Day 486: Empress of the Night

Cover of Empress of the NightIn early November 1796, Catherine the Great of Russia suffered a stroke and lay on her deathbed for 36 hours before she finally succumbed. Eva Stachniak’s second novel about Catherine imagines her spontaneous flashbacks of her life, interrupted by moments of fleeting awareness, as she lies there helplessly.

Empress of the Night covers some of the same ground as Stachniak’s The Winter Palace, only the previous novel is told from the point of view of Varvara Nikoleyeva, Catherine’s spy turned confidante, and concentrates mostly on the time before Catherine was Russia’s ruler. Varvara is only a fleeting presence in Empress of the Night, and I wonder if readers who had not read The Winter Palace would be confused by references to her.

Stachniak’s deathbed approach for this novel by definition causes it to be disjointed in narrative style and sometimes difficult to follow chronologically. The novel portrays Catherine as a figure more sympathetic than otherwise, but other characters are left relatively undeveloped.

Catherine’s memories go all the way back to her arrival in Russia as Sophie von Anhalt-Zerbst-Dornburg, a prospective bride for the Empress Elizabeth’s spoiled and childish heir Peter. We follow her struggles to be accepted as a future wife, to conceive, and to maintain some kind of standing in Elizabeth’s court, although that subject is covered more thoroughly in the first novel. The narrative carries us through the coup against her husband after Elizabeth’s death and the most important events of Catherine’s reign, ending with her attempts to marry her granddaughter Alexandrine to the king of Sweden and to leave her office to her grandson Alexander instead of her foolish and tyrannical son Paul.

Although this novel is interesting, I was not as drawn in as I was by the first book. The parts of the novel dealing with Catherine’s stroke and its aftermath interrupt the flow of the narrative too often. I was also taken aback by the preponderance of attention given in the novel to Catherine’s favorites, especially to the annoying Zubov, versus the actual events of her rule. The emphasis seems to lie with her personal attachments, which I frankly think is unlikely for a world ruler. I also find it hard to believe that Catherine had so much patience with some of her relatives and lovers, most of whom are characterized as being annoyingly selfish.

Since I have read a fair amount about Catherine’s life, I was able to follow the references to important events with little difficulty, but I am left wondering how easy it would be for someone who is unfamiliar to form a good understanding of what is going on. Still, I think this novel draws an appealing portrait of a complex and difficult person.

http://www.netgalley.comMy original understanding of The Winter Palace was that it was the first in a trilogy about Catherine the Great. I am left wondering if I was mistaken, because this novel does not seem to leave anywhere for the writer to go in a third novel. Empress of the Night is ultimately much less satisfying than The Winter Palace in the depth it applies to its subject, which makes me wonder if Stachniak simply lost interest.

Day 38: The Winter Palace

Cover for The Winter PalaceBest Book of Week 8!

The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak is an excellent, absorbing historical novel that captures the rise of Catherine the Great.

Barbara (Varvara) Nikoleyeva is the daughter of a Polish bookbinder who takes his family to St. Petersburg hoping for opportunity. It is the years of the reign of Empress Elizabeth, the daugher of Peter the Great, who has wrested the empire from her nephew, the rightful heir, Ivan, and placed him in prison. Years ago, Varvara’s father had bound a badly damaged book owned by Elizabeth, and Varvara’s mother, an artistocrat who has married beneath her, urges him to draw himself to the Empress’s attention. The family’s move is a success until both Varvara’s parents die, and as a young woman she begs a place at court from Elizabeth.

The court is full of secret passages and peepholes. Nothing is private, and many people are paid to listen, poke through others’ belongings, and inform. Varvara finds herself employed as a spy, or nose, for the Chancellor Bestuchev. She does not wish for this position but finds it a way to keep favor, as in the volatile atmosphere of the court, one needs to keep in with the right people. Even the position of princes and princesses can be precarious, and Varvara has no social status.

Varvara is new to court when the Empress imports Sophia Anhalt-Zerst to consider her as a possible bride for her heir, the childish Peter Fyodorovich. Varvara’s sympathies are caught immediately as she watches Sophia navigate the treacherous shoals of the temperamental Empress, Sophia’s own selfish and conniving mother, and the foolish Peter. Despite her mother’s plotting, which almost gets her thrown out of the country, Sophia converts to Russian orthodoxy, taking the name of Catherine, and eventually marries Peter.

Varbara becomes close to Catherine and supports her even as she is ignored and then cruelly treated by her husband and loses her status with the Empress and the court when, because of Peter’s impotence, she fails to conceive.

The life of the Russian court is vividly depicted in this enthralling novel, where Catherine’s rise to power is paralleled by the building of the magnificent Winter Palace.