Tsarina by Ellen Alpsten

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In 1986, there was an absolutely superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  They don’t make programmes like that any more!   I found the story of his second wife, Martha Skavronskaya/Marta Skowronska, the peasant girl who ended up becoming Tsarina Catherine I, Empress of all the Russias, fascinating.  So, 34 years later, I was so excited to find out that someone’d written a novel about her that I splashed out on the hardback version as soon as it became available.  And I really did enjoy it.  I’ve got a few quibbles about historical accuracy but, as no-one really knows that much about Marta/Catherine’s early life, it’d hard to criticise too much.  However, what the book *didn’t* do was what it said on the tin.  It was subtitled “the most powerful woman history ever forgot” – but it didn’t cover her time as tsarina regnant.  It finished when Peter died, apart from a couple of pages covering Catherine’s death two years later.  Why write a book about the incredibly story of an illiterate peasant girl becoming Empress of all the Russias but not show her actually, er, *being* Empress?!  Very entertaining book, but what a strange ending.

I think of her as Martha Skavronskaya, but that’s the Russified version of her name.  She was originally Marta Skowronska.  Annoyingly, the book calls her Marta Skowronski, which is incorrect: that’s the masculine form of her name.  In all the confusion in the Baltic between the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Swedish Empire and what became the Russian Empire, no-one’s very clear about her history, although the name’s Polish.   She was born in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, somehow ended up as a maidservant in the home of a Lutheran pastor in what’s now Latvia, was married off to a Swedish soldier and, when Russian troops occupied the area during the Great Northern War,  somehow (there are a lot of “somehows”!) came to be part of the Russian camp, went back to Moscow with the soldiers, became part of the household of Peter’s best mate Menshikov, and was then noticed by Peter and became his mistress.

Ellen Alpsten’s come up with a very lurid tale in which Marta was an illegitimate child brought up by a brutish father and wicked stepmother, sold to a landowner who raped all his maidservants, murdered the landowner, ran off to Latvia with the money she’d stolen from his household, was taken in by the pastor whilst starving on the streets, had an affair with the pastor’s son, was married off to the Swedish soldier, and was then raped by Russian troops whilst trying to get to her husband’s deathbed and was taken to the Russian camp by a general who took pity on her.  As no-one actually knows the truth of it all, it’s hard to criticise an author for making up stories, but she should have said in the afterword that she’d made it up.  It’s very annoying when authors don’t do that.

After that, things are pretty well-documented, or at least the subject of well-known and widely-accepted stories (like the one about Catherine’s lover, whose head Peter had pickled in a jar), and the book sticks fairly well to the known facts. Some bits are exaggerated – there are stories that Catherine had Peter’s baby son by his mistress Maria Cantemir poisoned, but I’m not sure where the story included here, about Catherine having Maria infected with smallpox, came from! – and there are a few careless errors (Peter’s mistress Anna Mons and her brother, Catherine’s probable lover William Mons, are described as being German when they were actually Dutch) – but there are no major inaccuracies.

It’s coarse, brutish and vulgar, but it was!  The Most Drunken Synod and all that!  And it sometimes seems as if half the book’s about Catherine’s pregnancies, but she did have twelve pregnancies – but, sadly, only two children who survived to adulthood.  Her fascinating daughter Elizabeth’s bad reputation is exaggerated a bit, as well!  It was nice to see Elizabeth as a young girl: I’m used to seeing her as the bossy aunt-in-law in books about Catherine II.

There’s a lot about the Great Northern War and the Russo-Turkish War, and a lot about court intrigue, but there’s not much about domestic politics.  The Tsarevich’s links with the Old Believers are not even mentioned.  Nor is the Table of Ranks.  And there’s very little about things like Peter introducing Western dress.  But, OK, it’s not a textbook, and the ins and outs of the Table of Ranks possibly wouldn’t be that interesting to the general reader.  And it kept me gripped all the way through.  Admittedly, a book about Imperial Russia would have to be really bad not to keep me gripped, but this wasn’t bad at all.  It was just so strange that it didn’t cover Catherine’s time as ruling tsarina.

The reign of the empresses is fascinating in general, but Catherine I’s case is particularly fascinating.  Catherine II was born a princess, albeit a very minor one.  Catherine I was a peasant girl who never even learned to read and write.  And she has been largely forgotten … although so has the Empress Anna; and even the Empress Elizabeth isn’t as well-known as she should be, overshadowed by Catherine II.  It was wonderful to find a book about her, but so very odd that it didn’t actually cover her reign.

The Daisy Chain by Charlotte Yonge

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I have *finally* finished this very long book.  I shall not be rushing to read anything else by Charlotte Yonge.  Much of it involved our numerous heroines trying to “help” the impoverished working-classes of a local navvies’ settlement, which rejoiced in the name of Cocksmoor, by opening a Sunday school.  What a great help that must have been.  They did manage to find some clothes to give the navvies’ children, but on condition that they were only worn for church and Sunday school, not sullied by being worn in their lowly homes.  Then the eldest sister’s fiancé obligingly drowned, and left them oodles of money, which they spent on building a church for the said navvies’ settlement.  I bet the locals were ecstatic.

The most promising bit was when Ethel, the plain but intelligent sister, looked set to bag an aristocrat, who had a big estate and was a genuinely nice bloke to boot.  Wa-hay!   Plain but intelligent girls *never* get the desirable blokes, or indeed usually any blokes.  But no.  Ethel was “needed” at home, her beau married some society bimbo, and Ethel accepted that her calling in life was to try to get navvies’ children to read the Bible.  One of the brothers went off to New Zealand, to try to convert Maoris, seeing as they were all heathens – never mind the culture they’d had for thousands of years.  And one of the sisters married the heathen-converting brother’s wife’s rich half-brother, but their nanny accidentally killed their baby by turning her into an opium addict.

All right, all right, this was written in the 1850s, but for crying out loud!   I accept that there was a feeling at the time that soup kitchens, except in times of severe economic distress, would encourage “dependency”, and bring vagrants into the area, but how about sewing classes or industrial classes, like we had during the Cotton Famine, which was only a few years later?  And Prince Albert would probably have told them to spend all the money on building decent toilets for the entire town … which would have been a pretty good idea, really.

The book was about an upper middle class family, with lots of children, living in Gloucestershire, in the 1850s.  Early on, the mother was killed in a carriage accident, which also left Margaret, the eldest daughter with the sort of mysterious spinal injury that Katy Carr had – expected to heal if she spent a couple of years in bed or on the settee – and the father, a doctor, with damage to his arm.  I wasn’t sure if Margaret was going to do a Katy and make a full recovery or be like Cousin Helen and tell her admirer, later her fiancé, that she couldn’t marry him … but then the fiancé drowned, and then Margaret died as well.  More interesting was the case of one of the Cocksmoor girls, who’d suffered a serious injury whilst in service and lost her job, and was permanently “lame”, and who was given a job as a teacher at the school and made a very good job of it.  I’d like to have heard more about her.  There were also some interesting references to Ethel’s poor eyesight, and the belief at the time that she shouldn’t wear glasses because they’d make her eyes lazy and her vision worse, but it all seemed to be forgotten about, as did the dad’s bad arm.

Ethel (short for Etheldred!) was potentially a very interesting character – she was being taught at home, but managed to keep up with the work that her older brothers were doing at the local minor public school.  That’s very unusual in a Victorian book.  But it was all so stereotypical – the clever girl was also the plain girl.  I really was quite chuffed when it looked like she was going to bag this nice aristocrat, but no.  That’s what you get for being a plain, intelligent female!

A point made by Ethel about a bazaar which was organised to raise money for the Sunday school.  She said that, if people wanted to give money to charity, they should just give it, rather than buying some bit of tat from a bazaar.  Discuss!

Flora, another of the sisters, married the rich half-brother of their friend Meta – a spoilt brat who turned out nice thanks to her friendship with our heroines – but neglected their baby because they were too busy with political networking … er, so the baby cried a lot, and the nanny tried to soothe her with some cordial which she didn’t realise contained opium, and accidentally killed her.  That’s a bit OTT even as moralising Victorian novels go!

The storylines with the boys were better, unusually for a book by a female Victorian author.  There was quite a lot about bullying at school, and being led into bad ways.  Norman, one of the brothers, became dux/head boy by virtue of coming top in an exam, but was sacked after being wrongly accused of something he hadn’t done … but, of course, his name was cleared in the end.   Norman was a fascinating character: he struggled to come to terms with his mother’s death, and had issues with “nerves”.  Female Victorian characters with bad nerves are common, but a male mental health storyline is unusual.

And he eventually married Meta, which was nice, but he became a missionary, and, whilst he wasn’t an annoying git like St John Rivers, I don’t get on very well with storylines about missionaries.  A lot of racist language was used, not by Norman but by Richard, another of the brothers.  I fully accept that this would not have been considered shocking in the 1850s, but in this particular instance it was particularly bad – not just the white man’s burden/ignorant native type thing but a lot worse.  And I’m just not good with storylines about missionaries, whether in the 19th century or whether it’s people knocking on my door in the 21st century.  I understand that Norman, and St John Rivers, and the rest of them, thought they were doing a great job by “civilising” other peoples, but … well, you could write all day about that.

I don’t mean as a racist issue, particularly, because they took much the same attitude towards Cocksmoor as they did towards New Zealand and the Loyalty Islands.  Am I being too much of an industrial-Northerner for an upper middle class Southern book 🙂 ?  The attitude in Manchester or Leeds would have been more about self-help, libraries and evening classes, or a general school like the one that St Jon Rivers (he did have his good points!) set up.  I get that.  And I get paternalism – taking round baskets of food.  But the idea that the best thing to do for Cocksmoor was to open a Sunday school and spend all that money on opening a church … no, that I do not get, and I wouldn’t have got it even if I’d been around in the 1850s.

As I said, I shall not be rushing to read anything else by Charlotte Yonge!   But I do feel quite pleased with myself for getting through this very, very long book!