The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska


This is meant to be a star-crossed romance set against the complex political, social and ethno-religious background of 19th century Galicia (the Ukrainian/Polish one, not the Spanish one) … but there’s a delicious interlude in which Our Heroine is escorted round the sights of Imperial Vienna by a handsome nobleman who keeps buying her Viennese cakes and pastries.  We get long lists of these.  He even hires a personal patissier, in the hope of impressing the lady.  Maybe this is some sort of romantic fantasy of the author’s?  If so, it’s a pretty good one.  If anyone knows where you can find one of these cake-providing handsome noblemen, please shout up.

The Siege of Atlanta moment in this is the Galician Slaughter/Peasant Uprising of 1846.  Polish history puts a lot of emphasis on uprisings.  1794.  1830-1831.  1863-64.  The leaders of these are all lionised.  However, the 1846 Uprising – very badly timed, because if they’d waited another two years then Austria would have been trying to deal with Hungary and Northern Italy at the same time … although, in that case, Russia would probably have got stuck in – gets quietly overlooked because it ended up with the Poles all fighting each other and doing the Austrians’ job for them.  This is the first book I’ve ever found which deals with it as historical fiction, and one of very few books I’ve ever found which deal with the glorious confusion that is Galicia as historical fiction at all.

I don’t think the author quite knew how much historical/political background to give, and sometimes it seems as if she’s decided that she’d better explain things, so she includes some information about the Partitions and about the Habsburg Empire.  However, she doesn’t do it until after covering events which wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know the background.   The Polish Partitions and the Habsburg Empire are both fascinating subjects, but I’m not sure that they’re that well-known in English-speaking countries, and it would have made more sense to have put the background info in first.  Having said which, it’s rather nice feeling that you’re expected to know what’s going on.  OK, I won’t write an essay on the Partitions, because this book’s about Austrian Poland/Ukraine and I always come at the whole thing from a Russian viewpoint.

Anyway.  A star-crossed romance.  Our Heroine is a Polish, Roman Catholic noblewoman.  Our Hero is a Ukrainian, Orthodox peasant.  You get the idea.  Come 1846, the Polish upper and middle classes staged a rebellion, centred on what was then the Free City of Krakow, with the hope of regaining their independence.  The Polish peasants in Austrian Poland (much of which is now part of Ukraine) rose up against the Polish landlords – serfdom still existed in Galicia at this point, although it was abolished two years later – and actually massacred a fair number of them, and the Austrians were able to put down both rebellions, but not before taking advantage of peasant support against the nobles.  And, to put the tin lid on it, a load of crops got destroyed in the chaos.  And Krakow lost its status as a free imperial city and was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, which it wasn’t very pleased about.  So it’s probably no wonder 1846 doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as 1863-64 et al.  It was a pretty major disaster from a Polish viewpoint.

Our Hero rescues Our Heroine from the peasant mob who attack her home and murder her husband, and, having fancied each other for years, they then get together.  It doesn’t fit in that well with the historical facts, though.  The uprising was in the Polish areas, not the areas where most of the peasantry were Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, or identifying as Orthodox rather than Catholic … the terminology’s a nightmare with Galicia).  The villages also seem to be very much mixed Polish and Ukrainian, which I’m not sure they would have been … although it’s meant to be set near Lviv (referred to in the book, correctly in terms of historical context, by its Austrian name of Lemberg), and that was much more mixed before the Poles moved out after Lviv was moved from Poland to Ukraine the Second World War … mostly to Wroclaw, which needed repopulating after the Germans had been booted out when it was moved from Germany to Poland.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it 🙂 ?

Oh, and how come all the Ukrainians are Orthodox?   Given that we’re near Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg, shouldn’t most or all of the Ukrainians be Greek Catholic?  I don’t like that expression in a Ukrainian/Belarusian context, and think that “Uniate” is far better, but apparently people prefer “Greek Catholic” and “Uniate”‘s seen as being a bit offensive.  Come to that, why are none of the characters Jewish, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Galicia in the mid-19th century?

Oh well, I suppose a bit of historical licence can be forgiven.  It’d spoil the story if the hero and heroine weren’t of different nationalities and different religions, as well as from different social backgrounds!   The idea is that everything’s against them.  It’s a lifelong relationship: the amber heart of the title is a necklace given to him by her mother, who dies after catching smallpox whilst trying to nurse his mother through it.   They never actually marry, and in fact they both marry other people, but they’re involved on and off for years, and have two children who are passed off as being someone else’s.  Funny how some of the greatest romantic novels of all time work like that: The Thorn Birds is the obvious one, and A Dark and Distant Shore is another.  This doesn’t come even close to being in that league, but it’s so rare to find a book set in Galicia.  James Michener’s Poland is, in part, and there’s Michael Andre Bernstein’s Conspirators which is great, but they aren’t sagas about the lives of particular characters like this is.  And there’s quite a bit of interesting description about the homes and lifestyles and customs of both the nobles and the peasants.

There’s even a feminist angle: Our Heroine does not remarry after her husband dies, but runs her estate on her own, with the help of Our Hero as the estate manager.  At the end, whilst it’s usually the bloke who dies first, leaving the woman to ruminate on what might have been – with the obvious exception of Wuthering Heights – in this case she dies first, and he actually does a bit of a Heathcliff: he doesn’t go around kidnapping people and forcing them into marriage, but he does mope around and drink too much for a while.  Then he dies too.  Hmm.  Books that just do the happy ever after thing end with the couple getting married: books like this inevitably end with one or both of them dead.

And finally, what of the cake-buying nobleman?   Well, he doesn’t get the girl either.  She leaves Vienna, and moves back to her country estate near Lemberg/Lviv/Lemberik/Lwow/Lvov.  At least all the commonly-used versions of the name begin with L:  Bratislava/Pressburg/Pozsony’s far more confusing.  Her cousin lives in Vienna for many years, and puts on loads of weight from eating all the cake.  Seriously, this book gives the distinct impression that all anyone does in Vienna is eat cake.  Ahem – not that I’ve got a photo just above the computer of myself in a Viennese coffee house with a huge piece of Sachertorte in front of me.  And I’m always moaning about how much I struggle to lose weight.

Anyway, you’d think that someone – one of these irritating people who eat cake all the time but never put on an ounce – would have snapped him up, but no.  He continues to adore Our Heroine, and, having sussed out what’s going on with her and Our Hero, he reflects sadly that he offered her cake when all she really wanted was rye bread.  That’s supposed to be some great allegory for the whole thing, but it doesn’t work because she carried on living in her big house, with her servants and her expensive gear, so it was hardly as if she was managing on bread and salt all for the love of Our Hero.  But it’d be a brilliant line if she had been.   So, he doesn’t get the girl, but they’re best friends, probably more like sister and brother.  It’s quite sad for him, but it’s nice as well.  Sometimes people aren’t destined to be a couple, but there’s no reason why they can’t still be friends.

Incidentally, I’ve never yet made it to Lviv, but I remember thinking in Krakow (and in various other Slavic areas which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) how nice it was that you could have black bread for breakfast and Austrian-style cake for afternoon tea!   And that’s Mitteleuropa.  As of this week, the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it was up.  That really makes me feel old!   But I think we still see Europe in terms of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, the way we did during the Cold War, and it’s time to stop that.  And that probably goes right against the grain (bad pun about Ukraine as a major grain producer entirely intended) of the 1846 attempt by the Galician nobility to get away from Austrian influence … and which all went wrong.  Very unusual choice of background for a book, and that’s nice.  It’s hard finding books set in Galicia!




5 thoughts on “The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska

  1. Chris Deeley

    I doubt that many would regard The Thorn Birds as a great romantic novel. Surely Dr Zhivago, Anna Karenina and Gone with the Wind are more worthy? But your thesis is interesting – a bit Shakespearean, Greek Tragedy, etc. I’m thinking of Dante and Beatrice as a real life example. Middle Europe is definitely great to visit – lovely scenery and people. I highly recommend “A Time of Gifts” by Patrick Leigh Fermor, which offers delightful 1930s insights.


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