Can it really be over? How empty Sunday nights will seem without the dazzling sweep of War and Peace. As Natasha and Pierre won their places in our hearts, the contrast between elegant drawing rooms and bloody battlefields reminded us that history and personal destiny can never be separated.
Surely every admirer of this glorious production watched the final episode with hand in mouth and handkerchief at eyes –right through to the last heart-warming scene. I’m already in state of withdrawal, yearning for my fix of bumbling, intelligent Pierre Bezhukov, sparky Natasha Rostov and brooding Prince Andrei. But I will never forget the powerful lessons learnt along the way: that the poorest man can show the greatest generosity, that eating a humble potato mindfully is a blessing, and that happiness requires compassion and forgiveness.
Yes, six episodes felt too short, but scriptwriter Andrew Davies encapsulated the noble spirit of the novel. The locations and direction showed television at its best. Some feeble souls didn’t like the blood (what do you expect in childbirth and war?) or thought that Lily James didn’t convince as Natasha. I loved her – and the whole cast was impeccable. This was a triumph.
It is a mistake to think of this grand narrative of love and loss as ‘historic’ and therefore somehow remote. War and Peace (the novel and the series) is as relevant as ever, because of what it reveals about the human condition. The memorable characters of great literature are timeless – and as I watched I realised I (ital.)knew (ital.) them.
Have you ever had a friend like Natasha? I have. She’s the kind of lovable woman who deserves happiness but makes wrong decisions along the way. Natasha is silly, flighty and kind-hearted – qualities Lily James captured to perfection. Tolstoy describes his young heroine as a ‘scamp of a girl’ with a ‘saucy gaiety’ that makes Pierre laugh right at the beginning. There we have the secret to most successful relationships. A ‘good sense of humour’ will always last longer than sexual passion.
Natasha takes an age to understand what real love is. After a young teen infatuation with handsome Boris, like any girl she is longing for love and romance. How seductive is the older, sophisticated man, especially when played by James Norton. But delightful Natasha and brooding, jaded Prince Andrei? Never! The man treated his poor doomed wife with disdain and wants to die in battle because he’s convinced there is no point to life. Believing sweet Natasha can save him from himself, he is quite prepared to obey his tyrannical father and leave her pining for a year.
Enter sexy, amoral Anatole Kuragin. If any woman tells me she doesn’t understand why Natasha falls for the handsome young reprobate I’ll suggest she’s not telling the truth. Which of us hasn’t succumbed to a fumble with an unsuitable man? Melted at a forbidden kiss? Forgotten a promise to be faithful when a testosterone-charged hunk is grabbing you in a delicious clinch?
Many of the sad women who have written to my Saturday advice column over the years will empathise with Natasha’s grief and humiliation on discovering that Anatole is a lying married man who only wanted sex. If you think it antiquated that a respectable girl could be disgraced by a dalliance, then think again. The old double standard – where a man can be a ‘stud’ but a girl is a ‘slapper’ – is still in operation today.
As War and Peace unfolded I marvelled at the universality of these characters. Poor cousin Sonya, so serious and loyal, is hopelessly devoted to Nicolas but ‘too good’ and therefore destined to be one of life’s victims. Yet does she really mind? Some people like to be put upon. A similarly admirable character is her rival for Nicolai’s love, Princess Marya – the eternally self-sacrificing carer who longs to be liberated from the tyrannical parent she loves. A woman just like her once told me that it was only when her disabled husband died that she could be free to find true happiness.
In last night’s episode, as the Rostov family were packing to flee from Moscow ahead of the French, one unexpected moment tore at my heart. Natasha’s mother, the fussy Countess, desperately cried out, ‘These are OUR THINGS!’ Natasha has begged her to make room in their cart for wounded men, but the Countess agonised about leaving her treasures.
Beyond the Rostovs’ elegant tall windows panic and terror ran in the streets – and yet her triviality was not contemptible. I thought, ‘That is just how I would be’ – knowing how wedded I am to possessions. When the Countess wails in anguish at the death of her precious youngest child, Petya and then tenderly nurses her broken, dying husband, you know she has realised the worthlessness of material things – and you pity her.
Compassion is at the heart of the novel – and Andrew Davies gave us memorable moments to show it. Who could fail to be moved when, in the horrific squalor of a battlefield medical station at the battle of Borodino, wounded Prince Andrei forgives Anatole, who has just had his leg amputated? Remembering how Anatole wronged Natasha and himself, (in the words of Tolstoy) ‘Andrei wept tender, loving tears for his fellow men, for himself and for his own and their errors.’
No human being is perfect; each flawed soul is struggling for happiness and therefore worthy of forgiveness. That is the deeply humane, universal message of War and Peace. Rich and poor, good and bad, old and young, men and women alike – cry out for understanding.
If Tolstoy’s female characters may sometimes seem like victims, the men are equally imprisoned by their destinies. Who are we? What can we do? How can we make our mark on the world? – they ask. In the novel, discussing Pierre’s future, Prince Andrei suggests the army or the diplomatic service. Helplessly, Pierre replies,’…I still don’t know. I don’t fancy either of those jobs.’ How many young men have you met with no clue as what to do with their lives?
Peer pressure to show off and behave badly, society’s expectations of what masculinity involves, the stultifying ambitions of parents, the terror of making a wrong career choice, the yearning for glory…Modern men are no strangers to such emotions. Pierre is an object lesson for all those foolish guys who salivate over arm candy, then realise that Sweetie is poison in a silver wrapper. He is punished by promiscuous Helene – but not as cruelly as the femme fatale is herself punished, in the end, for all her sins.
Many years ago, during the Cold War, I began War and Peace as I left London to join my then husband, who was filming in Budapest. I sat in cafes and on park benches in the old city, feeling I was almost in Tolstoy’s world. Then we drove to Vienna where I walked the city streets, the neat Oxford edition tucked in my bag, thinking of how that city too had been ravaged by war. I was lonely; my husband was working; I thought a lot about how disappointing marriage can be. My companions within the pages of War and Peace offered strange consolation.
I finished the novel during the long, solitary train journey back from Vienna to London, overwhelmed by melancholy as I thought of all Europe’s wars, of all the suffering, all the weeping wives, mothers and sisters, all the dead. Reading the book changed me. It warned me of the limits of youthful idealism and the danger of political ideas – and reminded me that the love of family (no matter how flawed) matters more than anything else. When I came to the point where Pierre tells Princess Marya and careworn Natasha that ‘When two people quarrel they are always both at fault’ and that he pities his dead wife and her terrible lonely death, tears poured down my cheeks.
Such insights, such compassion were transformed into television gold by Andrew Davies and director Tom Harper. They had the courage to give equal weight to the solemn, sonorous beauty of the Orthodox funeral mass as to the glitter of a ball and the sensuous, swooning pressure of a white–gloved hand at a young woman’s back. This is the essence of life, says Tolstoy: Love hand in hand with Death. Spiritual questions so important to him were conveyed with rare accuracy. When Prince Andrei finally dies of his wounds, Natasha’s anguished questions, ‘Where has he gone? Where is he now?’ came straight from Tolstoy, not Andrew Davies.
If War and Peace leaves you with a sense of the futility of war, and the mystery of human existence, it offers Love as consolation. Love, as we witness, is not won easily. Love makes many mistakes and often flourishes at the very point when all hope appears to be dead. Just as pitiless destiny destroys lives and punishes the innocent at well as the guilty, so compassionate fate swirls unlikely people into each other’s arms.
At the end we realise that the two couples, Nicolai and Marya, Pierre and Natasha would almost certainly not have found happiness in their respective marriages were it not for the upheavals of war. The enormous bad things that happened to their country and to their families and friends led also to good. Is the transformation worth the terrible price they all paid? Yes, says Pierre, he would endure imprisonment again if he knew it would lead to happiness as father to his beloved Natasha’s children.
After the upheavals of war and of passion, Tolstoy celebrates married peace – love grounded in familiarity and good sense. Yesterday the Mail’s television critic Christopher Stevens criticised Tolstoy’s ending. I profoundly disagree with him. The writer is realistic about marriage, but what sensible person isn’t? Princess Marya always worries that she is plain but her dashing husband Nikolai Rostov (now a farmer) tells her, ‘It’s not beauty that endears, it’s love that makes us see beauty.’ Without his wife, he says, he would be lost.
In a moving expression of deep love for her husband, matronly Natasha (in the novel she no longer bothers with her looks because she is so happy with her four children) dismisses all delusions of romance: ‘What nonsense it is…about honeymoons, and that the greatest happiness is at first. On the contrary, now is the best of all….’ What’s more, Natasha and Nicolai and their spouses take care of the frail and demanding old Countess, because they love her and she’s suffered much. There is a lesson for our times!
After all the suffering and sorrow, television gave us the simple, idyllic happy ending we craved – and why not? Tolstoy puts profound optimism into Pierre’s mouth: ‘We imagine that when we are thrown out of our usual ruts all is lost, but it is only then that what is new and good begins. While there is life there is happiness.’ And Andrew Davies scripted a similar closing message – that you must believe in the possibility of happiness, for there is ‘more to come.’
The thought is worth clinging to. For the drama of human suffering we watched over the last six weeks is repeated inescapably, day after day, in the international news. The urge towards conflict is tragically embedded within mankind. Yet Tolstoy reminds us that it is always counterbalanced by the extraordinary resilience of the human soul – and its endless capacity for joy.