A Year of War and Peace+ Day 22
In which we are introduced to Bald Hills and the Bolkónski family where we consider the many benefits of cultivating good habits
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War and Peace — Book One, Part One
At Bald Hills, Prince Nicholas Andréevich Bolkónski’s estate, the arrival of young Prince Andrew and his wife was daily expected, but this expectation did not upset the regular routine of life in the old prince’s household. General in Chief Prince Nicholas Andréevich (nicknamed in society, “the King of Prussia”) ever since the Emperor Paul had exiled him to his country estate had lived there continuously with his daughter, Princess Mary, and her companion, Mademoiselle Bourienne. Though in the new reign he was free to return to the capitals, he still continued to live in the country, remarking that anyone who wanted to see him could come the hundred miles from Moscow to Bald Hills, while he himself needed no one and nothing. He used to say that there are only two sources of human vice — idleness and superstition, and only two virtues — activity and intelligence. He himself undertook his daughter’s education, and to develop these two cardinal virtues in her gave her lessons in algebra and geometry till she was twenty, and arranged her life so that her whole time was occupied. He was himself always occupied: writing his memoirs, solving problems in higher mathematics, turning snuffboxes on a lathe, working in the garden, or superintending the building that was always going on at his estate. As regularity is a prime condition facilitating activity, regularity in his household was carried to the highest point of exactitude. He always came to table under precisely the same conditions, and not only at the same hour but at the same minute. With those about him, from his daughter to his serfs, the prince was sharp and invariably exacting, so that without being a hardhearted man he inspired such fear and respect as few hardhearted men would have aroused. Although he was in retirement and had now no influence in political affairs, every high official appointed to the province in which the prince’s estate lay considered it his duty to visit him and waited in the lofty antechamber just as the architect, gardener, or Princess Mary did, till the prince appeared punctually to the appointed hour. Everyone sitting in this antechamber experienced the same feeling of respect and even fear when the enormously high study door opened and showed the figure of a rather small old man, with powdered wig, small withered hands, and bushy gray eyebrows which, when he frowned, sometimes hid the gleam of his shrewd, youthfully glittering eyes.
On the morning of the day that the young couple were to arrive, Princess Mary entered the antechamber as usual at the time appointed for the morning greeting, crossing herself with trepidation and repeating a silent prayer. Every morning she came in like that, and every morning prayed that the daily interview might pass off well.
An old powdered manservant who was sitting in the antechamber rose quietly and said in a whisper: “Please walk in.”
Through the door came the regular hum of a lathe. The princess timidly opened the door which moved noiselessly and easily. She paused at the entrance. The prince was working at the lathe and after glancing round continued his work.
The enormous study was full of things evidently in constant use. The large table covered with books and plans, the tall glass-fronted bookcases with keys in the locks, the high desk for writing while standing up, on which lay an open exercise book, and the lathe with tools laid ready to hand and shavings scattered around — all indicated continuous, varied, and orderly activity. The motion of the small foot shod in a Tartar boot embroidered with silver, and the firm pressure of the lean sinewy hand, showed that the prince still possessed the tenacious endurance and vigor of hardy old age. After a few more turns of the lathe he removed his foot from the pedal, wiped his chisel, dropped it into a leather pouch attached to the lathe, and, approaching the table, summoned his daughter. He never gave his children a blessing, so he simply held out his bristly cheek (as yet unshaven) and, regarding her tenderly and attentively, said severely:
“Quite well? All right then, sit down.” He took the exercise book containing lessons in geometry written by himself and drew up a chair with his foot.
“For tomorrow!” said he, quickly finding the page and making a scratch from one paragraph to another with his hard nail.
The princess bent over the exercise book on the table.
“Wait a bit, here’s a letter for you,” said the old man suddenly, taking a letter addressed in a woman’s hand from a bag hanging above the table, onto which he threw it.
At the sight of the letter red patches showed themselves on the princess’ face. She took it quickly and bent her head over it.
“From Héloïse?” asked the prince with a cold smile that showed his still sound, yellowish teeth.
“Yes, it’s from Julie,” replied the princess with a timid glance and a timid smile.
“I’ll let two more letters pass, but the third I’ll read,” said the prince sternly; “I’m afraid you write much nonsense. I’ll read the third!”
“Read this if you like, Father,” said the princess, blushing still more and holding out the letter.
“The third, I said the third!” cried the prince abruptly, pushing the letter away, and leaning his elbows on the table he drew toward him the exercise book containing geometrical figures.
“Well, madam,” he began, stooping over the book close to his daughter and placing an arm on the back of the chair on which she sat, so that she felt herself surrounded on all sides by the acrid scent of old age and tobacco, which she had known so long. “Now, madam, these triangles are equal; please note that the angle ABC…”
The princess looked in a scared way at her father’s eyes glittering close to her; the red patches on her face came and went, and it was plain that she understood nothing and was so frightened that her fear would prevent her understanding any of her father’s further explanations, however clear they might be. Whether it was the teacher’s fault or the pupil’s, this same thing happened every day: the princess’ eyes grew dim, she could not see and could not hear anything, but was only conscious of her stern father’s withered face close to her, of his breath and the smell of him, and could think only of how to get away quickly to her own room to make out the problem in peace. The old man was beside himself: moved the chair on which he was sitting noisily backward and forward, made efforts to control himself and not become vehement, but almost always did become vehement, scolded, and sometimes flung the exercise book away.
The princess gave a wrong answer.
“Well now, isn’t she a fool!” shouted the prince, pushing the book aside and turning sharply away; but rising immediately, he paced up and down, lightly touched his daughter’s hair and sat down again.
He drew up his chair, and continued to explain.
“This won’t do, Princess; it won’t do,” said he, when Princess Mary, having taken and closed the exercise book with the next day’s lesson, was about to leave: “Mathematics are most important, madam! I don’t want to have you like our silly ladies. Get used to it and you’ll like it,” and he patted her cheek. “It will drive all the nonsense out of your head.”
She turned to go, but he stopped her with a gesture and took an uncut book from the high desk.
“Here is some sort of Key to the Mysteries that your Héloïse has sent you. Religious! I don’t interfere with anyone’s belief… I have looked at it. Take it. Well, now go. Go.”
He patted her on the shoulder and himself closed the door after her.
Princess Mary went back to her room with the sad, scared expression that rarely left her and which made her plain, sickly face yet plainer. She sat down at her writing table, on which stood miniature portraits and which was littered with books and papers. The princess was as untidy as her father was tidy. She put down the geometry book and eagerly broke the seal of her letter. It was from her most intimate friend from childhood; that same Julie Karágina who had been at the Rostóvs’ name-day party.
Julie wrote in French:
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 pleasures and distractions around me I cannot overcome a certain secret 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?
Having read thus far, Princess Mary sighed and glanced into the mirror which stood on her right. It reflected a weak, ungraceful figure and thin face. Her eyes, always sad, now looked with particular hopelessness at her reflection in the glass. “She flatters me,” thought the princess, turning away and continuing to read. But Julie did not flatter her friend, the princess’ eyes — large, deep and luminous (it seemed as if at times there radiated from them shafts of warm light) — were so beautiful that very often in spite of the plainness of her face they gave her an attraction more powerful than that of beauty. But the princess never saw the beautiful expression of her own eyes — the look they had when she was not thinking of herself. As with everyone, her face assumed a forced unnatural expression as soon as she looked in a glass. She went on reading:
All Moscow talks of nothing but war. One of my two brothers is already abroad, the other is with the Guards, who are starting on their march to the frontier. Our dear Emperor has left Petersburg and it is thought intends to expose his precious person to the chances of war. God grant that the Corsican monster who is destroying the peace of Europe may be overthrown by the angel whom it has pleased the Almighty, in His goodness, to give us as sovereign! To say nothing of my brothers, this war has deprived me of one of the associations nearest my heart. I mean young Nicholas Rostóv, who with his enthusiasm could not bear to remain inactive and has left the university to join the army. I will confess to you, dear Mary, that in spite of his extreme youth his departure for the army was a great grief to me. This young man, of whom I spoke to you last summer, is so noble-minded and full of that real youthfulness which one seldom finds nowadays among our old men of twenty and, particularly, he is so frank and has so much heart. He is so pure and poetic that my relations with him, transient as they were, have been one of the sweetest comforts to my poor heart, which has already suffered so much. Someday I will tell you about our parting and all that was said then. That is still too fresh. Ah, dear friend, you are happy not to know these poignant joys and sorrows. You are fortunate, for the latter are generally the stronger! I know very well that Count Nicholas is too young ever to be more to me than a friend, but this sweet friendship, this poetic and pure intimacy, were what my heart needed. But enough of this! The chief news, about which all Moscow gossips, is the death of old Count Bezúkhov, and his inheritance. Fancy! The three princesses have received very little, Prince Vasíli nothing, and it is Monsieur Pierre who has inherited all the property and has besides been recognized as legitimate; so that he is now Count Bezúkhov and possessor of the finest fortune in Russia. It is rumored that Prince Vasíli played a very despicable part in this affair and that he returned to Petersburg quite crestfallen.
I confess I understand very little about all these matters of wills and inheritance; but I do know that since this young man, whom we all used to know as plain Monsieur Pierre, has become Count Bezúkhov and the owner of one of the largest fortunes in Russia, I am much amused to watch the change in the tone and manners of the mammas burdened by marriageable daughters, and of the young ladies themselves, toward him, though, between you and me, he always seemed to me a poor sort of fellow. As for the past two years people have amused themselves by finding husbands for me (most of whom I don’t even know), the matchmaking chronicles of Moscow now speak of me as the future Countess Bezúkhova. But you will understand that I have no desire for the post. À propos of marriages: do you know that a while ago that universal auntie Anna Mikháylovna told me, under the seal of strict secrecy, of a plan of marriage for you. It is neither more nor less than with Prince Vasíli’s son Anatole, whom they wish to reform by marrying him to someone rich and distinguée, and it is on you that his relations’ choice has fallen. I don’t know what you will think of it, but I consider it my duty to let you know of it. He is said to be very handsome and a terrible scapegrace. That is all I have been able to find out about him.
But enough of gossip. I am at the end of my second sheet of paper, and Mamma has sent for me to go and dine at the Apráksins’. Read the mystical book I am sending you; it has an enormous success here. Though there are things in it difficult for the feeble human mind to grasp, it is an admirable book which calms and elevates the soul. Adieu! Give my respects to monsieur your father and my compliments to Mademoiselle Bourienne. I embrace you as I love you.
P.S. Let me have news of your brother and his charming little wife.
The princess pondered awhile with a thoughtful smile and her luminous eyes lit up so that her face was entirely transformed. Then she suddenly rose and with her heavy tread went up to the table. She took a sheet of paper and her hand moved rapidly over it. This is the reply she wrote, also in French:
Dear and precious Friend, Your letter of the 13th has given me great delight. So you still love me, my romantic Julie? Separation, of which you say so much that is bad, does not seem to have had its usual effect on you. You complain of our separation. What then should I say, if I dared complain, I who am deprived of all who are dear to me? Ah, if we had not religion to console us life would be very sad. Why do you suppose that I should look severely on your affection for that young man? On such matters I am only severe with myself. I understand such feelings in others, and if never having felt them I cannot approve of them, neither do I condemn them. Only it seems to me that Christian love, love of one’s neighbor, love of one’s enemy, is worthier, sweeter, and better than the feelings which the beautiful eyes of a young man can inspire in a romantic and loving young girl like yourself.
The news of Count Bezúkhov’s death reached us before your letter and my father was much affected by it. He says the count was the last representative but one of the great century, and that it is his own turn now, but that he will do all he can to let his turn come as late as possible. God preserve us from that terrible misfortune!
I cannot agree with you about Pierre, whom I knew as a child. He always seemed to me to have an excellent heart, and that is the quality I value most in people. As to his inheritance and the part played by Prince Vasíli, it is very sad for both. Ah, my dear friend, our divine Saviour’s words, that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God, are terribly true. I pity Prince Vasíli but am still more sorry for Pierre. So young, and burdened with such riches — to what temptations he will be exposed! If I were asked what I desire most on earth, it would be to be poorer than the poorest beggar. A thousand thanks, dear friend, for the volume you have sent me and which has such success in Moscow. Yet since you tell me that among some good things it contains others which our weak human understanding cannot grasp, it seems to me rather useless to spend time in reading what is unintelligible and can therefore bear no fruit. I never could understand the fondness some people have for confusing their minds by dwelling on mystical books that merely awaken their doubts and excite their imagination, giving them a bent for exaggeration quite contrary to Christian simplicity. Let us rather read the Epistles and Gospels. Let us not seek to penetrate what mysteries they contain; for how can we, miserable sinners that we are, know the terrible and holy secrets of Providence while we remain in this flesh which forms an impenetrable veil between us and the Eternal? Let us rather confine ourselves to studying those sublime rules which our divine Saviour has left for our guidance here below. Let us try to conform to them and follow them, and let us be persuaded that the less we let our feeble human minds roam, the better we shall please God, who rejects all knowledge that does not come from Him; and the less we seek to fathom what He has been pleased to conceal from us, the sooner will He vouchsafe its revelation to us through His divine Spirit. My father has not spoken to me of a suitor, but has only told me that he has received a letter and is expecting a visit from Prince Vasíli. In regard to this project of marriage for me, I will tell you, dear sweet friend, that I look on marriage as a divine institution to which we must conform. However painful it may be to me, should the Almighty lay the duties of wife and mother upon me I shall try to perform them as faithfully as I can, without disquieting myself by examining my feelings toward him whom He may give me for husband.
I have had a letter from my brother, who announces his speedy arrival at Bald Hills with his wife. This pleasure will be but a brief one, however, for he will leave us again to take part in this unhappy war into which we have been drawn, God knows how or why. Not only where you are — at the heart of affairs and of the world — is the talk all of war, even here amid fieldwork and the calm of nature — which townsfolk consider characteristic of the country — rumors of war are heard and painfully felt. My father talks of nothing but marches and countermarches, things of which I understand nothing; and the day before yesterday during my daily walk through the village I witnessed a heartrending scene…. It was a convoy of conscripts enrolled from our people and starting to join the army. You should have seen the state of the mothers, wives, and children of the men who were going and should have heard the sobs. It seems as though mankind has forgotten the laws of its divine Saviour, Who preached love and forgiveness of injuries — and that men attribute the greatest merit to skill in killing one another.
Adieu, dear and kind friend; may our divine Saviour and His most Holy Mother keep you in their holy and all-powerful care!
“Ah, you are sending off a letter, Princess? I have already dispatched mine. I have written to my poor mother,” said the smiling Mademoiselle Bourienne rapidly, in her pleasant mellow tones and with guttural r’s. She brought into Princess Mary’s strenuous, mournful, and gloomy world a quite different atmosphere, careless, lighthearted, and self-satisfied.
“Princess, I must warn you,” she added, lowering her voice and evidently listening to herself with pleasure, and speaking with exaggerated grasseyement, “the prince has been scolding Michael Ivánovich. He is in a very bad humor, very morose. Be prepared.”
“Ah, dear friend,” replied Princess Mary, “I have asked you never to warn me of the humor my father is in. I do not allow myself to judge him and would not have others do so.”
The princess glanced at her watch and, seeing that she was five minutes late in starting her practice on the clavichord, went into the sitting room with a look of alarm. Between twelve and two o’clock, as the day was mapped out, the prince rested and the princess played the clavichord.
A Year of War and Peace — Day 22
On Proverbs and Purpose
If it’s true that proverbs are the wisdom of nations and ages collected into a small compass, as Lord M. of Richardson’s Clarissa would have it, then the true north of the Bolkónski home is that idle hands are the devil’s workshop. Indeed, between old Prince Bolkónski’s meticulous dedication to purposeful routine and his daughter’s devotional Christianity, the devil doesn’t stand a chance in Bald Hills.
Bald Hills, the estate of the Bolkónski family, is located about 100 miles outside of Moscow and that’s just how the old prince, Prince Andrew’s father, likes it.
During my first reading of War and Peace the Bolkónskis were my favorite characters. I admired the hard-nosed pragmatism and stern living of the father and son. I also enjoyed the soft, forgiving spiritualism of the daughter. These contrasting characteristics — introduced here by the father’s insistence on studying geometry, dealing with certainties of nature, and his daughter’s interest in a book called A Key to the Mysteries of Nature — will continue to be developed throughout the novel and offer us much to think about along the way.
For today, however, it’s best to focus on the old Prince’s dedication to task-driven routine. This is what moves the chapter forward.
The old man is a stickler. Just like Benjamin Franklin, every moment of his day is planned out and assigned a responsibility with an exactitude worthy of the finest of watchmakers. In today’s reading we focus on the portion of the day allotted to tutoring his daughter, Mary.
Right away we understand that Mary dreads this daily practice. She crosses herself as she enters the room, praying that it goes well. Pay attention parents: the shame and fear Princess Mary experiences during the course of her geometry lesson serves as a model of how not to instruct your children. Just look at her: she’s so frightened of her father’s reprimands that she cannot focus on the work and all learning is lost. Old Prince Bolkónski is harsh. He’ll continue to be harsh with Mary throughout the novel. And, yet, she’ll return this harshness with dutiful adoration. This dynamic really challenges Wollstonecraft’s hypothesis that parental affection produces filial duty. But, then again, perhaps the old Prince’s oppressive parenting style is a species of affection.
The old Prince has his flaws. He is, in a word, an asshole. But his dedication to daily repetition and purposeful scheduling is something to consider. As Tolstoy writes in this chapter, “regularity is a prime condition facilitating activity.” Habit, it turns out, can be a powerful tool of self-improvement. This is assuming, of course, that the habits we develop are virtuous. One virtuous habit is remaining mindful during the day of our roles in life and then directing all our actions towards playing those roles properly.
Let no act be done without purpose.
Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations