Lead Review and author Gill Paul talks about research in Russia
- Book: The Secret Wife
- Location: New York State, Russia, San Francisco
- Author: Gill Paul
The story of the fate of the Russian royal family in the early 20th Century is well known, they were butchered by the Bolsheviks after they were transported from pillar to post during World War I. Whilst war raged, Revolution at home was building. The conspiracy theory persisted that there were indeed survivors of the mass execution, people came forward who later in the 20th century claimed to be Tatiana or Anastasia or Olga… the Romanov children who had somehow survived the massacre. And it is with this tiny percentage of doubt about the fate of the children that Gill weaves a credible and gripping story.
Gill was alerted to a snippet on TV about a mooted relationship between Tatiana, one of the daughters of Nicholas and Alexandra, Tsar and Tsarina of Russia, and a cavalry officer and this serves as the foundation for a gripping time slip story.
Cavalry officer Dimitri Yakovlevich Malama and Grand Duchess Tatiana forge a close friendship after she nurses him in a makeshift war hospital. The world as they know it is unravelling around them. War takes him to several fronts, yet they maintain a close and chaste connection and on the eve of yet another departure, they marry in secret. This gives him the strength to withstand the terrors and onslaughts he is about to face at the front. But as the casualties rise, the revolution grows until finally the Romanov family is herded and all the members, it is reported, are summarily executed. Dimitri naturally becomes distraught and clings to any sign of life, and finally lands in Berlin after the war. There he meets Rosa, but is not really emotionally available to her as he is still in thrall to his Tatiana… and he struggles to extinguish the hope of ever finding his true love alive. Rosa is a tolerant soul and tolerates his ambivalent commitment to her…
Forward to early 21st Century and his great granddaughter, grappling with her husband’s infidelity, takes off for a shack set on fictional Lake Akanabee in a remote part of New York state, which was left to her in her great grandfather Dimitri’s will. She knew nothing of his existence until she was alerted to her legacy. It is here that she spends a Summer of reflection and research that unravels a painful, yet interesting family history.
This novel bowls along at a very good pace, it is well researched, and the author’s passion for this period in history is palpable. You too will wonder at the fate of the Romanovs and whether indeed any members could have survived their experience and what their story might have been. This is an excellent novel to delve into this country’s troubled past.
Over to Gill who shares her research experiences in Russia with us….
I did my research the wrong way round for this book: wrote it first then went to St Petersburg to see if I’d got anything wrong. It had been a longstanding ambition to visit the city, and not just because I’m a Romanov groupie. I used to edit art books for Thames & Hudson publishers at a time just after glasnost when loads of previously unknown Russian artists, theatre and film directors were finding recognition in the West and I became obsessed by the whole culture. It’s been in the top 5 of my ‘Must visit…’ list for decades!
We stayed in a hotel near the Winter Palace and despite unpromising grey skies the evening of our arrival I couldn’t resist rushing out to see its green, white and gold façade overlooking the River Neva. It’s so ornate it reminded me of a fancy cream cake in the Bake Off final. The following morning in sunlight, it was as if the whole city was glittering, with golden-domed churches round every corner and prettily planted gardens dotted with gold fountains. Inside the Winter Palace, there was room after room of gold cornicing and jewel-encrusted furniture, each more glitzy than the last.
The city was designed by Peter the Great in a bid to prove to snooty Europeans that Russia could be every bit as grand and opulent as Paris, Venice and London. Like Venice it has canals; like Versailles, it has mirrored hallways and ceiling paintings; but frankly, the St Petersburg palaces make our British ones look like dowdy office blocks. The Romanovs had all the wealth of the nation to spend while the serfs laboured in fields and mines to subsidise them. Looking at the splendour of St Petersburg you can see where they blew the cash.
I travelled out to Tsarskoe Selo to see the Catherine Palace, where Tatiana was nursing Dmitri at the beginning of The Secret Wife. It was packed with crowds queuing to squeeze into each room but still I managed to imagine a row of hospital beds beneath the fancy cornicing and enormous chandeliers. The grotto in the park where I set an intimate scene between Dmitri and Tatiana was larger than I’d imagined, but still lovely with its turquoise and white décor. Sadly the Alexander Palace is closed for reconstruction so I couldn’t see where the Romanovs lived, but I wandered round the park where they spent their first months of house arrest and imagined locals gawping through the railings at their erstwhile royals.
Both of these palaces have been rebuilt after destruction by the Nazis during the Second World War, but the Peterhof Palace west of St Petersburg is the original one built by Peter the Great. I’d seen photos of the spectacular fountains but nothing prepares you for quite how over-the-top they are: a stunning marvel of engineering since no electricity is used to pump them. I loved the avenues Peter had laid out with hidden fountains to soak the unwary. Glad he had a sense of humour!
One of my favourite places (among many) was the Fabergé Museum where I got to be in the same room as nine of the exquisite imperial eggs. I wandered from case to case unable to decide which was my favourite and all the while the security guards didn’t take their eyes off me, not once. The Fifteenth Anniversary egg is gorgeous; so is the Lily of the Valley egg… ooh, I couldn’t decide.
A week simply wasn’t enough. I loved the food, the wine, the people, the old Soviet museums – everything. But the overwhelming impression has got to be of the sheer bling bought by those Romanov roubles.