When Tolstoy Met Trollope: On Sophie Ratcliffe’s “Loss, a Love Story”

By Bob BlaisdellApril 17, 2024

When Tolstoy Met Trollope: On Sophie Ratcliffe’s “Loss, a Love Story”

Loss, a Love Story: Imagined Histories and Brief Encounters by Sophie Ratcliffe

LOSS, A LOVE STORY: Imagined Histories and Brief Encounters (2024) is a combination of thematic memoir and literary essay that Sophie Ratcliffe sets rolling on the tracks of various train journeys across time, place, and reading. Originally published in the United Kingdom in 2019 as The Lost Properties of Love: An Exhibition of Myself, the book organizes, according to a train’s timetable, Ratcliffe’s preoccupations with (among many subjects) loss, affairs, handbags, messiness, and domestic boredom. Amid the pages of a work divided into headings like “Ferriby to Brough” and “Finchley Central to Burnt Oak,” the writer transfers to and from such places as Hackney Wick, Banbury, Oxford, Saint Petersburg, Moscow, and Sheffield; she also travels between times, making short stops at various destinations (1988, 2016, 2003, 2005). The framework is her attempt to illustrate how loss shakes up both chronology and geography—that, while a literal train may barrel along predictably over well-laid tracks, a grieving individual’s own train of thought roams more freely.

Ratcliffe, a Londoner who teaches literature at the University of Oxford, is quick out of the station. Eagerly confessional, she dramatizes the process by which reading (in particular, engaging with the works and lives of Leo Tolstoy and Anthony Trollope) moves her to reenvision and make sense of the losses she has endured throughout her life. First among these is Ratcliffe’s father’s unexpected death. She was 13 at the time. Now in her forties, the writer ruefully remembers taking her father’s company for granted on the London Tube while she read on the way to school; she recollects her unconsciousness of his life, his work, and his knowledge that he was sick and dying at the age of 45.

Ratcliffe also recalls her affair as a young woman with a photographer who was twice her age and married with children. (Ratcliffe, who is now married and has two children herself, addresses this long-lost lover as “you” in her recurring reminiscences and reflections.) Linking her father’s death to one of the most resounding chapters of her adult life as well as to literary and historical figures like Anna Karenina and Kate Field, Ratcliffe considers the complex and interconnected nature of loss.


Over the course of the book’s myriad journeys, Ratcliffe provides glimpses of her affair. She also delves into its attendant regrets. The memories appear to captivate her so much that it’s not hard at times to imagine her disembarking, leaving her husband, and finding a train back to the old fellow. After all, as Ratcliffe writes, “[a]ny affair is an attempt to live twice. Set into the beige wall of everyday linear time, it exists beyond a door you think nobody else has noticed. You walk past doors just like it every day. Often you don’t even think to look at it. But now and again, you stand beside it.” What she conjures is tantalizing, and she goes on to dramatize “the moment you take your first step”—after which, she says, “you feel as if time has warped and split.”

For Ratcliffe, taking risks with one’s eyes open to potential, consequent losses is romantic, not dissimilar to the experience she has of reading about 19th-century love affairs. Perhaps (I can’t tell) she means to recreate situations in which she escapes social conventions and can’t foresee the next moment. Reflecting on her never-forgotten albeit long-gone “you,” Ratcliffe anticipates but doesn’t like what we readers suspect and what, no doubt, her friends once fretted about:

You can theorize all you want about the two of us. Someone sitting there in Costa, watching us that day, might have said we were playing out some variant on an Electra complex. They could say that I was trying to replace my dead dad with a second father. That I was longing again for that unconditional love that had disappeared behind the crematorium curtains in September 1988. That I had merely slotted you into the shell of loss left behind by my father.

There may be some truth in this.

It’s hard not to agree. Yet Ratcliffe argues against Freud. She insists instead on her own time-displacement theory, wherein “[d]eath robs you of an imagined future. It also removes your belief in standard chronology, in the idea that a life lived in time works like a railway timetable: predictable, assured, leaving and arriving when it says it does.” She has located in Anna Karenina (1878) and Trollope’s triple-decker Victorian novels confirmation of her feeling that, in situations of crisis, a train’s unalterable progress illuminates and often changes our own comparatively messy and multidirectional perceptions.


One advantage about writing about Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy has already made the novel’s world so substantial that it takes only a paragraph or two before you and your readers are there. During her own trip from Saint Petersburg to Moscow, Ratcliffe summarizes an instance of Anna’s distracted reading. In it, Anna’s train is going the other direction, returning home to St. Petersburg after an eventful trip to Moscow (where she salvaged her philandering brother Stiva’s marriage, not to mention discombobulated and nearly unmanned the rich and dashing—soon to be dashed—Captain Vronsky). Gliding above the chapter, Ratcliffe (gleaning from multiple translations of part one, chapter 29), writes:

Anna opens her book and starts to read, settling back on the white sprung seat nearest to the window side. She turns the pages carefully, studying the shape of the words and feeling the soft, thin paper between her fingers, then looks up and around. There is a pleasant kind of loneliness to this train world. A moment where she can ask where to be, how to be a person, when the strings of life have been loosened from around her. The others seem deep in thought.

The more Ratcliffe meditates over Anna’s meditation, the clearer Ratcliffe’s curiosity about the book and its eponymous character becomes—as trains carry Anna to or from cities and companions, what is she herself thinking, noticing, experiencing? “The oil lamp is growing dimmer,” writes Ratcliffe, imagining the character’s journey, “but still gives her enough light to read. She sips her glass of tea in its silver holder, half-conscious of the sound of the train jolting over the rails. She follows the rise and fall of the English prose.”

Tolstoy doesn’t specify the name of the author of the book Anna is reading. But almost anybody who has read his British contemporary Trollope would guess Trollope, who in 1875 (the time in which this scene was set) continued to dish up novels every year. (Trollope wrote eight times as much fiction as Tolstoy over the course of his career, much of it nearly on the Russian master’s level.) For her part, Ratcliffe writes that even “if we throw away the scholarship and free Anna from her maker for a moment, then there’s another answer to the question of why she is reading this particular English novelist. Anna Karenina reads Anthony Trollope because he’s so good.”

How good is Trollope? Singling out a line from Barchester Towers (1857)—he “dared to ask himself whether he really longed for his father’s death”—Ratcliffe avers, “[t]his sentence takes my breath away. Here, as elsewhere, Trollope is brave. Brave enough to show the inside of another’s mind, with all its selfishness and cowardice and inward turning—brave enough to show the stuff within us all.”

Alongside her two chosen giants of Western literature, Ratcliffe introduces the important but certainly lesser known Kate Field, an American journalist with whom the happily married Trollope (among several others) was in love. Careful to cite her sources, Ratcliffe plausibly pinpoints Field as the essence of several of Trollope’s characters, and thus—this is Ratcliffe’s big reach—Tolstoy’s creation of Anna:

Whenever Tolstoy readied himself to write, he turned to reading English novels. And this is how Kate Field found her way to him, with the make-believe of a beginning. Sitting in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy read about these women, these imaginary Kate Fields. And he loved them. He lined the books up on his shelf. He remembered them. They crept into his mind, and into his work.

To my knowledge, nobody has yet seen Tolstoy’s brain scans that reveal Kate Field creeping into his head. Ratcliffe is certainly right that Tolstoy admired Trollope; at work on War and Peace (1869) the decade before Anna Karenina, he exclaimed in his diary: “Trollope kills me with his excellence.” Yet Tolstoy preferred and even worshiped Charles Dickens despite their differences in style and, over time, would rate George Eliot above Trollope.

In any event, come 1873, Tolstoy’s story of a slovenly, weak-minded woman who leaves her husband and eventually dies by suicide lay at a standstill in an unsatisfactory manuscript, until the idea occurred to him (how, he never explained or possibly even knew) to transform Anna into a beautiful, elegant, vivacious and superconscious person with everything to lose. (The unmarried, childless Kate Field had Anna’s qualities, but none of Anna’s domestic circumstances.) Once Tolstoy conceived of Anna as we’ve all come to know her, he plunged into his deepest psychological revelation of a character—and, consequently, of himself—in crisis. Notably, Ratcliffe makes no attempt to identify with either Kate Field or Anna Karenina; both she and we are namely attracted by their vividness, their sheer imaginability as human individuals.


Ratcliffe’s creative summaries of her readings are like the performance of a dancer following the lead of another dancer, drawing on another artist’s imaginings for inspiration. Tolstoy and Trollope, whom she seems to find particularly compelling for their interest in—not to mention extraordinary depiction of—conflicted, complex women, partner her into her own complicated experiences with absence and death. In this way, the two greatest novelists of the second half of the 19th century (my opinion) give Ratcliffe a way to reflect on the two biggest losses of her life.

Peculiarly, Ratcliffe insists that reading doesn’t transport her—that she doesn’t get lost in it. She wonders if, for other people, “reading is more like an opening, a dissolving. You are inside it; it is inside you; there is no longer either outside or inside.” If so, she concludes, “I have never felt this.” Yet her excited readings—to say nothing of the very premise of her book—seem to belie that assertion.

To that end, one of my continual surprises in reading and rereading Anna Karenina is that not a single character in the course of the novel reads with the intensity that Tolstoy has us reading about them. Books don’t do for them what literature does indeed seem to do for Ratcliffe; for Anna, Levin, and Vronsky, the external world and their respective interior dramas are too consuming. By contrast, Ratcliffe’s readings carry a pleasurable immediacy. “Perhaps this is why we read when we travel,” she muses. “Books break the rules of time. They can collapse time, and skip over it.”

To clarify: Reading great novels (and books such as this, about the greatness of certain novels) isn’t about killing or losing time but about making or reconstructing it. In the end, Loss, a Love Story is perhaps best understood as an experiment, bearing unexpected and even incomplete—although always compelling—results. Ratcliffe suggests but never resolves the connections between her losses and reading. Instead, she highlights the perhaps obvious yet no less significant preservational and meaning-making power of literature—how, to paraphrase “Amazing Grace,” what once was lost now can still, at the very least through words and the worlds they create, be found.

LARB Contributor

Bob Blaisdell is the author of Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine (Pegasus, 2020) and the editor of The Wit and Wisdom of Anthony Trollope (Blackthorn Press, 2003).


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