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A seductive history

Trysts, lavish lifestyle drive tale of Catherine the Great

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Given the Russian invasion of Crimea and all of the deeply troubling world events surrounding it that have unfolded in recent weeks, the publication of Eva Stachniak's novel on Catherine the Great, who also invaded Crimea during her reign, is bound to attract some attention.

Readers looking for a history lesson won't find it here. Empress of the Night is a work of historical fiction, and though often based on actual people and events, is more of a colourful, up-close look at the lavish, often-scandalous personal life of this long-ruling Russian empress.

The "Empress of all the Russias" is hardly unknown territory to the Polish-born Stachniak. She wrote extensively about Catherine's early years in her 2012 novel, The Winter Palace.

This is the fourth novel penned by the Toronto-based author, who emigrated from Poland in 1981 and taught English at Sheridan College for 19 years.

While The Winter Palace gives us the story of Catherine as seen through the eyes of one of her closest servants, Empress tells her story from Catherine's perspective.

Interestingly, it begins at the end. Catherine experiences a stroke in late 1796 and as she lies dying, she looks back at her life.

She reflects first on her arrival in Russia as the young Princess Sophie, from Stettin, Prussia (now Szczecin, Poland), the intended bride of the future Emperor Peter III. She is sentenced to a miserable marriage with the future czar, a man she describes as a weak, cowardly, drunkard who only cares for his mistress.

Catherine's basic function is to produce an heir. But she must also convert to the Russian Orthodoxy, take on a Russian name and learn the Russian language. Years later, an heir is finally born, though the father's identity is an ongoing mystery.

In 1762, with the help of her military officer lover, Grigory Orlov, a coup is staged and Catherine takes over the throne. Orlov soon becomes her chief adviser, and Peter is imprisoned.

Catherine's inner musings provide glimpses of later years, of her struggle to survive in a toxic court environment where spying, lies, betrayal and the threat of assassination are commonplace. While nobody survives alone, there's no such thing as a friend.

She recalls her many lovers, her love of books, dogs, gardens and art. She doesn't like her son and appoints her grandson to rule in his place, making for some nasty family dynamics that have repercussions down the road.

She wants her legacy to be a larger, stronger, more powerful Russia. "Soon the world will take note of the powerful Christian Empire of the East," she dreams.

With the help of her lovers and advisers, she expands Russia's borders, taking over Crimea, Belarus, Lithuania, much of Poland and what is now Ukraine. She later imprisons her Polish lover after having made him King of Poland.

Catherine puts down a ragtag rebellion by Russian serfs, later giving the nobility more power over the peasants. In 1787 she embarks on a victory tour of Crimea and other newly conquered lands.

The beauty of this historical novel lies in Stachniak's wonderfully vivid and evocative prose. She excels at creating a strong sense of time and place, rich with sensory details.

Catherine's first impression of Russia is, "Towns and roadside villages where onion-domed churches entice the eyes with bright colours and the peal of bells. Carved frames and shutters of peasant huts. Night that comes early...."

Descriptions of the grandeur of the palaces, of Russian food and clothing styles, the peppering of Russian words here and there and the use of Russian proverbs throughout create means there's much to savour in her words.

The novel's weakness lies in its focus which, as the title seems to suggest, puts Catherine's relationship with her lovers in the forefront. Far too much time is spent dwelling on moonlight trysts, and not enough on the historical accomplishments, politics and intelligence of the empress who was one of Russia's most influential female leaders.

This focus detracts from what should be a suspenseful and dramatic story; the reader is too often pulled into descriptions of her affairs, or humdrum snippets of conversations between Catherine and her grandchildren, her doctor and others.

Overall, Stachniak's latest novel is an intimate look at the private life of Catherine the Great, and readers of the genre who like lush and richly detailed historical fiction will likely approve.

 

Cheryl Girard is a Winnipeg writer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 29, 2014 G8

History

Updated on Saturday, March 29, 2014 at 8:01 AM CDT: Tweaks formatting.

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