What was the real-life courtship and marriage of Leo and Sonya like?  Like Levin's love for the Shcherbatskys, which first drew him to friendship with the older brother, then admiration for Dolly and finally marriage to Kitty, Count Leo Nikolaevich Tolstoy picked out the family he would marry into before he actually chose his bride. He had always planned to marry one of the daughters of his childhood sweetheart, Liubov Behrs. Although the family expected him to choose the eldest daughter, Lisa, Tolstoy found himself captivated instead by the middle sister, Sonya. He began to fall for Sonya when she was still a child of 14: "If she were four years older, I would propose to her now," he wrote to a friend. And, in fact, four years later he did propose.

It was a challenge to Tolstoy to bring the proposal about. He realized that all of his visits to the Behrs' home were misunderstood because the entire family expected him to propose to Lisa. He also feared that Sonya would never be able to fall in love with a man 16 years senior, with a past like his own—he had gambled away the house on his family's estate, he had numerous love affairs, bouts with venereal disease and an illegitimate son with a married peasant woman who lived on his estate. Tolstoy was anxious to marry in order to satisfy his physical needs and break off his affair with the peasant woman.

Married life with Tolstoy was extremely trying for young Sonya; both Leo and Sonya were passionate, idealistic, emotionally volatile and madly in love with each other. They kept diaries, which they both read and in which they detailed every argument, every shade of feeling and transition in their relationship. From these records we learn that Leo refused to have sex with his wife once she became pregnant; he even described her as a china doll on a china pedestal with an enlarged, pregnant belly. Sonya was agitated and distressed by what she felt to be rejection of her love for him: "If I am only a doll, a 'wife' and not a human being, then it is all useless." In her misery, she also wrote, "If I could kill him, and make another man just like him, I would do it joyfully!" Because both Leo and Sonya were wildly jealous of one another, social visitors to their estate Yasnaya Polyana in the early years of their marriage were a constant source of anxiety and strife. Something of the domestic turmoil that resulted appears in Part Six of Anna Karenina when Levin turns Vasenka Veslovsky out of the house because he flirts with Kitty.


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