics edition which is in translation, bringing with it the politics and challenges of reading in translation.

Book One opens to a reception held by Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honour and favourite, as noted in the novel, to Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna. Although many of Tolstoy’s characters are fictional, Feodorovna was the true queen mother at the time. Born Sophie Dorothea of Württemberg in 1759 in Prussia, she was chosen to marry widower Grand Duke Paul in 1796. Feodorovna then converted to the Russian Orthodox Church, hence the change of name. Her husband ascended to the throne as Tsar Paul I in 1796 but was assassinated four years later. Though she considered appealing for the throne, her son Alexander I took over, and Feodorovna became Empress Dowager.

Feodorovna was chosen as Paul’s wife by her great aunt and Paul’s mother, Catherine II, or Catherine the Great. Catherine’s influence is littered throughout Tolstoy’s novel, who centres a lot of the action in the Russian court in St Petersburg. The court in its contemporary form had been highly influenced by Catharine’s rule. Although the original text of the novel is primarily in Russian, French text makes up a significant amount of the spoken words of the characters. The courtiers also display Francophilic tastes and sentiments. This was down to Catherine II, who introduced French culture and language to the Russian court earlier in the eighteenth century. It was expected of Russian courtiers to speak French as fluently as Russian, exemplified in Anna Pavlova writing the invitations to her party only in French, “without exception” (page 3). Tolstoy introduces this linguistic influence playfully in the context of a literal French invasion.

Dowager Empress Maria Feodorovna does not play a huge role in the novel, though is a constant presence in the background of the court milieu. Tolstoy’s mentioning of her is unsurprising as she was the most powerful woman in Russia at the time, even more so than the Tsar’s wife, consort Empress Elisabeth Alexeievna (whom Tolstoy does not even mention). Anna Pavlovna demonstrates her love for her boss by, at the mention of her name by a guest at the party, assuming an expression “of profound and sincere devotion and respect, and this occurred every time she mentioned her illustrious patroness” (page 5). Pavlovna’s emotional response demonstrates a great fondness for the Empress who, as insinuated by Tolstoy, was equally as empathetic for those around her.

The opening of Book Twelve describes the ‘complicated struggle’ between different groups and individuals at court including Feodorovna and her daughter in-law, the two empresses. As well as struggling with the competing ideologies of different political parties, Tolstoy writes that the court was fearful for the Russian people, a result of Napoleon’s recent conquests. The empresses are written to react differently to this danger. Empress Elisabeth says she will be the last to leave St Petersburg and that she cannot give instructions for the people, as this is only the monarch’s duty. Opposingly, Tolstoy portrays the strength of Empress Dowager, writing that “The Empress Maria, concerned for the welfare for the charitable and educational institutions under her patronage, had given directions that they should all be removed to Kazán, and the things belonging to these institutions had already been packed up” (page 737).

Tolstoy rightly reflects Feodorovna’s role in overseeing all of the charitable institutions in the empire, which she had begun after her coronation. Being a patron of charities is a widely recognised role of queenship and contributes to the cultivation of traditionally ideal female leadership. Tolstoy also portrays Feodorovna’s unapologetic attitude, who stood by what she believed in. Moreover, the Empress Dowager’s empathy for the institutions she looks after led her to approach her fear proactively in order to protect them. Tolstoy then writes Feodorovna as a skilful leader, especially in comparison to her rival empress. The character (as representative of the real person), then, seems utterly worthy of Pavlovna’s visceral response to the mentioning of her name.

Despite Tolstoy’s clear patriarchal influence, which means the Empress Dowager and her achievements have been largely omitted from War and Peace, the portrayal of her character harks to her real-life gumption, skill and people-centred politics. The novel also highlights the influence of Catherine the Great through Francophilia in the Russian court. Thus, Tolstoy’s novel celebrates two of the Russian court’s most powerful elite women.

Bibliography and recommended reading:

Lincoln, W. Bruce. The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians. New York City, Doubleday, 1983.

Massie, Robert K. Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman. London: Head of Zeus, 2012.

Tolstoy, Leo. War and Peace. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Classics, 1993.

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