Sofia KovalevskayaMacTutor Index

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Diverging Paths

By this time Sofia and Vladimir had been married for thirteen years, and their relationship had been through many periods of change. Vladimir was an example of the sort of nihilistic husband who had made a conscious decision to defer to his wife's needs. He was a kind and generous man who was clearly in love with Sofia during the early years of their marriage at least. She did not return these feelings however, stating that, I love him really with my whole soul, but a little as one does a younger brother.47 It was clear to both Vladimir and Sofia that he was her intellectual inferior, and whilst this knowledge did make him slightly uneasy it is also true that,

without the inspiration and money Sofia had supplied he never would have had the opportunity to become a serious scholar with an assured place in paleontology.48

Under Sofia's influence Vladimir worked seriously during their early years together, and earned himself a fine reputation amongst his peers.

The arrangement with Vladimir and the life which it allowed her to lead both suited Sofia well for the first few years that they spent together. As early as 1871 however, friends began discussing openly the fact that they were not a good match. Vladimir has been described as an, unstable and high-strung personality,49 yet it must not be forgotten that Sofia herself was not particularly easy to live with. Although she was deeply involved in her own work, she would become jealous of Vladimir's studies because they did not include her. She became very demanding of him and, required constant companionship, thus preventing Vladimir from pursuing his studies in the field.50 Her nerves were also somewhat tried even early on in the marriage by, The feeling that she had unnecessarily placed herself under obligation to a man she barely knew.51 He felt that in many ways he had to take care of her as he would a child, and wrote on this subject that, In many respects she is a strange person with whom it is necessary to be all the time otherwise she becomes estranged.52 On the one hand he was all too willing to be imposed upon in this way as it made him feel needed, but he did nevertheless begin to resent her for it.

Following the attainment of their respective doctorates and subsequent return to Russia, they were to enjoy a few years of married happiness. The consummation of their relationship in 1875 meant that they were living together as a seemingly normal married couple for the first time. Sofia's inability to find a suitable job was outwith her control, yet Vladimir was also to have problems in this area initially due to his unwise criticism of one of the examiners when he was taking the necessary exam for the certification to teach. Even during this period of relative stability in their relationship, their feelings towards one another could change rapidly between open hostility and seemingly genuine affection. The birth of their daughter did nothing to change this. Sofia wrote of this time that when with Vladimir she would, become an exemplary wife and good mother and forget entirely that I myself should achieve something.53 This is not an entirely accurate statement as Sofia was never going to be content playing the role of a wife and mother, but there is no doubt that she did like the idea of such a role.

Weierstrass once wrote to Sofia of her relationship with Vladimir that,

Your personalities are too different for you to hope to gain a base, a support for yourself (which is essential for a happy marriage) and for him to find in you the necessary completion of himself.54

In late 1880 they realised that their efforts to try and overcome such problems were in vain, and they were never again to live under the same roof. Both parties had,

tacitly acknowledged that without love on either side, it was useless to try to patch together a marriage which should never have been consummated in the first place.55

Vladimir had been angered by her desire to return to Berlin in order to pursue her research once more, and frustrated at his inability to provide for his family. As a result he,

initialised a rash of financial dealings of dubious legality, refused to answer Kovalevskaya's and his brother's letters, and alternated between periods of deep depression and senseless euphoria.56

He became further confused and disoriented when he was dragged into a stock scandal due to his involvement with an unscrupulous company. Whilst Sofia carried out her work on the light in a crystalline medium, Vladimir faced ruin. He became so tormented by the thought of facing trial that on the the 15thof April, 1883, he took his own life. Sofia was understandably upset when she was informed of Vladimir's suicide, and used her work as a welcome distraction.

Sofia's relationship with Vladimir had been, a source of intermittent sorrow, exasperation and tension,57 throughout its fifteen year duration. It was often responsible for rendering her unable to concentrate and otherwise distracting her from her work. As a result, Vladimir's tragic death may have come as something of a relief to Sofia, who was on the verge of entering another new phase of her life.


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Leigh Ellison May 2002