With the 100th anniversary of the execution of the Russian royal family this summer comes the timely new historical novel from C.W. Gortner, “The Romanov Empress: A Novel of Tsarina Maria Feodorovna” (Ballantine, 415 pp,. ★★★ out of four).
In it the reader is whisked from the stately splendor of the Russian court in the late 1860s to its tumultuous end with the 1917 Bolshevik revolution, seen through the eyes of someone who was as impressive and as complicated as the time in which she reigned.
The girl born Princess Marie Sophie Frederikke Dagmar of Denmark would become Maria Feodorovna, the name she took when she converted to the Russian Orthodox Church when she married Alexander III of Russia at age 19. She would eventually rule alongside him as empress to his tsar, and then fill the role of Empress Dowager during her son Tsar Nicholas II’s reign.
Gortner’s focus is on Maria’s royal years in the Russian Imperial family.
The novel begins just before Maria’s first royal engagement: to Alexander III’s brother Nicholas, who died from meningitis and whose last wish was for his fiancee to wed his younger brother.
The reader travels with Maria on her tumultuous journey from lesser royal in Denmark to just before her eventual exile in Europe after the Russian Revolution. Along the way, the reader gets a lesson in the intricate and incestuous marriages of not just the Russian royal family but all the houses of Europe.
Gortner ("Mademoiselle Chanel," "The Vatican Princess") even handles the Russian and royal penchant for myriad nicknames easily, so the reader is not continually guessing who is who. (As an example, aside from Dagmar, Maria was also known as Minnie and Manja, depending who was addressing her.)
His ability to weave what reads as a simple tale from such complex historical and familial storylines is impressive. With historical fiction, particularly an era so flush with royals and revolutionaries, there is a danger in getting lost in details and shortchanging character development. Happily, Gortner avoids that trap.
Thankfully for the reader, the era was rich in personality. The characters appear to be right out of central casting. Maria herself would rise to become one of the most powerful empresses in the world through the diligent direction of her domineering mother.
Her sister-in-law and frenemy in court, Grand Duchess Pavlovna, aka Miechen, epitomizes the aristocracy and provides the perfect foil for Maria – until her son Nicholas, a weak and eventually ineffective tsar, weds the German princess Alix of Hesse. It is Empress Alexandra, as she becomes, along with her mystic Rasputin, who is cast as both Maria’s and Russia’s true enemy.
Maria’s life as a royal reads like a historical soap opera. "The Romanov Empress" is blessed with a memorable cast, especially its leading lady.