Not only tales, also history can have a certain fairy-tale touch, especially when the focus is on royal families and even more so when vision is blurred by several layers of important historical eras and the lenses of cultural background and prejudice. Russian Empress Catherine II. the Great certainly is a good example for a historical personality with a not particularly good reputation thanks to her sex life and her expansionist politics. Since her time much has been written about her, history books as well as novels. A work of fiction about Catherine the Great and life in her entourage is The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak which I’m reviewing today. The subtitle calls it a novel of Catherine the Great, but in reality it’s the story of an orphaned Polish girl at the Imperial Russian Court whose life is closely tied to that of the petty German princess rising to be the Empress of Russia.
Eva Stachniak was born in 1952 in Wrocław, Poland. After her university studies she taught English at Wrocław University until a scholarship for a Ph.D. programme at McGill University brought her to Canada in 1981. For a while she worked for the Polish department of Radio Canada International, but as from 1988 she resumed her accademic career teaching English and humanities at Sheridan College, Oakville, Ontario, Canada. By and by she turned to fiction writing and in 1994 the literary journal The Antigonish Review was the first to publish one of her short stories. The Polish-Canadian author‘s debut novel was Necessary Lies which won the Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award in 2000 and five years later appeared Garden of Venus (released as Dancing with Kings in the U.K.). In 2007 she gave up teaching and dedicated herself entirely to writing. The bestselling novel The Winter Palace came out in 2012 and its sequel titled Empress of the Night has been on the market since spring 2014. Eva Stachniak lives in Toronto, Canada.
The life of Varvara Nikolayevna in The Winter Palace of the Russian Imperial Court in Saint Petersburg begins shortly after her father’s sudden death at the end of the year 1742. Only a few weeks earlier he had taken the sixteen-year-old to an audience with Empress Elizabeth Petrovna of whom he had asked the favour to take care of the girl, if he died. Being grateful to the Polish bookbinder because his great skill had restored old splendour to her tattered prayer book which had been a gift of her beloved father Peter the Great, Empress Elizabeth promptly made the promise. Thus Varvara Nikolayevna becomes a palace girl in February 1743, but despite her good education – she knows Russian, Polish, French and German – she is made a seamstress in the Imperial Wardrobe. As the daughter of a bookbinder, a Pole, a Roman Catholic, and a clumsy girl with the needle she is virtually cut dead by all others including the Chief Maid. Soon she begins to wander through the palace in the long hours before sunrise, always in the hope of meeting Empress Elizabeth or the Crown Prince Grand Duke Peter Fyodorovich and making her fortune. Instead she is one night surprised by Count Alexei Bestuzhev, the Chancellor of Russia, who quickly realises that the curious and intelligent girl would make a good spy with a little bit of training. After the summer he sees to it that she becomes a maid of the bedchamber in Grand Duke Peter’s court where she will be the eyes and the ears of the Empress and of the Chancellor. It is the beginning of her rise which for twenty years will be closely linked to the fate of fourteen-year-old Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst who arrives in Moscow in February 1744 with her mother Johanna and who gets married to Grand Duke Peter in August 1745 not knowing yet that after the death of Empress Elizabeth she and she alone would rule Russia as Catherine the Great.
Behind the glamorous title The Winter Palace hides nothing less than the entire story of the rise of Catherine II. the Great from the moment she arrived in Russia as petty German Princess Sophie of Anhalt-Zerbst and intended bride of the (likewise German) Crown Prince until she seized power having her starry-eyed husband, Tsar Peter III., as well as other heirs apparent violently removed with the help of her lover among the Palace Guards. Although the novel clearly revolves around the ambitious teenager who in the end becomes Empress of Russia, its central figure is the first-person narrator, the fictional Polish palace girl Varvara Nikolayevna turned into spy who has her own part in the events and intrigues at court during a period of about twenty years. The author skilfully wove known historical facts into the girl’s life story which allows to get absorbed in life at the Russian Imperial Court of the eighteenth century not just as the royal family experienced it, but also from the point of view of the people working there. To me as an amateur the true side of the story seems well-based on research and the fictional side of it too feels authentic and completely credible as it ought to in a good historical novel. The depicted characters are all flesh and blood and their relations to each other or their position in society respectively are perfectly clear from the moment they are introduced in the story. Also the novel’s language suits the historical topic and is a pleasure to read because the author kept it simple avoiding too many originally Russian expressions which would have required explanation. This is the more awesome as English is Eva Stachniak’s second language, moreover an originally foreign language to her (like to me).
I don’t often read historical novels, but The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak has turned out to be a very pleasant book to pass my time with. In addition, it satisfied my interest in history and European history in particular although I’m aware, of course, that a novel can only supplement, never replace a good history book. At any rate, I’m pleased to be able to recommend it.