Leo Tolstoy’s wife helped him write “War and Peace.”

  • Illustration of Tolstoy
Illustration of Tolstoy
Photo credit: ilbusca/ Getty Images

As the saying goes, “behind every great man is a great woman,” and that apparently includes renowned Russian novelists. To wit: Leo Tolstoy’s wife, Sofya Tolstoy, helped him write War and Peace, one of the most influential works of literature in history. (That it isn’t universally considered Tolstoy’s magnum opus is a testament to his prowess, as Anna Karenina is equally revered.) The couple married in 1862, when Leo was 34 and Sofya was 18, and began their informal collaboration on Tolstoy’s sprawling tome the following year. In addition to sitting with him as he wrote, Sofya was also the first set of eyes on the manuscript and suggested changes along the way — including the removal of a graphic scene that took place during one of the main characters’ wedding nights.

As the first typewriter had yet to be invented at the time, Tolstoy naturally wrote the book by hand — not that his penmanship was particularly easy to read. Perhaps the most important project Sofya undertook, according to biographer Rosamund Bartlett’s Tolstoy: A Russian Life, was taking her husband’s “execrable handwriting, and then preparing a legible final draft of the manuscript,” an undertaking described as “a gargantuan task.” She sometimes had to use a magnifying glass to decipher the author’s chicken scratch and rewrote the entire manuscript eight times. Leo and Sofya’s far-from-perfect relationship is dramatized in 2009’s The Last Station, starring Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, both of whom received Academy Award nominations for their performances.

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