The Tsarina’s Daughter by Ellen Alpsten

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I’ve been waiting for decades to find a novel featuring the Tsarina Elizabeth as the main character, rather than as a minor character in a book centred on Peter the Great or Catherine the Great, so thank you to Ellen Alpsten for writing this, and thank you to Amazon for making it available on a 99p Kindle download.

However, it was quite an odd book: it couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind what it wanted to be.  Much of it was a historical novel, which was what I wanted, but there was a very odd fantasy (a nod to Game of Thrones?) passage about Elizabeth wandering into the mysterious Golosov Ravine and being attacked by evil spirits, quite a lot of very slushy romantic/sexual passages, and one bit, about Elizabeth making sweet bread with salt instead of sugar, which read as if it’d been written by Laura Ingalls Wilder or Elinor M Brent-Dyer and really did *not* seem to belong in a book about 18th century Romanovs.

All in all, it was a good read, though.  The Age of the Empresses is a fascinating period, but people just tend to jump from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great and ignore everyone in between.  However, Ellen Alpsten’s previous book focused on Catherine I, Elizabeth’s mother, and much of this book covered the reign of Anna Ivanovna.  It ended when Elizabeth deposed Anna Leopoldovna, Anna Ivanovna’s niece and regent for Ivan VI, but I think there’s a third book to come, which will cover Elizabeth’s own reign.  It’s fascinating that all these women ruled the vast Russian Empire in a man’s world.  And, indeed, that they all had lovers – in Anna Leopoldovna’s case, lovers of both genders – , which would have been considered very shocking at most European courts, but wasn’t in Russia.

Some of the lesser characters had been merged together, to keep the cast list down, but the author did explain that.  And Praskovia Ivanovna, the third surviving daughter of Ivan V, wasn’t mentioned at all, but, again, I suppose the author was trying to keep the number of characters down to levels she felt were manageable.  My one big gripe in terms of historical accuracy or inaccuracy was that the book suggested that Ivan V wasn’t actually the father of any of his daughters, which isn’t something that’s generally believed.

It even gave that as the reason why Elizabeth launched her coup, which I didn’t get at all. She launched her coup because she wanted to rule, and because the two Annas made a mess of things and were seen as allowing a German takeover of the court and causing great suffering amongst the Russian people.  Why not just stick with that?  Anna Ivanovna was absolutely vilified here, which is very much the Russian view and not always the international view; but the book was written from Elizabeth’s viewpoint, in the first person, so that fitted.

Despite the odd mishmash of styles, I did really enjoy this, and am looking forward to reading the third book in the series.  As I said, it’s wonderful to find books focusing on the women who ruled Russia in the period between the two “great” reigns.  Elizabeth made a huge contribution to Russian history, and indeed to European history, and she doesn’t deserve to be neglected in the way that she often is.  It really does annoy me how practically every book and TV programme on 18th century Russia just jumps from Peter the Great to Catherine the Great!  Well done to Ellen Alpsten for breaking that trend!

The Romanov Empress by C W Gortner

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This book, about Minnie, Dagmar of Denmark, Empress Maria Feodorovna of Russia, wife of Alexander III and mother of Nicholas II, is a very entertaining read; and, for people unfamiliar with this period of Russian history, it’s probably quite informative.  Unfortunately, it contained a number of very basic factual errors, which, given the generally high quality of the writing, were disappointing.  OK, they didn’t really affect the story, but I’m very picky about Romanov history and they grated on me!   Annoying errors aside, it was an enjoyable book.  So much attention is paid to Nicholas and Alexandra that Minnie is usually just seen in terms of her son’s reign: it was good to read a book in which she was the central figure.

It wasn’t a long book, and it didn’t say much about her childhood.  That was a shame, really, because her birth family are fascinating: her father, a fairly obscure prince, became King of Denmark through a claim on his wife’s side, and the “Grandfather of Europe” through his descendants’ marriages and his second son becoming King of Greece.  But, OK, it wasn’t meant to be about her early life.  Most of her five siblings didn’t feature much, but there was a lot about her close relationship with her sister Alix, Queen Alexandra of Great Britain and Ireland.  The book actually started with Alix’s marriage to the Prince of Wales.  We then saw Minnie’s engagement to the Tsarevich Nicholas, and, after his death, her marriage – with some reluctance on both sides – to his brother Sasha, the future Alexander III.

“Sasha” is a very difficult figure to write about.  He and Minnie were happy together, he seems to have had a reasonably good relationship with his children – less so with his siblings, but that was because he was an early advocate of what Prince Charles would call “a slimmed-down monarchy” –  and he was often described by royals from Britain and elsewhere as genial “Uncle Sasha”, the gentle giant.  And he managed to avoid getting involved in any major wars, despite the tensions of the time.  It’s also a little unfair how he’s seen as the great repressor in contrast to his father, the “Tsar Liberator”.  Alexander II was certainly far more liberal than his son, but he moved away from that after the 1863-4 Polish Uprising.

But Alexander III was repressive.  Much of that was a reaction to his father’s assassination, in 1881, but his refusal to agree to a constitution set Russia a lot further along the road to revolution.  And there’s the huge issue of the May Laws and the pogroms.  They weren’t the big international news then that they were in Nicholas II’s reign, but what went on was horrific.  There was also repression against … well, pretty much anyone else who didn’t tick all three boxes of being Russian, Orthodox, and Russian-speaking.  This was a book about a woman’s life, not a textbook, so I didn’t expect too much detail about political issues, and the issues were raised, not ignored, but I thought there should have been more about them.  That’s just my opinion.  And the famine of the early 1890s was pretty much ignored.

The book was much better on family matters, though.  And it’s pretty difficult to keep up with all those Romanovs, and all the British, Danish, Greek and German relations abroad, and the marriages and divorces and children – the author did well there!   We also got a good picture of Minnie’s charity work, and her popularity with the Russian people.

Alexander III died in his 40s.  The events of Nicholas II’s reign are very well-known, but still tend to be sensationalised: I was pleased to find that the author stuck to the facts and resisted the temptation to include some of the stranger stories.  We did not see any claims that Minnie was plotting to depose her eldest son.  What we did see was a lot about her difficult relationship with her daughter-in-law Alix and, increasingly, with Nicholas.  Again, it’s difficult – you have to sympathise with Alix over her anxiety about her son Alexei’s haemophilia, and her desperation to do anything to help him; but Minnie and everyone else could see the damage that was being done to the monarchy by its association with Rasputin.

This was a book about Minnie, so we saw it from her viewpoint – but I think most of us see it from her viewpoint anyway.  Nicholas should have agreed to far wider and deeper political reforms than he did.  “Our Friend” should have been given his marching orders.  The young Grand Duchesses should have been brought out into society.  The First World War was badly mismanaged.  But she could have shown Alix a bit more sympathy, and their difficult relationship did come across well here, as well as the fast-moving political and social events of the time.

We were also shown all the issues within the wider Romanov family – Minnie’s other children, and Sasha’s brothers and their families.  I love all this stuff, so I know all about who married and divorced whom!  If you don’t, you will hopefully enjoy finding out – it was all going on!

It was disappointing, though, that the book pretty much ended with the October Revolution, and did end with the famous evacuation of Minnie and numerous others from the Crimea (sorry, “Crimea”.  But no, I will not say “Krym”!) on a British warship.  Having thought throughout how nice it was to read a book that was about Minnie as Minnie, not just as Nicholas II’s mother, it was rather annoying that we didn’t hear anything, apart from a brief afterword, about the remaining ten yeas of her life.  Her story did not end when she left Russia.

Again, it’s difficult … there’s this image of her as a rather tragic and rather batty old woman, refusing to face up to the fact that her sons, Alix, the young Grand Duchesses, Alix and so many others had been murdered.  I don’t know how you’d write about that, because she wasn’t a batty old woman.  C W Gortner handled it well, as far as he went, saying that she felt she’d be betraying them if she acknowledged that they were dead … but then her cut her story short.

So that was a shame.  And, as I said, there were some very annoying errors.  Minnie’s name was usually spelt “Minny”, not “Minnie” as it as in this, but, OK, that could be excused.  I prefer “Minnie” as well: “Minny” looks wrong to me.   Her nephew George, our King George V, was called “George” by his relatives in this, when he was always known as “Georgie”.  Pobedonostsev’s name was repeatedly spelt as “Pobedononstsev”.  Minnie’s son Michael got married in Vienna: this said that he got married in Paris.  OK, these weren’t major errors, but they were annoying.  More seriously, Minnie’s daughter-in-law, Alix of Hesse, was referred to as “Alexandra” before her conversion and marriage.  That’s a common error, but her given name was Alix.  It wasn’t short for Alexandra: it was her full first name, an alternative spelling of Alice.  Using the masculine version of Russian surnames for women is inexcusable.  As for saying that Prussia occupied Bosnia and Herzegovina after the Russo-Turkish War … how can you mix up Prussia and Austria-Hungary?!  Especially given the significance of Sarajevo coming under Austro-Hungarian control.  That sort of carelessness is just annoying.

OK, I’m being picky!  Moaning aside, I really enjoyed this.  It was exactly what I needed – Russian history and royal gossip are very good for me!   Recommended!

The Summer Queen by Margaret Pemberton

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I feel vaguely guilty for having enjoyed this, because it was mostly just a lot of historical royal gossip. Maybe I’m being a bit of an academic snob here, because I never feel guilty about reading historical royal gossip when it’s in academic book format – Theo Aronson’s written loads of books like that, and so have Carolly Erickson and various other people, and I assume that Margaret Pemberton’s been reading some of them!  Or maybe it’s because I feel vaguely uncomfortable about reading fictionalised accounts of the lives of people who seem so close: the book runs from 1879 to 1918, but some of the main characters were still around as recently as the 1950s. I haven’t got Netflix, so I didn’t watch The Crown!  Anyway, I did enjoy it – and I suppose it wasn’t all fluffy stuff, because it covered the build-up to the First World War and the Russian Revolution, focusing mainly on Princess May of Teck, later Queen Mary, Princess Alix of Hesse, later the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, and Crown Prince Wilhelm of Germany, later Kaiser Wilhelm II.

There are an awful lot of cousins, who have relationships with and marry each other. If you’re used to royal family trees, it will make perfect sense. If not, you might get confused! It’s all been said umpteen times before, but it’s still entertaining. I’m not sure what the King of Norway would make of the suggestion that his grandmother, the then Princess Maud, had a full-blown affair with Prince Francis of Teck: it’s known that she was interested in him, but I’m not sure about the rest. And I’m not convinced that Princess May had always been in love with the Duke of Clarence. He comes across as a very romantic figure here, but, whilst the rumours that he was Jack the Ripper are more than a bit OTT, a romantic figure he was not! But I quite like the idea that Ella of Hesse went into her marriage with Grand Duke Sergei knowing full well that it was a lavender marriage, and actively chose that because it was the nearest she could, at that point, get to being a nun … rather than finding out after the ring was on the finger, as her sister-in-law Victoria Melita of Edinburgh did.

I’ve heard it all a million times before, but it’s still quite fascinating how there were all these cousins and second cousins marrying each other. Or not marrying each other, in the cases of Maud and Francis, “Eddy” (the Duke of Clarence) and Alix, Wilhelm and Ella, etc etc.

What about the three main figures? The book revolves around the fictional and possibly rather silly idea that May, Wilhelm and Alix recognised each other as “Kindred Spirits”, all being outsiders for one reason or another, and swore an oath of friendship. The blurb on the front cover says “Her broken oath would cast an empire into turmoil” … and I don’t actually know to what that’s supposed to refer! It makes no sense whatsoever. Does it mean something to do with Alix and Wilhelm’s supposed childhood friendship? And who’s “The Summer Queen”? Queen Victoria? May? That doesn’t make much sense either. Anyway, I think all the “oath” stuff is best ignored: it just seems to be there to try to justify the focus on three different people, and link them together.

Alix’s story has been told in both academic books and fiction umpteen times, and is therefore very well-known, but she seems remote in this book. We don’t really get a sense of her concerns about changing her religion, her fears for her haemophiliac son’s health, or what was going on with Rasputin. The book also suggests that it was Wilhelm who convinced her to marry Nicholas, which doesn’t make much sense either but is presumably to tie in with the “kindred spirit” idea.

Queen Mary’s story, on the other hand, has rarely been told. She’s usually seen as the epitome of dignity, and, because of that, as being a bit cold, so it was nice to see a book reminding us of her difficult childhood, as the descendant of a morganatic marriage, and the time her family spent living in Italy and the freedom she enjoyed there, as well as how difficult it must have been for her when the Duke of Clarence died. She comes across really well here.  I’m glad about that.  She’s an admirable figure who coped well with some very difficult times.

“Willy” comes across well too. He’s such a hate figure in the English-speaking world, because of the First World War, and also the appalling way in which he treated his mother. If Queen Mary is seen as the epitome of dignity, he’s seen as the epitome of Prussian militarism – but the author is quite sympathetic to him, reminding the reader of all the horrific treatments he was subjected to in order to try to cure the damage done to his arm by a difficult birth. He certainly didn’t have it easy, but I’m not sure why the author’s quite so sympathetic towards someone who was undoubtedly very militaristic, and had some very unpleasant attitudes. She shows him as being an Anglophile, when he was anything but, and ignores some of his extremist views. On a more positive note, she touches on the interesting Harden-Eulenberg affair, when his closest friend and advisor fell from power amid a lot of talk about homosexuality, then a taboo subject in the German Empire.  It’s something that’s increasingly attracting attention from historians of the period, many of whom link its effect on the Kaiser to an increase in militarism.

There’s the odd blunder – notably saying that the previous Queen Mary had been Mary Tudor! – and the author annoying refers to “England” rather than “Britain” all the way through, but it’s generally accurate.  In fact, it generally reads as if it most of it was taken from books by Theo Aronson or Justin Vovk, and fictionalised, but maybe I’m doing the author a disservice there.  Even though a lot of the subject matter is pretty “heavy”, especially that relating to Russia, the story’s fairly light, and it’s not a bad choice for holiday reading.  Something about it vaguely annoyed me, but I think that was just because it felt weird that the lives of people who lived so recently, and whose lives, at least in the cases of May and Wilhelm, are well within living memory, had been turned into easy reading.  And, as I’ve said, that’s probably just me being an academic snob!   Given that I knew all the factual royal gossip in this already, I am clearly a total hypocrite … 😉 .  And I did really enjoy it!