There is an autobiographical context to Family Happiness. During 1856, Tolstoy had carried on a somewhat desultory and cerebral courtship of a young lady named Valeria Arseneva, who lived on an estate near his. Her situation was similar to Masha’s: She was an orphan, living with her aunt, sisters, brother, and a governess. As the brother’s guardian, Tolstoy had easy access to the family, and he initially assumed toward Valeria the informal role of tutor. He played this part far more crudely than did Sergei Mikhailych, writing Valeria a series of peremptory and often scolding letters, full of advice about even such things as the style of her hats. Tolstoy was especially displeased with her for being caught up in the excitement of festivities during the coronation of Alexander II. Later he “tested” himself and her by going to Moscow and St. Petersburg for several months to determine whether their attachment would survive the separation. It did not, and the relationship was broken off, leaving Tolstoy feeling guilty for having toyed with the girl’s feelings. The story obviously reproduces these experiences in a much purified form, giving them the somewhat muted happy ending they did not have in life, punishing the girl for her immaturity, and making his alter ego, Sergei Mikhailych, rather wiser and more benevolent than Tolstoy was himself.
The story is also to some degree a response on Tolstoy’s part to writings of the period on the “woman question,” notably Jules Michelet’s L’Amour (1858; Love, 1860) and Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s De la justice dans la Revolution et dans l’eglise (1858; On Justice in the Revolution and the Church, 1858), both of them strongly antifeminist, and, on the other side, the novels of George Sand. Family Happiness was perhaps intended as a statement in favor of male dominance, but in the actual story, Tolstoy’s theoretical stance was considerably mitigated by his psychological intuition and his artistic sensitivity. The themes of courtship, marriage, parental responsibility, conjugal relations, and adultery were later explored, more deeply and penetratingly, in Voyna i mir (1865-1869; War and Peace, 1886) and Anna Karenina, (1875-1877; English translation, 1886).