Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace?

It won’t have escaped the attention of Russian literature fans that the BBC has made a brand new drama series based on War and Peace, currently airing on BBC1. Immediately after the first episode ended, there was a commotion on Twitter: an incestuous relationship between brother and sister Anatole and Hélène Kurágin?! Surely that wasn’t in the book!

Brother and sister have sex

As I seemed to remember that there was something the matter with them, I decided to investigate. And guess what.. the BBC is right! Obviously there is no sex scene between brother and sister in the book, unlike in the series, where Hélène is lying naked in bed, Anatole gets in bed with her, kisses her and touches her under the sheets, but Tolstoy nonetheless clearly suggests that something is going on.

Why Pierre marries Hélène

One of the main characters, Count Pierre Bezúkhov, is all of a sudden an ideal marriage candidate when he inherits the largest fortune in Russia. Prince Vasili Kurágin is short of money and wants to find a rich marriage partner for his youngest children, the both beautiful and stupid Anatole and Hélène. Obviously Pierre is the perfect candidate for Hélène. Together with his friend Anna Schérer he suggests to Pierre that he should marry his daughter.

Until then Pierre has never seen Hélène as anything else but a beautiful young woman. After the visit to Anna Schérer he suddenly sees her in a different light. Apparently this exquisite beauty could be his, Pierre’s, wife. He tosses and turns in his bed. But she’s stupid. And wasn’t there something wrong with her? He remembers a story he once heard:

“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 a scandal and that’s why he was sent away.”

Nevertheless he puts his mind to ease. After all if everyone thinks this marriage is a good idea, why should he not marry her? They get married and of course it doesn’t take long before the trouble starts. Hélène doesn’t love Pierre, she’s only interested in her title and money. She has several affairs, with the ambitious Boris, that Natásha was in love with, and also with the notorious scoundrel Dólokhov. When Pierre find out he challenges Dólokhov to a duel. After the duel Hélène is furious with Pierre, why shouldn’t she have affairs, it’s none of his business. And Anatole is still in the picture too:

“Anatole used to come to borrow money from her and used to kiss her naked shoulders. She did not give him the money, but she let herself be kissed.”

There is another hint of incest concerning the brother and sister. Hélène has invited a famous French actress to her house to recite some French verses. About the guilty love of a mother for her son. During this soirée Anatole tries to seduce the confused Natasha again.

Aylmer Maude confirms it

Here translator, biographer and personal friend of Tolstoy, Aylmer Maude, makes the following note: “in the first drafts of the novel, Tolstoy made it plain that Hélène and her brother had been in guilty relations with one another, but afterwards he altered this so that only some hints remain.”.

Clearly Tolstoy really intended the incestuous relationship between Hélène and Anatole, but left only the suggestion because of the strict censure of the time. What makes it particularly peculiar is the fact that it takes place with mutual consent.


-Photo from the BBC

-War and Peace by Tolstoy, translated by Aylmer Maude


29 thoughts on “Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace?

  1. Great post! I was really surprised by all the commotion over this aspect of the TV series as I thought Tolstoy made it quite obvious that something was going on between them. Nice to see I’m not the only one to think so!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yes, it surprised me too. As if these things didn’t happen 200 years ago! I think the commotion is not necessarily caused by the incest, which is not such a taboo anymore, but more about the fact that it is taking place with mutual consent between brother and sister. What do you think, miss quickly?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I think you’re right, it’s not like Helene is a victim or that she’s being taken advantage of. They’re both very willing participants and I guess in a weird way that is probably more shocking to modern audiences!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Exactly! If anything Helene is a much stronger character than Anatole. I think Tolstoy uses these allegations to underline the sleaziness of the Kurágins. A subtle warning for the reader.


  5. I was amazed by the kerfuffle over the (very light) incestuous scene. I have read W+P five times (beginning in high school) and I never once doubted that Anatole and Helene were “too” close. It seemed totally obvious, and entirely organic to the requirements of the story. I didn’t know about the Maude comment. Glad to hear it!

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Yes, it surprised me too! I think the (suggestion) if incest between the two is used to give the reader the feeling that these two care only for themselves and each other, to emphasise their nastiness. At least, that’s how I always, not even consciously, interpreted it. I certainly wasn’t shocked!
    Anyway, nice to meet you! I found your erotic bars reliefs more shocking;-)))


  7. So glad that I follow you on Twitter and that your tweeted this post! I just purchased the BBC series and want to watch it in its entirety! I also have the Anthony Hopkins version. This is a complex narrative! Enjoy reading your perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh really? I enjoyed the BBC series, the casting is great and it is a joy to watch. Of course, there was no way they could fit the whole book in the series, so they took certain story lines. In the book the incest is barely there, very matter of fact, but in the series… well, you’ll see! Enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. I am sure the series might come to Australia too. I can’t say I remember the brother and sister love. It would have been a minor issue. I usually remember things erotic. I recently tried reading War and Peace again but dozed off a view times. It was clearly telling me something.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Yes, it was telling you that you need more sleep 😄 But seriously, you’re absolutely right, it is a minor issue in the book, and it serves merely to illustrate the kind of character that Hélène and Anatole have. The series is worth watching, in spite of the exaggerated incest scene.


  11. Every time I say I am not ever going to read a 700 page book again I get pulled back in! Usually buy the Russians! Now, Thanks to you Elisabeth, I am gong to go back and read War And Peace. Nice piece of writing as always.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Keenly done. Smart stuff always appreciated. Thanx for checking out my “Taras Bulba” a while back–took me long enough to tell you. I like your style. Cheers, Mark

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Oi! How did I miss this? I read that book as carefully as holding a newborn! Great post. Thanks for alerting me of this fact/fiction I originally overlooked. Does this mean I have to read that tome again?

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Yes, of course! Perhaps I missed a few clues;-)
    I missed it too the first time, perhaps because it really is subtle, and I only had a vague recollection of the strange relationship between brother and sister.
    Thanks, Richard!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I haven’t seen the BBC series but I read the book last year and remember there being something amiss with those two. Makes me want to pull my book out to read over it again, but I probably won’t

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Yes, isn’t it? I somehow think that sex between siblings with mutual consent is a bigger taboo than the form of incest that we usually hear about. I found it particularly interesting that Tolstoy mentioned it quite openly, albeit not too explicitly, in War and Peace.


  17. Missed this post last year. I too wondered why did Tolstoy choose the incest. Was it related to a certain gossip at that time, or was it common, or unheard of? I do agree with your suggestion that Tolstoy wanted to emphasize the sleaziness of the family.

    Liked by 1 person

  18. I don’t know either if it was more common or unheard of. As you agree, the most likely explanation is that Tolstoy used a suggestion of incest to underline the sleaziness of the family, to suggest that they only care about each other.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. It looks like that. Do you know any other example of incest in Russian literature? I came across a mention of a father-in-law and daughter-in-law relationships. I think it was a Leskov’s book. He is one of my favorites of the 19th century. These relationships were common, especially in the rural Russia. I always try to reconstruct the real life based on the literature 🙂 Official history often lies, but the authors just write what they see 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. Absolutely, writers are great observers. I should read Leskov again, haven’t read him since university. I can’t really think of any other incest example now, but it’s possible that most writers would have been less explicit than Tolstoy. And in The Brothers Karamazov Grushenka seduces both father and son.

    Liked by 1 person

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