By Amy Mandelker
When Anna Karenina wanted a good book to read to take her mind off of her problems as she rode the night train from Moscow to St. Petersburg, she reached for an English novel. She was not the only Russian woman of her time who would make that choice. French novels were considered to be dangerous reading for women and girls of good character, and Russian literature was just coming into its own. In fact, Tolstoy once observed, "We Russians don't know how to write novels the way the European authors do." Tolstoy was a lifelong admirer and reader of English literature, commenting favorably on Anthony Trollope and several women authors of Victorian fiction. He considered the great British novelists of his age, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray and George Eliot, to be major artistic influences on his own prose.
High Praise for Romance
Tolstoy's highest praise was reserved for Dickens, whose picture hung over his desk. In Dickens' Dombey and Son, Edith Dombey, like Anna, is a stunning beauty married to a wealthy but heartless man whose view of her as a beautiful possession eventually drives her to leave him for another man. Of Trollope, who wrote many "provincial" Victorian novels, Tolstoy wrote, "He kills me with his mastery!" It is generally considered that the English novel Anna reads on the train is in the style of Trollope. Her book contains all the ingredients of a good Trollope novel: hunting, speeches in parliament, a hero's desire for a country estate.
The Trollope novel that is most similar in plot to Anna Karenina is Can You Forgive Her? In this first novel of Trollope's Palliser series, Alice, like Kitty, must choose between two suitors while her friend, Lady Glencora, is married off to a dry, bureaucratic statesman, Plantagenet Palliser. Like many another Victorian heroine, Lady Glencora finds that her role as a mother is more vital to her happiness than romantic passion. In contrast to the French housewife such as Emma Bovary, who is carried away by the romance of passion in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, Victorian adulteresses seem to lack sexuality. They resist longer and often never actually commit adultery at all. Even the passionate Catherine Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë never deceives or leaves her husband Linton for her star-crossed lover Heathcliffe. Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre refuses to become Rochester's mistress when she learns he has a wife. And when a wife and mother in a Victorian novel does leave her family for another man, the remainder of the novel frequently details her anguish over losing her children.
The Importance of Freedom and Family
Tolstoy understood from the English Victorian novel that a desperate need for love may not be as important to the heroine's story as the less tempestuous but no less urgent need for the expression of individual freedom. For example, in George Eliot's Middlemarch, the heroine Dorothea would like to develop her own intellect, but the only way for her to participate in the world of scholarship is to marry a scholar and serve as his assistant. In the course of the novel, she discovers that her husband is not the brilliant and high-minded intellectual she imagined him to be and finds herself falling in love with a young artist. Yet, like Jane Eyre she waits until she may legally marry the man she loves.
Victorian heroes and heroines