Most readers of Anna Karenina are interested to learn that many of the details of Kitty and Levin's romance, courtship and marriage are drawn from the author's relationship with his wife Sonya Behrs. Descriptions of the flirtations, courtships, engagements and marriages in other works by Tolstoy are also drawn from the romances he observed in his wife's family; for example, the Rostov family in War and Peace and the adolescents who fall in love in the early pages of the novel are inspired by real-life love affairs in the Behrs family. In the same way, the problems most of the married couples face in his stories and books resemble the experiences of his family and friends: infidelity, misunderstandings, incompatibility, jealousy and illegitimate children.
English novels, the most popular fiction of Tolstoy's time, end with the couple getting married; instead, Tolstoy argued, they should begin with that event and explore what happens next—which is what he did in his work. Tolstoy had seen young people passionately in love, as he and his wife once were, whose marriages, like his own, ended in disaster; he had seen his own sister's life ruined by her husband's many affairs. These family tragedies challenged young Tolstoy's dreams of family happiness so much so that when he began writing Anna Karenina, as he later explained, he was absorbed in trying to understand the idea of the family.
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. How did Tolstoy leverage his life experience to enrich his characters? Just as Levin does with Kitty in Anna Karenina, all of the details of Tolstoy's previous life were written down in his diaries and, like Levin, Leo demanded his future bride to read them before their marriage. Also like Levin, Tolstoy wrote the beginnings of a declaration of love to Sonya in initials with chalk on a table. The scene is described in Anna Karenina and also in War and Peace when Natasha Rostova hides from the company and overhears a lover's tryst. Sonya Behrs' younger sister, Tanya, on whom the character of Natasha is based, had hidden from the company and witnessed Tolstoy and Sonya, breathlessly in love, poring over the chalk ciphers where no one could see them. Tanya broke the news to Sonya's parents that the famous writer, Count Tolstoy, was not going to marry sister Lisa as everyone expected, but was going to marry Sonya instead. Although in Anna Karenina, Count Shcherbatsky immediately gives his blessing to Levin, this was not the case with poor Tolstoy. Dr. Behrs, Sonya's father, was strongly opposed to the match and had to be brought around by the rest of the family.
The descriptions of Levin's eagerness to marry Kitty "tomorrow" without a trousseau or longer engagement and the scene where Kitty meets Levin before the rest of the family is awake and runs into his arms, are both drawn from Leo and Sonya's own experience. And Tolstoy really did find himself without a shirt on his wedding day and was late to his own wedding ceremony. The honeymoon, the bride's pregnancy, the delivery of the first-born son, these are all sketched from Tolstoy's own life. Most of Levin's efforts to restructure his estate and engage in ongoing agricultural reform reflect Tolstoy's own struggles as a Russian landlord during this time. The name Levin is even drawn from the Russian form of Tolstoy's own first name, Lev. As his wife, Sonya later wrote: "Levin is [Leo], but without the talent. An impossible man!"
Sonya and Leo struggled with the extreme passion they felt for each other and the heated arguments that often kept them apart. The power of sexual attraction and the dissonance it creates in male-female relations, married or not, haunted Tolstoy throughout his life. Tolstoy personally seemed incapable of reconciling sexual passion with marital relations, and as his life went on, he began to view sexuality as an evil, destructive force, and marriage as a type of licensed debauchery, with wives enslaved in a type of socially approved prostitution. His view seems strangely misogynist and feminist at the same time. For example, Tolstoy describes in The Kreutzer Sonata how a husband, enraged with jealousy, murders his wife, yet in the novel, Resurrection, he shows how a woman is destroyed by men's sexual needs. The first chapters of Resurrection are among the greatest that Tolstoy ever wrote. The first part of the novel narrates a luminous, achingly sweet and passionate sexual affair between a landowner and a dependent young woman on his estate. When the affair ends, the young woman is pregnant and outcast, and forced to become a prostitute.