The beauty, the sadness, the dresses: Anna Karenina

the book:

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Published 1878, Maude translation 1918

Part 2  Chapter 22

Anna was quite alone, sitting on the verandah waiting for the return of her son, who had gone for a walk and had been caught in the rain. She had sent a man and a maidservant to look for him and sat waiting. She wore a white dress trimmed with wide embroidery, and as she sat in a corner of the verandah behind some plants, did not hear Vronsky coming. Bowing her curly head she pressed her forehead against a cold watering-can that stood on the balustrade, and both her beautiful hands, with the rings he knew so well, were holding the can. The beauty of her whole figure, her head, her neck, and her arms, always struck Vronsky with new surprise. He stopped, gazing at her with rapture. But just as he was going to step toward her, she felt his nearness, pushed away the can, and turned her hot face toward him. ‘What is the matter? Aren’t you well?’ he said in French as he came up to her.

observations: Anna is about to tell her lover that she is pregnant; both of them will see this as the moment to step out of their affair, to end the secrecy and openly be together. Even if you have no idea of the plot, this happening in Part 2 of 8 suggests that life is not going to be that simple for them. Anna is one of the great heroines of literature, and many people think this is the finest novel of all time - it is so monumental that it’s hard to say anything new about it. You can read it again at any age and find new and better things in it – though to be honest we haven’t yet reached an age to see the point of the long yawns of Part 8, where Levin’s theories of agriculture and belief systems are not in any way under-expressed. But the rest of it is, yes, wonderful, and Tolstoy has a better stab at writing about women than a lot of his male contemporaries. (He lived a long time, so that covers a lot of people).

Wide embroidery? Other translations say 'deep' or 'broad' - perhaps it means heavily embroidered?

But wait! Last minute consultation with a Russian-speaker tells us this: the word really only means sewing, but with an implication that it could cover embroidery, applique work, quilting. And there is a definition reading ‘embroidery on something, and also a strip of cloth with embroidery as a trimming for clothing, underwear’. So it’s not clear – but perhaps something like broderie anglaise? (With all thanks to JS.)

Links up with: The famous first line of the book is always open to discussion, and Michael Chabon’s ‘Well, unhappy families may each be unhappy after their own fashion, but their houses are always alike, at least in my experience’ features in this entry.

The photograph is of a 19th Century Duchess of Leinster, and is from
Wikimedia Commons.


  1. Love this one. Anna Karenina is my favorite book!


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