I have been culling my book collection and was left with a stack of books I have been meaning to read but haven’t got round to yet. One of these books was Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. It is a lengthy novel in eight parts so I found it a bit intimidating to start but am really glad I did as I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is amazing to think it all would have been originally written by hand with a dip pen.
Tolstoy’s desk at his home in Yasnaya Polyana
While there is lots to say about Tolstoy’s insights into relationships and society, this blog is not the place to discuss themes. Instead, I am keeping my comments to the glimpse Anna Karenina gives into the desks of the 1870’s. There were three aspects in particular that really struck me.
First, without phones, texts,or email, they are forever writing to each other. These notes and letters are both about the trivial and the serious. For example in one chapter, Anna’s maid brings a note from Betsy reminding her stop by, “She brought her dress and a note. The note was from Betsy. Betsy was reminding her that this morning Liza Merkalova and Baroness Stolz were to come to her house with their admirers, Kaluzhsky and the old man Stremove, for a game of croquet.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 26). Later on in the chapter, a letter is also the way Anna chooses to tell her husband that she is leaving him, “But first I must write them both. She quickly went into the house, to her sitting room, sat down at her desk, and wrote her husband.” (Part 3, Chapter 15, p. 267).
Anna wasn’t the only one receiving and writing notes. “Countess Lydia Ivanovna ordinarily wrote Alexei Alexandrovich two or three notes a day. She loved this process of communication with him, which had an elegance and mystery that was lacking in her personal dealings.” (Part 5, Chapter 23, p. 471).
Secondly, paper knives show up repeatedly. In the early days of book printing, pages were printed on long strips of paper that were accordion folded and bound into the spine so the reader had to cut the edges of the paper to see the part that was printed on the inside. There is a great explanation of this in The Regency Redingote blog. Paper knives were the special knives that were used to cut the pages and would have been part of any good desk set. They are often mentioned in Anna Karenina. For example, Anna while on a train “out of her handbag took a paper knife and an English novel” (Part 1, Chapter 29, p. 93). She has trouble concentrating so ends up fidgeting with it, “She ran the paper knife across the glass, then pressed its smooth cold surface to her cheek” (p. 94).
Paper knives also seemed to be a popular tourist item. When Prince Shcherbatsky joined his family after a trip to Baden and Kissingen, he brought presents that included paper knives. “The prince had spread out his purchases beside him, the carved chests, spillikins, and paper knives of all kinds which he bought such a pile of at all the spas and gave out to everyone” (Part 2, Chapter 35, p. 214).
Finally, some things never change. They appreciated pens and paper just like I do, especially Alexei Alexandrovich. “Two assistants were writing at their desks, scratching with their pens. The writing implements, for which Alexei Alexandrovich was a great enthusiast, were uncommonly fine; Alexei Alexandrovich could not help but notice this.” (Part 4, Chapter 5, p. 336). “After folding the letter, smoothing it with his massive ivory paper knife, and putting it into an envelope with the money, he, with the satisfaction that his well-made writing implements always afforded in him, rang the bell.” (Part 3, Chapter 14, p. 261). Others also paid attention to these things, “Lydia Ivanovna had already begun to calm down when the next morning she was brought a note whose handwriting she recognized with horror. It was the handwriting of Anna Karenina. The envelope was made of paper as thick as a strip of bast; on the oblong yellow paper was a large monogram, and the letter smelled beautiful.” (Part 5, Chapter. 23, p. 470).
These peeks into the 1870s were fascinating to me and were just one of the pleasures of reading a classic novel. The quotes used here are from a 2014 translation by Marian Schwartz. My own copy was a yellowing paperback from 1961 translated by David Magarshack. The tiny print and weird smell of the paper were unappealing so I went to the library and discovered many other versions. My favourite to read was the translation by Louise and Aylmer Maude because of the consistent way they referred to the characters’ names but I liked Schwartz’s turn of phrase so used it for the quotes.
I am not going to give my impression of what Anna Karenina would be like if she were a person because there is a whole book that describes that. Instead I’ll offer up a theme song for her, Release Me. Here are the lyrics:
Please, release me, let me go,
For I don’t love you anymore.
To waste our lives would be a sin,
Release me and let me love again.
I have found a new love, dear,
And I will always want him near.
His lips are warm while yours are cold
Release me, my darling, let me go.