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Love and Hate: A Tolstoy Family Tale

One of the most famous sentences in literature is the opening of Leo Tolstoy's novel Anna Karenina: "All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way."

Tolstoy's own marriage seems to have fallen into the second category. He and his wife, Sophia, had 13 children together. She was an invaluable assistant in his work, hand copying his manuscripts.

But Sophia, a countess from Russia's aristocracy, was impatient with Tolstoy's ideas about social reform and a simpler life. And he had little sympathy with her interests in music and photography.

Leah Bendavid-Val, author of Song Without Words: The Photographs and Diaries of Countess Sophia Tolstoy, says Sophia's family provided Leo Tolstoy with characters for his books. For example, in War and Peace, the heroine Natasha is modeled after Sophia's younger sister, Tanya.

The Tolstoys' marriage started off "in a beautiful way," Bendavid-Val tells Deborah Amos. "They were madly in love when they got married in 1862, and they shared everything, including their diaries. They used their diaries to talk to each other.

"She copied his manuscripts and he listened to her opinions, which was very gratifying to her," Bendavid-Val says.

But in nearly 50 years of marriage, the couple had a love-hate relationship, the author says.

Both Sophia and Leo were "very emotional, very passionate, and their love was full and passionate and deep and rich — and so was their hatred," Bendavid-Val says. "And unfortunately, the hatred seems to have won out in the end."

Sophia became obsessively afraid that Leo had written a new will. He overheard her searching his study for the document and became outraged. He decided it was the last straw and left his wife. He became very ill on the train and died shortly thereafter.

"They needed each other," Bendavid-Val says. "Neither of them could have lived as full and rich a life without the other."

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