Friday, September 9, 2011

Princess Mary Bolkonski, Lesbians for Jane?

This idea may seem a little odd, or sudden, but just stick with me. At least for a bit.

The reader's reactions to a passage have always been a very important thing to notice while analyzing a text. While I was reading War and Peace, Book 14: Bald Hills. Prince N. A. Bolkonski. Princess Mary's Correspondence with Julie Karagina. I couldn't get this idea out of my head. Is Mary lesbian? Is she in love with Jane? Are they sharing words of love or just deep friendship? I have tried to analyze this idea, see what you think.

The main focus of Book 14 are the letters between Mary and Jane. The first letter that Tolstoy let us read between these lovers was one written by Jane and given to Mary. When Mary first heard about her latest letter "red patches showed themselves on [Mary's] face (76)". I won't include the entirety of this letter, only the first passage. I do this because this whole paragraph is nothing but sappy tales of love.

Dear and precious Friend, How terrible and frightful a thing is separation! Though I tell myself that half my life and half my happiness are wrapped up in you, and that in spite of the distance separating us our hearts are united by indissoluble bonds, my heart rebels against fate and in spite of the pleasure and distractions around me I cannot overcome a certain severer sorrow that has been in my heart ever since we parted. Why are we not together as we were last summer, in your big study on the blue sofa, the confidential sofa? Why cannot I now, as three months ago, draw fresh moral strength from your look, so gentle, calm, and penetrating, a look I loved so well and seem to see before me as I write? (78)

Jane finishes her letter with the phrase, "I embrace you as I love you (79)". I find that this letter clearly has tones of Romanticism, which makes me wonder what Tolstoy's purpose in this was.

Mary opens her responding letter with, "Dear and precious Friend, Your letter of the 13th has given me a great delight. So you still love me, my romantic Julie? (79)". Although Mary's letter doesn't have as many words of love, her opinion towards the sanctity of marriage is interesting. "I will tell you, dear sweet friend, that I look on marriage as a divine institution to which we must conform (80)" . These women talk of how they must wed and of decent suitors, but they never express the possibility of loving their husband.

I can't be certain of Tolstoy's purpose in having this exchange. Maybe he himself didn't even understand the possibilities of sexuality and just used his observations as a social commentary. Honestly, I might be going to far. But something is definitely up.


  1. Its interesting, because when I first read these letters, I noticed that the emotions described are almost exactly what you would see in almost any other book as a love letter. I agree that this reads a lot like a romantic longing, but at the same time, if you read Jane Austen you will see the same types of letters exchanged between good friends, family, even relatively distant acquaintances. So the question is, is this simply the way you express a sense of intimacy in this time period? Or is there a deeper commentary possibly on women's capability to love Tolstoy is trying to convey? I believe there is possibly something between these two women, but that it will always manifest itself in the socially acceptable form of a close and intimate friendship. Thank you for bringing this up!!

  2. I have never thought of that letter as such! It is amazing how different our perspectives on this topic can be. Now that I have read you post, Teddy, I can understand you view and what made you feel this way, but I would not have thought about it myself! As Kirsten said, you can see the same kind of affectionate writing in most of Jane Austen's novels and I considered Mary's letter just one of the same kind. Now that I think about it, Mary is also very fond of Mademoiselle Bourienne, whom she willingly allows to take her destined husband from her. Is she hiding behind religion to disguise her wish for love and her infatuation with persons of the same sex?

  3. As Kirsten brought up I think that these communications between these two women are most likely just expressions of friendship and flattery. I think flowery Romantic language used by Mary and Julie is meant to reflect their bourgeois status. Also in Julie’s letter when she talks about Nicholas she says “Count Nicholas is too young ever to be more to me than a friend(78)” which seem to indicate that she has feelings for him.

  4. A thought-provoking post, Teddy. I do think David's point about Romantic language is important and, as Kirsten and Iulia mention, this language is common to 19th-century life and literature.