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When I think of this place I think about that fabulous story about how Bob Dylan used to go into his grandkids’ kindergarten classes to sing them folk songs. It’s not exactly the same, of course, the biggest difference is that Dylan was in his 60s or more when he did that, and Leo Tolstoy was 32 when he visited this Chelsea, London, building, a school called the Octagon, in 1861. Another difference is that Dylan was going to school to teach kids a little bit about their heritage, whereas Tolstoy was on a European journey to educate himself about education. What is similar are the thoughts one can’t help but have about the unsuspecting kids involved. What did they make of their encounter with greatness? Honestly? The chances are: nothing. But these meetings did and do leave us with some fun stories that fill out the more obscure corners of biographies well combed.
There has actually been quite a bit written about Tolstoy’s trip to the Octagon. I certainly am in no position to offer up anything truly new. I first ran across the topic in Phoebe Taplin’s piece on the Russia Behind the Headlines website. She pulled a good deal from a post on a blog run by Sarah J. Young. It’s a shame that Young stopped after doing only about a half-dozen detailed posts about Russian cultural figures in London. She was very good at it. In any case, if this topic interests you, definitely check out her post. Several Russian sources have added their details to the topic, including this one about Tolstoy’s European trips, this detailed article by M.V. Boguslavsky and K.Ye. Sumnitelny about Tolstoy and eduction, and this post about Tolstoy’s ultimately aborted thoughts about emigrating to England in 1872. There are tons more; most contain variant versions of the same basic facts.
Tolstoy established his first schools in and around Yasnaya Polyana, near Tula, south of Moscow, in 1859. His interest in education was not fleeting. He wrote stories for children; he wrote ABCs, he created schools himself, and supported and lobbied for the creation of schools by others; he studied the topic seriously and in-depth. His European journey in 1861 – the second of two he made to Europe in his life – took him to (at least) Rome, Florence, Paris and London, where he arrived March 2, 1861 (he left March 17). Matthew Arnold, poet and Her Majesty’s Inspector of Schools, gave Tolstoy letters of recommendation that the latter apparently took to various schools in the city, where he would sit in on classes to observe, and also to step in to engage the pupils, too. According to Young, Tolstoy visited the Octagon, a part of St. Mark’s College, on Tuesday, March 12, 1861. Young writes:
“It was established in 1841 by the National Society, with the Reverend Derwent Coleridge, son of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as its head – a position he still held at the time of Tolstoy’s visit (he retired in 1864). Tolstoy met class 3B, and took away with him short compositions on what the boys had done that day. These compositions, which are reproduced in Lucas’s book (Victor Lucas, Tolstoy in London , pp. 54-79), resurfaced in Britain in 1976, loaned from the USSR, at the British Library’s Tolstoy Exhibition (p. 9). They are, it must be said, not the most exciting essays I’ve ever read, but perhaps one shouldn’t expect much from a group of young teenage boys forced to write something at the behest of a strange foreigner.”
Following is a comment Tolstoy made himself about the trip to the school in Chelsea:
“You should have seen the quiet self-assurance of the director, when he and the teacher posed questions about what kind of a plant cotton is. How is it processed? Where is it treated? How does it reach us and how is it manufactured in the factories? Students gave good responses, obviously memorized. I asked permission to pose some questions myself. I asked what class the cotton plant belongs to; I asked what type of soil does it require; I asked how much does a cubic foot of cotton weight when packed? I asked how is cotton packed; how much does it cost to transport it; to load and unload it; what is its chemical make-up; what do you do if it gets wet?… All these issues, it would seem, relate to the subject of cotton, but, of course, the pupils could not respond to me.”
It’s hard to say at such a historical remove, of course. Maybe Russian kids routinely knew the answers to all these questions at that time. But I can’t help but imagine a picture of a rather demanding visitor, no less “quietly self-assured” than the school director, expecting more from folks than, perhaps, he should have.
In the end it turned out not so difficult to find this place, although none of the sources provide an exact address. (Sarah J. Young, for all her great information, rarely provides actual street addresses.) It is on Fulham Road and the gate, in very small figures, bears the address of 459B. Just above the number on the left are the tiny words “The Octagon.” However, there is something weird with Google maps. When you put 459B Fulham Road into Google maps, it does not take you to the proper location. To make it a bit easier, I photographed a building across the street, the Chelsea Pensioner at 358. This does show up properly on Google maps. And if you click on the small image of the roundish building across the way, it does show 459. In any case, right next to the Octagon is St. Mark’s Chapel, which is located at 459A. It is not visible in any of my photos because it is under major reconstruction and is covered in white tarps and plywood that bleached out entirely in my shots taken on a bright, sunny, chilly day.
My understanding is that the Octagon is now a private residence, or, at least, a private building. It is surrounded by walls only someone as tall as I am can get above on tip-toe and with outstretched arm. There is a forbidding double black gate protecting the place from the Fulham Road side. It borders on the opposite side on a nice little green. (See the top photo.)
Of all the places Tolstoy frequented during his time in London, this is the one, about which the most information has come down to us. Tolstoy also spent a good deal of time at the home of Alexander Herzen (about which I will write later), and, apparently, the South Kensington Museum, now known as the Victoria and Albert Museum, which I did not get around to photographing. Next time on that.