This wonderful historical novel has just been published and the author Eva Stachniak has dropped by on Random Jottings to tell us a little about herself and how she sets about researching and writing her books:
"I’ve been an academic for many years, so I’m familiar with the rigors of searching for the right sources, but researching a novel is not like researching an academic paper. In some ways it may be less rigorous, for a piece of undocumented gossip may become an important inspiration. But it also has to be more rigorous for its it threatens to spill in so many directions that it is possible to plunge into indiscriminate research and come out the other end with far too much.
Fiction does not take well to such abundance. The researched details, tidbits, stories demand attention, claim the imagination and refuse to fade. And fade they must, for otherwise the story will never gel.
When I started writing The Winter Palace, I read the existing biographies of Catherine the Great and the people from her court as well as diaries and letters from anyone even remotely connected with 18th century Russia. Having written about the same period of time in my previous novel, Dancing with Kings, I already had numerous notes on everyday details of life. What I needed was a focus and a voice.
The focus came from Catherine’s letter to the British ambassador in Russia, Sir Charles Hanbury-Williams in which she tells him of the three spies she has in the ruling empress Elizabeth Petrovna’s bedroom. Spying is what a writer does best. For what else am I doing but eavesdropping on the past? Rummaging in its secrets?
I knew I could not find a better narrator than a spy who wishes to help Catherine rule Russia. All I had to do was to let her speak"
My thanks to Eva and here is my review and my thoughts on historical novels in general:
I have loved historical novels ever since I was a little girl, there was always something so romantic and beguiling about them all and in my teens I waded my way through every single Jean Plaidy I could get my hands on, then all of hers written under the name of Victoria Holt, then Catherine Gaskin's historical titles, Margaret Campbell Barnes and so the list goes on and on.
As I grew older I found that quite a lot of historical novels were pretty poor, I am naming no names here, almost as if the authors of these works felt that bad writing could be covered up by bunging the hero/heroine in doublet and hose etc and slinging in the odd Zounds and Gadzooks. My interest in this genre waned somewhat and many years went by before I tried them again. Once more I came up against some pretty crap writing, again no names no pack drill, but this time newly minted and published with lots of headless women on the front cover. If the story was set in Tudor times, well fine, it was likely that you might end up headless, but it got wearying after a while and rather turned me off reading more.
I have always loved a good yarn though and was drawn back gradually by discovering and reading some great titles, Needle in the Blood by Sarah Bower, Cathedral of the Sea by Idelsonsa Falcones being particularly fine examples, and then finding in my library (sadly out of print now) a tirlogy of novels by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles set in Russia and, of courser, her Morland Family Saga. Now, I simply adore historical novels set in Russia. There is something so fascinating about Petersburg, the Tsars, the Winter Palace, the troikas speeding across the snow as the heroine is wrapped in sumptuous furs that has always appealed and when this novel of Eva Stachniak appeared I knew straight away that it was for me. My thanks as ever to the publishers, in this case Doubleday, for their generosity as this weighs in at over 400 pages and a bit pricey and as soon as it arrived I got stuck in. This coincided with the beginning of my flu which explains why the late review, and I had to put it to one side for a day or two, much though I was enjoying it, as I just could not concentrate on all the ins and outs and the internecine goings on and I knew I needed my wits about me.
The Winter Palace is the story of Catherine the Great, her childhood and early days at the court of Empress Elizabeth, who arrives from Prussia as prospective bride for Peter, Elizabeth's nephew and heir. She becomes friends with Vavara, a young orphaned Polish girl who was brought to serve at the Empress Elizabeth's glittering court and soon finds herself being schooled in the intricacies of spying by the Chancellor of Russia himself. The court is split into factions each watching each other and jockeying for position and favours - no members of parliament here, if you wanted something you had to catch the Empress's eye and/or favour. Elizabeth has a network of informers, her 'tongues' and Varvara is sent to spy on Sophie, the future Catherine the Great, and to report on her thoughts, her behaviour and her secrets. But Vavara and Sophie strike up a friendship even though by so doing Varvara is serving two masters, always a dangerous game but particularly so at a court so full of betrayal and intrigue.
I find that the word 'teeming' tends to find its way into my posts when I am writing about historical novels. I am sure a lot of 'teeming' goes on in modern novels too but I never seem to find it very much, it seems to be linked with courts and cities all brimming with noise, bustle and colour. Daresay Buckingham Palace may teem at times, but it lacks a certain something one feels...
But I digress. This novel teems in abundance and is packed full of fascinating charcters many of which are real life courtiers and politicians and ambassadors of the time. I have a very old and battered biography of Catherine the Great by Joan Haslip written some 30+ years ago and I pulled it down from my shelves while reading this so that the names that appeared throughout the narrative, the Chancellor of Russia, the British Ambassador, the lovers of the Empress Elizabeth, could be checked and portraits of the time looked at and it all brought it so much nearer and made it more real as I read.
Of course, treachery awaits Varvara "Did I grow careless in those days? Heady with the thought that after the imperial wedding day I - a bookbinder's daughter - might walk behind the Grand Duchess as one of her noble maids? Did I get too caught up in Catherine's joyful smiles and girlish fears?"
The answer to that of course is, yes.
I can only give you a flavour of this simply terrific book and do urge you to get hold of a copy. Lovely cover which catches the eye, clear print thank heavens as it is a long read and your eye could get weary if a smaller font was used, and so well written, narrative that takes you up and along so that you cannot wait to find out what happens, danger and deceit lurking around every corner, glorious descriptions of the richness and decadence, corruption and lies in this most fascinating of times. A stonking read.
I think you can probably guess that I thoroughly enjoyed it. Already a candidate for Random's Books of 2012.