Saturday, March 1, 2014

The Romanov Sisters: The Lost Lives of the Daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra by Helen Rappaport

Rating: ★ ★ ★  ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: February 20, 2014

They were the Princess Dianas of their day—perhaps the most photographed and talked about young royals of the early twentieth century. The four captivating Russian Grand Duchesses—Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia Romanov—were much admired for their happy dispositions, their looks, the clothes they wore and their privileged lifestyle. Over the years, the story of the four Romanov sisters and their tragic end in a basement at Ekaterinburg in 1918 has clouded our view of them, leading to a mass of sentimental and idealized hagiography. With this treasure trove of diaries and letters from the grand duchesses to their friends and family, we learn that they were intelligent, sensitive and perceptive witnesses to the dark turmoil within their immediate family and the ominous approach of the Russian Revolution, the nightmare that would sweep their world away, and them along with it. The Romanov Sisters sets out to capture the joy as well as the insecurities and poignancy of those young lives against the backdrop of the dying days of late Imperial Russia, World War I and the Russian Revolution. Rappaport aims to present a new and challenging take on the story, drawing extensively on previously unseen or unpublished letters, diaries and archival sources, as well as private collections. It is a book that will surprise people, even aficionados.

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Whether or not you appreciate Helen Rappaport's The Romanov Sisters will depend on how you approach it. I don't mean to be cynical, but the jacket description and cover art are not indicative of the material within and I personally found the book much less frustrating when I put aside my interest in the individual character of Nicholas' daughters and considered the book as I would a general biography of the family. 

Why? Oh I’m so glad you asked! 
There once were four sisters – Victoria, Ella, I\rene and Alix – who lived in an obscure grand duchy in south western Germany, a place of winding cobbled streets and dark forests made legendary in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm. In their day, these four princesses of the house of Hesse and by Rhine were considered by many to be ‘the flowers of Queen Victoria’s flock of granddaughters’, celebrated for their beauty, intelligence and charm.1 As they grew up they became the object of intense scrutiny on that most fraught of international stages – the royal marriage market of Europe. Despite their lack of large dowries or vast territories, each sister in tur married well. But it was to the youngest and most beautiful of the four that fate dealt the biggest hand.
This is the opening passage of The Romanov Sisters and as you might have noticed, it has nothing to do with the Romanovs. No, these lines refer to the daughters of Prince Louis, the Grand Duke of Hesse and Princess Alice, the second daughter of Queen Victoria. Feeling a little lost? Don't worry, Rappaport backtracks to July 1862, recreating Alice's marriage and tragic death before digging into the adolescence and romantic affairs of her youngest daughter. 

Now if you're anything like me you're wondering why Rappaport wastes time on a grandmother OTMA never met. You're staring at the screen asking how on earth this episode ties to their joys and insecurities. You're hoping there is a rational explanation and having read the book cover to cover I can honestly tell you there isn't. This section explains more about Alexandra than the entire book does her daughters and besides being irrelevant Rappaport’s thesis, it's also entirely bias. Why explain the mother and not the father, huh? Where is the exploration of Nicholas' childhood or the intricacies of his parents' marriage?

The girls themselves serve as benchmarks in the early years of Nicholas and Alexandra's marriage, failed efforts in their quest for a male heir. Olga arrives on page thirty-two, Tatiana on forty-three, Maria on fifty and Anastasia on fifty-nine, but true to life, all four are eclipsed by the birth of their brother on page seventy-four. Here the four girls fade, making way for Rappaport's exploration of the political tension that characterized their homeland and their parents' crusade to keep Alexei's affliction from becoming widely known. 

Olga and Tatiana in Military Uniform
It isn't until 1912, round about the halfway mark, that the personality of sixteen year old Olga finally begins to materialize. Tatiana, the other half the 'Big Pair' doesn't make much of an impression until 1914, but the 'Little Pair' unfortunately head off to Ekaterinburg virtual unknowns, with only a handful of erratic and predominantly secondhand accounts to evidence their individual natures. 

Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed the extensive description of Nicholas' Russia, the political state of the country and the culture of his court, but I fail to see how the impressions of Elinor Glyn - who did not even meet the family - relate the four young women who grace the cover of this piece. The jacket led me to expect a detailed and insightful portrait of Nicholas' daughters, but the book is much less about them than it is the fall of Tsarist imperialism and the family crushed in its wake. 

Not a bad read, but Rappaport's work doesn't provide anything new or truly surprising for us aficionados and feels largely mistrepresented as it only touches on the elder set and is padded out with an excessive degree of well-known and regurgitated fact. 

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In later life Olga Nikolaevna reflected on those happy ‘red-letter Sundays’ with her nieces before the war. The extraordinary closeness and self-sufficiency that was the mark of the four Romanov sisters persisted, as too their touchingly childlike innocence about the world. But it was a strange hothouse atmosphere in which to grow up.
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Daphne said...

I hate when you feel misled by the book's summary and it turns out to be something different than what you expected. I had one of those recently as well. Glad you were still able to get some enjoyment out of it though :).

Marg said...

How disappointing when the content doesn't match the cover or synopsis! I usually think I like the sound of Rappaport's books too. I don't think I have actually read any though. I own Ekaterinburg.

Anonymous said...

It is salvagable if you have any sort of appreciation for the Russian Revolution or the royal family. There is new source material, but nothing that offers new insight.

Frustrating that it isn't what was advertised, but I'm hankful it wasn't a complete wash.

Ruth Abrahams said...

I think we must have read a different book then. I've been interested in the lives of the Grand Duchesses for over 30 years and nothing comes closer to padding out the real characters of those young women than Ms Rappaport's Four Sisters. I proof read this book - more then once - and was there at its conception and I am immensely proud that it does NOT rely on the same rehashed sources. Why is Elinor Glyn given (a few lines) of space? Because she can illustrate the perception of the girls during the era. And the early life of the Tsarina, far from having 'nothing to do with the Romanovs', is crucial in understanding what made her the mother that she was to her daughters (and son). Yes, Nicholas was their father, but it is in the complex relationship with their mother that we really can begin to understand just how the personalities of the girls evolved.

The elder pair are, of course, given slightly more space than the younger - and we come to understand their personalities more deeply. This is simply because they were that bit older when they died and thus had more time to mature and develop. Their work in the hospital is examined more closely than has ever been undertaken before. They developed passions and crushes that, sadly, were denied their younger sisters - because they died far too young.

There most certainly are new sources - those with more than a passing knowledge of the girls will immediately recognize them. For those that are not familiar with their all too brief lives, this is a fabulous introduction to them. To say that it is nothing more than a family biography and a look at the Russia of Nicholas II is to do a dis-service.

Anonymous said...

Your opinion is valid Ruth, but your admission to have worked with the author on the project and the tone of your comment suggest you are taking my reflections on my experience with the book personally.

I have to wonder why you give me so much credit? Why attempt to discredit and smother an honest and unbiased opinion from one with no power or influence? Is a single four star review really worth the effort? Are your comments meant to alter my opinion?

You obviously got a very different impression when reading this piece and I am glad you found it insightful. I am sure there are many readers who will share your sentiments but please understand I am not one of them.

ruth abrahams said...

It's not my intention to discredit or smother another's opinion. Just to perhaps add some balance and explain the choice to explore Alexandra's early life etc. I fully concede that you are entitled to your opinion, especially as it is your blog!

My involvement is purely based around love of the subject and not any kind of financial gain etc. I responded to your review simply because I love this book and II think it is incredibly well researched and written.

I am pleased that you awarded it four out of five stars - you obviously enjoyed the read. I've had a look around your blog and it's very interesting - thanks for taking the time to share your views.

Anonymous said...

I can appreciate that Ruth and I thank you for offering your professional objective on the book. :)