01 February 2016
'War and Peace' BBC Drama image

Anna Pávlovna’s drawing-room was gradually filling. The highest Petersburg society was assembled there: people differing widely in age and character but alike in the social circle to which they belonged. Prince Vasíli’s daughter, the beautiful Hélène, came to take her father to the ambassador’s entertainment; she wore a ball dress and her badge as maid of honour. The youthful little Princess Bolkónskaya, known as la femme la plus séduisante de Pétersbourg was also there.

She had been married during the previous winter, and being pregnant did not go to any large gatherings, but only to small receptions. Prince Vasíli’s son, Hippolyte, had come with Mortemart, whom he introduced. The Abbé Morio and many others had also come.

To each new arrival Anna Pávlovna said, ‘You have not yet seen my aunt,’ or ‘You do not know my aunt?’ and very gravely conducted him or her to a little old lady, wearing large bows of ribbon in her cap, who had come sailing in from another room as soon as the guests began to arrive; and slowly turning her eyes from the visitor to her aunt, Anna Pávlovna mentioned each one’s name and then left them.

Each visitor performed the ceremony of greeting this old aunt whom not one of them knew, not one of them wanted to know, and not one of them cared about; Anna Pávlovna observed these greetings with mournful and solemn interest and silent approval. The aunt spoke to each of them in the same words, about their health and her own, and the health of her Majesty, ‘who, thank God, was better today.’ And each visitor, though politeness prevented his showing impatience, left the old woman with a sense of relief at having performed a vexatious duty and did not return to her the whole evening.

The little princess went round the table with quick short swaying steps, her workbag on her arm, and gaily spreading out her dress sat down on a sofa near the silver samovar, as if all she was doing was a pleasure to herself and to all around her. ‘I have brought my work,’ said she in French, displaying her bag and addressing all present. ‘Mind, Annette, I hope you have not played a wicked trick on me,’ she added, turning to her hostess. ‘You wrote that it was to be quite a small reception, and just see how badly I am dressed.’ And she spread out her arms to show her short-waisted, lace-trimmed, dainty grey dress, girdled with a broad ribbon just below the breast.

‘Soyez tranquille, Lise, you will always be prettier than any one else,’ replied Anna Pávlovna.

‘You know,’ said the princess in the same tone of voice and still in French, turning to a general, ‘my husband is deserting me? He is going to get himself killed. Tell me what this wretched war is for?’ she added, addressing Prince Vasíli, and without waiting for an answer she turned to speak to his daughter, the beautiful Hélène.

‘What a delightful woman this little princess is!’ said Prince Vasíli to Anna Pávlovna.

One of the next arrivals was a stout, heavily built young man with close cropped hair, spectacles, the light-coloured breeches fashionable at that time, a very high ruffle and a brown dress coat. This stout young man was an illegitimate son of Count Bezúkhov, a well-known grandee of Catherine’s time who now lay dying in Moscow. The young man had not yet entered either the military or civil service, as he had only just returned from abroad where he had been educated, and this was his first appearance in society. Anna Pávlovna greeted him with the nod she accorded to the lowest hierarchy in her drawing-room. But in spite of this lowest grade greeting, a look of anxiety and fear, as at the sight of something too large and unsuited to the place, came over her face when she saw Pierre enter. Though he was certainly rather bigger than the other men in the room, her anxiety could only have reference to the clever though shy, but observant and natural, expression which distinguished him from everyone else in that drawing-room.

‘It is very good of you, Monsieur Pierre, to come and visit a poor invalid,’ said Anna Pávlovna, exchanging an alarmed glance with her aunt as she conducted him to her.

Pierre murmured something unintelligible, and continued to look round as if in search of something. On his way to the aunt he bowed to the little princess with a pleased smile, as to an intimate acquaintance.

Anna Pávlovna’s alarm was justified, for Pierre turned away from the aunt without waiting to hear her speech about her Majesty’s health. Anna Pávlovna in dismay detained him with the words:

‘Do you know the Abbé Morio? He is a most interesting man.’

‘Yes, I have heard of his scheme for perpetual peace, and it is very interesting but hardly feasible.’

‘You think so?’ rejoined Anna Pávlovna in order to say something and get away to attend to her duties as hostess. But Pierre now committed a reverse act of impo­liteness. First he had left a lady before she had finished speaking to him, and now he continued to speak to another who wished to get away. With his head bent and his big feet spread apart, he began explaining his reasons for thinking the abbé’s plan chimerical.

‘We will talk of it later,’ said Anna Pávlovna with a smile.

And having got rid of this young man who did not know how to behave, she resumed her duties as hostess and continued to listen and watch, ready to help at any point where the conversation might happen to flag. As the foreman of a spinning-mill when he has set the hands to work, goes round and notices, here a spindle that has stopped or there one that creaks or makes more noise than it should, and hastens to check the machine or set it in proper motion, so Anna Pávlovna moved about her drawing-room, approaching now a silent, now a too noisy group, and by a word or slight re-arrangement kept the conversational machine in steady, proper, and regular motion. But amid these cares her anxiety about Pierre was evident. She kept an anxious watch on him when he approached the group round Mortemart to listen to what was being said there, and again when he passed to another group whose centre was the abbé.

Pierre had been educated abroad, and this reception at Anna Pávlovna’s was the first he had attended in Russia. He knew that all the intellectual lights of Peters­burg were gathered there, and like a child in a toy shop, did not know which way to look, afraid of missing any clever conversation that was to be heard. Seeing the self-confident and refined expression on the faces of those present he was always expecting to hear something very profound. At last he came up to Morio. Here the conversation seemed interesting and he stood waiting for an opportunity to express his own views, as young people are fond of doing.

Anna Pávlovna’s reception was in full swing. The spindles hummed steadily and ceaselessly on all sides. with the exception of the aunt, beside whom sat only one elderly lady, who with her thin careworn face was rather out of place in this brilliant society, the whole company had settled into three groups. One, chiefly masculine, had formed round the abbé. Another, of young people, was grouped round the beautiful Princess Hélène, Prince Vasíli’s daughter, and the little Princess Bolkónskaya, very pretty and rosy, though rather too plump for her age. The third group was gathered round Mortemart and Anna Pávlovna.

The vicomte was a nice-looking young man with soft features and polished manners, who evidently considered himself a celebrity but out of politeness modestly placed himself at the disposal of the circle in which he found himself. Anna Pávlovna was obviously serving him up as a treat to her guests. As a clever maître d’hôtel serves up as a specially choice delicacy a piece of meat that no one who had seen it in the kitchen would have cared to eat, so Anna Pávlovna served up to her guests, first the vicomte and then the abbé, as peculiarly choice morsels. The group about Mortemart immediately began discussing the murder of the Duc d’Enghien. The vicomte said that the Duc d’Enghien had perished by his own magnanimity, and that there were particular reasons for Buonaparte’s hatred of him.

‘Ah, yes! Do tell us all about it, Vicomte,’ said Anna Pávlovna, with a pleasant feeling that there was something à la Louis XV in the sound of that sentence: ‘Contez-nous cela, Vicomte.’

The vicomte bowed and smiled courteously in token of his willingness to comply. Anna Pávlovna arranged a group round him, inviting everyone to listen to his tale.

‘The vicomte knew the duc personally,’ whispered Anna Pávlovna to one of the guests. ‘The vicomte is a wonderful raconteur,’ said she to another. ‘How evidently he belongs to the best society,’ said she to a third, and the vicomte was served up to the company in the choicest and most advantageous style, like a well-garnished joint of roast beef on a hot dish.

The vicomte wished to begin his story and gave a subtle smile.

‘Come over here, Hélène, dear,’ said Anna Pávlovna to the beautiful young princess who was sitting some way off, the centre of another group.

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 her 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 the fashion of those days were very much exposed – and she seemed to bring the glamour of a ballroom with her as she moved towards Anna Pávlovna. Hélène was so lovely that not 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.

‘How lovely!’ said everyone who saw her, and the vicomte lifted his shoulders and dropped his eyes as if startled by something extraordinary when she took her seat opposite and beamed upon him also with her unchanging smile.

‘Madame, I doubt my ability before such an audience,’ said he, smilingly inclining his head.

The princess rested her bare round arm on a little table and considered a reply unnecessary. She smilingly waited. All the time the story was being told she sat upright, glancing now at her beautiful round arm, altered in shape by its pressure on the table, now at her still more beautiful bosom, on which she readjusted a diamond necklace. From time to time she smoothed the folds of her dress, and whenever the story produced an effect she glanced at Anna Pávlovna, at once adopted just the expression she saw on the maid of honour’s face, and again relapsed into her radiant smile.

The little princess had also left the tea-table and followed Hélène.

‘Wait a moment, I’ll get my work . . . Now then, what are you thinking of?’ she went on, turning to Prince Hippolyte. ‘Fetch me my work-bag.’

There was a general movement as the princess, smiling and talking merrily to everyone at once, sat down and gaily arranged herself in her seat.

‘Now I am all right,’ she said, and asking the vicomte to begin, she took up her work.

Prince Hippolyte, having brought the work-bag, joined the circle and moving a chair close to hers seated himself beside her.

Le charmant Hippolyte was surprising by his extraordinary resemblance to his beautiful sister, but yet more by the fact that in spite of this resemblance he was exceedingly ugly. His features were like his sister’s, but while in her case everything was lit up by a joyous, self-satisfied, youthful, and constant smile of animation, and by the wonderful classic beauty of her figure, his face on the contrary was dulled by imbecility and a constant expression of sullen self-confidence, while his body was thin and weak. His eyes, nose, and mouth all seemed puckered into a vacant, wearied grimace, and his arms and legs always fell into unnatural positions.

‘It’s not going to be a ghost story?’ said he, sitting down beside the princess and hastily adjusting his lorgnette, as if without this instrument he could not begin to speak.

‘Why no, my dear fellow,’ said the astonished narrator, shrugging his shoulders.

‘Because I hate ghost stories,’ said Prince Hippolyte in a tone which showed that he only understood the meaning of his words after he had uttered them.

He spoke with such self-confidence that his hearers could not be sure whether what he said was very witty or very stupid. He was dressed in a dark-green dress coat, knee-breeches of the colour of cuisse de nymphe effrayée, as he called it, shoes and silk stockings.

The vicomte told his tale very neatly. It was an anecdote, then current, to the effect that the Duc d’Enghien had gone secretly to Paris to visit Mademoiselle George; that at her house he came upon Buonaparte, who also enjoyed the famous actress’s favours, and that in his presence Napoleon happened to fall into one of the fainting fits to which he was subject, and was thus at the duc’s mercy. The latter spared him, and this magnanimity Buonaparte subsequently repaid by death.

The story was very pretty and interesting, especially at the point where the rivals suddenly recognized one another; and the ladies looked agitated.

‘Charming!’ said Anna Pávlovna with an inquiring glance at the little princess.

‘Charming!’ whispered the little princess, sticking the needle into her work as if to testify that the interest and fascination of the story prevented her from going on with it.

The vicomte appreciated this silent praise and smiling gratefully prepared to continue, but just then Anna Pávlovna, who had kept a watchful eye on the young man who so alarmed her, noticed that he was talking too loudly and vehemently with the abbé, so she hurried to the rescue. Pierre had managed to start a conversation with the abbé about the balance of power, and the latter, evidently interested by the young man’s simple-minded eagerness, was explaining his pet theory. Both were talking and listening too eagerly and too naturally, which was why Anna Pávlovna disapproved.

‘The means are . . . the balance of power in Europe and the rights of the people,’ the abbé was saying. ‘It is only necessary for one powerful nation like Russia – barbaric as she is said to be – to place herself disinterestedly at the head of an alliance having for its object the maintenance of the balance of power in Europe, and it would save the world!’

‘But how are you to get that balance?’ Pierre was beginning.

At that moment Anna Pávlovna came up, and looking severely at Pierre, asked the Italian how he stood the Russian climate. The Italian’s face instantly changed and assumed an offensively affected, sugary expression, evidently habitual to him when conversing with women.

‘I am so enchanted by the brilliancy of the wit and culture of the society, more especially of the feminine society, in which I have had the honour of being received, that I have not yet had time to think of the climate,’ said he.

Not letting the abbé and Pierre escape, Anna Pávlovna, the more conveniently to keep them under observation, brought them into the larger circle.

You've been reading an extract from

Related articles