The dust-jacket of this weighty book (it is hardly possible to do justice to the life of someone like Tolstoy in less than 400 pages) shows the elderly writer in 1908, standing in peasant attire, with a stick and a pet dog, in a snow-covered avenue at Yasnaya Polyana, his country estate. The photo captures everything the author means by her sub-title: “Only Russia could have produced a writer like Tolstoy” she comments.

Indeed, to understand him and the forces that furiously propelled him in different, sometimes contradictory, directions during his long career, Rosamund Bartlett needed to master the complexities of Russian political, social and religious life in order to produce this comprehensive and readable book. If the reader does not learn anything new about this extraordinary figure, he will at the very least have entered anew into Tolstoy’s world with its vivid evocation of Russian aristocratic life lived before the Revolution.

Of course, Tolstoy was much more than merely a great novelist and social thinker from a noble background. The trajectory traced by Bartlett shows him as a profligate aristocrat, an army officer in the Caucasus, an educational and agrarian reformer, a famous writer, a Christian (but only at home in a faith refashioned by him) and the founder of a cult of “Tolstoyans”.

Bartlett’s attitude to her subject is one of reverence for his literary achievements, understanding for his enthusiasms and short-lived passions (he took to bicycling in his old age, oblivious to the incongruity of his public status coupled with this new mode of transport) and criticism for the way he treated his family, in particular his long-suffering wife, Sonya. Quoting the young Diaghilev who met him in old age – “There was something inexpressibly sincere, touching and holy in the whole person of the great man” – one senses that the biographer is alive to the best of Tolstoy as well as the worst.

In contrast to the other well-known Russian authors of his time, such as Turgenev and Chekhov, even Dostoievsky, Tolstoy’s life was “mythologised” early on. He himself, his biographer notes, contributed to this process of mythologisation; although deeply sincere, as Diaghilev saw, he had a very large ego and had to be at the centre of his world, thus shaping it for his readers and disciples.

Born in 1829, he was self-willed and obstinate from the start, influenced by Bible stories, Russian fairy tales and, as he grew up, by the writers of his time: Pushkin, Gogol and Lermontov, as well as Charles Dickens and Sterne. Typically, he left Kazan University without completing his law studies and, after a period of idleness, drinking and gambling, impulsively joined the army. One of Tolstoy’s endearing traits were his periodic resolutions, made only to be broken soon after: in 1850 he planned to play the piano for four hours daily, exercise daily, abjure women and novel-reading, as well as study languages, history, geography, law, mathematics, farming and medicine.

If the child is father to the man, Tolstoy’s early pursuits bore the characteristics of his later ideas and fixations. In 1855, he noted in his diary that he had had “a great and stupendous idea… the foundation of a new religion…the religion of Christ, but purged of dogma and mystery, a practical religion, not promoting future bliss but providing bliss on earth.” In later years he was to be excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church for publishing his ideas on this “new religion”. Christianity has often been reinterpreted; when the interpreter had the personality, the influence and aura of Tolstoy, there were bound to be repercussions in the wider society. Bartlett explains that literature in Russia was given the reverence paid to religion; quoting the Russian scholar Gustavson’s comment that “the images created by artists were taken seriously as words which reveal the Truth”, she describes how the whole “Tolstoyan” cult got established.

Much as Tolstoy’s peers and fellow writers respected him they soon realised it was “not all that easy to get on with him”. This surely is an understatement; he managed to quarrel with everyone, including the gentle and generous Turgenev, who did not subscribe to his artistic and religious dogmas. Turgenev wrote, “I never met anyone like him and I don’t quite understand him. A mixture of poet, Calvinist, fanatic, nobleman…

Being married to this man of many moods and parts was a formidable undertaking and ultimately impossible. Bartlett is sympathetic to Sonya Tolstoy, who married Tolstoy when she was 19; he was 34 and about to embark on War and Peace. During the 1860s, when he was in the full flow of this creative magnum opus and she was acting as his amanuensis and raising their young family, they were relatively content. In the 1870s, with the writing of Anna Karenina, more children (there were to be 13, of whom 8 survived to adult life) and an increased longing to educate and emancipate his serfs, serious cracks in their relationship began to appear. In a letter during this time, Tolstoy wrote of “Fear, horror, death, children, cavorting, eating, fuss, doctors, falsity, death, horror” – which graphically sums up the domestic atmosphere of Yasnaya Polyana and, implicitly, the burdens borne by Sonya.

By the 1880s, creative writing was being gradually overtaken by a highly eccentric, personalised ‘Christian’ lifestyle: Tolstoy became teetotal and a vegetarian, he gave up hunting and smoking (though not conjugal relations, to his mortification) and stopped handling money. From the 1890s onwards, his life and that of his family was increasingly dominated by his “Tolstoyan” followers, led by Vladimir Chertkov, whose background and interests were very similar to his master’s, though without the humour or creative impulse. Sonya noted despondently in her diary that there was “not one normal person” among the motley crowd that milled around her husband and invaded their estate.

Despite the enormous scholarship needed to embark on such a life, Bartlett never loses sight of her subject in all his fascinating facets; her book is an absorbing testimony to a great, flawed man.

Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire in the UK