I have plenty up my sleeve.
I'm not sure I can describe just how desperate I was to get my hands on a copy of Four Sisters The Lost Lives of the Romanov Grand Duchesses by Helen Rappaport, but in light of that desperation I decided to savour every minute that I have spent getting to know Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia properly for the first time, and to that end I have spent almost two months reading a book that I could have read in a week. I wanted to really get to know these young women, and in a way to give them that time, and to honour their short lives. Truth be told I was also dreading the parting, and when, with thirty pages to go, I knew it must come, I set the book aside and spent another week choosing the 'right' moment to finish it.
So much of the story of the Romanovs seemed so familiar beforehand, and all of it tumbling around in my mind...the Tsarevich's haemophilia, Rasputin and his seeminlgy invincible power over the family, his murder and those famously gruesome pictures of his frozen body retrieved from under the ice, the toppling of the Tsar, the revolution, the imprisonment, the family's terrible end in Ekaterinburg, the final discovery of the missing remains a few years ago, the fakers, the pretenders and, in the midst of all that for some reason, the fabulous Faberge eggs...and by coincidence a missing one comes to light this week, and yet clearly something else was missing.
I had a vague and misty vision of the four daughters... a sort of ethereal haze of virginal white muslin, pearls and rosebuds, innocent inscrutable faces, four beauties that moved and lived as one with nothing individual about them at all.
Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia... I didn't even know their names properly if I am honest. Lumped together for public consumption, an anodyne, saccharine image that gives little credence to any indivuality or personality, whilst their brother Alexey, the young Tsarevich, took centre stage, so what a joy it has been to get to know the Grand Duchesses...
The sensitive, warm, disarming and charming and frequently love-lorn Olga, who adored her books and solitude.
The reticent but organised and capable Tatiana, always reliable, a superb nurse and carer.
The sweet, accomodating and genuinely adored Maria. Self-effacing and stoical, kind-hearted, even-tempered and cheerful.
And then there is Anastasia...
You and I might have gone slowly insane had we been cooped up with Anastasia. Childlike and undisciplined, boisterous and carefree. I imagine one of those who could make two concrete blocks have an argument, the family cheer leader so handy in times of trial but I could just envisage the family as of one chorusing 'Oh Anastasia... not NOW.' And yet perhaps Anastasia, the youngest of the sisters, the one most affected by the changing and uncertain circumstances of their brief lives, and as I read I found myself constantly staring at the cover picture and into those beckoning eyes, a composite of this portrait.
Nicholas, the reluctant ruler, the devoted father who carried the burden of responsibility for his country heavily but faithfully, when he really just wanted to be with his family and live on a farm in England.
'Nature had framed him for a placid country gentleman, walking amid his flowerbeds in a linen blouse with a stick instead of a sword. Never for a Tsar...'
Alexandra, the daughter of Alice and favoured granddaughter of Queen Victoria. English through and through, but prepared to sacrifice all that and more to fully embrace all things Russian and marry the man she loved. Reserved, detached and devout, and who can know how deeply affected Alexandra must have been by the death of both her mother and her sister when she was six years old. Here may lie much that explains her future life, and her own skills as a mother. Whilst there is no doubt whatsoever that Alexandra adored and loved her children deeply, Helen Rappaport details clearly the prolonged bouts of nervous or actual illness that frequently kept Alexandra apart from her family and languishing in her lilac boudoir. Often unspecific, and self-diagnosed yet the impact of her debility on the family was profound and prolonged, the girls living in a state of constant anxiety and worry about their mother's health.
Mind you, reading Alexandra's obstetric history is enough to make anyone's eyes water...
Olga born 3 November 1895 - Wt.10lbs - difficult forceps delivery
Tatiana born 29 May1897 - Wt. 8 3/4 lbs - forceps
Maria born 14 June 1899 - Wt. 10lbs
Anastasia born 5 June1901 - Wt. 11 1/2 lbs
Alexey born 30 July 1904 - Wt. 11 1/2 lbs
Girl upon girl born to a couple who had to produce a son, but that is giving birth to nigh on 52lb of baby in less than ten years, often with difficulty and all at the end of the nineteenth century when... well I will leave it to your imagination. Helen Rappaport is a historian, thus speculation is not the done thing, but I can speculate wildly, and I would hazard a guess that Alexandra was left with some fairly traumatic physical sequalae to all that....maybe even sufficient to limit her lifestyle, who can know.
So for all Alexandra's failings, I felt an enormous amount of sympathy for her and with her even-handed historical approach Helen Rappaport makes no judgement either way...it is for the reader to decide.
There is a moment when Olga writes a poem to her mother which perfectly prefigures the twenty-first century theories of Compassionate Mind...
'But if only you could look upon
Your own sadness from a distance
Just once with a loving soul
Oh how you would pity yourself
How sadly you would weep.'
Whilst it is a cry from the heart from her eldest daughter desperately trying to convey some of the family's distress, it also seems to be begging Alexandra to be gentle on herself.
Add to this the constant worry for the whole family of the much-vaunted and necessary son and heir whose haemophilia quickly becomes apparent after his birth; when Alexey's umbilical cord won't stop bleeding the serious nature of the diagnosis is inevitable and heart-breaking, and the traumas that will follow are manifold. His life will be blighted by injury and weeks of excruciating pain from the slightest knock, and it becomes easy to see how Alexey's needs quickly subsume those of his sisters.
The need for any future leader to be physically strong, a fount of pride and power, will sorely test the sympathies and loyalty of the Russian people.The sight of a crippled Tsarevich drawing gasps from the crowds when he is eventually seen; remote, distant and enigmatic the family would receive unprecedented adulation on those rare occasions when they were seen in public. The Russian people craved the opportunity to worship and adore them, especially the girls, a jewel in Russia's Imperial Crown and one that gave them four marriagable girls who could potentially forge links with other Royal families across Europe, yet the people so rarely had the opportunity to do so.
It was all a tragedy waiting to happen.
Meanwhile the Grand Duchesses, OTMA as they called themselves, did their best in truly difficult circumstances. A life proscribed by formality and ceremony and countless hours spent in church, growing up in complete isolation from the realities of the world, and it becomes both a joy and a source of great poignancy to read of the day to day normalities mixed in to these privileged yet circumscribed lives.
The teenage crushes on the soldiers of their guard, the only available male company.
The holidays at sea on board the Royal yacht....even a walk around Cowes on the Isle of Wight to do some shopping. the whole family relaxed and at ease, Alexandra delightfully even asking the King's mistress Alice Keppel..
'Tell me my dear, where do you get your knitting wool'
There are those moments too, unearthed by Helen Rappaport, that demonstrate the girls were capable of being as wild as any of our own Royals have been in their time.
Little moments when their hopes and dreams are shared...Olga for example wants to get married, live in the country, mix with good people and endure no officialdom.
The war service as nurses offering them a legitimate way to escape from the drudgery of Royalty. If dressing the horrific wounds of the soldiers was the only way to do it, then do it they would and with considerable dedication, skill and expertise.
The horrors that pile up inexorably for the family are well known ... serious illness, Nicholas's forced abdication, house arrest and the family's eventual demise, and there is no doubt that their lives must have been beset by humiliation, despair and a sense of dread towards the end, but Helen Rappaport's account also shines a light on some moments of real if fleeting happiness in those tragic days. It could almost be argued that the early days of captivity were in some strange way the family's happiest... they were never more content than when together, and, relieved of the burdens of state, could revel in simple pleasures like growing vegetables and making Christmas gifts for all those around them, even their guards. They seemed, to varying degrees, resilient, uncomplaining and stoical which anyone might find a challenge when the temperature in the bedroom falls to minus 44 degs.
'We cannot complain, we have got everything, we live well,' writes Alexandra from captivity. Not bitter, not vindictive, and the whole family arguably capable of dissembling and concealing to protect each other, as close families so expertly can do. Only in the privacy of his diary Nicholas would confide his deepest fears...
'It sometimes seems as though there's no strength left to endure, that you don't know even what to hope for, what to wish for...'
Historians can't indulge in the 'what ifs...' but readers can, and of course I wished for plenty...for things to have been vastly different...
For Alexey to have been the first-born and unaffected by the haemophilia gene inherited from his mother. Thus when rebellion threatened the family perhaps he would have been able to stand shoulder to shoulder with his father and defend the Romanov dynasty...might the tide of revolution have been turned.
For the family's rescue so nearly achieved on several occasions to have been successful.
For Alexandra to have been able to achieve her full potential... who can know what troubles her symptoms masked...both physical and psychological.
'All the past is a dream. One keeps only tears and grateful memories. One by one all earthly things slip away.'
writes Alexandra in a letter to a friend, reflecting on the regrettable burning, in a moment of acute fear and anxiety, of all her old diaries and letters...
'... houses and possessions ruined, friends vanished. One lives from day to day. But God is in all and nature never changes. I can see all around me churches (long to go to them) and hills, the lovely world.'
And who wouldn't wish for those young women to have lived and loved (though arguably they could each have been carrying the heartbreak of the haemophilia gene with them into marriage and any subsequent childbearing.)
But if wishes were horses etc it was not to be, and my only consolation had to be that the family who loved each other faithfully and lived a life of peaceful devotion when able, also died together.
Helen Rappaport's book, meticulously referenced and indexed, may well now see the curtain coming down on the whole Romanov story. This perhaps the last untold piece of the jigsaw, but what a huge piece it is that Helen has carved with Four Sisters, and what an incredible experience it has been to walk alongside Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.
Be sure to come back tomorrow when Magnus will be around bearing gifts...no not Faberge eggs.
And don't forget, Helen will be around in comments today so please do ask any questions...