Posted by Stephany Aulenback on February 23, 2012 at 09:51 AM in Art, Babies in Literature, Books, Bright Ideas, Child Psychology, Childhood, Failed Projects, Illustration, Literary Parents, Parenting, Parodies of Children's Books, Stuff for Kids, The Baby, Writers, Writing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
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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.
Anna Karenina's husband, Alexei Alexandrovich Karenin, is a contradictory character I can't quite figure out. I can't decide if he isn't particularly well-drawn or if he's actually so well-drawn that he's as difficult to put in a box as a real human being would be -- but I suspect it's the latter. Poor Karenin is a dull fellow, deeply concerned with appearances, who can sometimes be very unpleasant. And yet he's got some endearing qualities, too, like the way he responds to Anna's plea for forgiveness when she thinks she is dying from puerperal fever after giving birth to little Annie, her lover Vronsky's child, and especially the way he responds to the newborn:
He forgave his wife and pitied her for her sufferings and repentance. He forgave Vronsky and pitied him, especially after rumours reached him of his desperate act. He also pitied his son more than before, and now reproached himself for having been too little concerned with him. But for the newborn little girl he had some special feeling, not only of pity but also of tenderness. At first it was only out of compassion that he concerned himself with the newborn, weak little girl, who was not his daughter and who was neglected during her mother's illness and would probably have died if he had not looked after her -- and he did not notice how he came to love her. He went to the nursery several times a day and sat there for a long while, so that the wet nurse and the nanny, who were intimidated at first, became used to him. He would sometimes spend half an hour silently gazing at the saffron-red, downy and wrinkled little face of the sleeping baby, watching the movements of her scowling forehead and plump little hands with curled fingers that rubbed her little eyes and nose with their backs. At such moments especially Alexei Alexandrovich felt utterly at peace and in harmony with himself, and saw nothing extraordinary in his situation, nothing that needed to be changed.
But the more time that passed, the more clearly he saw that, natural as this situation was for him now, he would not be allowed to remain in it. He felt that, besides the good spiritual force that guided his soul, there was another force, crude and equally powerful, if not more so, that guided his life, and that this force would not give him the humble peace he desired. He felt that everybody looked at him with questioning surprise, not understanding him and expecting something from him. In particular, he felt the precariousness and unnaturalness of his relations with his wife.
Okay, here's something you really shouldn't miss. One of my favourite writers, Kelly Link, author of the critically acclaimed -- and very fabulous -- story collections Stranger Things Happen and Magic for Beginners, is doing a blog tour for her Young Adult collection Pretty Monsters. She is doing guest posts for a number of blogs and they are riveting. Link recently had a baby girl, Ursula*, who was born at 24 weeks and therefore had a long and harrowing stay in the NICU. Start here:
I could hardly stand being in the NICU at first. We knew that Ursula’s situation was precarious. Almost half of babies born at 24 weeks don’t survive. (Before my pregnancy became high risk, I didn’t know that any babies could be born so early, so small, and go on to thrive.) A majority of those babies that do survive end up with serious complications of one kind or another due to the therapies that keep them alive as well as due, simply, to their extreme prematurity. The gregarious nurse assigned to Ursula that first day told us immediately, well, it’s good that she’s a girl. Girls have a better chance of survival. The next day when we went up, he said, well, she’s still alive. The first twenty-four hours are really crucial. The next day he said, she’s still alive — that’s good. The first 48 hours are crucial. After a week had passed, when a nurse told us that the first week was the period of greatest danger — and so it was a good sign that she had made it through — we weren’t surprised.
Then go here:
I didn’t write any stories during this period. Maybe this is because the kinds of stories that I write don’t have the kind of happy, conclusive ending that I longed for, so badly, for so many months, in my own life. Maybe I didn’t write because it was always going to be hard to write while you are a new parent.
I was never the girl the vampire fell in love with. Or the girl who discovered her destiny was to kick vampire ass. For that matter, for a long time I was sure that I would never find love. I was fairly sure I would end up an old maid, living in a house full of cats. Except even cats were never as smitten with me as I with them. I would have been the old maid living in a house full of iguanas. I’ve had a pet iguana: it doesn’t break your heart that your iguana doesn’t love you. You don’t expect love from an iguana. But I digress. What I’m trying to say is that many of my characters are faint of heart, like me. They aren’t especially heroic. If they get involved in dramatic situations, let’s say, with werewolves, it tends to be a terrible mistake: maybe they did something stupid. Or maybe someone else dragged them in. Me, I’ve always been concerned about the fact that I can’t drive stick shift. Come the zombie apocalypse, or the werewolf attack, I’ll be the one sitting in the driver’s seat of the getaway car, crying hysterically while I flood the clutch.
And here Kelly provides lists of her favourite romance and paranormal romance novels and favourite paranormal romance in other media. I'm bookmarking those, so I can work my way through them.
*Kelly's baby daughter's name, Ursula, means "Little Bear." The Little Dipper is also known as Ursa Minor or Little Bear and it contains within its constellation Polaris, the North Star, which is the most well-known and widely used directional star. Clearly Ursula is a very good name.
I've just finished a binge on Shirley Jackson's stuff. I love both her lighthearted family memoirs and her short stories and novels. She does creepy extraordinarily well -- I do most of my reading in bed, next to the sleeping Sylvie and Luke, and I finally had to restrict The Haunting of Hill House to daylight hours. I was starting to imagine that our house was haunted, especially the other night when I got up at 4am to feed Sylvie and heard disturbing crooning and radio-static noises coming from somewhere downstairs. I roused David and we both crept through the eerie dark looking for the source. It turned out to be a musical birthday candle we'd had on David's birthday cake earlier that day -- it was singing its death throes in the garbage can.
I gather from Jackson's biography that much of her supposed non-fiction writing about her real life was fictionalized. I suppose it's hard for a good storyteller not to embellish. But those who do likewise when they write about their kids should take note of this, from Private Demons: The Life of Shirley Jackson:
For the past five or six months I've been reading a lot of biographies, autobiographies, and memoirs. Every few years I tend to go through a stage when I binge on them. Just this past week, for instance, I finished Private Demons, Judy Oppenheimer's biography of Shirley Jackson. It left me telling everyone, only half tongue-in-cheek, that I wish I could take amphetamines like Jackson did in order to stave off exhaustion. If I could only get my hands on some speed, I aver, I could probably toss off a literary masterpiece in the intervals between Sylvie's night feedings. Jackson's family doctor prescribed them to her -- a lot of busy housewives in the 1950s took them as a matter of course and Jackson not only had four children, she also was one of the few mothers in her small town who worked at something else. Unfortunately, the amphetamines meant she had to take tranquilizers in order to sleep and the drugs are now thought to have contributed to her early death at age 48.
Shirley Jackson might have been a part-time mommy-blogger, had she lived in the internet age. I think I was looking for We Have Always Lived in the Castle at the library and, as so often happens, they didn't have it, so I scooped up something else by the writer instead. In this case, it was Life Among the Savages, a memoir of her life raising three small children in Vermont. It is a direct ancestor of the current crop of mothering memoirs -- someone should put together a history of the genre -- and it shares their frequently jokey "if I didn't laugh, I'd cry" tone, a tone so different from that used in "The Lottery" that I had to check to make sure this was the same Shirley Jackson. The beginning sucked me in completely:
Very modern, isn't it, in its arch breeziness about wanting simplicity -- and not having it? The book was published in 1953.
Chester [Kallman, W. H. Auden's young lover] once described ... a time when he and Auden were riding the subway to Chester's grandmother's house and began to argue over which psychological roles they played with each other. As the other passengers looked on in disbelief, Auden shouted over the roar of the train, "I am not your father, I'm your mother!" and Chester yelled back, "You're not my mother! I'm your mother...You're my father!" "But you've got a father!" Auden countered. "I'm your bloody mother and that's that, darling! You've been looking for a mother since the age of four!"
Novelist Julia Glass, who writes beautifully about families and who has two sons of her own, talks about the books that have most influenced her mothering, including The Earliest Relationship, A Stone Boat, The Wonder of Boys (which my mom has given me but I have not yet read), The Stardust Lounge, The Important Book, and What Is God?
I'm particularly intrigued by that last one. Ever since my dear childhood friend Sara asked me to be one of her daughter Jennifer's godparents, I've been musing on the subject of how best to teach Luke about religion and spirituality. (In Jennifer's case my role is more a social one than religious -- although I did just purchase her a mini Ostheimer nativity set.)
While all three of Luke's living grandparents have strong religious beliefs, David is pretty dead set against organized religion and the notion of a personal God who, he would argue, behaves like a bipolar Santa Claus. I guess that, when pressed, I'd have to say that I'm an agnostic. But I feel pretty strongly (yet vaguely) that there's more to all this than... all this. What's more, I strongly believe that many of the stories from the various religious traditions are based on universal truths, that these stories are invested with a special kind of power, and that we should all be familiar with them. David and I agree that we need to be open-minded and respectful when talking about this subject with Luke and to stress that different people believe different things and that it's important to be tolerant. I've been looking for simple picture books that introduce the concept of God and religion for a couple of weeks now and What Is God? looks like it might be good. Two others that are on my radar are Because Nothing Looks Like God and In God's Name but I haven't held either one in my hands just yet.
I have to say, as I have said before, that Cookie magazine's "On My Nightstand" column, in which writers highlight the books that have helped to shape their parenting, is a really terrific feature.