Russians in London: Lev Tolstoy

There are two sources devoted solely to Tolstoy’s two-week stay in London in March 1861, Victor Lucas’s book Tolstoy in London (1979), and A. V. Knowles’s snappily titled article, ‘Some Aspects of L. N. Tolstoy’s Visit to London in 1861: An Examination of the Evidence’ (1978). They’re very different, but share a similar and telling fault: they both spend a good deal of space talking about things other than Tolstoy in London. The reason for this is simple: beyond the facts that Tolstoy visited Herzen a number of times, and took out temporary membership of the Athenaeum Club (Knowles, p.111) there is remarkably little to go on.

Lucas’s answer is to substitute information on supposedly relevant topics – Tolstoy’s early life, nineteenth-century England, and education in England – for details on Tolstoy’s visit, and he regularly resorts to some really tenuous speculation in an attempt to fill in the gaps. Thus he assures us that Great Expectations was ‘likely to have been on Tolstoy’s reading list while in London’ (p. 35), and opines that ‘Tolstoy’s energy and enquiring mind must have made him the most insatiable of sightseers’ (p. 32), before going on to discuss, in the next sentence, the construction of the first underground railway line, in progress in 1861, in order to suggest that ‘Tolstoy may well have been one of those who stopped to watch the navvies running their heavy laden wheelbarrows up swaying planks to the embankment.’ Hmm. And there is a clumsy attempt to appropriate other Russians’ reactions to London in the absence of anything concrete by Tolstoy. Rather randomly, at the end of the (extremely brief) chapter entitled ‘Tolstoy’s Visit’, a new section begins, ‘One of the sights most eagerly anticipated by male visitors to London was that presented in the Haymarket after dusk’ (p. 36). Lucas continues, ‘If Tolstoy was there as an observer, or indeed in any other capacity, he left no record of his impressions. But only the following year his countryman and fellow writer Dostoevsky found it an unforgettable experience and wrote of it in his Summer Impressions‘, followed by a lengthy quotation from Winter Notes. So because they’re both Russians, the two writers must have had the same response to the place? That is, if indeed Tolstoy did ever go there. He may have done, of course, but one might equally speculate that the educational aims of his trip could have precluded such entertainments. We know, in contrast, that Dostoevsky specifically sought out the less edifying side of life in the capital.

Knowles, on the other hand, does stick to the facts, but rather too much space is taken up with background preamble on Tolstoy’s travels in Europe, again alerting the reader to the scarcity of relevant details on the actual subject of the article. When he finally does get to Tolstoy’s arrival in England, his analysis of the evidence is exhaustive, if not exhausting. And in the end, it is all to very little effect. Knowles spends over two pages discussing the dates of Tolstoy’s visits (pp. 108-111), but is it really necessary to give all the incorrect details other scholars have put forward? Surely it would have been possible to pinpoint the correct dates more succinctly? Again, it looks like padding, if of a superior kind, and for all the precision of Knowles’s analysis, the conclusions he presents are the same as those offered by the rather less meticulous Lucas, whose book, although published a year later, does not cite Knowles’s article in the bibliography.

So what do we know? Knowles and Lucas agree that Tolstoy arrived in London on 2nd March 1861, and left on 17th. He had not met Herzen before, but it is known that they saw each other regularly during the sixteen days of Tolstoy’s stay.  Lucas (p. 33) describes Herzen’s daughter Natalya’s recollections of seeing Tolstoy, whom she knew as the author of Childhood, at Orsett House, Westbourne Terrace. He states that Natalya was disappointed that Tolstoy wasn’t the heroic figure she was expecting, but he doesn’t give a source for the scene. Lucas also quotes Herzen as saying ‘I am seeing a great deal of Tolstoy. We have quarrelled. He is stubborn and talks nonsense, but is naive and a good man’, from Aylmer Maude, Family Views of Tolstoy (p. 71).

Knowles explores rather vague and misleading references by Tolstoy to attending a reading by Charles Dickens and a speech by Lord Palmerston at the Houses of Parliament. Tolstoy said later that he heard Dickens speak about education, but in fact that only reading he could have attended was of A Christmas Carol and Boots at the Holly Tree Inn, on Thursday 14th March at St James’s Hall, Piccadilly (Knowles, p. 112). The culprit here seems to have been Tolstoy’s comprehension of spoken English, which was apparently not as strong as his other language skills. On the question of Tolstoy’s visit to the Houses of Parliament, described in the manuscript for the story Polikushka (Polnoe sobranie sochinenii, 7: 4) and a letter to Fet (PSS, 62: 199), Knowles suggests that the most likely candidate is a speech Palmerston gave in response to a question by John Bright on ‘the relative size and needs of the British and French navies’ (p. 113) on Monday 11th March.

Lucas concentrates on the educational aims of Tolstoy’s visit. He arrived with a letter of recommendation to Matthew Arnold, then an official at the Education Department, and it is possible that the two writers met (Knowles, p. 111). Arnold in turn wrote a letter of introduction for Tolstoy to various schools in and around London, including Abbey Street, Bethnal Green, the Jews’ Free School, Spitalfields, Perry Street, Somers Town, and the Wesleyan Practicing School, Horseferry Road, Westminster (Lucas, p. 49). Whether he visited these or not is unknown (although Lucas unsurprisingly describes it as ‘very probabl[e]’, p. 50), but he did visit the ‘practising school’ at St Mark’s College, Chelsea, on Tuesday 12th March 1861. This was a teaching college school, and ultimately became one of the founder institutions of the present day University College Plymouth St Mark and St John. 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 (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.

And that’s it. As far as I have been able to discover, no more details are known of Tolstoy’s visit. If he had come a few years later, after the publication of War and Peace, there would probably be more substantial records, but although by this stage he had published works like The Sevastopol Sketches, Childhood, and The Cossacks, he was still entirely unknown in Britain, and his visit left practically no traces (he didn’t for example, appear in the history of St Mark’s College, Lucas, p. 9; nor is there any mention of Tolstoy in the references to St Mark’s College in British History On-Line’s Social History: Education: adult and technical education, when visits by other luminaries such as Macaulay and Charles Kingsley are noted).

Tolstoy left London on the day that the emancipation of the serfs was reported in the British press, and was back in Russia before the end of April.


A. V. Knowles, ‘Some Aspects of L. N. Tolstoy’s Visit to London in 1861: An Examination of the Evidence’, Slavonic and East European Review, 56.1 (1978), 106-114
Victor Lucas, Tolstoy in London (London: Evans Brothers, 1979)
Aylmer Maude, ed., Family Views of Tolstoy, trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1926)
L. N. Tolstoi, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii: Iubileinoe izdanie (Moscow, 1928-58)

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