“The princess smiled. She rose with the same unchanging smile with which she had first entered the room—the smile of a perfectly beautiful woman. With a slight rustle of he white dress trimmed with moss and ivy, with a gleam of white shoulders, glossy hair, and sparkling diamonds, she passed between the men who made way for her, not looking at any of them but smiling on all, as if graciously allowing each the privilege of admiring her beautiful figure and shapely shoulders, back and bosom—which in those days were very much exposed—and she seemed to bring the glamor of a ballroom with her as she moved toward Anna Pavlovna. Helene was so lovely that no only did she not show any trace of coquetry, but on the contrary she even appeared shy of her unquestionable and all too victorious beauty. She seemed to wish, but to be unable, to diminish its effect.”
page 17, War and Peace
That’s how Tolstoy writes about Helene, the beautiful Helene. But you can’t talk about the beautiful Helene without talking about her relationship with her brother, Anatol. In this year’s television version, the screenwriter Andrew Davies has been criticized for showing the incestuous relationship that some scholars say is not in the text. For me, I could do without it. I’m not a fan of the Cersei/Jaimie storyline on Game of Thrones. I think it’s, icky to use incest as a form of titillations. But Davies didn’t make the incest up, it’s in the text of the translation I’m reading, the version by the Maudes, approved by Tolstoy himself. So far in my reading, it’s told not shown, always less powerful. It’s alluded to by Pierre as he contemplates his feelings for ‘the beautiful Helene’ who is being paraded for him as a marriage-partner once he comes into his inheritance.
“But she’s stupid. I have myself said she is stupid,” he thought. “There is something nasty, something wrong, in the feeling she excites in me. I have been told that her brother Anatole was in love with her and she with him, that there was quite a scandal and that that’s why he was sent away.”
page 294, War and Peace
Ultimately it’s her physical beauty that Pierre can’t resist. He gets a vision of her in her head—quite sexily written by Tolstoy—and that’s the end of it. Poor Pierre, formerly the butt of the joke, all but ignored by one and all, is suddenly being courted, and he simply gets swept off his feet. It’s not his head that’s doing the thinking, and it’s not his heart. To put it crudely, he’s thinking with his dick.
“She was, as always at evening parties, wearing a dress that was then fashionable, cut very low at front and back. Her bust, which had always seemed like marble to Pierre, was so close to him that his shortsighted eyes could not but perceive the living charm of her neck and shoulders, so near to his lips that he need only have bent his head a little to have touched the. He was conscious of the warmth of her body, the scent of perfume, and the creaking of her corset as she moved. He did not see her marble beauty forming a complete whole with her dress, but all the charm of her body only covered by her garments. And having once seen this he could not help but be ware of it, just as we cannot renew an illusion we have once seen through ... And at that moment Pierre felt that Helene not only could, but must, be his wife, and that it could not be otherwise.”
page 293, War and Peace
We won’t be seeing War and Peace for another couple of weeks yet but the mini-series made its debut in the UK this past Sunday. Any comments from those of you reading from across the pond?