In Part 3 of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy has Dolly decamp to her country house to save money. It’s an expedient move: the fishmonger, the woodmaker and the shoemonger are chasing for unpaid debts. Her daughter has been very ill. Her husband has been sleeping with the nanny of their six children. She goes away with her children, believing that the country will offer “salvation from all city troubles, that life there, though not elegant…[is] cheap and comfortable.” (I am quoting here from the award-winning translationby crack husband-and-wife team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.)
Country houses were no joke in those days. Here is Tolstoy’s own country house, the 32-room Yasnaya Polyana. This is a writer who knew the toll of seasons of hard weather on a country estate, and the real burden that supporting two residences can put on its owners.
The country does not live up to Dolly’s expectations. Her husband has been looking after the house. “Stepan Arkadyich, who, like all guilty husbands, was very solicitous of his wife’s comfort, looked the house over himself and gave orders about everything he thought necessary. To his mind, there was a need to re-upholster all the furniture with cretonne, to hang curtains, to clean up the garden, make a little bridge by the pond and plant flowers; but he forgot many other necessary things, the lack of which later tomented Darya Alexandrovna.”
What she finds is leaks, no cook, not enough cows for milk and butter, only roosters, and no one to wash the floors as everyone is working in the potato fields. The wardrobes open and close at the wrong times. There are no ironing boards.
Just when everything is looking bleak, a housekeeper appears and masterfully shapes up the house. “The roof was repaired, a cook was found, chickens were bought, the cows began to produce milk, the garden was fenced with pickets, the carpenter made a washboard, the wardrobes were furnished with hooks and no longer opened at will, an ironing board, wrapped in military flannel, lay between a chair arm and a chest of drawers, and the maids’ quarters began to smell of hot irons.”
With fast food, pressed clothes, and working cupboards, Dolly starts to feel at home in the country. The genius of Tolstoy is in these details. It’s not Anna Karenina who compels you through the book: although she gets top billing, she’s a cool and fairly flat character, what James Meek calls a mysterious absence at the heart of Anna Karenina. No, it’s the human truth in the detail, how the husband behaves when he’s guilty, and how the wife regains some order in her world by making the cupboards open and close at the right times, that drives the novel right through the centuries onto our shelves and screens today.
But back to our subject of country houses. For me, Dolly makes a mistake in thinking that the country should replicate the city. You see it happening all the time in magazines and property sections: glossy pictures of the second or even third home that’s immaculate, designer-perfect. Just the thought of all that work, to keep not just one but two or three homes looking decent, makes me feel exhausted. And I’m sure the husbands aren’t doing the upholstery.
A city house is on display. Windows are bay-shaped, made to be looked into. Curtains need to hang well, the carpets should be clean. Your clothes can’t be disheveled as you make your way blinking into the morning. The country is different: it’s the place where you go to not be on display. That’s the point of it. No corner shop, no delivery service, no wifi. Nothing for the children to do but scrabble around in the mud and make up adventure games. And for the adults it’s long walks in wellies, a bit of Tolstoy, and gallons of excellent cheap wine. Two changes of clothes is more than enough, you hardly get around to hanging them in the wardrobes which may or may not close. As Judith Warner writes in her perfect column about another chaumiere in Normandy: “Everything’s fine the way it is.”