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Friday 18 July 2014

Review: Helen Rappaport, Four Sisters

There is a global demand - most obviously coming from the USA - for rose-tinted books about Royalty, dead or alive. Some readers want Royal babies (The British are prolific in supplying them) and others want Royal Martyrs - the Romanovs win hands down.

Though it is thoroughly researched  and very readable Helen Rappaport's book does not escape the weaknesses of the genre. To give an example:  the romance between Nicholas and Alexandra risked coming to nothing because of Alexandra's religious scruples and Rappaport writes, "To a forlorn Nicky there seemed an insurmountable gulf between them and he allowed himself to be temporarily distracted by other pretty faces" (page 16). This is saccharine. Nicholas had a mistress from 1890 until his 1894 marriage.She was Mathilde Kschessinskaya (1872 - 1971), a ballerina in St Petersburg who Nicholas met when she was 17. After being dropped by Nicholas, Mathilde took up with two other Romanov Grand Dukes, and had a child with one of them. She lived to a grand old age and wrote her Memoirs. "Pretty faces" is ridiculously coy and designed for the more prudish readers of Royalty biographies.

Again, in chronicling the cosy home life of the family, Rappaport again and again stresses simplicity, frugality, informality - things which come with this genre of writing - so that when, for example, she once mentions the Fabergé eggs which Nicholas presented annually to his wife and mother they simply cannot be integrated into the narrative she has constructed any more than the Royal yachts and railways trains.

Despite - in some ways because of -  its weaknesses, the book successfully chronicles the extraordinary degree of arrogant detachment from reality practised by the last of the Romanovs. They knew very little about the Russia they claimed to own and rule over and even their relationships with the Russian aristocracy were strained and limited. It was the aristocracy who brought them down - Rasputin was murdered by a Grand Duke and a Prince, not by proletarians.

The detachment from reality - maybe half way due to Alexandra's invalidism and Alexey's haemophilia - passed to their daughters in the form of an unworldliness rudely shaken by the First World War. Here it seemed that the two older daughters really did become nurses and did not just pose for photographs.

Among a mass of opinions cited by Rappaport, I was struck by a comment by Prince Wilhelm of Sweden attending the Romanov Tercentenary celebrations in 1913:

The Emperor made restrained greetings to the right and the left without changing expression; it was impossible to detect any enthusiasm from either side. The muzhiks [peasants] mostly stood there staring, a few made the sign of the cross or fell to their knees for the head of the church. It was more awe and curiosity than spontaneous warmth, more dutiful obedience than trust. Subjects kept down rather than free citizens. It was unpleasant, remote and as unlike how things are at home as possible. The unbridgeable gap between the ruler and the people was more notable than ever (page 197)
Sweden still has a Monarchy.

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