Review of The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak
Overview from www.bn.com: From award-winning author Eva Stachniak comes this passionate novel that illuminates, as only fiction can, the early life of one of history’s boldest women. The Winter Palace tells the epic story of Catherine the Great’s improbable rise to power—as seen through the ever-watchful eyes of an all-but-invisible servant close to the throne.
Her name is Barbara—in Russian, Varvara. Nimble-witted and attentive, she’s allowed into the employ of the Empress Elizabeth, amid the glitter and cruelty of the world’s most eminent court. Under the tutelage of Count Bestuzhev, Chancellor and spymaster, Varvara will be educated in skills from lock picking to lovemaking, learning above all else to listen—and to wait for opportunity. That opportunity arrives in a slender young princess from Zerbst named Sophie, a playful teenager destined to become the indomitable Catherine the Great. Sophie’s destiny at court is to marry the Empress’s nephew, but she has other, loftier, more dangerous ambitions, and she proves to be more guileful than she first appears.
What Sophie needs is an insider at court, a loyal pair of eyes and ears who knows the traps, the conspiracies, and the treacheries that surround her. Varvara will become Sophie’s confidante—and together the two young women will rise to the pinnacle of absolute power.
With dazzling details and intense drama, Eva Stachniak depicts Varvara’s secret alliance with Catherine as the princess grows into a legend—through an enforced marriage, illicit seductions, and, at last, the shocking coup to assume the throne of all of Russia.
Impeccably researched and magnificently written, The Winter Palace is an irresistible peek through the keyhole of one of history’s grandest tales.
The Winter Palace summary on the Barnes and Noble webpage promises an inside view of the Russian court beginning in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. We get this inside yet illicit view through the person of Barbara, known to the Russians as Varvara, daughter of a Polish bookbinder.
Barbara officially becomes Varvara when her parents die and Elizabeth takes her in to fulfill her promise to her father. But living in the palace isn’t fun at all. She becomes nothing more than a servant seamstress, mistreated by her superiors.
Homesick and sensing that all anyone expects from her is that she become invisible she is noticed by the Chancellor who makes her his palace spy. He promises to take care of her and teach her all that he knows as long as she is loyal to him and to Elizabeth. One of her first assignments is to watch the girl who would become Catherine the Great.
Barbara soon becomes devoted to the future empress, considering herself more than just a bookbinder’s daughter. Even when Catherine falls out of favor with Elizabeth as well as her husband and most of the court, Barbara sticks by her. She defends her to everyone except Empress Elizabeth who clearly comes to hate her and will not hear her opinion contradicted.
Elizabeth doesn’t mind that Catherine has lovers. Elizabeth doesn’t mind that Catherine spends much time in her room though not always alone. Elizabeth doesn’t even mind her extravagant spending habits too much. What she does mind it seems is that Catherine is a suck-up who tries too hard to ingratiate herself in the court.
She wants Catherine only as a baby making machine. Whenever she gives birth to a child, that child is promptly taken away and raised by Elizabeth as well as the nursemaids hired for that purpose. When Elizabeth finally allows her to visit her own firstborn son, she does so only grudgingly. She uses it as an occasion to turn her son against her.
“”Do you know who has come to see you?…Do you recognize your Maman…Where is she?…Where is your Maman?…’
‘Maman,’ Paul repeated, but the word was an empty husk. Coaxed to look at Catherine, he buried his face in his aunt’s bosom.
‘You want her to go away, don’t you, little man…You want her to leave you alone.’” P.226
I couldn’t help but feel the same sympathy Barbara must have felt for her after that. To be a foreigner in a strange country, to marry a man who hates you, to have your children torn away from you are all good reasons for us to feel sorry for Catherine. And we do. At least, I did.
This story is sad but sweet. Unfortunately I found it more sad than sweet. I liked it but it depressed me at the same time. Perhaps that was the story of Catherine’s time in Russia, in the beginning.
It is worth reading though. It is nice to see some Historical Fiction that doesn’t center only on England or the United States. And the book is well-written. The author has a great style.
It wasn’t my favorite but I am still recommending it. Even if it is sad.