Having returned to my reading of War and Peace in Russian, I was looking up a dance teacher mentioned in the text named Petr Iogel (for some reason called “Vogel” in my Dunnigan translation, and I wish I knew what kind of name Iogel was) when I stumbled upon a fascinating essay by historian E. Tsimbaeva called Historical Context in a Literary Work: (Gentry Society in War and Peace) (from that link you can get to a pdf and an html file; it’s a translation of Исторический контекст в художественном образе, from Voprosy literatury, 2004). Tsimbaeva focuses on aspects of Tolstoy’s novel that contradict what she as a historian knows of early nineteenth-century Russian life. She presumes that Tolstoy was aware of his distortions, and occasionally speculates about why he made the changes, but the mere contrast between fact and fiction is sufficient to hold my attention. [Note: Anatoly in the comments links to a thread (in Russian) with fairly devastating rebuttals by therese_phil and taki_net; I had been assuming the airily sweeping tone of Tsimbaeva's article reflected a confident command of the facts, but apparently it's more a matter of superficiality. I'll add corrections in brackets as needed.]
She starts with a description of the various ways in which the opening scene, at the salon of Anna Pavlovna Scherer, a maid of honor to the Dowager Empress, is impossible: maids of honor did not hold salons [not true: see taki_net's comment, citing Shepelev's Титулы, мундиры, ордена в Российской империи (Наука, 1991) to the effect that many maids of honor left the court for long periods, got married, and had normal social lives]; they were never married [not true: see above], and “single men and women could not meet informally in a masterless house”; and “no high-society event such as the one that Scherer’s guests take their leave to attend could have been held in the July of any year during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The St. Petersburg season ended in June, when the court transferred to Tsarskoe Selo.” But what I want to highlight here is a section focusing on the presence of French in the novel (a phenomenon I discussed in this post). This comes up in her discussion of the various improbabilities in the Kuragin family, including their very odd names; Ippolit, or Hippolyte, “was Polish, Little Russian, or associated with the social miscellany that constituted the raznochintsy. It could be attached to a minor bureaucrat who never rose above the tenth rank due to his non-noble birth and poor education” but was impossible for a princely family. [Not true; therese_phil points out that it was unusual and had a foreign ring but was not at all unknown in noble families, citing many examples.] She continues:
A third method of disparaging Hippolyte is the description of his lisp-
ing, broken Russian when he, for reasons unknown to the guests and not
explained by the author, tells a story in Russian “imitating the kind of
speech that Frenchmen achieve after a year or so in Russia.” The issue
of the use of French in a Russian novel perturbed both Tolstoy and his
earliest readers and publishers. The author himself explained the abun-
dance of French phrases by the fact that during the age in question this
was “a form that expressed a French cast of mind,” that people in early
nineteenth-century Russia used French “for thought as well as speech.”
It is difficult to judge whether the author himself had been genuinely
misled or was deliberately intending to mislead his readers.
Russian nobles were not born knowing French; they had to learn it. And
how did they do that? First in the domestic setting, from a French tutor
or even without one, if French was spoken at home; then at a first-class
school; and finally, abroad. Russian children living in Russia interacted
constantly with Russian tutors, nurses, nannies, coachmen, and so forth:
so, while they spoke perfect French, they also had a command of Russian,
although what they said was sometimes incorrect or overly colloquial.
Russian children who were educated abroad really did not know their
native language and for the rest of their lives spoke it with an accent.
Though Hippolyte and Anatole were educated abroad, that was a
concept with extremely limited application during the age in question.
Hippolyte, for one, could not have been educated in France. [But they could, for example, have gotten a fine French education in Switzerland, as therese_phil points out; this entire discussion is wrongheaded, including the supposed examples of Russians who did not know French well: "Dmitriev, who 'did not speak French,' translated French prose by the kilometer and wrote letters in that language (and his contemporary Karamzin, who according to Ts. did not have the chance to learn French well, was perfectly at home in it)."]
… The French language was, to be sure, not at all out
of place in Scherer’s salon, inasmuch as the hostess herself and half of
her guests were of foreign extraction. But their “foreign cast of mind”
must not be straightforwardly extrapolated to the mindset of Russia’s
I don’t know about you, but I can’t get enough of that stuff, and there’s plenty more. (To give another tidbit, in a discussion of Pierre, who in the novel inherits the Bezukhov title, she says “There are no instances in Russian history of a title being passed to an illegitimate offspring, so here too, Tolstoy was not allowing himself to be ruled by reality.) Good for Russian Studies in Literature for publishing the translation. [But it would be nice if they had a follow-up with corrections!]