I’ve been meaning to read the works of historical novelist C.W. Gortner for some time now, and when I saw that he’d recently written a book about Dagmar of Denmark, the woman who would eventually become Tsarina Marie of Russia, I knew that I had to pick it up and read it. From the first page to the fast, I found Gortner’s story utterly captivating. In fact, I almost couldn’t put it down until I’d finished it!
The novel begins with Dagmar–known to many as Minnie–living in her native country of Denmark. While she is initially affianced to the young son of the tsar, after his unfortunate and untimely death she finds herself affianced to his blustering younger brother. What begins as a reluctant marriage soon blooms into true love, and they find true happiness with one another. Unfortunately, it is Minnie’s destiny to live in Russia during a period of tremendous upheaval and turmoil, and by the end of the novel she has lost nearly everything as the Russian Revolution sweeps the monarchy away.
Minnie is a captivating narrator, and it’s easy to like her. She’s fierce and intelligent, willful and clever, and she isn’t shy about letting others know about how she feels. The novel ably portrays the ways in which she was a positive influence on the rule of her reactionary husband, curbing some of his darker tendencies and channeling her own energies into a variety of charitable causes. Likewise, she tries–with only limited success–to imbue her sensitive and ineffectual son Nicky with the strength and determination he needs in order to secure his throne.
Now, the book doesn’t shy away from the less flattering aspects of Marie’s personality. She does tend to be a bit imperious, and she has a certain pride that doesn’t always allow her to be as sensitive to the needs of others as she should be. In particular, she has a difficult relationship with her two daughters, and she often finds it difficult to accept that they are not willing and/or able to follow the same path that she did. Born into a role that they didn’t ask for, one can hardly blame them for striking out on their own and forging their own destinies (in fact, it may be just that independent spirit that keeps them alive during the Revolution).
Minnie’s most difficult relationship, however, is with her daughter-in-law Alexandra. It’s not hard to see why. There’s no doubt that Minnie feels some jealousy that her beloved Nicky falls head-over-heels in love with a woman she deems unsuitable (for both good and bad reasons). For all of her flaws, Minnie truly cares about the well-being of the empire and the people, and she realizes, even if the two rulers do not, that their actions are exacerbating an already-existing political crisis. She sees the truth with a clarity that the rest of her family lacks, and this often means that she has the unenviable burden of seeing how the future will turn out, even as she is unable to change it.
I really admire a historical novelist who can both capture the ambience of a past historical moment while also not getting too bogged down in the details of material culture. I mean, I love the descriptions of fabrics and furniture and jewels as next as the next person, but sometimes it’s easy for novelists to get lost in the detail and to forget about the plot. Not so Gortner. He manages to keep the plot moving at a quick pace, and when I was finished with the book I was rather surprised to feel that I actually had a pretty good snapshot of most of Minnie’s life. What’s more, I felt as if I had a stronger understanding of what it was like to be a royal living in the heady days of the 19th and early 20th Centuries, right before the chaos of modernity swept all of their lives away.
There’s no question that, for many, the Romanovs are the epitome of tragedy. Unwilling or unable to transform their country in the ways that it needed in order to move into the 20th Century, they ultimately found themselves victims of a situation of their own making. While the novel ends on a somewhat triumphant note–with Marie escaping from the Bolsheviks–it also leaves us in no doubt that she has lost almost everything that was dear to her. That crown and throne that she committed so much time and energy to preserving has now been utterly abolished, and to make matters worse she doesn’t have definitive word about what happened to her beloved Nicky and her grandchildren.
Of course, now we know that Nicky and his family were indeed slain in the basement of the house in Yekaterinburg, in one of the most infamous slaughters in a regime known for its barbarity. One can’t help but feel a powerful sense of pity for Marie, never knowing exactly what happened to either of her two sons who perished in the Revolution. She can hardly blame the woman for insisting that they might still be alive, clinging to the hope that there might be a restoration of the monarchy that she worked so hard to preserve. To my mind, Minnie, more perhaps than any of the other members of her family, draws us into the complicated mindset of the last ruling Romanovs. She might not be perfect, and the system of which she was a part might have been fatally flawed, but you can’t help but have at least a little bit of sympathy for them, trapped as they were in a gilded cage.
Overall, I very much enjoyed The Romanov Empress. It has all of the things that I usually look for in an historical novel, and I can’t wait to dive in to some of the other books that Gortner has written. Next up is his novel about Isabella of Castille, certainly on of history’s most powerful queens. Stay tuned!