I have always been struck, while reading Anna Karenina (or, more recently, while watching Leo Tolstoy’s 1873-1878 tale played out by Jude Law and Keira Knightley in sumptuous costumes in this year’s film version) by the similarities it shows between upper-class late 19th-century Russia and late 19th-century America.
Anna Karenina is in many ways a love story, a layered and sometimes delightfully soap opera-esque picture of romance. But it is also a story of society—how customs enforce the beliefs of a culture, such as marriage, fidelity, what it means to be a man, what it means to be a woman, what behavior is required of one considered to be rich or poor. Perhaps it is appropriate the new film appears to take place on a stage; Tolstoy writes of a society in which all of one’s actions are performed quite publicly and to the great interest of her social circle.
(This brief video from Focus Features explains that choice to ‘stage’ the film a bit further.)
The portrait of Russian society Tolstoy paints in the novel is, in some ways, not so different from what you’d find here during America’s Gilded Age in the late 19th century. During our Twilight Tour at the Driehaus Museum, we talk in-depth about Gilded Age dining customs—for example, the delicate art of conversation; how the hostess strived to maintain a balance between interesting topics while avoiding sensitive ones. Assigned seating was also a major consideration—male and females would be directed to every other seat to disperse the flow of conversation, while if the hostess wished to encourage a meeting between a particular pair, she might seat them next to or across from one another.
In the book, we follow many a character from reception to drawing to dining room, but a more visual example might be best. Watch this clip of the film Anna Karenina. Levin—the red-bearded man—is obviously transgressing that invisible conversational line, to the discomfort of the other guests, in his earnest talk of love and lust. Well-dressed servants pass by in the background. The table is set according to rigid specifications, with a large decorative centerpiece. And note how they are seated—male, female, male, all the way around.
Those dining customs most likely stemmed from Victorian England, where meals were a grand occasion. This blog would probably be better titled “How Russia and America Mirrored Western European Social Customs,” because in many ways, classical Europe played a large influence on what was seen as high culture in both countries. In the book, Anna and other members of the aristocratic class flip effortlessly between the French, English, and Russian languages. The clothing required of high-society women during this period were also Western European-style, particularly derived from those emanating from Paris. In the book, the opera—a creation of Renaissance Italy—is the place to see and be seen.
An excerpt from page 227 of my copy of Anna Karenina shows a bit of the resulting confusion of identity,
The prince and the princess held completely opposite views on life abroad. The princess found everything wonderful and, despite her firm position in Russian society, made efforts abroad to resemble a European lady—which she was not, being a typical Russian lady—and therefore had to pretend, which was somewhat awkward for her. The prince, on the contrary, found everything abroad vile and European life a burden, kept to his Russian habits and deliberately tried to show himself as less of a European than he really was.
The backdrop for the late 19th century was massive social and industrial change all around, with the possibility for still more. While we in the U.S. were experiencing an industrial boom, immigrant laborers flooding urban areas, potential for more women to enter the workforce, and a world war on the distant horizon; Russia saw the emancipation of millions of serfs shaking up its economic and class system, tensions between Csarist tradition and those who insisted the country needed to modernize and democratize, and a revolution on the distant horizon. Our cultural identities would wind up in pretty different places by 1920, but at least for this brief period we held our drawing room receptions, elaborate dinners, fondness for the opera and French wines, and Parisian fashions in common.