War & Peace & Women

Et bien, mes readers-along, si vous n’avez rien de mieux à faire, go to the master post for the read-along schedule and more.

Today’s the day: start reading! I tried to break you in gently by starting my first post off in French… hopefully you all remember your French as a Second Language classes, or got a translation where the French is, you know, translated!

But before we get to the bored socialites, glittering ballrooms, and affected French accents, not to mention the gifs, let’s get serious for un moment.

Those of you new to Reading in Bed might not know that I did a whole year of reading women authors in 2016. And my 2016 summer read-along was forgotten but foundational 18th century novel Cecilia, by Frances Burney. I must admit, it feels almost like a betrayal to go back to a dead white dude this year.

In doing my research (Googling “Was Tolstoy a dick?”) (he was), I found out that War and Peace wouldn’t have made it to our e-readers in 2017 without the help of a few lovely ladies. Let’s give them a shout out as we get ready to dive in.

The copyist: Sophia Tolstoy


sophiaIt’s a well known bit of W&P trivia that Sophia Tolstoy, Leo’s long-suffering wife, copied out seven drafts of the War and Peace manuscript by hand. Given the timing, Sophia not only did this copying while pregnant and caring for one or more young children, but, it’s likely there was more to it than just copying. If you’ve ever typed up a memo, essay, or article for someone, (and if you’re a woman, I’m willing to bet that you have,) you know that copying quickly becomes copy editing, and if the task runs over months or years, likely becomes closer to editing or collaborating. This phenomenon persists to this day, and was recently hashtagged #ThanksForTyping, to bring awareness to the uncredited and forgotten roles that literary and academic wives play in their husband’s works of genius.


The translator: Constance Garnett


Constance Garnett and her son David, known as Bunny, mid-1890sEven if you’re not reading the Garnett translation, and I don’t think many of us are, you can thank Constance Garnett for bringing War and Peace to the English-speaking world. She was not quite the first to bring forth an English W&P (that was a woman too, Clara Bell) but she was the first one to popularize it in England and North America, and her translation stood as the standard for nearly one hundred years. It’s still reprinted today.

Like Sophia Tolstoy, Garnett had to work around her domestic obligations. She’s an unlikely translator, too, teaching herself Russian while on bed rest with her first pregnancy, at the age of 29. She was also sickly, and almost ruined her already-declining eyesight in the process of translating War and Peace in 1904.


The reader: that would be (most of) you


I’ve written about reading-while-feminist before, and I don’t think it requires that one #readwomen or avoid problematic works; quite the opposite, in fact. If War and Peace includes problematic depictions of female characters, and I have reason to believe that it does, then we’ll talk about it. I published a short interview with author Sigal Samuel about this very topic, and she said it better than I could.

Readers each bring something to the reading of any book. Particularly to a big, juicy classic. Most of us are women, so our reactions will be telling. And even our male readers-along will likely have something to say about gender and W&P – right, Rick?

So, don’t let the dudeliness of this Dead White Dude classic get you down too much. Depending on your translation, your reading of War and Peace will be mediated by at least one or two women.

Ready, set, read! Where are you all reading this weekend? I’m bringing my copy camping tomorrow.



  1. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Three cheers for the women! (and wouldn’t that annoy Tolstoy, the old woman-hater!) I shall be embarking on my read in sunny East Anglia, UK and tossing up between a woman translator, or a husband/wife team – let’s see who wins out! 🙂

  2. Mercurial Vicissitudes

    I’ve been looking forward to this and it *might* just be the thing I’ve needed to start blogging again.

    I will be reading in my little seaside town in Northern Ireland, while I enjoy the uncomfortable clammy air of summer and the grey skies and pouring rain of midwinter, all the once.

  3. Linda

    I have a new copy to add to my collection of Penguin Classic Deluxe Editions. And, I’m already on page 51. Guess I need to slow down ! It’s going to be 100 degrees here in Yakima Washington today. Perfect day for reading inside where it’s cool !

  4. Pingback: What to Read in July? – My Book Strings
  5. ebookclassics

    Fascinating fun facts! I love learning the backstory to a book and especially a big, juicy classic like W&P. I’m not reading-along, but will be following your posts and comments. Have fun!

  6. Pingback: Who Wrote The Count of Monte Cristo? | Reading in Bed

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