S2. Ep 17 The Lost Properties of Love: Dr Sophie Ratcliffe (1876)

For our Valentine’s Day Special episode of Travels Through Time, we visit Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, to talk to Dr Sophie Ratcliffe about Anna Karenina, Kate Field, Sofia Tolstoy and the year 1876.


Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is one of the dazzling achievements of nineteenth century literature. It is a story of power, ambition, fidelity and lust, ‘a warning against the myth and cult of love’, with the ill-starred relationship between the Russian socialites Anna and Count Vronsky at its centre.

In this episode of Travels Through Time, Sophie Ratcliffe shows how Anna was very much a child of the 1870s. Various historical figures can be found in her character. A well-known inspiration is Anna Stepanovna Pirogova, a jealous lover who threw herself under a freight train. A lesser-known one is the American journalist, lecturer and early telephone pioneer Kate Field.

Field was hugely charismatic and popular. The Chicago Tribune judged her ‘perhaps the most unique woman the present century has produced.’ She was among the first celebrity journalists. She was acquainted with Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Anthony Trollope, and George Eliot. For a time in the 1870s, she was employed as the first public relations manager for Alexander Graham Bell’s new invention, the telephone.

Here Ratcliffe explains how Field’s legacy stretched further still. As she explains in her new book, The Lost Properties of Love: ‘Parts of Kate Field live on in Anna Karenina. Anna Karenina is part Kate Field. That’s what writers do. They change lives.’

In this conversation, Ratcliffe guides us back to 1876 and to a historical past suspended between fact and fiction. She describes how trains were viewed as an invasive new technology; how time operates in intriguing ways in Tolstoy’s fiction, and she speculates about what was hidden in Anna’s red handbag as she stepped off the railway platform.

Dr Sophie Ratcliffe's The Lost Properties of Love is published by William Collins.

Show notes:

Scene One: A warm Sunday evening in late May 1876 (probably Sunday 30 May by the Russian calendar), the platform of Obiralovka Train Station, Russia.

Scene Two: The Gaiety Theatre, London, late April 1876, to watch Kate Field in a play called The Honeymoon by John Tobin

Scene Three: 17 March, 1876, Sofia Tolstoy’s bedside, Yasnaya Polyana Russia.

Memento: The front page of the Times (with the classified ads) for Tuesday 13 June, 1876


Presenter: Peter Moore

Guest: Dr Sophie Ratcliffe

Producer: Maria Nolan

Titles: Jon O