Anton Chekhov: a lifetime of lovers

Anton Chekhov, 1901 Photograph by Everett

I keep a photograph of Anton Chekhov on my mantelpiece. It's such an informal shot that it looks surprisingly modern. Chekhov appears to be sitting at a cluttered desk or a table, resting his head on his left hand. His thick hair is tousled and uncombed and his eyes look a little tired. You feel he might be about to say to the photographer, "Get a bloody move on, will you?" And indeed it's quite possible that he could have uttered such words, as we know that the photographer was his older brother, Alexander, a fact that probably explains the easy, unposed nature of the snapshot.

And we can date the photo with some precision. The Chekhov family had gathered with friends at Anton's country estate, Melikhovo, to celebrate his father Pavel's name-day. The festivities took place between the 26 and 30 June 1892. In 1892 Chekhov was 32 and entering the years of his mature fame and success. What makes the image memorable is that, because of the relaxed nature of the shot, we gain a glimpse of the private Chekhov. You can see in this casual portrait just how attractive a man he was – just what made him so appealing to women.

It's easy to forget how the portraits that emerged in the final years of Chekhov's life – the consumptive, primly dressed, prematurely aged invalid of Yalta – have come to dominate our sense of the writer. Chekhov was tall for the late 19th-century, six foot one, a big man. Looking at him in this photo, in his early 30s, somewhat dishevelled, candid, at ease, you can gain some idea of what it might have been like to meet him when he was in his prime, in his full, unfettered pomp.

The more you learn about Chekhov, as you read biographies, memoirs, the letters – the more clear it becomes that he led a love-life of astonishing activity and complexity. Chekhov, it turns out, had a great many affairs, some enduring several years, and most of the women involved with him for any length of time wanted to marry him. I was curious to know if any precise tally of his lovers had ever been made and, not finding one, I asked Donald Rayfield, author of Anton Chekhov: a Life (indubitably the best biography of Chekhov ever written), to try to draw up as accurate a list of names as possible.

The scrupulously made list that emerged is based solely on documented evidence. Some 33 women are actually named (there are a few anonymous encounters). The effect of identifying the women in Chekhov's life is powerfully revelatory: his love affairs become suddenly more real and a different Chekhov emerges. We can now claim to have as full a sense of his amorous life as can be realistically quantified. It starts in 1873, when the teenage Chekhov visited a brothel in his home town of Taganrog and continues until 1898 when his relationship with the actress Olga Knipper began. Chekhov was then in ill health, and eventually married Knipper in 1901. The picture that emerges is of a man who, over the course of a couple of decades, enjoyed at least two-dozen love affairs of varying intensity – some extremely passionate, some casual, some lasting many years, and some that were clearly going on simultaneously – and who, it's also clear from his letters, continued to be a regular visitor to brothels in Russia and elsewhere in Europe.

What is one to make of this information, and to what extent is it only part of the story? What relationships have we missed, perhaps, that weren't referred to in correspondence? Does it mean that we see Chekhov as a kind of literary Don Juan – or is it, more interestingly, a reflection of the relaxed sexual mores that prevailed in middle-class intellectual circles in the last decades of the 19th century in Russia? By 1898 Chekhov's health was seriously impaired by his tuberculosis, and he had only six more years of life left; he died at the early age of 44.

He was the most private of men, yet he preserved, annotated and filed away his correspondence with an archivist's zeal – hence our ability to present this inventory of his love life. My own interest in Chekhov's love affairs was stimulated by a particular short story Chekhov wrote, called "A Visit to Friends". I've used this story as a key source of a play, stitching it together with parts of another story, "My Life", to form a dual adaptation that I've entitled Longing. "A Visit to Friends" is intriguing because it was written in 1897 while Chekhov was convalescing in Nice, escaping the Russian winter for the good of his ravaged lungs. It's a great, mature short story – containing, among other things, the germ of The Cherry Orchard in just over a dozen pages – but, mystifyingly, Chekhov didn't include it in his collected works and it is consequently the least translated of the great stories of the last decade of his life. It's as if he didn't want it acknowledged – as if he preferred it were kept out of view, excluded from the canon.

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