According to Alexandra Popoff, author of Sophia Tolstoy: A Biography, Leo Tolstoy's wife has been maligned by history. Popoff, who had access to a great deal of previously inaccessible archival materials, explains that it all stems from Tolstoy's final years, when he experienced a religious conversion that led him to renounce his marriage, his family, and his property (or try to). However much Tolstoy may have believed in his principles of poverty and chastity, this renunciation put his wife in a completely untenable position. Sophia was left to look after the couple's eight surviving children pretty much on her own. Clearly Tolstoy felt some responsibility to his family, because he kept waffling on property and money matters. Admittedly, Sophia kept fighting him on these -- who wouldn't, when she had eight children to feed, clothe, and educate? He also kept waffling on the matter of sex -- he kept sleeping with Sophia and then blaming the matronly woman for being a seductress. Tolstoy's most famous follower, Vladimir Chertkoff, managed to insinuate himself between the couple in Tolstoy's final years and ended up controlling his literary works after his death. Popoff argues that it is he who is most responsible for discrediting Sophia Tolstoy's character. This book is a must-read for anyone who is interested in Tolstoy, and really, anyone who is interested in the concept of marriage and women's historical role within it.
Tolstoy was a literary genius, to be sure, but he also must have been infuriating to be married to. Sophia was not only Tolstoy's muse, she was a tireless worker who devoted all her efforts to creating the proper environment for her husband to write in. She was Tolstoy's copyist and later his publisher. She managed his home and often his estate and related business matters. She made most of the childrearing and educational decisions on her own. (At one point, when she asked about appropriate education for one of their teenage sons, her husband brushed her off with a comment that he should become a street sweeper or the like because of his own religious beliefs against taking part in a money-based economy.) Sophia gave birth to thirteen children, although she wanted to stop after seven or so -- but Tolstoy wouldn't allow birth control. She breastfed all these babies herself at Tolstoy's insistence even though it never became easy for her (she often developed mastitis) and most women of her position employed wet nurses. And she watched six of her children die. Exhausted and completely emotionally and physically spent, at times Sophia wanted to end these pregnancies:
By now, she was certain of her [twelfth] pregnancy. As she wrote her sister, she felt like "screaming of despair and rage."
Told the news, Tolstoy wrote he was glad they would have a child; Sophia's unhappiness came from her revolté. It would be easier for her and people around her if she assumed a more accepting attitude: "Why can't you surrender?" Sophia thought his position was morally superior and felt crushed. "If I were bad before, now I am loathsome! And if you were good, you have become so much better!" Her pregnancy explained her abnormal state, Tolstoy replied: "I know, I've heard, that it's terribly oppressive for the soul."
Meanwhile, Sophia attempted to induce a miscarriage: she took scalding baths and jumped from a dresser. To a nanny who tried to talk her out of it, she said that Tolstoy considered leaving her and their children. When her attempts failed, she approached a midwife in Tula, asking for an abortion. The midwife, afraid of exposure, refused: she would perform an abortion for someone else, but not for Countess Tolstoy.
At times, Sophia Tolstoy wanted to end her own life.
You can read a brief excerpt from the biography here.