Sunday, April 29, 2012

From Splendour to Revolution – Review by Coryne Hall

“From Splendour to Revolution. The Romanov Women, 1847-1928”, Julia P Gelardi.
(St Martin’s Press, New York.) 482 pages, 36 illustrations.

For her latest book Julia Gelardi looks at four members of the Romanov family, Marie Alexandrovna and Olga Constantinovna,  who were born Russian Grand Duchesses; and Marie Feodorovna and Marie Pavlovna who married into the Romanov family. 

For Marie Alexandrovna, the only (and rather spoilt) daughter of Alexander II, her misfortune was not to marry a king, for when she married Prince Alfred, Duke of Edinburgh and went to live at the court of Queen Victoria she found it hard to adjust. Flaunting her superior jewels and demanding precedence over all the princesses except the Princess of Wales, Marie disliked England and was soon homesick for Russia. When her husband inherited the Dukedom of Coburg at least it got the Duchess away from Victoria.

The other Romanov Grand Duchess, Olga Constantinovna, was married at sixteen to King George I of Greece and left the splendours of St Petersburg for a huge, draughty palace in Athens.  Although she visited Russia as often as possible she raised her children as Greeks, helping both her adopted country and her homeland through charity work.  

For Marie Pavlovna, born a Princess of Mecklenburg-Schwerin, life took a different turn when she ditched her fiancé and married Grand Duke Vladimir. Refusing to convert to Orthodoxy (and thereby setting a precedent), she moved with her husband into the luxurious Vladimir Palace and became one of the leading lights of society, whose court rivalled that of Tsar Nicholas II. Ambitious and formidable, she never forgot that her family was next in line for the throne.

The fourth subject of this book is Empress Marie Feodorovna, born Princess Dagmar of Denmark, who moved from the simplicity of the Danish court to the Russian capital, became a much-loved Empress and the mother of the ill-fated Nicholas II.  She also adjusted well to the change in lifestyle, loving what might be called all the perks of the job.

From a life of wealth and power these four very differing personalities were caught up in the chaos of war and revolution, three of them escaping from Russia in dramatic circumstances and the fourth, Marie Alexandrovna, in Germany. Their stories are brilliantly woven together, something Julia Gelardi always does really well, and the letters and diaries quoted make fascinating reading.

The period covered by this book is significant, as it is the lifespan of Marie Feodorovna and, as the last of the four to die, she does figure rather too heavily in this work. I would have liked to read more about Marie Alexandrovna, especially her letters to Missy in Romania.  She seems to disappear in the middle, which is a shame, but her last years make poignant reading.  

Marie Alexandrovna and Marie Pavlovna both died in 1920 but for Marie Feodorovna and Queen Olga, exile was bitter, pining both for their families and for Russia.  Queen Olga, who had endured revolution in Russia and in Greece summed it up thus: “Everything, everything is gone with no return ….My brothers are gone, I am the only one remaining in my family like a miserable fragment of the past”.  

A riveting read.

Coryne Hall

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