“When I came out into society I was 15. I already knew that the role I was condemned to, namely to keep quiet and do what I was told, gave me the perfect opportunity to listen and observe. Not to what people told me, which naturally was of no interest, but to whatever it was they were trying to hide. I practiced detachment. I learned how to look cheerful while under the table I stuck a fork into the back of my hand. I became a virtuoso of deceit. It wasn't pleasure I was after, it was knowledge. I consulted the strictest moralists to learn how to appear, philosophers to find out what to think, and novelists to see what I could get away with, and in the end, I distilled everything to one wonderfully simple principle: win or die.” – Marquise de Merteuil, “Dangerous Liaisons”
Helene’s governess was a thin and lanky woman who always wore her hair in a tightly clipped bun. She had hollow cheeks and greying hair, a very prim and precise manner about everything she did, a mastery of French and the piano. She also came highly recommended by all of Princess Aline’s acquaintances. Possibly because of her age, Madame Bleau was very pedantic about old fashioned manners and customs. She constantly approached Helene’s education as simple purgatory for when the girl would be married, which Madame, not without subtle encouragement from Prince Vasili, saw as the ultimate goal.
Helene never feared her governess, but with Princess Aline being distant toward all her children, other than, perhaps, Anatole, who was doted on by the entire family, Madame Bleau was the only female influence Helene had to latch onto. Her words would sometimes resonate late at night as Helene lay awake, digesting her lessons and measuring up in her head what the pattern was. If she could deduce a pattern, she could succeed in the eyes of her governess and therefore, by report, in the eyes of her father and maybe even her disinterested mother.
The summer after Helene turned thirteen, the entire family spent the summer at the estate of a distant relative, an old cranky window who was supposed to leave her entire inheritance to Prince Vasili. At dinner, the crone asked the children to speak of their achievements, as she was very invested in the education of the younger generation or so she liked to say. Hippolyte, with his usual pomp, blurted out some new philosophical mantra that was in vogue. He understood little of what he said, but the words had been so often repeated in his presence by friends and companions that he had them memorized and thought himself perfectly clever for having done so. Anatole’s tutor, making the mistake of assuming that his charge actually retained in his memory lessons from several months prior, attempted to cajole Anatole into reciting the history of the Seven Years War.
Anatole flustered and fidgeted, swinging his legs under the table, hooking his ankle around Helene’s, who sat opposite him, and watching her for any clues of what he ought to say. After laying out the different alliances and the approximate dates of the war, he seemed perfectly lost as to the details.
Helene, finally taking pity on the boy, decided to step in with her own knowledge. “We seized East Prussia but weren’t able to take Brandenburg. Then the battle of Kunersdorf gave us an advantage but we never followed up and so the whole affair stretched out until 1761 when we finally took Berlin and Pomerania. But then Peter III took the throne and petitioned for peace, giving away all of our gains in the war. That’s why everyone hated him so much.” She took a breath as she finished and looked around the table, expecting admiration. Instead, there was the shocked look on her mother’s and Hippolyte’s faces, a disturbed, if somewhat pleased, expression on her father’s face, an embarrassed flush on Anatole’s cheeks, and a disapproving pinch to her governess’s mouth. The old crone had too many wrinkles for Helene to be able to tell what exactly her mood was. She only sniffed and said, “And here I thought your daughter excelled at dancing, Vasili. Maybe she should take the university exams instead of Hippolyte.” It was Helene’s turn to flush with embarrassment. The comment was an obvious gibe. Apparently, she had spoken out of turn.
“It is neither wise nor in good taste, ma chere,” Madame Bleau chided later when she and Helene were alone, “to speak so forwardly of things that ought not to be a woman’s prerogative. Even if you do concern yourself with some societal gossip of the political nature, it would do you well to remember that men do not forgive a woman who is smarter than they are and is willing to expose them as fools to the world. Better that you allow others to speak their minds and guide the conversation subtly in the desired direction. Do not show all your cards at once or you will be ripped apart for it mercilessly.”
“Must I then appear completely daft?” Helene asked, watching her governess with a cool, composed gaze, even as inside her everything rebelled at the thought that she ought to remain silent when she obviously had something of value to add or that cleverness would never suit her.
“If people feel important and clever in your company, they will assume you to be just as clever, if only for the sake of their own pride. Remember that sometimes the less you say the fewer people there will be to disagree and find the need to put down your intelligence because theirs is threatened.”
Helene stayed up late that night, perched on the wide windowsill, watching the misty glow of the moon ghost over the orchard and the far-off woods. She supposed Madame was right – politics and philosophy were the realms of men. If she were to enable them, she would become like the riverbed for the water of their discourse, unobtrusively guiding them wherever she wanted to go, without anyone even noticing.
Helene began to wear long skirts when she was not yet twelve. The small, bulging mounds of her breasts, the tell-tale signs of womanhood that the entire household seemed to have waited for and dreaded at the same time. But at that initial point, she had still been a girl who played in the garden with her younger brother and sat with the children at large gatherings. She watched as her body morphed, her hips widened and her breasts filled out. Her skin lost some of its childish pinks and became creamy and taunt. She filled out somewhat in the thighs, her waist stood in greater contrast to the rest of her body and her face took on a slightly longer shape. She blossomed slowly over the period of four years under the close watch of her entire family.
Helene was just sixteen when her father announced that he would be taking her to one of Petersburg’s grandest balls of that season. She was fitted for a ballgown, a brilliant ivory thing, floating in the skirt and tightly corseted on top. The whirlwind of preparations caught Helene in a storm of expectations and assumptions. When she stood in front of her mirror on the night of the ball, she could barely recognize herself. The touches of makeup made her delicate features almost sharp on the edges, her hair was tightly curled and tucked into an evening hairstyle, and she was practically spilling out of her corset.
Gone was the girl who played childish games with Anatole in the empty classroom or rode horseback across the fields at the Moscow estate, racing the rain home. Before her was a young woman, just a fraction off perfect, so that she could not quite be mistaken for a doll. She knew in that moment that all her girlhood lessons about discretion and modesty, silence and passive coquetry were about to be put to the test. It would be like stepping out onto the stage for the first time or sitting down to take the first university examination.
Her father’s voice summoned her from the bottom of the staircase and Helene reached out for what would become her favorite weapon and shield – a delicate, laced fan – and, giving herself one final look in the mirror, left to meet her fate.
Body language was everything. The difference between men and women was everything. Helene learned to navigate ballrooms and drawing rooms the way one learns to swims – with effort, concentration, practice and the occasional feeling of drowning. She listened and watched, figured out who was the weakest link and the patterns in the way people behaved.
Some things were confirmed for her: men were far more straightforward than women, and officers were more straightforward than civil servants. Some things were new or surprising: older people passed judgment quicker in private but were often far more likely to keep their observations to themselves.
Helene learned to tuck away the actual words people spoke the way she would only briefly notice the type of silverware used at dinner or the pattern on the tablecloth. She cared far more about the pauses and the hidden meanings, the intonations and subtle gestures of either pleasure or discomfort.
She figured out how to walk the tightrope between friendliness that gave men hope and outright flirtation that would be talked about. If men had reason to hope, their pride would do the rest. Few men actually took it upon themselves to court her and even fewer proposed. Helene first worried about the situation, but then decided that it was better this way. It would be far worse to seem accessible and gullible, a girl ready and willing to fly into the arms of the first man who desired her. They worshiped her, and therefore feared the damage she might do their egos.
She had just turned twenty-three when Anatole’s friend Pierre became Count Bezukhov. Her father called her into his study and said, thoughtfully, not rising from behind the large oak desk, “What do you think of my protégé, Leolia?”
“In what sense do you mean, Papa?” Helene could feel her heartbeat rising. She knew her father would not be having this conversation with her unless he was settled on making a match between her and Pierre. Had she had her say in things, Helene would have preferred someone with more spine. But her father was right – she could not remain unmarried for much longer without it becoming a source of talk.
“Well…” Prince Vasili spread his hands out invitingly. “As a person, as a man…”
“As a match?”
Her father’s expression scrunched up the way it always did when he was made uncomfortable by something. Such a blunt statement of the truth of the matter obviously made him squirm but Helene figured she should at least be able to be straightforward with her own father. “Well, as the matter stands, yes. Ma chere, you are at that age—“
“Please, Papa.” What she wanted to tell her father was that the only reason she would go along with this match was because Bezukhov had nearly unlimited resources and, being week-willed, was likely easily manipulated. She had already known she would not marry for love, and barring that, all practical considerations had to be taken into account. “I will do as you like.”
Helene was married within three months, just two weeks later than her initial estimate.
“Oh it is awful, this entire situation,” Helene murmured, sweeping her gaze over the intimate circle that had gathered in her drawing room. “You must know how very upset I am about what Pierre has gone and done. Then he is angry with me, which is a horrible shame.”
“Do not worry, I am sure the Count will relent. Your husband is an odd sort, but not even he can remain so cold for so long. Certainly he will see the error of all this,” Countess N— said reassuringly, reaching out to put her hand over Helene’s. The circle tittered and cooed, offering reassurances to their unfairly wronged friend.
Helene had no illusions about the women currently gathered there. She had invited them less so for their friendship to her and more for their positions in society or known reputation to gossip. She knew they would be the first to run her over if Pierre somehow managed to sway society’s opinion in his direction. Fortunately for her, society regarded Pierre as it would a good-natured buffoon – without malice but also without offering him much credibility. The duel had been a shock, a nasty testament to both her lover’s indiscretion and her husband’s idiocy and temperament. She had wanted to stay in Moscow, at least until she knew for certain that Theodore would live, but it was critical that she went to Petersburg and soothed the gossip that was already spreading like wildfire. Had her affair been with someone of rank or fortune, it would be of no real effect on her reputation. The problem was that Dolokhov’s unfortunately few means and scares connection made him of no true interest to anyone and gave Helene little leverage. Society would see this not as a titillating entertainment but a distasteful misalliance. This was not something Helene could afford.
So she practiced calm and sad smiles, practiced the words she would say in her husband’s defense and the look of offended dignity if anyone dared to suggest that her affair had been real. She practiced burying her anxiety whenever news came from Moscow and her anger and frustration whenever even the thought of Pierre crossed her mind. It was a simple ruse – an act of innocence and repentance at the same time, the complete lack of self-righteousness while never admitting to a single hint of guilt. Society had no reason to berate her and therefore they showered her with sympathy. The women she pretended to let into her confidence felt flattered, they were softened by this show of trust, which they instantly betrayed by spilling all of Helene’s supposed secrets into the tumble and torrent of the capital’s gossip. Little did they know that every word had been carefully chosen, every confession weighed.
Helene had made the mistake of not being able to cope with her husband, at underestimating his agency. Her deception as to their marriage had not sunk deep enough and he had rebelled against her at the merest sign of danger to his own morals. It was not a mistake she could afford elsewhere. She knew that a woman who had allowed herself to be ruined once would never be able gain back that respect. She had watched Anna Minsky throw away her entire reputation and perfectly respectable marriage on a passion which had brought her nothing but grief in the end. Society still talked of the affair and the duel and Anna’s shunning from many prominent and respectable houses afterwards. Helene would not let that happen to her. The Minsky girl had not known how to bluff and put up a bulletproof façade. Helene did.
Helene’s first night in Moscow since the duel brought her to a dinner hosted by the Luzhanins. That household was bursting with young people so the gossip was entertaining and invigorated. The talk swirled like a fast waltz, alighting on the war, the handsome officers, and the latest romance scandals and news.
“—the entire thing was very awkward for both gentlemen. I assume Kitty will be more careful from now on. At least they avoided a duel,” Helene’s neighbor was finishing a story just as dessert was served.
“Oh, but it’s always more fun when there’s a duel,” the girl across from them put in, blushing prettily at her own edginess.
“Speaking of which…” Helene’s neighbor turned to her with a knowing smile, her curls bouncing as she nearly burst with the news. “Have you heard Theodore Dolokhov proposed to Sophie Rostov?”
Helene felt a tight pang in her chest, her stomach contracted as she felt the air going out of her. Jealousy rolled over her like a slimy, hot wave. No wonder she had not received a single letter from Dolokhov since the duel. Perhaps he thought she had betrayed him. The fool. Why did all men have to be such incorrigible fools? The young women around her were all aflutter.
“Is that the niece of Count Rostov? Vera Rostov’s cousin?”
“Yes, yes, her. She’s pretty, but completely dowerless.”
“I suppose the little fool said yes?” Helene said, forcing her tone to be light and even a little giggly. Too much coldness would have given her away.
“Oh, no she denied him. Everyone says she is in love with her cousin, Nikolai.”
Helene smiled lightly, feeling predatory eyes on her from all sides. “Well that is terribly foolish; the young count is not likely to marry her. As it were, have you seen the latest Parisian catalogs?” The conversation swerved like a current into discussions of hats and trimming and laces. Helene stabbed at her piece of caramel pie with a little more force that necessary. She hadn’t asked him to duel for her, and then he had the audacity to be offended that she had been forced to be especially careful in protecting her reputation. The anger, disappointment and pain blended into one seamless emotion and it took all of Helene’s significant self-control to keep a placidly cheerful expression on her face.
Dolokhov was and always would be the one man she could never bring to heal.
Helene watched her companions as they laughed and talked, having completely forgotten about Sophie Rostov and everything surrounding that situation. Having successfully guided the conversation away from herself, Helene withdrew into her own thoughts, trying to assess where the holes in her carefully created public image remained.
Later that night, awake and listless, fidgeting with a quill at her writing desk, Helene decided that the problem was within herself. She had allowed her father and the promise of splendid fortune to cloud her judgment of what she could handle in a husband, she had allowed a passion to make her careless and she did not yet have a perfect plan for her rise in society. She was well regarded but her power was still that of a beautiful woman, not a guiding riverbed, an icon.
From that day, she vowed, she would focus solely on sa carrière.
When Anatole returned from abroad in the winter of 1809, he had every reason to be stunned in the change that had come over his sister.
In a lot of ways, Helene was still the same – beautiful and composed, floating through sitting rooms and ballrooms with a placid, bright smile. But some of her girlishness was gone. The mischief that still lingered in her eyes had disappeared and every graceful movement had attained a certain patronizing quality. She had morphed from a lovely young woman, a decoration, an asset for any man who had her on his arm, into a powerful independent force. Her name was hers alone, even though, technically, she carried her husband’s title and surname. No one thought of her as Count Bezukhov’s wife, but rather it was Pierre who was considered in relation to her. She was known to be extremely clever, primarily, from what Anatole could ascertain, because the most intellectual people gathered in her salon. Helene had graduated from her gossiping age-mates and their rich mothers along with a gentleman or two for spice to diplomats and political thinkers of the highest caliber. They gathered in her salons to impress one another and to bathe in the rays of Helene’s beauty and tact.
Helene was always dressed by the latest fashion, espoused the latest and most widely help convictions by the most influential people. She did not scatter herself like her father did, for that was rather dangerous in her position. Her intellectual, West-inclined circle was well formed and to rattle it too much would have been counterproductive to her cause.
Anatole’s curiosity finally got the better of him in late February. He snuck into Helene’s rooms after one of her parties as he used to do when they were children and presented her with a bouquet of snowdrops, watching her face carefully.
Helene realized that he was testing her, the flowers and inquisitive gaze an unspoken question: do I still know you? She laughed – genuinely and freely – the sound almost foreign to her by now. “You’re such a little fool, Anatole. What is all this?”
“I don’t know how you can stand all those self-important morons who come to all your parties.” He slid past her into the depths of the room and, without taking off his boots, fell back onto her bed, making a dramatic display over his confusion in her choice of friends.
Helene set aside the flowers and sat down on the sofa, eyeing her baby brother with some disapproval. “You sound ridiculously like Pierre right now, you know? This is all a practical matter, Toto. An…entrepreneurial venture of sorts.”
Anatole’s eyes glazed over in confusion. “What are you gaining from all of this then?”
“Position, influence. There are people in society who will not say a thing unless they think it would be approved off in my drawing room. And, as of late, I have been able to control much better what is said and done in said drawing room. This, darling, is one of the most effective ways for a woman to control men. It’s a secret, but I’ll let you in on it.” She smiled at him conspiratorially, the sort of look they would give each other while planning some practical joke as children. Anatole had always been and still was the one and only person with whom she felt she could be completely honest. “There is nothing for a woman in this world who cannot play her cards right.”
Anatole frowned and sat up slowly, turning this information over in his head. “You and Papa are so alike, it’s incredible,” he said finally, bits of awe and disdain mixing into his tone. “What of this Prince of the blood? You seemed cozy with him. Lover? Also for gain?”
Helene’s smile became more mysterious. “Not a lover, not yet. But we are very intimate in our friendship. If I was to take a true lover, however, I assure you that it would be with the utmost caution.”
“Oh yes, wouldn’t want to actually care about someone, would you.”
The bitterness in Anatole’s tone hit a nerve. Helene knew very well that when things had sourced between her and Dolokhov, Anatole had been caught in the middle. He had thrown a temper tantrum at her back in ’06 for not having stayed in Moscow or written to Theodore. She had shouted at him in frustration and anguish that he had no right to judge her and that he simply did not understand. Her opinion of that episode had not changed. “Don’t be cruel, Toto,” she said tiredly.
“I still say that all work and no play makes everyone terribly dull,” Anatole said, obviously trying to switch the subject and not get mired in a debate he knew he wouldn’t win. “Have some fun with me.”
“I don’t know. Help me woo a pretty girl or something. Remember when I was mad for Liza Sorokina?”
Helene laughed, wringing her hands at the memory. “Yes, you were eighteen and falling all over yourself. But come now, you’re married.”
Anatole gave a squawk of protest and flapped his arms at her. “Keep your voice down! Goodness. Papa does not know, remember?”
“Poor Papa.” She considered Anatole, perched atop her bed like a bird on its roost, and decided that perhaps she could have a little fun. “Tell me, is Anna Pavlovna still angry with me for poaching her favorite exhibition?”
“Who? Drubetskoi? I wouldn’t know, you know I don’t associate with the likes of Anna Pavlovna. Although, I do find the rivalry the two of you have going to be mildly entertaining.”
“Do you now?” Helene gave her brother a smug look. “I like it myself sometimes. Others it is simply tiring. I will make you a deal, Toto. If you come to me with something worthwhile, we will have some fun.”
Almost a year later, Anatole finally managed to catch her attention with his pursuit of Natasha Rostov. Whether or not the thought that a certain cousin of the young Natasha would be devastated by the loss or shame of her friend played any part in Helene’s willingness to enable Anatole’s fantasies was not a question Helene dwelled upon.
If anything could be said of Helene’s final battle in the ring of society intrigue, it is that the entire affair was ambitious and fatalistic.
Helene found herself between two influential lovers and with a husband who had grown tiresome. She engineered the perfect extrication from her marriage, prepared society, deliberated on whether she could avoid re-marrying, and continued to perform all the duties still expected of her by society. Somewhere far off, the war was raging as a perfect dramatic backdrop, an allegory for her own contest. She would stop, sometimes, in her preoccupations to pray for Anatole’s safety.
If Helene had known then, in the fading days of August, that the music would soon fade out, crackle into silence, much like the sound of a fated letter, brought by a rider in the night, crumpled up in a fit of grief, she would not have stopped her plans for even a moment. An unfortunate combination of medicine and red wine, a deep blood-crimson, may have drowned out the final act of Helene’s dramatic ascension to the throne of Petersburg societal glory, but Helene herself would never have relented.
If she had learned anything, either in her girlhood or woman, it was that those women who did not wish to remain in obscurity had only two options laid before them in the world: win or die.