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In her book Tolstoy: A Russian Life Rosamund Bartlett writes, “There is sadly very little documentation about Tolstoy’s only visit to England, but we do know that the well-connected lawyer and journalist Henry Reeve sponsored his honorary membership of the Athenaeum Club in Pall Mall from 5 March to 6 April 1861.”
This dearth of information about Tolstoy in London, and at the Atheneum in specific, is repeated all over the place. I chose to quote Bartlett’s phrase because it appears to have more information than any other, adding the name of the person who helped Tolstoy join the club, and adding the dates of his membership. These bare shards of tidbits came as a result of Bartlett’s own research at the Club, as her footnote on pg. 466 indicates – the source was Jennie de Protani, the club’s archivist.
Well, here it is, the Athenaeum Club located at the intersection of Waterloo Place and Pall Mall (official address appears to be 107 Pall Mall, but I didn’t see that anywhere). It’s a beautiful place that fairly sparkles in the sunlight, and – thanks to the bronze statue of Athena – in the shade as well. Here is how the official website of the club describes itself, in part:
“The club was founded as a meeting place for men and women who enjoy the life of the mind. Over the years the membership criteria have been widened and now extend to persons of attainment or promise in any field of an intellectual or artistic nature and of substantial value to the community.
“Today many of the Members of the Athenæum, indeed a majority, are professionals concerned with science, engineering or medicine, but the clergy, lawyers, writers, artists, civil servants and academics of all disciplines are also heavily represented on the roll, with a small number from business and politics.”
The frieze surrounding the top of the building is a copy of a marble frieze salvaged (or is that “plundered”?) from the Parthenon in Athens at the time that the club was being built around 1824, four years before Tolstoy was born.
As I wrote in a previous post about Tolstoy in London (his visit to the Octagon School), he had primarily come to Europe to study school systems. In 1859 (still four years before he would begin writing War and Peace) he had opened his own first schools in Russia. On Sept. 20, 1860 his oldest brother Nikolai died at the age of 37, distressing Leo deeply. It is said he went into a period of depression following that, and one can’t help but assume that the trip abroad was also expected to help bring him out of that.
In fact, the Spring 1861 trip to London finds Tolstoy at a crossroads. Having just lost his brother, he also now nears his marriage to Sofya Behrs in September 1862. He will begin writing War and Peace in 1863 (finishing it in 1869). For a bit of perspective, his first literary publication (the novella Childhood) had taken place in 1852. Furthermore, just as Tolstoy was arriving in London, on March 3, 1861, Russian Emperor Alexander II officially abolished serfdom, an event that was extremely important to Tolstoy. In other words, he was, at the time of this trip, a fledgling, though published, writer, who had just experienced a traumatic loss and was on the verge of great and momentous changes in his personal life, his public life and in his career as a writer. He, of course, would not have been known at all in London at this time. Or, if he was, it could only have been by a handful of people who either might have crossed his path personally, or who would have been impressed by his wealth and aristocratic position. Apparently Londoners have a long tradition of bending the knee before wealthy and powerful Russians coming to town…