(Boyd’s article appeared in the Guardian, 8/20.)

In 1902, as he pondered The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov had another question on his mind: who was the father of his wife’s unborn child?

On 25 May 1901, Anton Chekhov, aged 41, married the actor Olga Knipper, eight years his junior. The marriage provoked great surprise and consternation among his friends and family. In Russia at the time, Chekhov was as famous a writer as Tolstoy and, in addition, a passionate and amorous man who had enjoyed more than 30 love affairs. He was also a regular visitor to brothels. And, even more significantly, he was the ultimate commitment-phobe. Many women had fallen in love with him and wanted to marry him but he always quickly backed away. Then suddenly, clandestinely, he married.

Knipper was a second-generation Russian, of German Lutheran stock. She came from a bourgeois family that had hit hard times, and she had audaciously and tenaciously decided to become an actor, driving herself to rise out of genteel penury. At the time she met Chekhov she was an original member of the famous, radical Moscow Arts Theatre. She caught his eye in 1898 when she was playing Irina Arkadina in The Seagull. Many of his lovers were far more beautiful and beguiling than Olga. She was petite and vivacious, and the fact that she’d had to struggle so hard to make her way in the world gave her an energy and near-ruthless determination that Chekhov responded to.

Their affair began in 1899 but it was shadowed by Chekhov’s terminal illness, tuberculosis. He was a doctor and knew exactly the inevitable, fatal potency of his malady. As it grew more severe, he sensed the end of his life nearing: perhaps this was what spurred him finally towards matrimony.

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